Eat It or Wear It

Yitzvi is officially no longer a baby, but a toddler. He waddles around the house with his unsteady gait, moving his legs without bending his knees and falling every few steps before lifting himself right back up. He refuses to stay in one place, preferring to toddle from room to room such that every few moments I have to ask myself, “Wait, where is Yitzvi?” And then I find him crouched in front of the washing machine watching the laundry spin, or sucking on one of his sister’s toothbrushes while trying to get down from the bathroom stool, or picking the raisins one by one out of a plastic container that we inadvertently left on the lowest shelf of the pantry. When he realizes that I’ve spotted him, he will gleefully belt out, “Dad-DEE, Dad-DEE,” which bears no relation to Daniel but is simply his preferred combination of sounds. This is all fine, though. The only real cause for alarm is when he goes into Matan’s room – not just because Matan will be furious, but also because, thanks to Matan’s networking skills, an actual alarm is likely to go off, sending a notification to his computer.

Matan is the only person in our house who has his own room, and with good reason. He has an extensive collection of electronic devices, most of them long-ago outdated, all of which have a specific place that is known only to him. He has also set up an elaborate system of cameras which track all motion in his room, such that even if Yitzvi merely opens the door a crack, Matan will receive a notification. But usually Yitzvi does much worse. He’ll enter Matan’s room, rattle his night table so that his water bottle falls to the floor like a loosened coconut, tug his blanket down from his bed, and pull his bookmark mischievously out from his book. “Yitzvi!” Matan will shout as soon as he discovers the damage. And then Yitzvi’s grin will freeze on his face for a moment before his lips turn down, his eyes scrunch up, and he bursts into tears of fright.

And so perhaps it is not surprisingly that Matan identified so much with Peter Hatcher, the hero of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. He and I read the book together in bed over the course of the last few weeks, alternating pages – he read all the shorter pages where a new chapter starts or stops, while I read the longer ones. Matan, who learned to read in Hebrew long before he learned to sound out words in English, remains disturbed by the unphonetic nature of English orthography, and insists on using his own original pronunciations for various proper nouns. “Peter” is pita, like the bread. “Fudge,” in Matan’s rendering, sounds like “Fudaja.” But there’s no question about the identity of these characters in Matan’s imagination: He is Peter, and Yitzvi is Fudge. He is the nine-year-old responsible fourth grader; Yitzvi is his toddler brother who is always getting into scrapes. Never mind the three sisters in between Matan and Yitzvi; now that he has a brother, Matan can finally appreciate this novel, which I remember fondly from my own childhood and have wanted to read with him from the moment Yitzvi was born. With each chapter we complete, Matan compares their antics and quotes Fudge’s more memorable lines.

“Eat it or wear it!” Fudge’s father shouts exasperatingly at Fudge, an extremely picky eater. He refuses stew, milkshakes (even when his grandmother promises him a surprise at the bottom of the cup), and the lamp chops his mother made especially for him. At dinner he hides under the kitchen table and barks like a dog, and his mother is so desperate for him to eat that she gives him food under the table, which he eats between barks. Finally, when Fudge refuses even cereal—the one food he’d always enjoyed—his father decides he has had enough. “Fudge, you will eat that cereal or you will wear it!” he pronounces angrily. When Fudge remains firm in his refusal, he carries Fudge and his cereal into the bathroom, places Fudge in the tub, and dumps the entire contents of the bowl onto his head, to Peter’s—and Matan’s—amusement.

Yitzvi, too, loves cereal. He used to have oatmeal with goat milk yogurt every morning while the other kids ate corn flakes and sweetened cheerios; then one day I let him finish someone else’s bowl of cereal. That was the end of the oatmeal. The only problem, though, is that he refuses to be spoon fed, and when it comes to directing the spoon to his mouth, he does not have very good aim. Most of the milky cereal usually ends up in his lap or in his hair, and when he is finished, he will toss the bowl to the ground even if it’s not yet empty. At that point, I lower him to the ground and begin sponging the counter – only to discover that he is kneeling on the floor, picking up soggy cornflakes to nibble on as if he, too, thinks he’s the family dog. At this point the cereal is not just in his lap but under the soles of his feet, smeared across his face, and stuck to his hair as well. At dinner, we have a repeat performance – by the end of the meal, Yitzvi looks like he has couscous dandruff. “Eat it or wear it,” Matan quotes gleefully.

Not only does Fudge refuse to eat with the family, but he also puts all sorts of objects in his mouth that he is not supposed to ingest. He eats two flowers from his mother’s silver flower bowl. He grabs a rose off his own birthday cake and gobbles it down even before it is cut. And worst of all, he sneaks into Peter’s room when Peter is at school—in spite of the chain latch that Peter’s father affixed after Fudge scribbled all over Peter’s homework—and eats Peter’s beloved pet turtle, swallowing it whole in one gulp. Matan does not have a pet turtle, but his network of wires and cameras is just as dear to him, and he would love a chain latch on his door so that Yitzvi can’t get in. So far Yitzvi can’t open doors, so we’re pretty safe – as long as we all remember to keep Matan’s door closed. Otherwise, we find Yitzvi emptying the electronics box in Matan’s cubby, wrapped in a Walkman, a talkman, several sets of broken headphones, and various cables with colored tips that Yitzvi seems to mistake for licorice. I try to swoop in before Matan discovers the damage – I’m more concerned about Matan’s wrath than about Yitzvi’s welfare.

And yet like Peter, Matan can actually be surprisingly helpful with Yitzvi. Sometimes at night, when Daniel and I despair of getting him to bed, Matan offers to take over. He stands beside the crib rubbing Yitzvi’s back with endless patience. For him bedtime is so much less fraught, and Yitzvi senses his calmness and drifts off into a peaceful slumber. When the last lockdown restriction finally eased a bit and we could at last take Yitzvi shopping for shoes, Matan seems to have taken inspiration from Peter, who managed to bring Fudge back from the brink of a temper tantrum in the shoe sore when Fudge refused to buy the saddle shoes his mother wanted. Matan, who dutifully waited outside with the stroller because Corona restrictions allowed only two people in the shoe store at a time, tried to cheer Yitzvi on when I brought him out to the sidewalk to squeeze his tiny foot into his first shoe, his whole body writhing in protest. “I know what you’re thinking, Yitzvi. What are these heavy weights they are putting around my feet? But don’t worry, you’ll see, shoes are cool,” Matan encouraged him. And then Matan gave me advice too: “Just put them on his feet while he’s sleeping. When he wakes up, he’ll forget there was ever a time when he didn’t wear shoes.” We’ll have to see if it works.

When we finished Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, we moved on to the sequel, Superfudge, in which Peter and Fudge’s parents announce that they have news: They are expecting a new baby and the family will be moving from New York City to Princeton for a year. Peter is none too happy– he worries that his new sibling with be as difficult as Fudge, and he can’t bear the thought of starting a new school and having to make all new friends. The day after we read that chapter, I picked up Matan at school, eager to share with him that we had finally received Yitzvi’s passport in the mail – Matan, who checks our mail every day, had been eagerly anticipating it. “I have news,” I said to Matan outside the schoolyard gate. “What?” said Matan. “You’re having a baby? We’re moving to Princeton?” I laughed. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “No more babies, and we’re not going anywhere – though finally we all have passports now.” Matan smiled excitedly. “That’s great!” he told me. “As soon as Corona is over, I can take Yitzvi on a trip to America.” I guess I looked skeptical. “It’s OK,” he assured me, “I’ll put a security camera on him so he doesn’t get lost. You just have to promise that no one goes into my room while we’re away.” I’d have to discuss it with Daniel, but we might just take him up on it.

