Anne of Green Gables Learns to Daven

We are up to the part of Anne of Green Gables in which Marilla teaches Anne to say her prayers at night. She is relieved to discover that even if Anne does not pray regularly, she has some concept of God. “You’re not quite a heathen,” Marilla remarks wryly, and before I could read on, my daughter Liav interrupted me. “What’s a heathen?” she asked.
“A heathen is someone who does not believe in your concept of God,” I told her, trying to give a fair and accurate response.
“Oh,” said Liav, “So Anne is a heathen to Hashem, because she’s a Mitzri.” Mitzri is Hebrew for Egyptian, and my kids are forever confusing it with Notzri, which means Christian – for much of their early education, which was heavily informed by Bible stories, it was the Egyptians who were the “others,” not the Christians. As I was about to correct Liav, Tagel interjected. “I get it, so we are a heathen to Avodah Zarah!” she exclaimed, using the rabbinic term for idolatry. I was tempted to tell her that she, like all my kids, is a heathen to English grammar, but I bit my tongue.

Marilla instructs Anne to kneel down to say a prayer, but Anne finds this puzzling. She tells Marilla that it seems more appropriate to her to go out into nature to pray, not kneel beside a bed. “If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.” I asked the kids if this reminded them of anything, but they weren’t sure. “Do you know why we wear tzitzit,” I inquired, referring to the fringed strings that Jews are supposed to wear attached to a four-cornered garment. The Torah teaches that the fringes are supposed to be a blue color known as t’chelet, which according to the rabbis is a rare and expensive dye that comes from a marine creature that surfaces only once in seventy years (Menachot 44a). The rabbis explain that the fringes must be this color specifically because “t’chelet is similar in color to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the throne of God’s glory,” which was made of sapphire stone. That is, the ritual fringes are supposed to remind the wearer of the sea, the sky, and the infinite God, directing one’s thoughts to prayer – much like Anne looking up at the infinite expanse of the heavens.

Anne’s protestations notwithstanding, Marilla insists that she kneel beside her bed and compose a prayer. There is something somewhat ironic about the deeply spiritual Anne, who feels such a natural kinship with God’s creation, learning to pray from the stern and stoical Marilla, who has probably never uttered a spontaneous prayer in her life. When Anne earnestly asks Marilla what she ought to say, Marilla tells her that she’s old enough to pray for herself. And so Anne gives it a try, addressing the “gracious and heavenly father” out loud and couching her fervent sentiments in the archaic diction she associates with formal prayer. She thanks God for the lake and the trees she has already fallen in love with in Avonlea, and she petitions God to make her beautiful when she grows up. She concludes as if signing a letter: “Yours respectfully, Anne Shirley.” It is a prayer that comes from her heart, but Marilla can hardly keep herself from collapsing in laughter and exasperation.

“What’s so funny?” I asked the kids, because I wanted to know if they got it. They did. “Ima, Anne didn’t really do what Marilla asked. Marilla wanted her to daven from the Siddur, I mean, to pray from whatever prayer book they use. But instead Anne said a tefilla ishit.” I told Liav that she was exactly right. Marilla expected Anne to recite some sort of formal prayer, but instead Anne offered a tefilla ishit – a personal prayer, like the prayers my kids are supposed to come up with on their own during the two minutes of silence their teachers give them after they’ve closed their prayer books but before they’ve sat down at their desks. I know about tefilla ishit because during the Corona lockdowns, my kids prayed at home together every morning along with their teachers, who had pre-recorded the service on Whatsapp audio; at the very end of the recording, the teacher announced “tefilla ishit” in a singsong voice as a reminder to the kids to offer their own personal prayers. This was a signal for my kids to belt out the words “tefilla ishit,” toss their prayer books summarily on the table, stop the Whatsapp recording, and furtively switch to another app. Their version of tefilla ishit was watching Dora the Explorer on YouTube for as long as it took until one of us came over and confiscated the device.

