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.

Did Jacob Really Die? (Vayechi)

Parshat Vayechi describes a powerful deathbed scene in which Jacob summons his sons and grandsons and blesses them before he dies. After he breathes his last breath, he is embalmed and mourned and then taken by Joseph and by a host of Egyptian dignitaries to be buried in Canaan. There seems no question about the fact that Jacob dies in this week’s parsha – and yet at least one Talmudic rabbi is not so sure.

The Talmud in tractate Taanit (5b) recounts an intriguing exchange about Jacob’s death that unfolds between two third-century rabbis who were once sharing a meal together. The first, Rav Nahman the Babylonian, is hosting Rabbi Yitzhak, a visitor from the land of Israel. Just when they are sitting down to eat, Rav Nahman demands of his guest, “Master, say something!” Rabbi Yitzchak does not miss the opportunity to quote a teaching from his own teacher, Rabbi Yohanan, who was the leading sage in the land of Israel. Rabbi Yohanan was regarded as a formidable figure by the Babylonian sages of his time, who wished to prove that their own Torah scholarship surpassed—or at least rivalled—the Torah that was coming out of the land of Israel. And so Rabbi Yitzchak showcases the brilliance of his teacher while at the same time one-upping his Babylonian interlocutor, Rav Nahman. He responds: “Thus said Rabbi Yohanan: One may not speak during a meal, lest the esophagus precede the trachea and one’s life thereby become endangered.” Rabbi Yitzchak thus accedes to his host’s request while at the same time dismissing it as inappropriate and unenlightened; if only Rav Nahman had studied with Rabbi Yohanan, he seems to be implying, he would know that it is dangerous to talk while eating.

Presumably Rav Nahman is chastened by Rabbi Yitzchak’s dismissal. The Talmud does not report on any further dialogue between them until they are finished eating, at which point Rabbi Yitzchak volunteers another teaching from the great Rabbi Yohanan. He tells his host, “Thus said Rabbi Yohanan: Jacob our patriarch did not die.” This is a rather surprising statement, and certainly Rav Nahman is taken aback. He asks, “And was it for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him and the embalmers embalmed him and the buriers buried him?” As Rav Nahman argues, our parsha states explicitly that Jacob was embalmed for forty days, mourned for seventy days, and then taken for burial in the land of Israel in an elaborate funeral procession – how then could he not have died?

But Rabbi Yitzchak is adamant: Jacob did not die, at least not in the sense that he means. He tells Rav Nahman that he is offering a midrash on a verse from Jeremiah (30:10): “Therefore do not fear, Jacob, my servant, says the Lord, neither be dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity.” As Rabbi Yitzchak explains to Rav Nahman, this verse juxtaposes Jacob with his seed to highlight their commonality: Just as Jacob’s descendants are brought back from the seeming death of exile in the book of Jeremiah, so the progenitor Jacob never truly dies.

Although Rabbi Yitzchak does not say so explicitly, he is in fact offering a highly literal reading of the biblical text. A close comparison of the deaths of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, reveals that at least in one sense, Jacob did not die. Abraham is said to have “breathed his last, and died . . . and was gathered to his kin” (Gen 25:8); Isaac is described similarly to have “breathed his last, and died, and was gathered to his kin” (Gen 35:29). By contrast, Jacob’s death, as described in this week’s parsha, includes only two of these phrases: “He breathed his last, and was gathered to his kin” (Gen 49:33)—but the Torah never says vayamot – that he died. According to Rabbi Yitzchak’s reading, Jacob may have died on a spiritual level—his breath expired, his spirit was gathered to his kin—but he never physically died.

Paradoxically, though, Rabbi Yitzchak is also making the opposite point – Jacob remains alive not on a physical level (he was after all embalmed and buried), but on a spiritual level – his spirit remains alive as long as his children endure. So long as the children of Israel are alive, Jacob—whose name was changed to Israel—is sustained. Rav Nahman, the literalist, might beg to differ, but Rabbi Yitzchak is offering a midrash, as he himself admits. Indeed, perhaps it is a good thing that Rabbi Yitzchak did not share this teaching while they were still eating, because Rav Nahman might have choked on his food in his shock. And then one of Jacob’s descendants would have died, in keeping with Rabbi Yohanan’s warning.