Mishpatim: Torah on an Endless Loop

Our parsha features the famous phrase na’aseh v’nishma, in which the Israelites commit first to do and then to listen to everything that God commands them on Mount Sinai. Although the rabbis praise the Israelites for their unconditional obedience, the Talmud also contains several voices that criticize the Jewish people for their impulsiveness. After all, what is the meaning of pledging to comply when you don’t yet know what is expected of you? A close reading of this rabbinic discussion suggests that perhaps “we will do and we will listen” is not about blind obedience, but about acting in a way that enables us to hear God’s word.

The Talmudic rabbis discuss the Israelites’ response to the revelation at Sinai in tractate Shabbat (88a). Rabbi Elazar regards the Israelites’ willingness to act before listening as angelic behavior, arguing that it is a characteristic of the ministering angels to do God’s will and only then to hearken to God’s voice. Unlike human beings, who may question or even challenge authority, the angels act as if programmed to do God’s bidding. But Rabbi Simlai raises doubts about whether this angelic behavior was really so pure and praiseworthy. He states that in the moment when the Israelites spoke na’aseh before nishma, six hundred thousand ministering angels came and tied two crowns to every member of the Jewish people, one corresponding to na’aseh and one corresponding to nishma. Then when the people sinned very soon afterward with the Golden Calf—while still standing at Sinai, awaiting Moshe’s descent down the mountain—thousands of other angels descended and removed those crowns. The Israelites may have pledged their blind obedience, but then they tripped over the very first stumbling block placed in their path, violating the first two commandments just moments after they had been inscribed on the divinely chiseled tablets.

Was it really so wise for the Israelites to agree to keep the Torah even before hearing what God had to say to them? Often when the Talmudic rabbis wish to give voice to opinions that seem too heretical to utter themselves, they place them in the mouths of others – heretics, Roman matrons or foreign kings. The Talmud goes on to relate that a certain heretic once saw that the sage, Rava, was immersed in the study of Jewish law. Presumably the matter he was studying was very difficult, because he was sitting on his hands and squeezing them together so hard that his fingers were spurting blood. Was it just a complicated passage to understand? Or was it the prospect of fulfilling what he was learning – “doing” and not just “listening”—that made Rava seem paralyzed, unable to move his hands freely? We do not know. But the Talmud relates that upon seeing Rava in such a state, the heretic said, “You impulsive nation, who preceded your ears with your mouths! You are still so impulsive!” It is not always easy to live a life of Torah and mitzvot, and sometimes it really does seem like the effort is so draining that it might have been wise first to negotiate with God over the nature of our commitment.

But perhaps Rava was not distressed by the challenge of Torah study, but rather so deeply immersed in it that the heretic’s critique did not seem to matter. We might read the Israelites’ response at Sinai not as an unconditional commitment to accept God’s laws, but rather as a description of what will happen as a consequence of living in accordance with them. Na’aseh v’nishma is less about chronology than about causation: It is not “we will do and then we will listen,” but rather “we will do so that we might listen.” The more we live in accordance with God’s Torah, the more receptive we will be to God’s will, and the less distracted we will be by competing voices. By keeping Shabbat, we allow for the stillness that enables us to hear God’s voice. By honoring our parents, we learn to submit ourselves to a higher authority. By caring for the disempowered – the widow, orphan, and stranger, as our parsha demands of us – we internalize what it means to be created in the image of God. Our actions bring us to a deeper understanding of God’s Torah and enable us to listen more deeply.

At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God instructs Moshe to write down the words of the Torah and teach them to the people of Israel: “Put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be my witness.” (31:19). Words of Torah ought to be like the song we can never get out of our head – the one that runs on an endless loop until we know all the lyrics by heart and find ourselves singing them unawares. This happens to those who chant regularly from the Torah, but it also happens to anyone who is deeply committed to making the words of Torah a part of themselves. It resonates inside us with every breath we take.

Yitro: Goosebumps

Our parsha begins with a surprising change of scene. Following the dramatic showdown at the Red Sea and the exultant triumph against Amalek at Rephidim, the Torah now zooms in on Moshe’s intimate reunion with his father-in-law, Yitro, who shows up with his wife Tziporah and two children. When we last encountered Yitro, Moshe was taking his leave following the burning bush episode, in response to God’s command to return to Egypt. Now he joins Moshe in the wilderness and offers sacrifices to God. Why does Yitro appear at this point in the narrative, between the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah? What is his role at this crucial point in the history of the Jewish people, in that brief window between redemption and revelation?

The Talmudic rabbis disagree about what Yitro heard that motivated him to leave Midian and come join the Israelites in the desert. Was it the story of the Exodus? Or the story of the revelation at Sinai, which according to some rabbis, who hold that the Torah is not written in chronological order, had in fact already happened? Rabbi Eliezer argues the former, and indeed, this seems to be the straightforward reading: The first verse of our parsha states, “Yitro priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt” (18:1). And yet this answer, too, is not quite as straightforward as it might seem, because if Yitro heard all about the Exodus, why did Moshe then have to tell him about it? As the Torah goes on to relate, “Moshe then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them” (18:8). Why did Moshe have to repeat what Yitro had already heard?

Perhaps the point is not what Yitro heard, but rather what Moshe recounted. Even if Yitro already knew about the Exodus, the story needed to be told. As God told Moshe on the very day they went forth from Egypt, “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt’” (13:8). Twice a day Jews must recite the Shema, which identifies God as the One who took the Israelites out of Egypt, as do the Ten Commandments. The Passover Haggadah teaches that “the more one tells about the Exodus of Egypt, behold this is praiseworthy.” This is a story that we are commanded to tell and to retell. And yet in order to tell the story, there needs to be someone to listen. That is why Yitro comes on the scene.

Yitro appears in the Torah between the Exodus and the revelation because he is the ideal audience. He is sympathetic to the Israelites – his daughter, after all, is married to their new leader – but he was not with them in Egypt and he did not experience the Exodus first-hand. Like all of us alive today, he was not an eyewitness, and so he relies on the stories. He hears about what he did not see with his own eyes. His arrival is the occasion for the first retelling of the narrative we are commanded to tell and retell for all subsequent generations.

Yitro’s reaction serves as an important model for all of us, who struggle each year to view ourselves as if we have gone out of Egypt – as if it is all happening to us for the first time. Yitro has a genuine religious response, and he speaks words that no Jew had spoken before that point: “Baruch Hashem!” (18:10). He also rejoices—“vayichad Yitro”—a term which the Talmudic sages interpret in two ways (Sanhedrin 94a). According to Rav, Yitro passed a sword over his body, implying that he circumcised himself and converted. According to Shmuel, the news gave him goosebumps. Either way, Yitro has a physical reaction to the news – it gets underneath his skin. This is all the more remarkable if we assume that Yitro had already heard about the Exodus, and was hearing it all for the second time.

