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.

Beezus and Corona

This week I finished reading aloud to the kids the entire Ramona Quimby series. When I completed the final paragraph of the last book at an hour long past their regular bedtime, Liav pronounced Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek – the words typically recited upon completing a book of the Bible. I told her that her response was very appropriate, because this week we are completing Sefer Bedmibar in the weekly Torah reading cycle. The Ramona series, like Sefer Bemidbar, has accompanied us through much of this Corona period – as Ramona has grown from an exasperating preschooler to a spunky, self-aware fourth-grader, the Israelites have made their way through their desert wanderings, her four-plus years corresponding to their forty.

When conducting a Siyum—a ceremony marking the completion of the study of a particular text—it is customary to review the final pages. The last of the eight books in the Ramona series, Ramona’s World, culminates in Ramona’s tenth birthday party. The party is held in a park, like all birthday parties during Corona times (my daughter Tagel had one last week – they made colorful sparkly “alco-gel” and took it home as a party favor). At Ramona’s party, too, there is an excessive preoccupation with germs. Ramona’s long-time nemesis Susan – the girl whose blonde curls Ramona couldn’t resist pulling in kindergarten, watching as they went boing – brings an apple to Ramona’s party and insists on eating it instead of birthday cake, because “there might be spit on the cake from blowing on the candles.”

Ramona is appalled: “I did not spit on my birthday cake,” she tells Susan, who remains unconvinced: “You could have,” she tells Ramona. “Little bits of spit so tiny you couldn’t see them… My mother says blowing out candles is unsanitary.” It’s a conversation that could just as easily have taken place at the party Tagel attended last week, as some girls pulled their masks below their chins and others insisted on vigilantly keeping their noses and mouths covered. Ultimately, Susan comes around and tries a little piece of cake, and Ramona feels even more vindicated when Yard Ape – the boy she loves to hate – runs over to sample a piece before licking his “germy fingers” and wiping them on the seat of his “germy pants.” The germy cake wins out over the apples, just as Ramona’s messiness and peskiness always win out over big-sister Beezus’ well-mannered propriety.

The day after we finished the series, the girls and I went back through the previous volumes, turning the pages quickly and stopping to reminisce each time we came to one of the pen-and-ink illustrations. “Remember when Ramona ate apples in the basement?” Liav asked me, prompted by one of the pictures in the very first book. How could I have forgotten? Ramona had disappeared to the cellar with a box of apples when her sister Beezus was supposed to be watching her, and there she had defiantly taken one bite out of every apple.

“Stop it,” ordered Beezus, “Stop it this instant! You can’t take one bite and then throw the rest away.”
“But the first bite tastes best,” explained Ramona reasonably, as she reached into the box again.

I wondered if the apple Susan had brought to the party was a sort of measure-for-measure – retribution for Ramona’s original sin in the first book. But before I could share my reflection with the girls, they were already on to the next illustration.

“The peas!” Tagel squealed. “Remember when Ramona fed Roberta peas while you were feeding Yitzvi?” That one I remembered. A few weeks earlier, I had been feeding the baby mashed peas when the girls insisted that I read the next Ramona chapter. To our astonishment, the chapter was entitled “peas,” and it was about the time when Ramona’s baby sister “blew hard, spraying mushy, squishy peas all over Ramona.” We had all erupted in laughter at the coincidence, and Yitzvi—determined to join in on the fun—had burst out laughing too, spraying his green mush all over us.

We spent quite a while leafing through the paperbacks, pausing each time we came to a picture so as to recall the scene it captured. It reminded me of the last parsha in Sefer Bemidbar, Masei, which means “journeys.” The parsha reads like a detailed itinerary of the Israelites’ wanderings: “They set out from Rameses and encamped at Sukkot. They set out from Sukkot and encamped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham and turned toward Pi-Hahiroth….” (33:5-7). Rashi asks why the Torah takes pains to record all these stations in the wilderness, offering a midrashic answer:

This is like a king whose son was sick so he took him to a distant place to heal him. On their way back, his father began to enumerate all the separate stages of the journey. He told him: Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache, etc. (Rashi to Bemidbar 33:1).

The king reviews their journey, just as the girls and I were reviewing our journey through the Ramona books. But as the midrash suggests, there is more to it than that. By listing all the stops on their journey, the king is also chronicling his fatherly love, since he is telling his son all the places where he nursed him from sickness back to health.

The girls and I have journeyed through Ramona and Bemidbar against a backdrop of much sickness, as first the world, then our city, and then our neighborhood were impacted by the rampant spread of the Coronavirus. We began reading the Ramona books when the schools were closed in late March – it was a way to pass the long unstructured hours at home. Now that the three big kids are back at school until 1pm, we have only the afternoons to fill, so Daniel and I have adopted a practice we learned about from the Ramona books. In Ramona’s school, they spend a few hours each week on “Sustained Silent Reading” – the children have to sit at their desks and read silently to themselves. Ramona, who loves books, pretends she is engaged in Sustained Silent Reading as a way of avoiding the obligation to play with Willa Jean, the annoying preschooler with whom she is doomed to spend her afterschool hours once her mother goes back to work. Now we do the same. From 2-3pm every afternoon, the house is silent – we each sit with our books and read, leaving Yitzvi to fend for himself on the carpet with some plastic bath books to chew on.