Rabbi Yitzchak’s midrash suggests that there are people who make such an impact on the world that they never truly die – their legacy endures long after they have physically departed from the earth. John Donne captures this notion beautifully in the opening stanzas of “A Valediction—Forbidding Mourning”:

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, No.

It is almost impossible to tell when a righteous person has died, because their spirit expires so gently as to be almost undetectable. Some of their sad friends say their breath has gone, but others insist that no, they are still alive. And the others are not entirely wrong, as we have seen. Jacob is still alive so long as we, the Jewish people, continue to live in accordance with the divine covenant and perpetuate his legacy.

The Exploding Boiler and the Wild Dog

It is no mystery what our kids are reading these days. Each is absorbed in a different Hebrew detective series: Tagel is on the seventh book by Michael Abbas about a group of kids who help the police solve crimes, Liav is on her thirtieth (or is it fortieth?) Gingi mystery, and Matan is buried in a series of spy thrillers by Dana Elazar-Halevy about kids sent on international missions by a Mossad agent. And so I decided it was time to read them my favorite detective novel from my childhood, Harriet the Spy, which is one of those books that demands rereading as a grown-up. For decades I have been saving my copy, a dog-eared Dell Yearling paperback with the price—$1.50—printed on the front cover, above the image of Harriet with her red-hooded sweatshirt, her marble notebook tucked under her arm, and her flashlight, canteen, and boy scout knife affixed to her tool belt, striding forth on the sidewalks of Manhattan with her jowl set in determination. She reminds me of Matan, who rarely leaves the house without his flashlight and a boxed set of small screwdrivers, just in case they should come in handy.

Eleven-year-old Harriet thinks she’s training herself to become a spy, but the grown-up reader very quickly realizes that she is in fact training herself to become a writer. Every day when she gets home from school, she sets off on her spy route through the streets of her neighborhood on the East Side. She carries her spy notebook everywhere and jots down observations about the people around her, which are printed in the book in ALL CAPS. Her spy notebook is essentially a window into her mind – we learn about her best friends (Sport, who cooks and cleans for his father, a writer seemingly oblivious to the real world; and Janie, an aspiring chemist who threatens to blow up anything she doesn’t like) and family (including her nurse Ole Golly, who has taken care of her since birth and knows her far better than her emotionally distant parents) and about her thoughts (does money make people dull? Can a person work while lying down? Why don’t people with dumbwaiters check inside them all the time to make sure no one is spying on them?). In reading her notebook, we are privy to her misconceptions about wealth, about love, about privacy, about loneliness – the young reader learns about the workings of the world alongside Harriet, and the older reader smiles knowingly above her bent head and her scribbling hand.

The book was published in 1964 and requires considerable explanation for my kids, who have never used a dumbwaiter or gone to the pictures or eaten Lobster Thermidor or sipped an egg cream at a drug store counter. I thought I explained the pictures pretty well when Harriet goes to the early showing – Tagel listened and then pronounced that it was “like Hashkama.” I got the egg cream wrong – when I later looked it up, I realized that you don’t actually crack a raw egg into an ice cream soda, as I’d told them. The egg gets cooked with brandy and cream and stuffed inside the crustacean shell to make Lobster Thermidor, I now know. As for the dumbwaiter, it sufficed to remind the kids of the wooden cabinet attached to a pulley that little Charlie loved playing in when All-of-a-Kind Family moved uptown – they could make sense of one literary association by reference to another, with no need to involve the real world.

Except that our reading spilled into the real world, as inevitably it does. On Friday afternoon I took the kids to the park so as to get them out of the house while Daniel cleaned. It was one of those rare and ideal park visits where I actually managed to read – Yitzvi was napping at home, the big kids were happily squishing themselves onto a single swing, and Shalvi was sitting beside me on a bench blissfully absorbed in a unicorn sticker book and humming loudly to herself, interrupting me only on occasion to affix a horn to a white forehead. At one point Liav ran over to express concern about a dog in the park that didn’t have a collar – “Is it a wild dog, Ima?” I reassured her that the dog seemed harmless and returned to performing unicorn surgery – absent-mindedly, because my head was nearly a century away.

I had just started Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, an autobiographical novel about growing up as the youngest of five siblings in fascist Italy in a rowdy home filled with books and ideas. “Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer,” Ginzburg writes in her introduction, and proceeds to document—through the imperfect lens of memory—the story of her childhood. All memoirists are engaged in espionage of sorts, spying on their past selves and scribbling it all into a notebook. This is how I think I felt; This is how he must have felt. I love reading about writers’ childhoods, especially writers with big and book-ish families. But I harbor no illusions. I’m not spying on what happened, but on how it might have seemed and felt. I would not take any memoir much more seriously than a novel.