Yitro’s visceral response to the Exodus makes sense when we consider that he is a religious figure – he is a Midianite priest. He is sensitive to the spiritual dimension of experience, and perhaps he prompts Moshe to frame the Exodus in these terms. When Moshe shares the Exodus story with his father-in-law the priest, it becomes not just a story of political liberation, but also one of divine redemption. Perhaps this is why we are commanded to reference the story of the Exodus as part of our daily prayers – we recite the Shema to remember that the Exodus from Egypt was not just a historical event, but a foundational moment in our covenantal relationship with God. And so it is not just Yitro’s reaction that is a model for us, but also Moshe’ recounting. Moshe’ encounter with Yitro teaches us that sometimes we need to step back to reflect and recount to others so as to become sensitive to the spiritual dimension – to those moments in life when we, too, might get goosebumps.

Luna Park

We all want a way out of this third lockdown, which is now in its third week. I can’t seem to concentrate on much, but last Shabbat I tried to get lost in a short novel that had been on my shelf for a while. I’m not sure what inspired me to pick me up, but I always think there is a divinity that shapes what we read when. One of the longest scenes in the book takes place on Tu Bishvat, which we celebrated this week, and the novel was on the cover of the Haaretz Magazine. The time was ripe for me to read that novel, I realized when I was more than halfway in.

It is so hard to read at home. No matter where and when I try to sit down, it is only a matter of moments before someone wants “mayim with bubbles” or an argument breaks out about the Playstix pyramid the kids are constructing in honor of the parsha, or someone accidentally enters the bedroom where the baby is sleeping and wakes him up. This time it was the mid-nap wake-up, which always infuriates me. I tried not to lose my cool. I put him in the stroller and announced that I was going out for a walk – alone.

Alone with the baby, of course, but he doesn’t count. Like most strollers, ours faces forwards, so that I don’t look into my child’s face when we’re strolling. I’ve convinced myself that this gives me license to completely ignore him for the entire duration of the ride, so long as he doesn’t express discontent. He generally seems happy looking around at the changing scenery, and while we walk, I read. The stroller acts like a walker, stabilizing me, and I make sure to look up at the end of every paragraph to make sure there are no stumbling blocks in our way. On that particular Shabbat afternoon, following the rude awakening, I prepared to leave the house with the new novel I’d just started, eager to push the baby for as long as possible and to make headway in the book. But Tagel had other ideas.

“Ima, I’m coming,” she announced, already Velcro-ing her sneakers (because who buys Shabbat shoes in a pandemic) while I was still strapping the baby in. “No Tagel,” I told her firmly and I suppose a bit rudely. “It’s not that kind of walk. I’m reading,” I confessed, hoping that Daniel couldn’t hear. I didn’t want this time to count against me – we try to give each other a little bit of alone time on Shabbat, and there was no way was going to use up my precious minutes on this walk. (I am notorious for stealing minutes. “I’m just running to the bathroom,” I’ll announce, before disappearing with a book until I hear someone screaming.) But Tagel loves to get outside, and will take advantage of any opportunity, just as her twin will seize any opportunity for alone time with a parent. “Ima, it’s OK, you can read,” Tagel assured me. “But I’m still coming.”

I was skeptical. How would I push the stroller and read my book with Tagel walking alongside me? Surely she would want to chat with me about her latest friendship woes –her new best friend was acting cool and aloof, and she was not sure how to respond. This was not going to be the walk I had envisioned, and I was feeling sour about it already.

“Tagel, how will I read if you’re walking with me?” I asked, trying to discourage her with my own aloofness. It wasn’t really fair, and I knew it. A better mother than I would have seized the opportunity for alone time with my daughter. A better mother would have invited her to come along, offering her the opportunity to share whatever was on her mind. The Talmud teaches in tractate Eruvin (22a) that a person cannot learn Torah unless they act cruelly to the members of their household, citing the example of Rabbi Ada bar Matana who went off to study and left his wife with no food to feed their children; when she protested, he told her to feed them reeds from the marshes. I know that cruelty all too well. It’s the only way I manage to read or learn with the kids around.

My cruelty notwithstanding, Tagel surprised me. True to her word, she walked by my side and did not say a word. Her one request, which was only fair, was that I read aloud to her. I had barely started the novel I’d brought along, and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for a seven-year-old. At this point, I told myself, there was only one way to find out.

The novel begins with a temper tantrum in the middle of a street. The narrator—a young single mother—tries to console her five-year-old son, who is sprawled out on the crosswalk wailing. He wants a lollipop; she doesn’t have one. The cars in front and behind start honking impatiently. Desperate, she leans over and promises her son, “If you behave nicely, we’ll go to Luna Park tomorrow.” His older sister knows it will never happen, and tells her brother, “She’s just saying that.” And indeed, the next day, the mother tells her kids that the amusement park is under construction, even though they see right through her lie. Their mother cannot even afford her rent, and they are facing a very real threat of eviction. She is too depressed to work; it takes all her energy to get herself out of bed so as to send the kids off to school and receive them when they return. All she can give them, she feels, are her promises, even if they are vain.

Tagel is listening; she doesn’t say a word. But the next day she will tell me proudly that when Shalvi fell apart between waking up and eating breakfast—as she does all too often, you’d think by now we’d have learned that we need to drop everything else and feed her right away in the mornings—she knew what to say to get her sister off the bathroom floor, where she was lying with her feet kicking up against the closed door, her hair glued to her face with tears. “Ima, I told her that if she got dressed and ate breakfast, you would take her to Luna Park,” Tagel will boast, as if I had been reading her a parenting manual rather than a work of literary fiction. A shadow crosses my face; I am wondering if that book was appropriate for Tagel. “Don’t worry, Ima,” she assures me, noticing my wrinkled brow. “I”ll just tell her it’s under construction.”

When I think about the pages I read to Tagel, it seems the false promise of Luna Park is the least of it. The mother in the book believes that she is not a good parent. She avows that she was too young to have children, and never really wanted to become a mother at all. She knows that it is not acceptable to voice such sentiments—to rail against the holy grail of motherhood—and yet she shares it with us, her readers. Except that now her readers include Tagel, who is trying to wrap her mind around what it means to be a bad mother. I find myself starting to worry. Has the phrase “bad mother” ever occurred to Tagel before? Why am I introducing her to this notion?

I imagine what is going through Tagel’s mind. Perhaps a bad mother is one who sneaks out of the house in the early morning to try to go for a run before her kids wake up? Or maybe a bad mother is one who says there is no more chocolate left, and then consumes it stealthily after the children are asleep? Maybe, I imagine Tagel thinking, a bad mother is one who comes to pick up her kids at school five minutes late every single day – not because she has any good reason, but simply because she finds it agonizing to tear herself away from her computer? Or perhaps a bad mother is one who keeps typing, pretending she can’t hear the voice crying out, “Ima, please check my hair for soap, Ima, I’m waiting, did I get all the soap out?”