I explained to the kids that the difference between the way Marilla and Anne prayed is the difference between Keva and Kavanah, to invoke two terms used (if not juxtaposed) by the ancient rabbis. Keva refers to fixed prayer – the liturgy enshrined in the prayer book. Kavanah refers to the spontaneous prayers of the heart. Marilla expects Anne’s prayer to be Keva, and so in the very next chapter, she hands Anne a card with the Lord’s Prayer printed on it and instructs Anne to sit down in the corner of the kitchen and learn it by heart. But Anne instead prays out of Kavanah – her eyes drift to a picture on the wall entitled “Christ Blessing Little Children,” and she imagines that she is the little girl in the blue dress in the corner, fervently praying that the Lord will notice her. At night, when I sing Shema with the kids in bed, our prayer is Keva—it is the fixed text of the central prayer of Jewish worship recited twice daily. But when I’m about to leave the room and Shalvi adds, “And we also daven for the Corona to end so we can go back to the gymboree,” that’s Kavanah.

I don’t need to teach the kids to pray out of Kavanah – at least I don’t think they do. I imagine, like Anne, that they have a natural spiritual instinct, and my job is just to nourish and cultivate it. I don’t really need to teach them to daven out of Keva either, since they do that in school every day. The best we can do as parents is to model both kinds of prayer ourselves, and for this I have Daniel to thank. For the past few months, Matan has begun attending synagogue with Daniel on weekday mornings. He claims he wants to daven early so that when he gets to school, he can read his book during the time allocated for prayer, but I know it’s more than that. By observing and following Daniel, Matan is learning how to pray not like a fourth grader but like an adult. One morning this week, when Daniel had a bad cold and felt too sick to go to shul, the two of them davened on our porch, side by side, bowing and swaying in synchrony. Daniel told Matan to lead the tefillot, reminding him which lines to read aloud and which to mutter silently. I was inside packing the lunch boxes, but I could hear Matan’s every word. This child of mine, at least, is not a heathen.

The Anesthetized Mishkan (Bamidbar)

Parashat Bamidbar describes the various responsibilities incumbent upon each of the three branches of the Levite clan, who transported the Tabernacle every time the Israelites broke camp and traveled. The sons of Gershon carried the curtains, the sons of Merari carried the frame, and the sons of Kehat – who are the subject of the fourth chapter of the book of Numbers – carried the sacred objects inside the Tabernacle, including the bowls, ladles, jars, and libation jugs. The parashah ends on an ominous note – in the very last verse, we are told that if any of the sons of Kehat were to witness the dismantling of the Sanctuary or look upon the sacred objects, they would die (4:20). Why may the sons of Kehat carry these objects but not view them? What is the problem with looking at these objects, and why does the Torah warn so sternly against it? The various metaphors used throughout the Talmud to describe the Mishkan offer insight into a possible reason behind this injunction – one that has much to teach us about the way we bear the weight of the sacred in our lives.

Our parashah teaches that while the sons of Kehat transported the sacred objects, they could only do so once those objects were properly covered by Aaron and his sons, the priests. Each time the Israelites prepared to travel, the priests would enter the Tabernacle and spread a blue cloth over the Menorah, fire pans, oil vessels, altar, and service vessels, before placing them in a covering of dolphin skins. “Only then shall the Kehatites come in and lift them, so that they do not come in contact with the sacred objects and die” (4:15). There was no problem with looking at these vessels while the Israelites were encamped and the Mishkan was operational. But once the vessels were no longer used for their sacred function and became objects to be transported, they had to be covered and concealed.

The talmudic discussion of the transport of the Mishkan appears in tractate Shabbat, since the laws governing the labors prohibited on Shabbat are derived from labors related to the Mishkan. It is in this context that Rabbi Yishmael comments that the Mishkan, which was covered in curtains that overhung its frame, resembled “a woman walking in the marketplace with her skirts trailing after her” (Shabbat 98b). The Mishkan was like a modest woman draped in layers of clothing. To transport the Mishkan or its vessels without their coverings, then, would be a violation akin to exposing a woman’s body in public.