Memory, writing, truth – this is where my thoughts drift when I can get lost in a book, sinking below the surface level of what happened and into the murkier depths of how the story is told and why. But the level of what happened was yanking me back, calling my name urgently and excitedly: “Ima, Ima, look, an explosion!” I glanced up for a moment and did a quick count—four kids—and then returned to my book. Shalvi had run over to the big kids, who were standing atop a hill pointing to the roof of a nearby apartment building. There was indeed a terribly loud sound, as if a street cleaner were driving right through the park, except that the noise was coming from the sky. I followed the line of the kids’ fingers and saw a thick column of white smoke rising from the white boiler atop the building high into the sky, like the trail of spaceship that had just blasted off into space. “The boiler on that building is exploding,” Matan exclaimed. “Can I go get my binoculars?”

I had still not completely emerged from the village hamlet where I was vacationing with Natalia’s family, and Matan’s voice was muffled through his mask, so I thought he had asked me if he could get his rhinoceros. “Yes,” I nodded, not sure what he meant but eager to be left alone. There were other adults in the park who seemed to be on top of the boiler situation, and the kids were engaged, so I wasn’t worried. In one of the midrashim about why God chose Abraham to be the founder of the Jewish people, the rabbis relate that Abraham was once walking on his way when he saw a residential building ablaze. He stopped and said, “Who is in charge of this building?” God chose Abraham because Abraham stopped to notice when the world was on fire. It’s similar to the story of Moses shepherding his flock when he comes to the burning bush – God chose Moses because he was the kind of person who would turn aside when confronted by the suspicious sight of a bush that was burning but not consumed. I would make a terrible prophet, and an even worse spy. If I found myself suddenly in the presence of a burning bush, I would undoubtedly finish the chapter.

Next thing I knew Matan had returned with binoculars, which he held up to his eyes, and a notebook and pencil, which he handed to Tagel. “Write it down,” he said. “Exploding boiler – did someone take a very long shower?” He dictated to Tagel, who bent down to rest the notebook on the park bench so she could write. “Maybe everyone in the building is taking a shower for Shabbat at the same time. A very hot shower. Do boilers explode when everyone showers at once?” His blend of observation and speculation reminded me of Harriet, who was clearly their inspiration – just the previous night we had read about Harriet’s difficulty with math. She wrote in her notebook that perhaps there was a part of the brain that corresponded to each part of the body; she had a short nose, so she surmised that the long nose part of the brain was where the math should be. “I know,” exclaimed Liav, “the explosion must be related to the wild dog that was here. It’s gone!” Matan was convinced she was on to something. “OK Tagel, write this – maybe the dog took a shower and he didn’t know how to use it. Oh, and add this: The wild dog is out of sight.” Matan kept peering through his binoculars – the explosion was considerably quieter and the pillar of smoke was now just a thin wisp. Tagel continued to jot it all down in her phonetic spelling – the dog was out of sit.

It seems that I was out of sit too, because Daniel had just texted me that Yitzvi was awake and it was time to go home so the kids could take their own showers. I got up from the bench and rallied the kids. Tagel put the notebook under her arm like Harriet, and Matan affixed his binoculars to the belt loops of his jeans. Shalvi’s unicorns—at once real and fantastical—were now prancing across every page of her sticker book. Matan leaned over and covered Tagel’s ear with his hand, first glancing at me to make sure I couldn’t hear him. “What, what?” clamored Shalvi, who wanted in on the fun. Matan whispered to her, too, and then added loudly, “Don’t tell.” Shalvi broke out into a wide smile. “Oh…” she said excitedly, unable to keep her voice low. “We’re going to set up a big camera and spy on…. Abba!” Matan glared at her, indignant. “Abba! I said Abba! I didn’t tell her!” I laughed, shepherding the spies back home.

The Torah that Made the Rabbis Cry (Vayigash)

Parshat Vayigash contains one of the dramatic high points of the book of Genesis, in which Joseph reveals his true identity. Until this point, Joseph has acted like a stranger toward his brothers—a fitting punishment for those who refused to treat him like a brother when they threw him into the pit. Joseph accused his brothers of being spies and then listened in on their conversation while pretending he did not speak their language; he bound and detained Shimon; and he framed his brothers for two acts of theft which they did not in fact commit. Now at last, in this week’s parsha, Joseph sheds his harsh exterior and bursts into tears before his brothers. It is a moment so stirring and emotional that even the Talmudic rabbis cry.