I hope she isn’t thinking anything of the sort. I don’t think the Luna Park narrator thinks that being a bad mother is all that bad. True, she makes all sorts of promises she can’t keep. She can barely get dressed in the morning, let alone see her children off to school. She has to resort to petty theft in order to afford glasses for her daughter. And yet even so, as she tells us, “Children love even a bad mother. What matters is that they have a mother.” Natalia Ginzburg wrote similarly in Serena Cruz or The Meaning of True Justice, an attack on the Italian magistrates who tried to separate a girl from her adopted family: “Families can be awful, repressive, obsessive, or cool and uncaring and distracted, or toxic, tainted and maggoty. Very often they are like that. But a child needs one all the same… Maybe he grows up unhappy in his family, he’s ashamed of it, hates it, but it’s an unhappiness memory can feed on. In the future he will go back in his mind to that thick and woody forest.” Children grow up to define themselves in relation to their mothers and their families. If they don’t have mothers, and they don’t have families, then they have no way to figure out who they are, and who they want to become.”

“Tomorrow we’ll take a walk and I won’t bring a book,” I promised Tagel when the baby started fidgeting – always the signal to turn around and head home. I felt like I was telling her I’d take her to Luna Park, but she just shrugged it off. “It’s fine,” she told me, “I like when you read to me while we walk. It’s interesting for me to hear grown-up books.” Perhaps someday she’ll be the kind of mother who reads aloud to her children all the time, or who makes a point of never letting herself get lost in a book when her children need her attention. Either way, the person she will become will be shaped by the person I am. I look forward to reading her next chapter.

Beshalach: Fight or Flight

Just before the sea split, the Israelites stood on the shore in abject terror. Behind them the Egyptian chariots gave chase, driven by vengeful horsemen who whipped their galloping horses as fiercely as they were known to beat their slaves. Before them the sea sparkled in the morning light, its calm surface concealing unknown terrors of the deep. In the midrash, the fleeing slaves are analogized to a dove pursued by an eagle that enters a cranny in the rock, only to find that a snake is nesting there (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:14). The Israelites could turn neither backwards nor forwards, and yet there were those who suggested both – at least according to the Talmud’s account, which offers insight into how a religious sensibility might come to our aid in moments of fight or flight.

According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Y. Taanit 2:5), Moses was confronted by a cacophony of suggestions as to how to proceed in that decisive moment at the shore. The Israelites were divided into four factions: One suggested jumping into the sea in an act of mass suicide; one suggested returning to Egypt; one suggested going to battle against the Egyptians; and one suggested crying out to God. These four responses may be read as four ways of responding to adversity – surrender, submission, struggle, and spirituality. Moses, as we shall see, rejects them all.

Standing with his people on the shore, Moses said to them: “Fear not, stand by and see the salvation of God which He will show you today. For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever. God shall fight for you, and you shall be silent” (Exodus 14:13). The Talmud breaks down Moses’s response into a rejection of each of the four factions: To the desperate Israelites who wanted to jump into the sea, Moses assured them that salvation was imminent: “Fear not, stand by and see the deliverance of the Lord.” To those who advocated returning to Egypt, Moses insisted that Egypt was a thing of the past: “For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever.” To those who wanted to put up a fight, Moses assured them that this was not a time to take up arms: “God will fight for you.” To those who advocated prayer, Moses put his finger to his lips: “You shall be silent.” What, then, was the appropriate response?

Perhaps the answer can be found in God’s words to Moses just before the waters split: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them to go forwards” (Ex. 14:14). God did not want His people to look back toward Egypt, or up to the heavens, or down into the depths of despair – God wanted them to march forwards. The Talmud (Sotah 37a) celebrates the valiance of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was the first to do just that. According to the Talmud’s account, upon hearing God’s command, each tribe refused to be the first to step forwards. At that point, the leader of the tribe of Judah, Nachshon ben Aminadav, took matters into his own hands. He did not jump into the sea in surrender, but simply put one foot in front of the other. He pushed aside his fears like walls of water as if defying the sea to engulf him. At the same time, he entreated God to save him – the Talmud attributes to Nachshon the following verses from Psalms: “Save me, God; for the waters are come in even unto the soul. I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing…let not the water flood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up” (Psalms 69:2–3, 16). Nachshon prayed while simultaneously taking action. As such, his response was neither suicidal surrender nor spiritual stasis. It was not fight or flight, but faith and fortitude.

One small step for Nachshon turned out to be one great leap for the Israelites, who followed suit and were redeemed by God. The rest of the tribe of Judah, and then the rest of the Israelites, also walked into the water. Like Nachshon, they did not yet know of the miracle that awaited them. Unlike the ten plagues, which God had foretold, the Israelites had no way of knowing that the waters would split for them and then close in upon Pharaoh and his horsemen. They simply walked forwards, come what may. They, like Nachshon, may have also been calling out to God as they plunged into the waters. According to some commentators, the “Song of the Sea” recited by the Israelites—chapter 15 of the book of Exodus—was not a victory song but an expression of faith that God would deliver them. As Sforno puts it (on 15:19), “The Az Yashir occurred when Pharaoh’s horses went in with his chariots and horsemen into the sea, and God, the Blessed One, drowned them while the Children of Israel were still walking on the dry land in the midst of the sea. Before they came out, they began to sing.”

According to Sforno, the Israelites did not know that they would survive when they began singing. For all they knew, the waters that had begun to engulf the Egyptians would then creep up upon them. After all, they were used to a Pharaoh who was notorious for his changes of heart; why should their new Ruler be any different? And yet they believed in His steadfastness, at least enough to begin singing a song of thanksgiving even before there was anything concrete for which to be grateful. Perhaps it was in fact their very singing that brought about their deliverance, in the same way that God’s utterances created the world. The people sang that “He cast Pharaoh’s chariots and his army into the sea,” and lo and behold, God cast Pharaoh’s chariots and his army into the sea. And then they sang, “You made the wind blow; the sea covered them,” and lo and behold, the wind blew and the sea covered them. Their very expression of faith was what enabled God to stretch out His mighty hand and bring His people forth on dry land.

Wallace Stevens depicts a similar scenario in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” a poem about a woman who walks beside the sea and sings a song that creates the reality around her:
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang…
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.

The woman in the poem is the maker both of the song and of the world, just as the Israelites’ singing may have brought about (rather than merely recounted) the circumstances of their salvation. This is evident even visually in the Torah scroll, where the words of the song are printed in the shape of a brick wall, as per the words of the song: “And the water was for them a wall, to their right and to their left” (Exodus 14:22). According to this reading, the Israelites at the sea have already begun learning what it means to be liberated. They do not have to sink into despair, or return to servitude, or surrender all their agency and await God’s deliverance. To be free is to realize that we are the authors of our own story – we are the artificers of the world in which we sing. We hope against hope as a sign not of foolishness, but of faith and fortitude. It takes courage to walk forwards singing of a world of which we can only dream – but as we learn from Nachshon, it is a crucial first step.

Bo: The Midnight Harpist

The Israelites’ last night in Egypt was tense and dramatic. The Angel of Death was out and about and the Israelite slaves were in lockdown—commanded to remain inside their homes, secured behind doorposts smeared with amulets of blood and hyssop. Outside, the streets were haunted by the shrieks of dying men and beasts – “there was no house where there was not someone dead” (12:30). Even the dogs dared not whet their tongues with the Angel of Death so close at hand. Given the richness of the Torah’s description of this “night of vigil,” it seems surprising that when the rabbis discuss the eve of the Exodus, they are focused less on what happened and more on when it happened – and on why that timing matters.