Of course, it’s not always as idyllic as it sounds – Matan hides Tagel’s bookmark, Liav insists I rub her back while she reads, Yitzvi cries for attention. But even when Sustained Silent Reading is neither as sustained nor as silent as I would like, it is a welcome respite from the arguing and grumbling that is so often the dominant mode of discourse: Our kids argue with one another, Daniel and I bicker. Beezus complains about Ramona, Ramona complains about Willa Jean. Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses, the Israelites complain to God. No wonder there is something so soothing about the repetitive chanting of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, as if each journey and encampment followed a smooth and steady rhythm. “Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache.” May all of our journeys take us farther away from sickness and from squabbling, and may we merit to look back on this chapter of our lives from a place of harmony and health.
*

in first sentence — ideally הפטירה instead of prounounced, but is there an English word for that???

Crossing Trestles

Can an eight-month-old have a favorite book? It seems so. Yitzvi squeals and kicks with visible delight any time I take out Freight Train by Donald Crews, and now it has become a regular part of our morning routine. After I drop off the kids at school, he usually has less than half an hour until his morning nap, so we sit on his sister’s bed and tear through a stack of (fortunately untearable) board books. Some of them have proven to be bored books, alas – we’ve eliminated The Runaway Bunny from our repertoire, since the stalker mom always struck me as a bit creepy. Sandra Boynton—whose characters, my daughter recently pointed out, bear a striking resemblance to the Moomintrolls—gets the usual laughs, especially because I’ve composed a silly melody for nearly every book and I act out the story with my singsong. But nothing compares to Freight Train, which I chant in an elevated, somber tone that lies somewhere between Kol Nidre and a slow, plodding composition my older son’s violin teacher once subjected us to for weeks on end. And yet each time, Yitzvi is enthralled.

The book does not have much by way of a plot. The entire story can be encapsulated in the first sentence: “A train runs across this track.” The track, in lieu of a storyline, runs through every page of the book and is visible in all the illustrations. For Yitzvi it’s the narrative thread, but for me it is increasingly resembling a lifeline. On the very first page, where the opening sentence appears in beige, we see only the track but not the train. Aside from this one sentence hovering at the top margin and the beige and brown track beneath, this first page is entirely blank, but it is the blankness of anticipation, like the nine months of pregnancy where you wait for what is coming, hear the whistle growing louder, but can’t quite make out anything yet. And then you turn the page, and all at once – full color!!, like a baby birthed suddenly red and wailing. The red caboose is followed by the orange tank car and the yellow hopper car, all dazzling in their bright red and orange and yellow; but the eyes can’t linger because the hopper car is connected by a black line to the green cattle car on the next page, so you flip quickly and your eyes are treated to the blue gondola car and the purple box car as well. These are the colorful years of childhood, with its vivid intensity, its full spectrum of emotions, its never-a-dull moments.

The complete purple box car appears on the page with the green and blue cars, but then when you turn the page, the front end of the purple car appears again, alongside the black tender and the black steam engine. The memories of childhood linger even as life begins to unfold in more sober, nuanced shades. We turn the next page, and on that page alone we can see the full train clearly, each car a clearly-defined shape and the smoke billowing overhead. Is this the peak of our lives, though we never know it until we’re past? After this, it all begins to blur – on each subsequent page, the train cars lose their definition as the colors fade into one another, much like the way life seems to go by so much faster once “getting older” loses its thrill. I went from 40 to 41 in the blink of an eye, and yet apparently it was in that same period of time that my daughter turned three, then three and a quarters, then three and a half, then three and three-quarters, then “almost almost four,” and then finally finally (up late at night, unable to sleep because tomorrow was the big day) four.

In the second half of the book, the blurry train rushes on. It goes through tunnels, dark subterranean periods when we can barely see any color. It goes by cities, barreling headlong past multi-story skyscrapers fronting on one another. It crosses trestles, suspended perilously between two hulking mountains, hurtling miles and miles above the ground. It moves in darkness and in daylight, through bad times and good – and then, all at once, it is “going, going, gone.” All we see on the final page is the word “gone” and the last billowy plumes of smoke. The train has disappeared from view, but the track continues – much as one life may be over, but life endures.

The book ends, but we read it anew every day. All the mornings in which Yitzvi and I have read this book together are strung together in my mind like train cars. Each car seems to chug along slowly, huffing and puffing to get through the day like the little engine that could. Yitzvi goes down for his nap. I learn the Daf on my phone in his dark shuttered room, sneaking out to find my place in the Gemara to learn by daylight once he falls asleep. He naps. I work at the computer until I hear him crying. We eat breakfast together, often sharing the same spoon and the same containers of yogurt. We play on the floor. We practice moving forwards. We hang laundry or fold it or put it away. And then, just as he gets tired again, the kids come home from school and I reluctantly accept that I won’t get back to work until many hours later, when they are finally all in bed.