By the time he finally breaks down, Joseph has been holding back tears for a while. When his brothers return with Benjamin, Joseph is so consumed by emotion that he hurries out of the room to sequester himself in an adjacent chamber lest he cry in front of them. He manages to keep a stiff upper lip only until the end of Judah’s impassioned plea that he be detained instead of Benjamin. Judah speaks of the sorrow that would overcome their father if the other brothers were to return without Benjamin. The thought of Jacob missing and longing for a beloved child unleashes the floodgates in Joseph, who dismisses all his attendants and then announces to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” (Gen. 45:3) His sobs are now so loud that all the Egyptians can hear, and the news of Joseph’s brothers reaches Pharaoh’s palace as well.

Joseph’s sobs continue to reverberate through the generations. The rabbis mention Joseph’s revelation to his brothers in the context of a discussion in Hagigah (4b) about particularly affecting biblical verses that moved them to tears. As emerges from their discussion, each rabbi had a different verse that he was unable to recite without falling apart. Some of their choices are more understandable than others; Rabbi Ami, for instance, was particularly affected by a verse from Lamentations, the biblical book takes its name—at least in English—from the act of weeping. But for Rabbi Elazar, the biblical verse he finds most poignant is the response to Joseph’s revelation: “His brothers could not answer him, so affrighted by his presence” (Gen. 45:3). Rabbi Elazar explains what he finds so unsettling about this verse: “If the rebuke of a man of flesh and blood was so much that the brothers were unable to respond, when it comes to the rebuke of the Holy One Blessed Be He, all the more so!” After years of assuming that Joseph was dead, the brothers have now seen his face again. As Rabbi Elazar understands it, their immediate response is the terror of being held accountable for the crimes of their youth.

But whereas the brothers are terrified of being rebuked by Joseph, Rabbi Elazar derives from this verse a terror of being rebuked by God. This Talmudic discussion appears in the opening pages of the first chapter of tractate Hagigah, which is about the biblical commandment to appear before God on the three pilgrimage festivals. As Rav Huna notes on this same page of Talmud, the biblical word for the commandment to “appear” before God (yeyra-eh) can also be read as the commandment to “see” God (yireh), which also serves to explain why the largest concentration of mystical material in the Talmud appears in this tractate. Rabbi Elazar is thus reading the story of Joseph’s revelation in the context of Rav Huna’s account of a reciprocal revelation in which we see God and God sees us. What was true for Joseph’s brothers is true for all of us: Being seen means exposing who we really are and being held accountable for our actions. And so when we fallible human beings appear before God, we all have reason to quake in our boots.

The Talmud in Berakhot (28b) offers insight into what it means to be seen by God in another story of weeping, this time involving Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai on his deathbed. This is the same rabbi who was famously carted out of Jerusalem in a coffin by his disciples who pretended he was dead so as to save his life; he then encountered Vespasian and pleaded with him to save the world of Torah learning even at the expense of the Temple. After previously faking his death and appearing before a flesh-and-blood king, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai now lies on his deathbed for real, prepared to meet the King of Kings. He begins to cry, and he explains to his concerned disciples the reason for his tears: “If I were being led before a flesh-and-blood king who is here today and gone tomorrow, who if he is angry with me, his anger is not eternal… even so I would cry. Now that I am being led before the supreme King of Kings who lives and endures forever; who if He is angry with me, His anger is eternal…will I not cry?”

The story in Berakhot ends with Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s disciples requesting a prayer from their sobbing rabbi before he dies. He responds, “May it be God’s will that the fear of heaven be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood.” The disciples are surprised; shouldn’t they fear heaven more than they fear mortal human beings? But as their teacher tells them, when people sin, they usually hope that no one else can see them; whereas in fact they should be concerned about being seen by the all-knowing and all-seeing God.

Like Joseph’s brothers, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai is terrified about being held accountable for the fateful choices and trade-offs he made earlier in life. He knows that when we are seen by God, we are seen in our full humanity – with all our strengths and weaknesses, our failures and successes, our defenses and vulnerabilities revealed. God sees with an unvarnished gaze all our missed opportunities and unrealized possibilities. When we stand before God, we have no secrets; there is no place to hide.