The rabbis in the opening pages of tractate Berakhot (9a) discuss the timing of the Exodus to determine whether the Pesach sacrifice may be eaten only until midnight, or all the way until dawn. The answer hinges on whether the redemption happened in the middle of the night—when God struck down the Egyptian firstborns; or in the morning—when the Israelites went free. The Talmudic rabbis express surprise that when Moses warned Pharaoh of the tenth and final plague, he spoke in approximate terms, informing him that God would strike down the Egyptian firstborns “at about midnight” (11:4). They assume that Moses was merely relaying what God had told him, and yet God must have known exactly when He would send forth the Angel of Death. “Is there any doubt before God in heaven?” they ask. Surely God does not speak in approximations! They therefore conclude that God must have told Moses that He would strike down the firstborns at midnight, but Moses was not certain of the exact middle of the night; and thus it was Moses who introduced this language of approximation.

The notion that the ability to calculate time precisely is a hallmark of the Divine comes up in Mishnah Bekhorot 2:6, amidst a discussion of the mitzvah to consecrate every firstborn to God – a mitzvah that is taught in this week’s parsha, where God commands Moses, “Consecrate to Me every first-born, man and beast, the first issue of every womb” (13:1). The sages of the Mishnah consider the case of a sheep that gives birth to two males, with both heads emerging simultaneously. If the sheep has never before given birth, how do we determine which is the firstborn? In the Talmud (Bekhorot 17a) the majority of the sages argue that unlike God, human beings lack the capacity to discern between two acts that appear simultaneous, and thus both sheep must be given over to the priest. Only God can get the timing exactly right, at least according to the prevailing rabbinic opinion. Other dissenting rabbinic voices, however, insist that human beings are able to be just as discerning – which may explain why the rabbis are so surprised that Moses, the human being who came closest to the divine, lacked this capability.

Another reason the rabbis are so surprised that Moses spoke of the tenth plague in approximate terms is because even King David knew how to calculate the timing of midnight – at least according to Talmud Berakhot 3b. The rabbis quote from the book of Psalms, attributed to King David: “At midnight I rise to give thanks for your righteous laws” (Psalms 119:63). David woke up every night at exactly midnight to praise God. But how did David know exactly when midnight was, if even Moses didn’t know? They explain that David had an unusual sort of alarm clock: A harp hung over his bed, and every night at midnight, the northern wind would come and cause the harp to play of its own accord. David, upon hearing the music, would immediately arise from his bed and study Torah until the first rays of dawn. David’s lyre is reminiscent of the Aeolian harp, a wooden instrument played by the wind which served for the Romantic poets as a metaphor for poetic inspiration. Indeed, perhaps the poetry of the book of Psalms was inspired by the music of the wind.

The wind also played a key role in the redemption from Egypt. The Torah relates that the sea was split by means of a “strong east wind” (ruach kadim, Exodus 14:21). The Hebrew word for wind, ruach, is also used to refer to the divine spirit (ruach elokim, Genesis 1:2) and the human soul (ruach chaim, Genesis 7:22). And the English word “inspire” literally means to draw in breath – when Adam was “inspired” by God, he was transformed from inert earth into a human being with a divine spirit. This is not just a play on words. To be receptive to poetic inspiration is to be receptive to the divine – the wind that plays on the poet’s lyre is also the wind that heralds redemption.

Flannery O’Connor famously said that she used to sit down at her desk at the same time every morning because that was her way of holding “office hours” for her characters – she never knew whether they would drop in, but she wanted her characters to know how to find her. We can never be sure when inspiration will come; even Moses didn’t know exactly when the miracle was going to happen. But we can hang our lyres by our beds and keep our windows open – unable to discern the precise moment, but awaiting it nonetheless.

Vaera: Demons, Germs, and Magic Dust

The struggle between Moses and Pharaoh takes place on two fronts. First, there is the political campaign to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, bringing an end to hundreds of years of servitude. But then there is also the spiritual battle to convince Pharaoh and the Egyptians of God’s preeminence. Were the exodus a story of political liberation alone, there would have been no need for ten plagues or the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart – God could have simply struck the Egyptians with a devastating pandemic that would have killed them all off, leaving the Israelites to go free. The purpose of the ten plagues, as God explicitly tells Moses in this week’s parsha, is to “multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3) so that Pharaoh and all the Egyptians will learn to recognize the hand of God in the world. Surprisingly, one of the significant turning points in this spiritual battle is the plague of lice – it is these tiny critters that first begin to convince the Egyptians of God’s supremacy.

The plague of lice is the first divine sign that the Egyptians recognize as a miracle and not magic. Previously, when Aaron converted his rod into a snake, turned the Nile to blood and summoned the frogs, Pharaoh’s magicians were quick to replicate these special effects. But when Moses and Aaron make dust into lice, the Egyptians’ spells prove ineffectual. They turn to Pharaoh and pronounce, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:15)– a phrase that appears in only one other context in the Torah, to describe the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:18). For the Egyptians—albeit not for Pharaoh, whose heart God has hardened—the evidence of God’s hand in the world seems rock-solid and they are forced to admit defeat, at least on the spiritual front.

Why is it the plague of lice that stumps the Egyptian magicians? The Torah states that the lice were created from dust – God instructs Moses to tell Aaron, “Hold out your rod and strike the dust of the earth, and it shall turn to lice throughout Egypt” (Exodus 8:12). Adam, too, was created from the dust of the earth, suggesting perhaps that this plague was so effective because the ability to create life from dust is the province of God alone. The Talmud offers another answer, which appears amidst a discussion of magic and witchcraft. Rabbi Eliezer, in discussing the plague of lice, explains that “a demon cannot create an entity smaller than a barley grain” (Sanhedrin 67a). According to this understanding, the Egyptian magicians were using demons to perform their magical feats. But demons cannot create anything as small as lice, and thus the Egyptian magicians were unable to replicate the third plague and could only throw up their arms.

Demons may not be able to create anything tiny, but they themselves are miniscule – at least according to the Talmudic worldview. The rabbis in tractate Berakhot (6a) explain that demons cannot be seen by the naked eye – to see them, one must take the placenta of a black cat, burn it to ashes, and place it on one’s eyes. But Abba Binyamin cautions that if the eye were able to see them, no creature would be able to withstand their abundance and ubiquity. And Rav Huna adds that each individual has a thousand demons to his left and a thousand to his right at all times. In a sense, the demons of the Talmud are not unlike the germs of our modern scientific worldview – they are microscopic entities that we cannot see with the naked eye, but whose existence we nonetheless posit.

Just as we maintain that proper hygiene can mitigate the harmful effect of germs, the Talmudic rabbis believed that proper conduct could mitigate the harmful effect of demons and other magical forces. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67b) relates that a certain woman once tried to gather the dust from under Rabbi Hanina’s feet so as to cast a spell upon him. Rabbi Hanina told her to go ahead, insisting that he was not concerned because, as it says in the Torah, “there is no one besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35). The rabbis question whether there are indeed no other powers in the world. They resolve that magic is real, but it had no effect on Rabbi Hanina on account of his righteousness.