And yet if the freight train is my life, then it flashes before me each time we read the book – first the empty track, then each car in its bright-colored intensity, then the full train, and then the blur of color racing past. The Talmud, in discussing the death of Joshua, criticizes the Israelites for failing to mourn their leader properly. Unlike Moses and Aaron, each of whom was mourned for thirty days, there is no mourning period for Joshua mentioned in the Bible. The sages proclaim that “whoever is lazy in eulogizing a sage does not live a long life” (Shabbat 105b) implying that the Israelites who failed to mourn Joshua all died young. But then the Talmud raises an objection, because the book of Judges states, “And the nation worshipped the Lord all the days of Joshua and all the days of the Elders, who lived many days after Joshua” (2:7), indicating that the elders did in fact live long lives in spite of neglecting to eulogize Joshua properly. At this point Rabbi Yohanan chimes in with his close reading, noting that the elders lived “many days” but not “many years.” How they became elders without living many years remains unclear to me. But I take away from this Talmudic passage the notion that the days may seem multitudinous though the years seem preciously few. Or, as several of my older friends are fond of reminding me, the days are long but the years are short.

Donald Crews wrote Freight Train the year I was born – I know this because the four digits appear not just on the copyright page but also on the black tender, a reminder of my own mortality with each rereading. The book is dedicated to “the countless freight trains passed and passing the big house Cottondale.” I wonder if Crews, like my parents, took his children to the railroad crossing to watch the trains pass by on long summer afternoons. I remember that each time it seemed like the train would go on forever, car after car after car, until suddenly—going, going, gone—the train was no more, and I lost count. I am still losing count. Little Yitzvi is growing faster than I can document – the week he was born, a friend gave us a baby book in which to record his milestones, but I have yet to take off the plastic wrap. When the baby is awake I play with him. When he is asleep I use those precious too-few moments to read or write or work or learn or run. I write these words as he is struggling to fall asleep for his midday nap in his crib – I know that his siblings have walked in the door from school, but I am ignoring them for just a moment to finish this paragraph. I sense these words are coming to an end even if I haven’t quite finished, because in just a moment the kids will barrel into the baby’s room to find me, waking him up if I don’t emerge first. My time to write is over. The words have hurtled past and they are going, going, gone.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Hukat)

Yesterday after school I was reading Ivy and Bean with Tagel – she is by far the most advanced English reader among our children, and while she’s not quite ready to read chapter books on her own, she often reads a few pages aloud to me. The series is about two American schoolgirls who are neighbors and kindred spirits, even though Bean is more of a tomboy whereas Ivy wears skirts and dabbles in magic. In the scene we were up to, Bean walks down the path beside Ivy’s house and is surprised to see her friend standing with her arms in the air. “Are you trying to fly?” she asks Ivy. Ivy explains that she is attempting to be perfectly calm in the hope that the birds will not be afraid to land on her arms. “Ivy’s arms were trembling,” read the next sentence, except that Tagel was unable to sound out “trembling,” not did she know what it meant. When I saw her stumbling over the word, I tried to explain. “Shaking,” I said. “Her arms were shaking from holding them up for so long.”

Tagel’s eyes lit up in recognition. “Oh,” she said. “Like Moshe when he had to hold up his hands when Bnei Yisrael were fighting.” My jaw dropped. I had been thinking the exact same thing – the image of Ivy with her trembling arms in the air recalled the scene of Moses raising his arms while the Israelites fought back against Amalek immediately after the exodus from Egypt. The Torah states that Moses’ hands grew heavy and he could no longer hold them up, so Aaron and Hur supported his hands from either side and thus they were stable [emunah] until the sun set. It was no surprise that the image of Moses came to my mind when I read about Ivy’s raised arms, but I was astonished to discover that Tagel had the same association. And at that moment I came to a realization about why I care so deeply about reading with my children and sharing certain books and texts with them. Ultimately, we cannot control what choices our children will make in life and who they will become. But we can try to furnish our children with the associations that matter to us. We can fill their minds with allusions, in the hope that their experiences will evoke the texts they have read, and those texts will in turn evoke other texts, such that the sweet birds of recognition will alight in the choirs of their arms. Or at least, like Ivy, we can try.

One of my favorite early memories as a parent is of bringing my oldest son Matan for his four-year-old check up to the pediatrician. In Israel the notion of a “well-visit” is relatively new; children generally don’t see a doctor unless they are sick. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first part of the examination was just a physical – the doctor peered into my son’s ears with an otoscope and rapped his knees to check his reflexes. But then the second half of the visit was developmental. The doctor showed my son a series of cards, each of which depicted a scene. Matan had to answer questions about what he saw in the pictures. On one of the cards, a boy appeared to have just tripped and fallen and his cup of water was still spilling next to him. Behind him was a large pebble. The doctor pointed to the boy, the rock, and the puddle of spilled water and asked my sons to explain what he saw. My son shrugged his shoulders matter-of-factly – this one was easy. “That’s Moshe,” he told the doctor, pointing to the boy. “He was supposed to talk to that rock to make the water spill out, but instead he hit it.”