As Joseph’s brothers learn, even the sins we commit in secret, when no one else is watching, will ultimately be revealed. And as Joseph learns, even the tears we cry in secret, in the adjacent chamber, will ultimately be heard. We can spend our lives weeping in abject terror at the prospect of someday being seen for who we really are. Or we can seize the opportunities each day to ask ourselves honestly how we are seen by those around us so that when our time comes, we will not fear being seen by the King of Kings.

Sneaking into the Library

Like all the local restaurants, the library in Jerusalem is open for take-out only. You’re allowed to order books by e-mail and drop by to pick them up – the librarians will meet you in the parking lot when you call to say you’ve arrived. But to order books, you need to know what you want. Gone are the days of leisurely browsing and serendipitous finds – when you pick up your plastic-wrapped bag of books, it contains only what you ordered, without any surprises. I have spent many late-night hours searching the online catalogue, but the search engine is not very friendly and I don’t always know what I want. I miss the joy of discovering a book I didn’t even know to look for, just because it happened to be mis-shelved next to the book I thought I wanted but then realized I had already read. I miss the thrill of stumbling upon a book I had read as a child, and which my children are now ready to hear me read aloud. I miss the returns cart, where I like to speculate about who checked out what, and why. And so you can imagine my joy when I managed to sneak into the library this morning and raid the stacks at last.

A friend who volunteers in the library sent me a message last night: “I’m going to be in the library early, before the librarians arrive. Is there anything you want?” It wasn’t an invitation, but I took her up on it anyway. As soon as I dropped off my kids at school—I had thrown on a skirt but was still wearing the shirt I’d slept in—I headed straight for the library and texted my friend. “I happen to be outside. Is it a good time to pick up some books?” As it turned out, my friend had just arrived – she was still turning on the lights and powering the computer at the check-out desk when she opened the door a crack and motioned for me to come in. “You can browse,” she whispered, even though no one else was there. “You just have to leave before any of the librarians arrive in about a half hour.” About a half hour? How much time did I really have before I would risk getting caught?

Just last night I finished reading the kids Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, including the dramatic scene in which Mrs. Frisby sneaks into Farmer Fitzgibbon’s kitchen to poison Dragon the cat. I felt like was scurrying around like a rat, trying to avoid being seen by human eyes as I gathered a stack of new easy readers for my kids to read in shul. (They are already reading chapter books at night in bed. But in shul they like to page through books that they can finish in a single sitting, and easy readers are perfect for that.) As the long fluorescent lights flickered to their full brightness, I thought of Sam the library mouse who lives in a hole in the library wall and comes out at night to write stories. Sam would never be here at this hour, I told myself, and the rats of NIMH would have long ago made themselves scarce. I had forgotten to look at my watch. What time were the librarians due to arrive?

My son’s card, which we all shared, allowed me only eight books in English – I kept meaning to open new cards for my other kids, but then the pandemic began and it was too late. I started taking photos on my phone of all the books I would order next. My son had told me he wanted to read about Greek mythology, but when I entered that in Hebrew into the card catalogue, over fifty books came up, and I had no way of knowing which had colorful illustrations and vowels, and which were written in tiny type that would frustrate him from the moment he turned the first page. I took a photograph of the ten Hebrew books of Greek myths that seemed most appropriate, so that I could include them in my next orders. I was tempted to ask my friend if she’d let me go over quota, but I knew better than to steal fire from the library gods.

It was too bad my kids weren’t there with me – they would have known which books they wanted. The library is small, just two rooms, and I eyed the stacks hungrily. Like a pregnant mom eating for two, I was browsing for four. I tried to remember the list of books Liav had annotated for me, which I’d neglected to bring along. For months now she will read nothing but Gingi, a series of short novels about a redheaded boy living in Talpiot—the next neighborhood over from us—and the mysteries he solves along with the other kids who live in his building. There are over seventy books in the series, and Liav and I printed the full list off the author’s Wikipedia page so we could keep track of which she had already read. The author, Galila Ron-Feder is the doyenne of Israeli children’s literature. She has written over a dozen series for children – there are several rows of shelves in the library devoted exclusively to her books. Each of my kids has fallen in love with a different one of her series, though only LIav is stubbornly monogamous– she won’t pick up anything else until she has read every one. The number of each book in the series is written only on the spine, and not inside the book, and some absent-minded library clerk had covered that part of the spine with the red tape that denotes easy Hebrew chapter books – so it was impossible to glance at the shelves and know the order of the books in the series. I didn’t have time to pull out each book and check which covers looked familiar – the clock was ticking.