As the long arc of the history of science reminds us, belief in demons and germs—and belief in anything we cannot see—requires a leap of faith. I recall a cartoon that hung on the wall of my optometrist’s office when I was a bespectacled adolescent: “Dear God,” it said under a picture of a boy wearing a new pair of glasses, “Now that I have my glasses, I will finally be able to see you.” Indeed, perhaps the more pertinent question is not whether we can catch sight of demons, but whether we can recognize the hand of God. For the Egyptian magicians, this recognition followed the plague of lice, which makes sense: Lice are nearly invisible, and yet they cause so much distress that even the greatest skeptic would be convinced of their existence. For the rest of us, hopefully it will not take lice or any plague or pandemic to come to know God.

This past year has been a reminder that while viruses and germs are an inevitable part of our world, the decisions we make on the global, national, and individual levels can help curb their devastating impact. May we learn to act righteously and responsibly so that even when we cannot eradicate the harmful forces that threaten us, we can nonetheless ensure that we are doing our part to make the world a safer and healthier place.

We Are Never Sick of Books

We are about to start another lockdown. It might be the third, or maybe the fourth – I’ve lost count. Technically the lockdown began a couple of weeks ago, when all the stores and restaurants were shuttered, but I didn’t really feel the impact of the change in policy because school continued. So long as the kids can leave the house in the morning and I get a few hours of quiet, I can handle anything. But last night we were informed that tomorrow is the final day of school and Gan for at least two weeks, and so once again we will have to navigate the three-ring circus of overseeing Zoom classes for the older kids, entertaining the little ones, and trying to stay somewhat on top of our own work commitments. There’s not much I’m looking forward to, except that I’ll have more time to read to the kids – assuming everyone stays healthy and safe.

I have learned not to take our health for granted. Yitzvi has been home for a week because one of the aides in his Gan tested positive for Corona, so all the kids were placed into quarantine. Ironically we learned of his quarantine the same week he began walking, such that his range of movement was restricted just when he finally learned how to get up and go. I was already used to leaving him in one room and finding him in another, since he was quite an adept crawler. But now that he has use of his hands, he makes off with toothbrushes, spoons, and Siddurim—his three favorite objects to pilfer—as if preparing to build a nest in which to eat, pray, and brush. He is especially fond of Siddurim because they are small and lightweight and accessible to him on the lowest shelf. By now we’ve all become accustomed to the sight of Yitzvi toddling around the house clutching an open siddur, as if his piety will not allow him to desist from davening for even a moment.

We haven’t yet received Yitzvi’s Corona test results – Matan, who is quite concerned, has learned how to refresh the website of our health clinic so as to check every few hours (if not more frequently) for the report. Meanwhile, I’m trying to distract the kids with a new book, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. New for us, that is – the book itself is over a century old. Our copy, which I found at the book drop on a late-night ramble, was published in 1948 and looks old but charming – the pages are yellowed and stained and most of the illustrations are black line drawings, but there are also full-color endpapers depicting the Pepper siblings being entertained by an organ grinder, as well as a scattering of full-color illustrations labeled with one line of text printed as an italicized caption below. The novel, which was originally published in 1881, tells the story of a widowed mother and her five children, ranging in age from three to twelve. The family is very poor – they live in a little brown house with a broken stove they have to stuff with paper, and they have so few provisions that the gift of a few raisins from a generous elderly neighbor is a cause for celebration. The mother works as a seamstress, assisted by her eldest daughter Polly; her eldest son, Ben, chops wood to help make ends meet. But then several of the children come down with the measles, and it seems for a short but tense while that the family will not recover.

“What is measles anyway, mammy?” Polly inquires when her younger sister Phronsie is felled, and my kids echo her question. I’m relieved that I can offer them a different answer than Mrs. Pepper supplies: “Oh, ‘tis something children always get,” she tells Polly. I tell my kids that while children used to get measles all the time, there is now a vaccine for it. “Do you need to get two vaccines or one?” Matan asks. He has been following the news of the new Corona vaccine very carefully and is anxious for his parents to get their two vaccines as soon as possible. “Two, I think,” I tell him absently, reading on. Phronsie lies inert in her mother’s arms, burning with fever, and soon the other children are also afflicted. The illness strains Polly’s eyes and she has to wear a heavy bandage over them, and Ben—who is himself still convalescing—entertains his ailing siblings by telling them stories. “Like you do for us,” Liav observes. “But why does everyone always have to get sick in the books you read us? I’m sick of hearing about sick people,” Liav complains, laughing at her own joke.

“Who else got sick?” I ask them, and the kids launch into a litany of the literary maladies we have encountered thus far. “Remember Mary got really sick in Little House on the Prairie?” Liav reminds us. “Is Polly going to go blind like Mary?” she worries. I assure her—because somehow I remember this detail from my own reading of the series decades earlier—that Polly will not. “Mary had scarlet fever, not measles,” I reassure Liav, even though I don’t actually know which is more dangerous.

“Is that what the girls had in All-of-a-Kind Family?” Tagel wants to know, and indeed she is right. She remembers the scene well: In the midst of the Passover preparations, Sarah’s head starts to hurt and Mama calls Dr. Fuchs, who diagnoses her with scarlet fever; soon four of the girls, all but Henny, are delirious with fever and Mama confines them all to a single room in the house as per the doctor’s orders: “Keep the sick ones away from the others.” It’s a lesson we know all too well these days, with each of our kids in and out of quarantine. Each time one of our kids goes in, we have to fill out an online form reporting their quarantine to the Ministry of Health. It was similar in All-of-a-Kind Family, except there was no internet in 1912; instead, the Board of Health came to put a quarantine sign on their door to warn others to stay out. The sign is still on their door when Passover starts, like the blood on the doorposts of the homes of the Israelites, though I’m not sure the author had this analogy in mind. Henny sits alone at the seder table with her parents, her four sisters confined to their sickroom until at last, when the holiday ends, the girls recover and the apartment is fumigated.

“Did anyone else get sick?” I ask the kids, and they remind me that the plot of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was set in motion on account of illness – in the opening chapters, one of the four mice in the Frisby family, Timothy, falls so ill with pneumonia that the family is unable to move out of their cinder block house before the day that Farmer Fitzgibbon is expected to come through with his plough. As the mouse doctor warns Mrs. Frisby, Timothy will must stay in bed for at least three weeks or his life will be at risk. My kids want to know the difference between pneumonia and scarlet fever and I’m relieved and grateful that the honest answer is that I simply don’t know. My kids were vaccinated against all these illnesses in their early years of life, as I was four decades ago. “I think that with pneumonia you feel cold, and with scarlet fever you feel hot and sweaty,” I venture, vowing to look it up later. Meanwhile, I’m wondering if they remember the illness we encountered at the start of the pandemic, when we spent our first lockdown reading Frances Hodgson Burnett.