When I told that story to my mother, she shared with me that she had a similar memory from my first hearing test when I was a young child. Apparently the clinician told me to raise my right one arm if I heard a sound in my right ear, my left arm if I heard a sound in my left ear, and both arms if I heard a sound in both ears. The daughter of a Conservative pulpit rabbi, I had watched for years as my father signaled to the congregation to stand up by lifting both his arms into the air. And so the first time the clinician played sounds in both ears simultaneously, I did not lift my arms in the air, but simply said, “Please rise.”

Now all these memories of childhood associations—my son’s, my daughter’s, my own—have come to evoke one another, like the many instances of Moses raising his arms. In this week’s parsha, Hukat, Moses’ fate is sealed at Kadesh when he raises his arm to strike the rock instead of talking to it, as God had instructed him. God responds very harshly, telling Moses that he will not enter the promised land on account of his action. But one can understand Moses’ error, because decades earlier, at the beginning of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, he had a similar experience at Merivah, when God told him to strike the rock so that water would flow forth and the parched, ever-querulous Israelites might drink. It is likely that God’s instruction at Kadesh recalled God’s instructions at Merivah, and so Moses assumed that the second rock-water incident was merely a repeat of the first.

But the associations run even deeper, because the two parallel instances of Moses striking the rock recall a formative moment in Moses’ own development, when he left Pharaoh’s palace as a young man and “went out” among his brothers in Egypt. He sees an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew, and strikes down the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. The act seems to have no immediate repercussions, much like the striking of the rock at Merivah in the book of Exodus – for a short while, at least, the incident lies dormant under the desert sands. But then the next day, the episode nearly repeats itself when Moses encounters one Hebrew hitting another: “Why do you strike your fellow?” (Exodus 2:13). The Hebrew man responds harshly: “Who made you the chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” Moses realizes that his murder of the Egyptian is now publicly known, and so he runs for his life. As with the second incident of hitting the rock in our parsha, this second incident will critically shape Moses’ destiny: Moses will flee to Midian and encounter God at the burning bush, an experience that will launch him on his life’s mission. In essence, then, Moses’ mission begins and ends following a second “striking” incident – he becomes the leader of his people after nearly striking the Hebrew in Egypt, and he is told he will no longer merit to lead his people after he strikes the rock at Kadesh.

Moses’ hands, as Avivah Zornberg notes in her book Bewilderments, are infused with tremendous supernatural power. When he stands at the burning bush doubting whether the Israelites will believe him, God tells him to put his arm to his breast and witness as it emerges covered in leprous scales. He then holds out his arm, bearing his rod, and brings a series of ten plagues upon Egypt. I wonder if striking the rock at Kadesh reminded Moses of striking the rock at Merivah, which in turn recalled striking Egypt with plagues and striking the Egyptian when he was still a young man. Each time Moses lifts his arm—or, as in the case of the battle with Amalek, his arms—we are reminded of each prior instance of arm-raising, such that, as Zornberg puts it, the “earlier narrative becomes fraught with memory in the later moment.”

This series of associations may seem traumatic—surely it is difficult to move forwards healthily when every moment is haunted by prior ones. But this is how allusions work, and literary allusions are no different. The image of Ivy lifting her arms in the hope that the birds with mistake her for a tree reminds me not just of Moses, but also of Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” which in turn recalls Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet about the loss of love: “Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree / Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one / Yet knows its boughs more silent than before.” Was Millay referencing Shakespeare? I suspect so. It doesn’t really matter, though, because I cannot think of one poem without recollecting of the other, and thus each functions like a palimpsest revealing traces of the other beneath its surface.

For my daughter Tagel, the image of Ivy raising her trembling arms recalled Moses unable to support his heavy arms in the battle against Amalek. The Torah tells us that Moses’ arms were “emunah” until the sun came, a term that is generally translated as “stable” but is also the word for “faith.” And so I write these words with hope and faith that my children will learn to experience the pleasure of reading as uplifting. I hope they will come to recall not just the moments they trembled and stumbled over rocks and words, but also the stories that inspired them to grow like a tree with arms outstretched into the people they will someday become.

Catching the Bug (Shabbat 90b)

Not long ago, on Shabbat afternoon, my daughter found a rather large beetle in our bathroom and began screeching in horror. Her less squeamish twin sister rather heroically put on a pair of plastic gloves (which we have in ample supply these days) and dropped it off the floor of our porch to the ground below, where I hope it lived to tell the tale. I didn’t think twice about what she had done – she had not dealt with the creature inhumanely (in so far as one can be humane to an insect), nor had she trapped it, which is forbidden on Shabbat. But when I came to a recent daf in Masechet Shabbat (90b), I was reminded of the incident and it started, well, to bug me.