I wish my kids were there, too, because they’d have fun discovering new books to read. I’d like to say that my kids have fond memories from our pre-pandemic weekly library visits, but the truth is those visits were often rushed – we came after school, when they were already tired and the toddler was thirsty but we’d left her water bottle in the stroller downstairs; the baby was cranky and ready for dinner and we still had a long walk home. But even if their associations with library visits are not all that positive, their literary library associations certainly are. One of the first books I read to all my babies was Wild About Books, about the Springfield librarian Molly McGrew who by mistake drove her bookmobile into the zoo. Together we pored over the walking-while-reading cover of Sarah Stewart’s The Library, about Elizabeth Brown, “skinny, nearsighted, and shy,” who collected enough books to found her own town library. We had speculated about Lucy’s Book – which book did Lucy check out so many times that it wore out and had to be removed from circulation? None of these books is in our Jerusalem library, where the English picture book collection is all from the 1970s and 1980s – which means that I check out for my kids many of the same books that my parents checked out for me.

I realized I should ask my friend to check out my selections before the librarians arrived. I brought them over to the desk and she looked up my patron number. “You have seventeen books checked out,” she told me – I was well over the limit. “I know, but they’re all Gingi,” I told her, as if that made it somehow OK. “Well,” she paused, squinting at the screen. “Actually, it says here that you have an Amanda Pig book that was due… yesterday. And that’s including the long Corona extension.” Oh no. I could picture that book with the smiling pink curly-tailed pig, but had no idea where it was. I am vigilant about keeping library books separate from the rest of our collection – once we accidentally shelve a library book at home, it is like searching for a needle in a haystack. I didn’t want to be in trouble with the library. I thought of the very first chapter in the All-of-a-Kind-Family series, where Sarah—the third of the five sisters—dreads confessing to the library lady that her book is lost. Then I thought of the first chapter in the first Ramona book, where Ramona decides that she likes her library book so much that she wants to keep it – so she writes her name in it. Was it a coincidence that two of my favorite children’s book series began with library mishaps?

A librarian, like a judge, can rule strictly or kindly. While my friend was checking out my new books – her attribute of mercy, it seems, overrode her attribute of justice – I darted back to the stacks for one final look. Maybe I would ask for just one of the mythology books after all. “Could I take this one too,” I entreated, greedily pushing the limit. At that moment the door creaked open. The librarian—one of the stricter sort—looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Maybe I should just leave now,” I said nervously, and my friend nodded. Rats. I avoided making eyes with the librarian as I closed the door tightly behind me and scurried out, confident that I’d be back.

On the Interpretation of Dreams (Miketz)

Before Joseph was a dream interpreter, he was a dreamer. As a young lad Joseph dreams about binding sheaves in the field with his brothers when suddenly his sheaf stood up and remained upright and the other sheaves gathered around and bowed low to his. Joseph shares the dream with his brothers, but he leaves the interpretation to them – it is they who ask him whether he means to rule over them. Then Joseph shares another dream with his brothers, this time about the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him. Once again, he is the dreamer, and they are the interpreters. His brothers interpret the dream cruelly and mockingly, and the spark of anger that had been kindled when Jacob gave Joseph an ornamented tunic flares when the brothers catch sight of Joseph approaching them at Dothan: “Here comes that dreamer” (Gen. 37:19), they sneer, resolving to throw him into a pit.

Joseph’s dreams land him in one pit, but his ability to interpret dreams gets him out of another. He is like the pestering little kid obsessed with robots who grows up to land a top job at Google. By the time he has become a young man, he has shifted from annoying kid brother to grand vizier in Egypt, and from amateur dreamer to professional dream interpreter.

The Talmud discusses this transformation in Joseph’s life as part of an extended discussion of dream interpretation in the final chapter of tractate Berakhot. Rabbi Bena’a declares that “all dreams follow the mouth of the interpreter” (56a) – that is, meaning is to be found in the interpretation and not in the dream itself. He relates that he once had a dream and took it to all twenty-four of the dream interpreters working in Jerusalem at the time. Each one interpreted the dream differently, and yet all the interpretations proved accurate.