And indeed, as the Talmud in tractate Yoma (54b) relates, this is exactly what the Romans did when they desecrated the Temple. The Talmud teaches that when the gentiles entered the sanctuary to destroy the Temple, they saw the golden cherubs—the Keruvim—which sat atop the Ark of the Covenant and hauled them out to the marketplace. The Talmud describes that “they immediately debased them, as it is stated, ‘All who honored her debased her because they have seen her nakedness’” (Lamentations 1:8). The Romans brought the naked, uncovered cherubs into the marketplace, where they were no longer part of the divinely-ordained architecture of the Mishkan and became objectified commodities. Removed from the sacred enclosure of the Tabernacle, the naked cherubs became objects of mockery and scorn.

And so it seems that the purpose of covering these vessels was to ensure that they, like the cherubs, were not desacralized. We might think of the transported Mishkan like a body on the operating table. When not being operated upon, that body is a living, breathing human being pulsing with life, teeming with ideas and energy and emotion. But when the patient has been anesthetized and the body lies inert, the surgeon is presumably focused not on the whole person, but on where to make an incision, and how deep to cut. By covering the body parts that are not being operated on, it is easier for the surgeon to detach the body part from the person to whom that body belongs, and thereby focus on the surgery. Seeing an abdomen as a small square of flesh is much less distracting than seeing the abdomen in the context of the larger body. By dehumanizing in order to operate, the surgeon ironically maintains the sanctity of the human body in its entirety.

So too, by covering the Mishkan when its parts are dismantled, we preserve the sanctity of the whole. When the Israelites were encamped and the Mishkan was up and running, it was pulsing with the sacred rhythm of the sacrificial rites, and no one would think to treat it with disrespect. But once the Mishkan was transported, it was easy to view it merely as an object to be lifted and lugged. There was a danger that its vessels would be regarded as heavy loads, not holy lamps and lavers. It was therefore essential that those who dismantle the Mishkan know how treat it with proper respect, laying covers on all the sacred vessels so that not everyone could gaze upon them. The Mishkan must never be reduced to a burden, just like a patient ought never be reduced to a body.

T.S. Eliot was surely not describing the Mishkan in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and yet his imagery is all too apt:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…

When it was time to go—when the Israelites were on the move, guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire spread out against the evening sky—the Mishkan vessels became inert objects, like a patient etherized on the table. Anyone who objectified or commodified these vessels was violating the sacred, an act deserving of death. As our parashah reminds us, there is a time for revelation and a time for concealment. May we learn to discern when to reveal and when to conceal as we journey through life and shoulder our burdens.

The Wheel of Fortune (Behar)

Parashat Behar begins by juxtaposing the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years with the laws governing the way we treat the poor in our society. First the Torah teaches that every seven years, during the Shemitah year, the land must be allowed to lie fallow as a “Sabbath to the Lord” (25:4). Next we are told that every fifty years, during the Jubilee, all land must be returned to its original owners. The parashah then moves on to teach that if a “kinsman” or “brother” is in dire financial straits, we are obligated to let that individual live by our side without charging interest or taking advantage of that person’s penury. Taken together, these verses have much to teach us about how the cyclical nature of life impacts the way we relate to those less fortunate.

Why do the laws governing the treatment of the poor follow on the heels of the laws governing the cycle of the years? Perhaps an answer can be found in the Torah’s justification for the Jubilee. God tells Moses that the land may not be sold in perpetuity “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (25:23). That is, all land belongs ultimately to God, and we are merely temporary custodians. But what is true of land is true of all other property as well. Nothing that is ours is guaranteed to be ours in perpetuity. When we find ourselves comfortable and well-off, we need to remember that no one stays in the same place forever. The only constant in life is change, and we who are blessed with success and good fortune may find, in time, that the tables are turned. We are commanded to reach out to help our fellow individuals in need because, as the cycle of the sabbatical and Jubilee years reminds us, what goes around comes around. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah uses the term “aḣicha”—your brother—to refer to individuals down on their luck and in need of assistance. They are related to us because we are closer than we might like to think – as the wheel of fortune turns, they could just as easily be in our situation, and we in theirs.