Here, as in most of Masechet Shabbat until this point, the rabbis are discussing the laws of carrying objects from one domain to another on the Sabbath. They consider a wide range of items – dyes, spices, amulets, weapons, animal feed… and dead pets. It was the dead pets that caught my eye. The Mishnah introduces the subject with a discussion about carrying grasshoppers out of the house on Shabbat. One may not carry a live grasshopper out of the house on Shabbat, but if it is dead, it may be carried outside so long as it is smaller than a fig in volume. (A fig is just a standard unit of measurement in the Talmud. We have ounces, pounds, and liters; they had olives, figs, and eggs). The Talmud explains that grasshoppers were stored for medicinal purposes because they were used as a talisman against forgetting one’s Torah learning. The fourth-century Babylonian sage Abaye clarifies that there was a particular species of grasshopper that was used for this purpose, following a detailed procedure: “One eats its right half, and casts its left half into a copper tube, and seals it with sixty seals, and hangs it on his left arm… And one learns as much as he wants, and then eats the other half. If he does not do so, his learning will be forgotten.” I’m not exactly sure what’s going on here, except that I sometimes eat chocolate bars this way – half a bar before I sit down to work at night, and then the other half right before I go to bed. Maybe grasshoppers would be a healthier option?

In any case, in Talmudic times, the grasshoppers were apparently not just food but also playthings. The Mishnaic sage Rabbi Yehuda comments that even if the grasshopper is not kosher, one is liable for carrying it out on Shabbat, because children used to play with them. (Were grasshoppers like marbles? Or more like wind-up toys? I think my kids once had a wind-up bug….) Another sage objects that no one would give a child a non-kosher grasshopper to play with, because if it died the child might eat it. But the Talmud clarifies that Rabbi Yehuda does not share this concern; he insists that a child would never eat his dead pet grasshopper, because he would not regard it as food. In the child’s eyes, what was once a pet could never become a snack.

This question of how the child would regard a grasshopper recalls a famous line from this week’s parsha, when the spies return from the land of Israel and share their reports with the people. Ten of the spies cannot help but give voice to their fears. True, they say, the land does flow with milk and honey (which are, incidentally, the two foods my baby still can’t eat – Matan says he lives in the wrong country). But the cities are fortified, the people are like giants, and – “we looked grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we looked in theirs” (Numbers 13:13). The ten spies, unable to trust in God, are convinced that will be crushed—or at least thrown off the porch—by the giants in the land. Their claim is twofold – they themselves felt like grasshoppers, and they appeared like grasshoppers to the Canaanites. In midrash Tanchuma (Shlach 7), God takes them to task for their second statement, pointing out the error of their assumption:

They said, “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” God said, “This I can overlook. But ‘And so we looked in their eyes’ – here I am angry. Did you know how I made you look in their eyes?

God is angry at the people for assuming that they know how the Canaanites would regard them. After all, God has the power to determine the way the Israelites appear to the inhabitants of the land, and so the spies ought to have trusted that God would make them look good. Who is to say that the Canaanites would have regarded them as food to be eaten in the land that “devours its inhabitants?” Maybe instead, with God’s help, the Israelites would be regarded as pets, or at least welcomed as new arrivals. I can’t promise that the next time we find a bug in the house on Shabbat, I’ll encourage the kids to adopt it as a household pet; I’m far too squeamish for that. But at least I, like the spies, will have a good story to share.

Breast is Blessed

My baby woke up from his nap today just as I was sitting down to breakfast, and so I decided to eat with him before I took him back to the bedroom to nurse. His siblings were all in school, it was a quiet morning, and I let him sit on my lap as I peeled back the silver-backed cover on my container of plain yogurt. The sun streamed in through the window as I dipped the spoon in, breaking the perfect smoothness of the surface like a shovel breaking through a field of newly fallen snow. As I lifted my hand to my mouth, drawing it over my baby’s head, he stopped me, seized hold of my wrist, and directed the spoon to his mouth. I was too astonished to do anything other than surrender control and sit back as my breakfast was hijacked by my seven-month-old, to whom I proceeded to feed the entire container of yogurt. Afterwards, when I offered him the breast, he was not interested. And then the sadness set in.

The connection between weaning and maternal depression is a well-documented phenomenon, and I experienced it with each of my children. The first time it happened, I was caught completely off-guard. I remember breaking down in tears in the library while trying to edit a book about Jewish heretics. It was a rather dry academic book and I wasn’t particularly invested in the subject matter; why, then, was I struggling to keep the tears off my computer touchpad? No one had prepared me for the feeling of futility and despair that overcome me. I thought of the Talmudic phrase חלש דעתיה, which literally means “his mind weakened” but is used to describe a faintness of heart caused by disappointment or heartbreak. The phrase is usually used in the Talmud in reference to men – after one sage is deeply insulted by another, his “mind weakens.” But the term was so well-suited to my mood. My spirits had plummeted, though if anyone asked what was bothering me, I would not have known what to say. It was only when speaking to a close friend on the phone a few days later—a friend who was a more experienced mother—that I was made aware of what was going on. “You’re weaning your baby,” she told me matter-of-factly. “Of course you’re depressed.”

This time it feels different, though, because I’m assuming it’s my last. Now that my baby is past six months, I feel like the sun is setting and the glory is fading and my moments of bliss with baby at the breast are numbered. I remember that when I was a kid, I overheard a conversation in which an adult expressed surprise that the president—whoever the president was at the time—was making a particular trip to some far-flung part of the world. “What’s the problem?” I asked my father. “Can’t he go anywhere he wants?” “But his term is only four years,” he responded. That means he has only 1300 days in office – he ought to use them more wisely.” I don’t know if I got the number exactly right, or if my father did. But I remember marveling at the fact that days could feel so finite even when there were so many of them. And now I felt the same way. Hopefully I have at least another few months of breastfeeding left. But each day feels fleeting and elusive, with the baby already pulling away – getting ready to crawl away, to walk away, to ask using words for more yogurt please.