Rabbi Bena’a does not base this claim only on anecdotal evidence, but also on a verse from Genesis: “And it came to pass, as he interpreted, so it was” (41:13) These words are spoken by the chief cupbearer, who reports to Pharaoh that his fellow prisoner Joseph had accurately interpreted both his dream and the dream of the baker imprisoned with them. Pharaoh understands the cupbearer’s words to mean that Joseph is a skilled dream interpreter who should be released from prison and employed in the royal court; but Rabbi Bena’a understands these words to mean that it was Joseph’s interpretation—and not the dream itself—that determined the fate of each dreamer.

While we cannot control our dreams, we do have some control over how we respond to them. Rav Hisda states that “a dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read” (55a) – implying that a dream is like a coded message transmitted from a sender, perhaps God, but that the dream cannot have any effect until it is deciphered. One way of deciphering a dream is by reciting a particular biblical verse in which an image from the dream appears. For instance, the rabbis teach that one who sees himself shaving in a dream should rise early and recite the verse that describes the reversal of Joseph’s fortune when Pharaoh sent for him out of prison: “And he shaved himself, and he changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:14). If the dreamer fails to recite this verse quickly enough, the rabbis add, another verse might become the reality instead: “If I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall be weak” (Judges 16:17). The rabbis imply that whether the dreamer rises to greatness like Joseph or meets a tragic demise like Samson depends on the words invoked to interpret the dream.

If the significance of a dream is determined by how it is interpreted, then a dream is not all that different from waking life – it is not about what happens to us, but about what we make of it. Just as we have some degree of control over the way we respond to and interpret our dreams, we have some degree of control over the way we respond to the events in our lives. This is a lesson exemplified by Joseph, who was the ultimate self-made man. Though he was rejected by his brothers and taken for dead by his father, he succeeded in becoming the second most important man in Egypt, saving the country from famine.

At the end of his life, Joseph’s brothers try to interpret his life in one way – they offer to become his slaves as punishment for treating him so cruelly as a child and causing years of estrangement. But Joseph rejects this interpretation, insisting to his brothers that “though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result” (50:20). May we learn from Joseph to respond to the events in our lives in a way that our dreams, too, come true.

Mrs. Frisby and the Prophetic Rats (Pesachim 9b)

We are continuing to make our way through Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, but now that the school day has been extended again, finding the time to read has proven more of a challenge. There is hardly any time with only the big kids home, and it’s nearly impossible to read to all five. There was one afternoon when I managed to keep the little kids occupied for long enough to read an entire chapter: Yitzvi was sitting in his high chair eating a challah roll with cheese, and Shalvi had retreated to the bathroom to sit on the toilet with a stack of books piled on the stool at her feet. With both little kids occupied and the big kids at the counter drinking hot chocolate, I could accede to their request to continue on with Mrs. Frisby.

As I reminded the kids, we were in the middle of the long flashback section where Mrs. Frisby learns of the rats’ connection to her late husband Jonathan. Mrs. Frisby has gone to the rats as per the owl’s advice, and their leader Nicodemus has welcomed her into his office, which is lined with books. A rat with an office? And bookshelves? Mrs. Frisby learns from Nicodemus that he and his comrades are not just any rats – they have escaped from NIMH—the National Institute of Mental Health—where they had been conscripted into participating in an experiment on learning and intelligence. They were placed in cages and injected with a serum that made them exponentially smarter. Mrs. Frisby’s husband Jonathan, a white mouse, was part of a similar experiment in an adjacent room, and he escaped alongside the rats.

I wondered how much time we’d have to read. Shalvi was content behind the closed door of the bathroom — she finishes her business long before she finishes her books but doesn’t get up until the last page is turned. Yitzvi was banging his feet impatiently against the legs of his high chair, turning his roll into crumbs. I flipped ahead to see how long the chapter was. I wanted the rats to escape from NIMH before the little kids needed to be released from their respective captivities.

I started reading. The lab workers began showing the rats a photograph of a rat on an illuminated screen, along with an image of a half circle and two straight lines, as a recorded voice repeated “are, are, are.” Then they saw a triangle with legs, and heard “aiee.” Finally they saw a cross and heard “tea.” I looked at the kids. I had showed them the words in the book so they would see how they were spelled. “Are, aiee, tea – what is that?” “Rat!” they exclaimed in unison – the rats were learning how to read, as my kids had not long ago. Eventually the rats would learn to decipher the line printed on the bottom of their cages—“To release door, pull knob forward and slide right”—and from then it was only a matter of time before they all escaped through the air ducts into the world outside NIMH, and eventually made their home in a hole behind Farmer Fitzgibbon’s rosebush, where Mrs. Frisby had met them.