“Whose parents get sick and die at the beginning of a book we read a few months ago?”
“Sara!” yells Liav, and simultaneously Tagel yells, “Mary!” They are both right. In A Little Princess, Sara Crewe’s father dies of jungle fever when he thinks he has lost all his money; upon his death, his only daughter is abruptly informed that she has become a pauper. And in Hodgson Burnett’s other famous children’s novel, The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox is orphaned at the age of nine when her aristocratic British parents die “like flies” in the cholera pandemic that sweeps across India. Both books are about young girls growing up without parents to care for them – Sara is entrusted to the care of the cold and heartless Miss Minchin, who runs a seminary for girls in London; and Mary is taken to live with her uncle, a remote widower devastated by heartbreak, on a large country estate in the Yorkshire Moors. In both books, the death of the protagonist’s parents is necessary to set the plot in motion; by the time you get swept up in the story, you’ve already lost sight of the jungle fever and the cholera that cast a dark shadow over the opening chapters.

And indeed, we’ve somehow managed to lose sight of much of the sickness too. Amidst all the technical complications of this pandemic – how to order food online, how to share a screen on Zoom, how to submit a request for a vaccine referral – I find myself forgetting that the reason we are all staying home and wearing masks is because people are dying all over the world of a virulent virus strain. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism, because thinking about illness is just too scary; but I am more focused on acting lawfully than on staying safe. Can I take out the garbage without a mask? Can I break quarantine and take Yitzvi in his stroller to pick up his sister, if the alternative is to leave him alone with a seven-year-old? On good days, when the kids sit around me rapt and riveted as I read chapter after chapter, the pandemic sometimes feels like little more than the backdrop to the stories we are reading, with the Peppers’ little brown house eclipsing the world outside our apartment. Our door doesn’t have a quarantine sign, but if it did, I imagine it would say “Story hour in progress. Do not disturb.”

Shemot: The World is Charged with the Grandeur of God

Moshe’s encounter with God at the burning bush resembles and perhaps anticipates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In both experiences of revelation, Moshe is on a lone journey when he encounters the divine amidst fiery conflagration atop a mountain. The Hebrew word used in the Torah for the burning bush is sneh, a near-anagram of Sinai, and indeed this week’s parsha, Shemot, explicitly identifies the site of Moshe’s first revelation as “Horev, the mountain of the Lord,” which is another name for Mount Sinai.

Both times, Moshe is shepherding his flock—first his sheep, and then the people of Israel—and both experiences of revelation change him fundamentally. And yet Moshe responds dramatically differently to each divine encounter.

Whereas the revelation at Sinai was foretold by God, the burning bush catches Moshe entirely unawares. An angel of God appears to him in the flames, and Moshe finds himself unable to avert his glance: “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” (3:3). God, struck that Moshe turns to look, calls out to him and identifies Himself as the God of his ancestors. What catches Moshe’s attention is the unusualness of a bush that is not consumed; but what catches God’s attention is that Moshe notices: “When the Lord saw that he had turned to look, God called to him out of the bush” (3:4).

This is not the first time that God has chosen as his prophet the person who stops to notice. The midrash in Genesis Rabbah (39:1) relates a parable to illustrate God’s choice of Abraham. According to the midrash, Abraham may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a residential building ablaze. He said, “Is it possible that this building lacks someone to take care of it?” At that point, the owner of the building looked out and said, “I am the owner of the building.” Likewise, the midrash continues, Abraham asked, “Is it possible that this universe lacks a person to look after it?” And God responded, “I am the Master of the Universe.”

It is notable that in this midrash, God is not the building superintendent, but the owner; it is Abraham whom God will appoint to “care for the building” by teaching the world about monotheism. According to the midrash, Abraham was chosen by God because he was unable to keep walking along on his way when the world was on fire. In the face of so much injustice, he demanded to know who was in charge.

Moshe also notices conflagration, but unlike Abraham, he needs to be told what it signifies. God instructs Moshe to take off his shoes because he is standing on holy ground, and then tells him, “I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heard their outcry… I am mindful of their sufferings” (3:7). God is essentially informing Moshe that He knows the world is on fire; His people are suffering and their cries have risen up to the heavens like fiery flames. And just as God previously appointed Abraham to care for the world of which He is master, this time God will appoint Moshe to do the job.

Moshe’s response to the divine call is somewhat surprising: The man who could not help but look now averts his glance: “And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (3:6). Moshe will again and again try to resist his mission, insisting that he is not a man of words and that Pharaoh will not heed him. But the Talmud (Berakhot 7a) regards Moshe’s response as praiseworthy. The rabbis state that as a reward for averting his glance, Moshe merited to have his countenance glow when he descended Mount Sinai following the giving of the tablets (Exodus 34:29). With this comment, the rabbis explicitly link the revelations at the sneh and at Sinai – Moshe’s behavior in the former determines the outcome of the latter.

And yet Moshe has changed by the time he reaches Mount Sinai – he is no longer averting his glance from God, but rather demanding to catch a glimpse of the divine: “Oh let me behold Your glory” (Exodus 33:18), he pleads following the sin of the golden calf. The continuation of this Talmudic passage once again juxtaposes the sneh and Sinai revelations to imagine a dialogue between God and Moshe in which God says, “When I wanted to show you my glory at the burning bush, you did not want to see it, as it is stated, ‘And Moshe concealed his face.’ But now that you want to see my glory at Sinai, as you said, ‘Oh let me behold Your glory,’ I do not want to show it to you” (Berakhot 7a). The rabbis depict God and Moshe as courting lovers who can’t quite get their timing right – as soon as one party tries to engage, the other loses interest. God, who chose Moshe because of his knack for noticing, tells Moshe at Sinai that there is a limit to how much even he can see and how close even he can come.

Moshe’s responses to these two revelations are captured in the angelic call-and-response of the Kedushah prayer, in which some angels ask “Where is the place of His presence?” and others respond, “The entire world is filled with His glory” (Isaiah 6:3). Moshe at Mount Sinai longs to see God’s glory, like the angels who ask about the place of God’s presence. But Moses at the burning bush is so overcome by the fiery revelation that he averts his glance, all too aware that the entire world is saturated with divinity.

Perhaps our challenge, following Moshe, is to learn not to demand evidence of the divine—“where is the place of His presence”—and instead to train ourselves to notice the spark of God wherever it may be found – on a fiery mountain, in a small burning bush off the beaten track, in a sacred encounter. As Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil….
Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod….
Nor can foot feel, being shod.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God because the whole world is filled with His glory. And we are charged to turn aside, take off our shoes, and feel the holiness of the ground beneath us – wherever we may find ourselves.