I expect I will wean him right around the time we finish Masechet Shabbat, and indeed much of his life has unfolded against the backdrop of my study of this tractate. Masechet Shabbat is one of the longest tractates in the Talmud, and hence one of the heaviest tomes. When I nurse I balance it precariously over him with one hand, my other hand secured under his back with his head of curls nestling in the crook of my elbow. The hand holding the book aches and I wish we were back in Berakhot, when the book and the baby were lighter, and the sugyot were simpler. Now I am struggling to follow, and he struggles not to be distracted – Can you throw an object from one ship to another on Shabbat if the two ships are tethered together? May goats go out on Shabbat with their udders bound to inhibit their milk supply? For how long did the Israelites prepare to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai? I read to myself, but if the baby finishes nursing before I have finished the sugya, I hold him upright and read aloud until I come to the end. I do not want him to feel ignored, so I look at him as I read each line with exaggerated emotion, as if he were my study partner and I were posing first the questions and then the answers without letting him get even so much as a burp in edgewise.

I wonder if there are days when the baby is not even conscious that he has come off the breast and has begun to imbibe Torah instead of milk. In the Talmud breastmilk is compared to manna, based on the biblical description of the taste of the manna as שד השמן – the word שד means breast, though the phrase is usually translated as a rich cream. Rabbi Abbahu comments that just as breastmilk tastes like whatever the mother has eaten, so too the manna tasted like many tastes to the Israelites (Yoma 75a). Moreover, the manna was given to the Israelites when they were in their infancy as a nation, preparing to receive the Torah. Indeed, receiving the manna was not unlike receiving the Torah – both were gifts that came down from heaven to the Israelites and provided sustenance. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav writes that the Tzadik is called a mother who breastfeeds Israel with the milk of his Torah (Likutei Moharan 1:19 and 1:4). And the midrash observes that “the Torah could be given only to eaters of the manna” (Mekhilta Beshalach Vayasa Bet). The Israelites, when receiving the manna, had to have faith that new manna would fall every day and not hoard or stockpile it. This same faith was necessary to hear God speak the words “I am the Lord your God.” I hope I am teaching my baby to have faith in me that I will continue to nourish and sustain him even after he is weaned.

Like the Israelites who demanded that God provide them with meat to eat, my baby is someday going to reject the breast entirely, and I will begin to teach him at the table, as I teach his older siblings. I feel fortunate that I have not grown exasperated with nursing, as did Moses in last week’s parsha: “Did I conceive this entire people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your breast as a wet nurse carries an infant?’” (Numbers 11:12). Moses had enough of the Israelites, and demanded that God wean them from him. While there are times when I wish I were not tethered to my baby, I try to remind myself that I will hopefully have the rest of my life ahead of me to leave the house without him, prepare to teach Torah for longer stretches, and engage with my son from a greater distance.

Already he is pulling away, conscious that my milk is not enough. It is like my daughters who are starting to read independently; they still want me to read aloud to them, but they are now taking in sentences and stories on their own as well. Efrat Garber-Aran, an Israeli writer who composed a “blessing for breastfeeding,” muses that in the earliest stages of infancy, a baby might recite the blessing “who has provided me with all I need.” But as the baby gets older and begins to eat solid food as well, a different blessing ought to be recited: “who is good and who does good.” Her blessings reflect the reality that as the baby gets older, breastmilk becomes more about goodness and pleasure and less about nutrition and sustenance. Of course, as Garber-Aran realizes, even a baby as old as my own cannot make such a blessing because he cannot yet speak; therefore the mother should recite the blessing for the baby. Garber-Aran adds that the mother must recite an additional blessing over her own pleasure at breastfeeding: “Blessed is the Lord our God… who has made me a woman.” I will be sad when this stage of life is over, but I am so grateful that God created me with a body that can perform this wonder. Did I conceive this person? Did I bear him? Unlike Moses, I answer with a gratified yes, hopeful that I will merit to lead my children into the uncharted landscapes that beckon with promise ahead.

Unreliable Narrators

Yesterday Liav came home from school with quite a dramatic story to tell. She rushed in the door, breathless and frenzied, and before she had even made it to the sink to wash her hands with soap for two minutes—the first thing we all do when we walk in the door in these crazy Corona times—the story was already pouring out of her. “Ima, Ima, you won’t believe it,” she told me.

Tagel took the words right out of her mouth. “There were Ganavim in school today! Real Ganavim! And Doron caught them and now they are in Beit Keleh!” Sad to say, that is really how my kids speak – a sort of Ramah Hebrew, with the less commonly-used nouns in Hebrew and all other parts of speech in English.