The Talmud captures this notion of the mutability of fortune in a series of stories about charity that appear in the opening chapter of tractate Bava Batra (11a). In one such tale we are introduced to Binyamin the righteous, as he is known, who was responsible for dispensing charity funds to the needy. Once, during a time of drought and privation, a woman came before him and asked him to support her. He told her that there was no money left in the charity fund, but she would not relent. She said to him, “My master, if you do not support me, a woman and her seven sons will die.” Binyamin the righteous—true to his name—arose and supported her from his own private funds. With time, the Talmud goes on to relate, Binyamin the righteous fell gravely ill. Just when he was on the verge of death, the ministering angels pleaded with God to sustain him by the merit of his generosity to the woman and her seven sons, and indeed, he was rewarded with an extra twenty-two years. In this story, he who was in a position to act graciously to others later found himself in dire need. By the merit of his munificence, his own life was sustained.

Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 29 of a man “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” who later declares that he would “scorn to change my state with kings.” In a world governed by a God who “lifts the needy from the ash heap” and “seats them with princes” (Psalms 113:7-8), we who have been brought low can just as easily be lifted up, and vice versa. It is a humbling lesson, as it reminds us that we ought not to relate to those less fortunate with pity but with empathy.

We all know people who seem worthy of our pity – a kid who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the class, a single mother struggling to raise a difficult child, a widow pained by loneliness. The challenge is to relate to these people with the cognizance that all of us, at some point in life, may find ourselves in a similar situation. We ought not to feel sorry for those who are struggling and suffering, but rather to remind ourselves of what it felt like when we were in their position. We must be kind to the stranger because, as the Torah reminds us, we were strangers ourselves.

The juxtaposition of the laws of the Shemitah cycle and the laws about the impoverished kinsman remind us that at some point or another, we will all need someone else to reach out a kind hand and help us up – whether financially, emotionally, or socially. For as long as our field is flourishing, may we learn, in this spirit, to share our fruit and our fortune.

Emor: Beyond Blemish

This week’s parasha begins with God’s instructions to Moshe concerning laws that apply to the priests alone. Unlike ordinary Israelites, the priests must hold themselves to higher standards. They may not come into contact with the dead, except for a short list of very close family members. They may not shave their heads smooth, make gashes to deform their flesh, or marry a woman who has engaged in harlotry. To some extent these injunctions make sense: The priest must remain pure to serve God, which demands a high level of propriety and decorum. Somewhat more disturbing to our modern sensibilities is the Torah’s stipulation, just a few verses later, that no one who has any sort of physical blemish may serve in the Tabernacle: “No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long…or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf…” (Leviticus 22:19-20). How did later generations make sense of the Torah’s stipulation that physical imperfections—most of which seem to be congenital, and hence no fault of the individual—render a priest unfit to serve? And what are we to make of this injunction in our modern age, when we strive to regard all people equally regardless of handicaps or disabilities?

The classical rabbinic commentators justify the prohibition on blemished priests serving in the Temple on the grounds that we are supposed to offer our best to God. Just as we would not choose a blemished animal to offer as a sacrifice, so too do we not choose a priest with a physical defect to serve in the Temple. As Chizkuni comments (Leviticus 21:18), “Seeing that they [the priests] represent the whole Jewish community, it would not seem appropriate that the community dispatch blemished people as their representatives at the court of the King of Kings.” The Tabernacle was like a palace for God, and just as a royal palace must be splendid and ornate to befit the king, so too must the Tabernacle befit the King of Kings. Rashi, in commenting on this verse, cites the prophet Malachi, who lived in the land of Israel during the Second Temple period. Malachi critiques the neglectful and corrupt priests of his day, arguing that God does not desire their worship or their sacrifices: “When you offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame or the sick, is it not evil? Offer it now unto your ruler – will he be pleased with you? Will he show you favor?” (1:8).

Presumably the implication of Malachi’s exhortations is that God does not desire the blind, the lame, or the sick, and will be displeased to receive them in His Temple. But the contemporary Israeli rabbi and scholar Binyamin Lau (in his book Etnachta, published by Yediot in 2009 and still untranslated) encourages us to read Malachi’s questions not as rhetorical, but as a challenge to rethink the way we relate to those with physical imperfections in our own day. Rabbi Lau cites the Talmud in Megillah (24b), which discusses the law that a priest with blemishes on his hands may not lift his arms to bless the congregation in the priestly benediction. The concern, as Rashi explains, is that priests with deformed hands would attract the attention of the congregation, which would violate the prohibition against looking at the priests at a time when God’s presence rests on them. Anyone who looks different attracts attention, which serves to distract the members of the congregation during a moment of tremendous gravity.