“Do you understand?” I asked the kids, wanting to make sure the message of the chapter was clear. “The rats were able to escape only because they could read. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to read – it sets you free.” They could learn this lesson from Charlotte and her web; they could learn it from Frederick Douglass. Already they were figuring it out on their own. “When you know how to read, you’re never stuck and you’re never alone,” I told them. “So long as you have something to read, you can always escape wherever it is that you are—a boring class, an endless rainy afternoon at home—and take yourself somewhere else. You can go to a chocolate factory. To Oz. To the little house in the big woods. Knowing how to read is your ticket to freedom.”

The kids were tired of my sermonizing. The girls wanted me to keep reading, but Matan was still thinking about the experiment at NIMH. “Really, Ima?” he asked. “Is there an injection you can give to a rat to make it smart? Can a rat really learn how to read?” As I was about to answer him, I saw out of the corner of my eye that Yitzvi, whom I’d released from his high chair, was still clutching the rest of his challah roll, and had now left a trail of crumbs everywhere he’d crawled. “Can it, Ima? Can a rat learn how to read?” Matan asked me again, and without even thinking, I responded with a line from the Talmud: “Is Hulda a prophetess?”

The line comes up in the opening chapter of tractate Pesachim, which is about the commandment to rid the house of leaven before Passover. To what lengths does a Jew need to go to ensure that the home is entirely free of leaven? The Mishnah (9a) teaches that “we do not need to be concerned that a rat may have dragged a crumb from one home to another, or from one place to another – if so, the matter would have no end.” Yes, it is possible that after cleaning the house thoroughly, a rat might come in dragging a breadcrumb. However, the rabbis of the Mishnah reassure us that we do not need to go to such lengths when it comes to our Passover cleaning, because if so, we would never finish looking for crumbs.

But other rabbis are not prepared to leave it at that. “Who says we don’t have to worry that a rat dragged crumbs?” the Talmudic sages ask (9b). The answer, they explain, depends on the timing. Passover begins on the eve of the fourteenth of the Hebrew month of Nisan. By that point, Jewish homes are free of leaven; but on the thirteenth of Nisan, there is still bread in abundance. The Talmudic sage Abaye explains that if a rat were to find bread on the thirteenth of Nisan, it would not bother to conceal it, because there is bread everywhere for the taking. But if it finds it on the fourteenth, when there is no other leaven around, it will conceal it, and we need to be concerned that perhaps it dragged the crumb off to its hiding spot. The other sages respond with disparaging exasperation: “Is a rat a prophetess?” Can a rat know that it is Passover and therefore there will be no fresh bread baked that evening? Surely Abaye cannot be serious!

Except that the other rabbis are not really serious either, because they’re making a joke of it all – or at least a pun. The Hebrew word used in the Talmud for “rat” is Hulda, which is also the name of a biblical prophetess described in the book of II Kings. Is a Hulda a prophetess, Abaye? In fact yes, if you are in the world of the Bible. And can rats really learn to read, Matan? Well, yes, if you are in the world of Mrs. Frisby.

In the world of Mrs. Frisby, the white mouse Jonathan follows the rats to freedom. In the Talmud, too, a mouse follows on the heels of the rats. On the next page (10b) the rabbis explain that if a white mouse comes with a bread roll, and then a person comes into the house and sees crumbs, it is necessary to search for the source of those crumbs, because mice don’t usually make crumbs; presumably the crumbs are coming from elsewhere, and that source needs to be identified. In contrast, the rabbis go on to explain, if a baby comes in with a bread roll and then a person finds crumbs, there is no need to search for the source of those crumbs because babies always make a mess, and we can assume all the crumbs came from that bread roll.

I think about whether I can explain this Talmudic passage to the kids, who are now all clamoring for me to read on. But there is a trail of challah crumbs snaking around the kitchen counter, and as I reach for the broom, I hear a voice from the bathroom: “Ima, I’m ready!” The rats have escaped their cages at NIMH and the Israelites have escaped from Egyptian bondage, but at that very moment I can’t say that I feel free.