Liav would not stand for it. “No Tagel, it’s my story, be quiet. I’m telling Ima.” The problem of who gets to narrate what has been an issue in our family for years. Back when the twins were in Gan, the Ganenet always assured us that the girls played beautifully together and had their own independent relationships; but when I picked them up each afternoon our entire walk home inevitably devolved into arguments over who got to tell me about a particular incident that had happened that day. For the most part it’s better now that they are in separate classes, and indeed that’s the main reason we separated them when they started first grade—so that they could each have their own stories to tell at the end of the day. But apparently Liav had already relayed this story to Tagel, and now Tagel wanted to be the one to relay it to me. Except that Liav would not stand for it.

Liav has always spoken faster and with greater fluency than Tagel, but Tagel is physically stronger and more agile; so generally in these situations, Liav gets the words out first and then Tagel “accidentally” turns a cartwheel and kicks Liav in the face. I tried to avert this catastrophe.

“Girls, whose class did this happen in?”

“Mine, it’s my story,” said Liav. Tagel stormed off. I let Liav continue, relieved that it hadn’t come to blows.

“OK, so there were thieves in school and now they’re in jail?” I repeated back entirely in English.

“Yes, you won’t believe it,” said Liav. I was already skeptical, but Matan, who was waiting for me to make him lunch, piped in up alert me that “they need a better Shomer at school. It’s very dangerous. Every time Shilon goes inside for a break, Ganavim can climb right over the fence.”

“I’m sure Shilon is an excellent guard,” I assured Matan. “You don’t need to worry.”

“Not true,” insisted Liav. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Today when Doron was going to the bathroom, he saw Ganavim. They were trying to steal Machshevim from Chadar Machshevim.”

“Thieves were trying to steal computers from the computer room?” I echoed.

“And they weren’t wearing masks!” Liav exclaimed indignantly.

This one had me puzzled, but only for a moment. I was picturing bank robbers in comic books. Don’t thieves usually wear masks? But now, in Corona times, when everyone is supposed to be wearing a mask, anyone who isn’t is immediately suspect.

Liav went on to relate that Doron—a diminutive first grader, the son of a lawyer and a policewoman—went straight to the secretaries and reported what he saw. The secretaries called the police, who arrived with handcuffs and apprehended the Ganavim, who are now incarcerated in the Beit Keleh.

“Really?” I asked, still somewhat incredulous.

“Oh yes,” said Matan. “It’s true. I know it’s true. They really need another Shomer to guard the gate when Shilon has to take a break.”

By this point, Tagel, overcome by hunger, had emerged from her bedroom and was sitting at the counter eating the salad I had placed before her. When it comes to salad, they each have their own versions of the same basic story: Peeled cucumbers red peppers yellow peppers Liav. Peeled cucumbers tomatoes Tagel. Unpeeled cucumbers red peppers tomatoes oil salt Matan. They crunched their vegetables heartily and continued to elaborate on the incident. All the kids were determined to impress upon me what seemed to them most critical takeaway. For Liav, it was Doron’s heroism when confronted with real-life criminals in his midst. For Matan, it was the security breach. Tagel just wanted to tell the entire story again herself, which she did, with some embellishment. I tried to make sense of it all. Back when they were in the same Gan, the twins’ narration was more reliable, because they fact-checked one another – as per the biblical injunction that “It is upon two witnesses that a matter is decided” (Deuteronomy 19:15). Liav and Tagel had always been my two witnesses, corroborating or discrediting one another’s tales. But this was Liav’s story, Tagel had heard it only secondhand – and so Tagel’s recapitulation did not help much.

That night, I happened to be texting Doron’s mother, the policewoman, about a homework assignment. After we exchanged a few messages, I added a postscript: “Oh, and by the way, you must be so proud of Doron. I heard all about the thieves.” She wrote back with a bewildered emoji: “I have no idea what you are talking about – for real?” And I realized that I had been duped. “If your son is not a policeman, then my daughter is a creative writer,” I responded with a smiley face.

“Liav,” I said to her the next morning when she was the first to jump into our bed as usual. “I spoke to Doron’s Ima last night and she hadn’t heard anything about the thieves in school. Did that really happen?”

“Well,” she said, “Like I told you, it was mostly true.”

“Like you told me?” I told her that it reminded me of the story in next week’s parsha about the twelve spies who were sent to scout out the land of Canaan while the Israelites were still in the wilderness. Ten of them—all but Caleb and Joshua—returned with a terrifying report about the inhabitants of the land: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (14:32-33). The Canaanites weren’t really giants. The land didn’t really swallow up its inhabitants. The Israelites weren’t really grasshopper-sized. But they were scared about entering the land, and their fear colored their perspective. As Avivah Zornberg writes about the spies’ account, “All language is shot through with hues of fantasy, of love and hatred, wonder and fear.”

I think for Liav, as for the spies, the dominant emotion was fear. The return to school after Corona has been fearsome and fraught for all of us. The first week back, Matan insisted on wearing three masks, and came home each day complaining about classmates who were not following the rules. The girls told me last week that the classroom next door to them had been completely vacated after the class was quarantined – even the tables and chairs had been removed for sanitizing. I imagined it felt haunting each time they passed by. Liav wants to believe that there is a superhero who will rescue her from danger, even if that superhero is three feet tall and carries a Sponge Bob backpack. Matan wants to make sure that someone is always standing guard to keep the bad guys out – whether they are thieves or germs or unmasked germ-bearing thieves. In school they are sometimes scared. They sometimes feel like grasshoppers. No wonder their imaginations are enthralled by tales of stolen computers – they, like the spies, are finding the images with which to articulate their fears.