The Talmud goes on to cite various counterexamples of priests who were blemished but who nonetheless participated in the priestly benediction, including a priest who was blind in one eye, and a priest whose eyes and nose were always runny. In each case, the sages explain that these particular priests were “familiar figures in their towns,” and thus people were used to their defects and did not look at them askance. They looked different, but their differences were not distracting, and so it was not a problem for them to stand before the congregation and recite the priestly benediction.

As Lau explains, our challenge is to train ourselves to relate to all people with deformities and disabilities as “familiar figures” in our communities. That is, we need to take the time to get to know those who look different so that we are able to see beyond the differences. At first it can be offputting to see someone who doesn’t look or act like everyone else. But once we get to know those people, we see them beyond their disabilities and recognize their full humanity. They become familiar figures in our community – not “the blind man,” but “Danny,” or whoever he may be. When these individuals then stand before us in leadership roles, we do not look at them askance, because we see them as unique human beings whose disabilities are simply a part of who they are.

According to this understanding, the rabbis in the Talmud were taking an important first step. Even though the Torah stipulates that blemished priests could not serve in the Temple, the rabbis argued that they could serve priestly functions in our communities assuming they were well-known, familiar figures – that is, assuming the people of their communities had taken the time to get to know them beyond their superficial differences. Our challenge today is to take the rabbis one step further. Our functionaries need not be physically perfect. Indeed, the more of our prominent leaders who look different, the more desensitized we will become to those differences, and the more we will realize that all of us are different in one way or another. It is, in fact, our differences that humanize us, rendering us unique and distinct. Once we have internalized this lesson, we will be able to give a very different answer to Malachi’s questions. Will God be pleased with us? Will God show us favor? If we can look beyond our differences, then surely God can as well.

Anne of Green Gables at Top Ten

For several weeks now the twins have been pleading with me to take them to Top Ten, an accessories store in the mall that they’ve heard about from all their friends. Every few days they come home with reports of who is wearing what – Maya has a new headband, Noga has a new bracelet. I listen patiently, and then I remind them, each time, that I care much more about how their friends are acting than what they are wearing. In Hebrew the word “midah” means both size and attribute – it is used to refer to clothing sizes, but also to a person’s moral characteristics. I am far more interested in conduct than in clothing, but I have learned not to protest too much. Girls will be girls; they like pretty things.

The twins are forever trying to encourage me to dress better and to pay more attention to my appearance. Back when they were in Gan and I used to pick them up every afternoon, they often commented on what I was wearing. “Ima, you’re wearing earrings today, you look so beautiful,” Liav would tell me, reaching out to put her small finger through the metal hoops I once bought at the bus station mall when my bus was late. “Why are you so fancy today?” I gave the same answer every time they complimented me: “I was teaching Torah today, so I wanted to look nice. I wanted to bring honor to the Torah.” After a while the girls understood that if I was wearing earrings, it meant I had taught Torah that day; occasionally, instead of remarking on my earrings, Liav asked me what I had taught, and I decided that wearing earrings was a small price to pay if it meant we would speak about Torah.

These days, though nothing I wear is nice enough. A few weeks ago I was in the park with all the kids on Shabbat afternoon when I spotted one of Tagel’s friends and encouraged her to go over and say hi. Tagel looked hesitant. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. “Shira’s whole family is here,” Tagel told me. “I really don’t want her mother to see you. She’s so fancy, Ima, and you’re dressed so plain.” I couldn’t believe it. Was I embarrassing my daughter with my black skirt and blouse? Had it really come to that?

My girls have learned that it’s useless to persuade me to take interest in fashion, but recently they tried another tactic. I’m reading them Anne of Green Gables, a book that requires a bit of patience on their part because Anne—and author L.M. Montgomery—are enamored of all things beautiful. The novel is filled with descriptive passages about big, rambling orchards, brooks coursing with dark secrets of pool and cascade, wild plum trees in filmy bloom. Anne waxes poetic about the Snow Queen, as she calls the cherry tree outside her window at Green Gables, and she delights in the Lake of Shining Waters, her term for the pond outside her best friend’s house, its water a glory of many-shifting hues. But Anne is not just taken by natural beauty; she also longs to look beautiful herself, as the girls keep pointing out to me.