The Talking Parrot

Shalvi is very excited about turning five next month. The day after Chanukah I came into her room in the morning to find her singing “Tu Bishvat Higiya,” heralding the birthday of the trees, which was over a month away. We had told her that Tu Bishvat was the next holiday after Chanukah, and she knew that Tu Bishvat was right around her birthday. She was perhaps the only kid who was eager for Chanukah to be over with so that Tu Bishvat would come already. When I asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she looked at me, bewilderment giving way to incredulity. “Ima, you are going to buy me a Matana?” she asked. “You don’t have to do that,” she rushed to assure me. “My Ganenet is going to get me a present.”
“But Shalvi, I want to get you something for your birthday,” I told her, feeling somewhat guilty that she did not automatically associate her birthday with presents.
“You do?” she looked up at me, still not quite believing it.
“Yes,” I told her. “If I buy you a Matana, what would you like?”
She thought for a minute. I imagine her thoughts were drifting back to the same place mine were, to the last time anyone let her select a present. It actually wasn’t all that long ago, on a cold day with the sun already low in the sky when my mother-in-law picked up all three of the girls from school and Gan and took them to the Red Pirate, the huge toy store in the local mall which has, as my starry-eyed daughters reported to me, every toy imaginable. They returned with the largest Lego set I had ever seen, which the twins had chosen; and a double doll stroller, which was what Shalvi had been requesting for over two years. Whenever she played with dolls, she played with two dolls – as if every baby came in twos, and she was irregular in being a singleton. There was another family in her Gan two years ago that had a double stroller, and whenever I picked her up, she pointed to it and told me, “I want a stroller like that, for two babies.” That was, as I said, two years ago, and I had not done a thing about it. Now she doesn’t really play with dolls anymore, but I think the sight of that stroller reminded her of what she had dreamed of for so long – and so even though it wasn’t what she wanted anymore, she hadn’t yet surrendered the fantasy. It was her dream deferred, and I was overcome by remorse when I thought about how much she would have enjoyed that bright pink stroller in its proper time. To everything there is a season; the pink stroller sits in a corner of the living room where we all trip over it from time to time, because now Shalvi is more interested in how to spell “doll” then in pushing one around in a stroller.
Each time one of my kids has a birthday, I write them a long card and buy them a book, which I inscribe. I don’t always wrap the book, nor do I really think of it as a present – it’s more a way of celebrating their ability to appreciate, with each passing year, an increasingly sophisticated text. In the card I make mention of their milestones, hobbies, interests, and a bit about what Daniel and I most appreciate about them. I try, as much as possible, to make the card unique to that specific child at that specific point in time. I type up all the cards and save copies in a file on my computer – it is a file I rarely open, though I’d like to imagine that at some point I will find a way to give all these notes to my kids. Would that constitute a real present?
It was Shalvi who asked me about a real present when I pushed her to consider what she would want for her birthday: “Ima, you mean a real present?”
“Yes,” I told her, already knowing what she was getting at.
“Not a book?” she asked.
This is a familiar question in my house. My kids know how much I love buying them books and browsing in the library for them – often when they come home from school, I announce, “Guess what I got for you?”
“A book,” they say in their most bored voice, sometimes accompanied by a snort. “I know it’s a book.”
All of my kids love to read (or at least to be read to), and inevitably all of those books get read. But my kids don’t think of books as presents, because we are forever bringing new books into the house. Late at night, when I need to get a little exercise before getting into bed, I sometimes take a walk to the book drop near our house, a pop-up neighborhood lending library where people drop off the books they no longer want and help themselves to the offerings on the shelves. I love the serendipity of the book drop, whose contents are forever shifting. If I had arrived ten minutes earlier, would I have found that pile of National Geographics for kids? One night at about midnight I was scanning the shelves when suddenly I was blinded by bright lights and I heard the screech of car wheels coming to an abrupt halt right less than a meter away. I leapt, like a deer in headlights. Was I in trouble for disobeying a pandemic stay-at-home order? I turned my eyes away from the shelves slowly, already trying to formulate what I would say to the cops. But it was a large, run-down pick-up truck, and the driver, with a cigarette and a baseball cap, had popped open the back door and was unloading box after heavy box onto the sidewalk in front of the book drop. All kids picture books in Hebrew – I could hardly believe my good fortune! I took all I could carry, vowing to bring some of them back when we had finished reading them so that others could share in the bounty.
I bring home books all the time, at all hours of the day and night. And so Shalvi wanted to be sure, when I offered her a present, that I wasn’t referring to a book. “A real present,” I reassured her. She looked like a Queen Esther who had just been offered up to half of the royal kingdom, or like Sylvester clutching his magic pebble.
“I want… I want…” she said, scanning in her mind the shelves of every toy store she had ever seen – which may just be one, as far as I know. Suddenly her face lit up. “I want a talking parrot!”
“A talking parrot?” I asked, unsure exactly what she meant.
“Yes,” she said. “Every time I say something, the parrot will say the same thing.”
“A talking parrot?” I parroted back one more time. “Do you mean like the Passover parrot?” The last time we had even encountered a parrot was in the Passover children’s book about the child who practices the Ma Nishtana over and over again, until his parrot learns the entire song by heart and recites it from the top floor in the middle of the Seder, when the child freezes up. “No, no,” Shalvi was quick to disabuse me. “I don’t mean the book about the parrot. I mean I want a parrot. A tukey,” she clarified, as if all I was missing was a Hebrew translation.
The only toys I really cannot abide are the ones that talk. A few years ago my mother-in-law bought my twins two talking unicorns that came up to their knees, with a leash made of string around each neck. The girls led the unicorns around the house, and each time they pulled on the leashes, the unicorns broke out in canned music – “Brave unicorn, flies through the sky….” It was the kind of present you would never buy for members of your own household. I had the song in my head for weeks until I finally unscrewed the batteries in a desperate frenzy one night and told the girls they had died simultaneously. With seven people living under our roof, the last thing I need is more noise.
“Well,” I said to Shalvi. “Maybe you have another idea? Something else you would like?” Shalvi thought for a few minutes and made suggestions that were, to my mind, equally inane – did she really think I would buy her a gigantic unicorn stuffed with candy? But then again, should I? Would this be her next dream deferred?
That evening we were on a video chat with my sister-in-law, whose home we frequently visit. Shalvi waited patiently for her turn to talk to her aunt – she clearly had something she wanted to say. “Estie,” she said eagerly to my sister-in-law, when it was finally her turn. “Can you take me to your closet with the toys?”
“Sure,” Estie obliged, carrying her phone with the video still on to the giant floor-to-ceiling closet in her playroom, where my kids can occupy themselves for hours. “What is it you want to see in the closet?” she asked with the infinite patience of a relative who is not a parent. Shalvi knew exactly what she wanted, and she also knew exactly where it was. She directed my sister-in-law to the second shelf, all the way on the right. There, hiding behind a set of magic tricks and a Harry Potter costume, was a toy Torah scroll, with the full text of the Torah printed inside in miniature letters, wrapped in a faux velvet cover. “I love that Torah,” Shalvi told Estie. “I can’t wait to come to your house so I can play with it.”
I’m not sure what Estie said in response, nor do I know who took the phone next. In my head the wheels were turning fast and furiously. A miniature Torah! That’s what I would get Shalvi for her birthday! It was the perfect cross between a book and a toy – it was both text and ritual object. She could lavish her affection on it but also identify the letters and start reading the words. And while a toy Torah is a far cry from a talking parrot, I’d like to think that eventually she will speak the words aloud, and the words will speak to her.
Among the list of the Israelites desert wanderings, the book of Numbers recounts that they traveled from “Midbar” to “Matana” – from the desert to a place called Matana. The term “matanah” means “gift” in Hebrew, and the Talmud (Eruvin 54a) explains that this is a reference to Torah – the gift given to the Jewish people in the midbar, the wilderness. The best gift I could give my daughter was Torah. Of that I was certain.
But maybe, just to be safe, I would buy her a unicorn too.