I suppose I ought to have known to be more skeptical, if not from the spies then from “Charles,” a story Shirley Jackson tells in Life Among the Savages. Jackson writes about her son Laurie, who returned from kindergarten each day regaling his parents with stories of an ill-mannered, undisciplined classmate named Charles. Charles yelled during story hour, Laurie reported. Charles said an evil word. Charles hit the teacher. Charles had to stay after school. Jackson wondered if her son ought to be exposed to such a problematic child, but her husband assured her, “Bound to be people like Charles in the world. Might as well meet them now as later.” Soon Laurie began reporting that Charles had begun to shape up– he was helping the teacher by passing out crayons and behaving so nicely that the teacher gave him an apple. Jackson became increasingly intrigued about the reformed hooligan in her son’s kindergarten, and she was eager to ask the teacher about him at parent-teacher conferences – after she heard about her own son first, of course. When she showed up at the conference, the teacher assured her that her son Laurie had had a difficult first few weeks of school, but he had become a “fine little helper.” Jackson asked about the boy named Charles, and the teacher responded with surprise. “Charles? We don’t have any Charles in the kindergarten.”

In his own eyes, Laurie looked like Charles, much as the spies looked like grasshoppers to themselves. For my kids, school looked like a crime scene, or perhaps a haunted house, with danger lurking in the halls. Should I have reacted to my kids with more skepticism? Laurie’s parents believed him. The people of Israel believed the ten spies. And I’d believed Liav — as perhaps well I should. The sin of the spies was one of skepticism – they refused to believe God, who assured them that the land was good. The midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 16:6) compares it to the case of a king who secured his son a beautiful wife, but whose son insisted on seeing her first because he did not trust his father. I believed Liav’s story because her story was true – it was true to the emotions that she and her siblings were experiencing at school. Sometimes unreliable narrators are the most reliable narrators of all, even if the story they are telling us is not the story we think we are hearing. I’m glad that in Liav’s account, the thieves were apprehended and order was restored. May the story of our own times, too, have a happy ending.

Forty Years of Quarantine

(Someone asked me today for a quick dvar Torah for Shavuot. So in case anyone else needs one, feel free to use this!)

This past Shabbat, we began reading Sefer Bemidbar, which we will continue to read for the next several weeks, long past Shavuot. The book of Bemidbar chronicles Bnei Yisrael’s wandering in the desert — when the book begins, they are in the second year after the exodus, still in Midbar Sinai. What should have been a quick journey from the Sinai desert to the holy land becomes, in the words of Avivah Zornberg, a “forty-year death march” — God punishes the people for the sin of the spies by making them wander until an entire generation dies out.

At the end of the book, in parshat Masei, we are given an account of all the places the Israelites wandered. Rashi asks why the Torah takes pains to record all the journeys of the Israelites, and offers a midrashic answer:

Rabbi Tanchuma interpreted: This is like a king whose son was sick so he took him to a distant place to heal him. On their way back, his father began to enumerate all the separate stages of the journey. He told him: Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache, etc. (Rashi on Bemidbar 33:1)

According to this account, the Midbar history is a history of sickness. This midrash makes me think that the Midbar experience is in some ways like our experience of Corona — a prolonged period of sickness, with the days seeming endless. There’s something nonsensical about it all — why should it take forty years to get from the Sinai Desert to Israel? And why should a tiny little virus that afflicted a man in Wuhan, China have overturned our world? If only the Israelites had listened Moshe instead of to the ten spies, this whole long journey of wandering could have been avoided. And if only we had acted sooner and listened to the scientists/epidemiologists who told us to wear masks and stay home, we could have avoided so many months of lockdown, economic uncertainty, etc.

The wilderness experience was a harsh one. There was not always enough water. The people were worried about whether they would have food. They doubted their leaders, and even spoke Lashon Hara about them. And through it all, people were dying. Corona, too, has been a terrible plague for all of humanity. The term quarantine comes from the Italian for “forty days,” which is reminiscent of the forty years of wandering in the desert. But quarantine is the least of it. One hundred thousand people have died of Corona in the US. We have suffered from economic instability, and too many people do not know where their next meal will come from. We have doubted our leadership, etc.

But we must remember, as we do every year on Shavuot, that it was in the Midbar that the Torah was given. The Midbar, where very little grows and all is sparse, is a humble place. And yet as the Torah tells us, Mimidbar Matana — from the Midbar, the people went on to Matana. These are place names, but the Talmud (Nedarim 55a) interprets them midrashically to teach that if a person makes himself like a wilderness, Torah is given to him as a gift, as a Matana.

May we merit on this Shavuot to be receptive to the gift of the Torah, and may we merit throughout this entire period of Corona wilderness wandering — in spite of all the sickness and the loss and the fear– to nonetheless be receptive to the possibility of transcendent gifts.