A few days ago I discovered Tagel on the ipad—or perhaps I should say that I caught her there, since she did not have permission to be on a screen. I was about to reproach her when I noticed that she was scrolling through images of Anne from the various screen adaptations. “Ima, do you think she looks more beautiful here or here?” she asked me repeatedly, calling up different pairs of images until I started to feel like I was taking a vision test and trying to decide, each time, between the two options.

And yet as Tagel reminded me, Anne herself might have done the same. “I love pretty things,” Anne tells Marilla, “I hate to look in the glass and see something that isn’t pretty.” She stops on her walk to church to garland her hat with a wreath of wild roses that she picks by the roadside, to the horror of no-nonsense Marilla, who disapproves of her frivolity. She believes that life is not worth living without a dress with puffed sleeves, which were all the rage among the other girls her age, but Marilla will not abide the wasted fabric. And she dreams that one day her red hair—her lifelong sorrow—will darken to a handsome auburn; when she can’t wait any longer, she tries to dye it herself, with catastrophic results.

My girls tell me that it’s not bad to like pretty things. “Anne would have loved to go to Top Ten,” Tagel tells me. She knows that if she can make a literary allusion, then I am far more likely to concede. “Maybe they’ll have an amethyst brooch,” she ventures with a half smile. Shalvi, as usual, wants to tag along. “Ima, do you think they will have things in my age?” She is confused about “size” and “age,” and gives us trouble about wearing any items of clothing that don’t have a 5 on the tag. “But Ima, it says 6, it’s going to be too big. It’s not for my age yet,” she’ll protest when I hand her a skirt to put on in the morning. It seems she, too, could use a lesson in Middot.

So I do the only thing I can do, and I try to make our trip to Top Ten a lesson in Middot. I tell the girls they can each pick one item in the store, subject to my approval, and then we’ll save it to wear on Shabbat. “Why can’t I wear my headband to school tomorrow?” Liav wants to know, and I remind her of Shammai, who would save everything special he found during the week to enjoy on Shabbat. When the three girls have finally settled on their choices and I’m ready to pay, the vendor notifies me that it’s “buy three, get one free,” and I must choose something else. Alas. I tell the girls they should think of a birthday present for one of their friends, because it’s always nice, when buying something for ourselves, to buy something for someone else too. “I know,” says Liav, “Let’s buy something for Ima!” The girls rummage around excitedly, settling on a sparkly purple nail polish. “We’ll save it for Friday, so we can polish your nails in honor of Shabbat,” Liav assures me, and Tagel, who notices my still-furrowed brow, knows just what to say. “It’s purple,” she tells me, “like the amethyst brooch.”

Lying with My Daughter

We somehow started a terrible habit of staying with our children until they fall asleep. Shalvi and Yitzvi, who share a room, will not lie down calmly unless there is a parent in the room, and Daniel and I have wasted countless hours at their bedside. A few months ago, I resolved to wean them off it, staying for less and less time each night. But then I had an idea: Torah reading has been putting people to sleep in synagogue for ages; why shouldn’t it work for my children too? Now I’m back in their rooms at night again, not because they need me, but because chanting from the Torah is the ideal activity for my nighttime vigils.

I first learned how to chant from the Torah when I was ten years old, and I have been leyning ever since. On weeks when I am preparing to chant the Torah portion—these days, it’s pretty much every week—I will usually spend several hours practicing, chanting the verses again and again and dividing them into increasingly larger chunks which I then go back and rehearse until I know it so well that I catch myself humming them while chopping vegetables or folding laundry. The Torah I chant from each week becomes the soundtrack for my life, and even when I’m not practicing, the words of the weekly portion will creep into my head and weave their way into my speech. Yesterday Liav asked if she could draw a picture on Shalvi’s hand, and I responded by chanting to her the verse from this week’s parsha about tattoos, which I had just reviewed.

I want Torah to become the soundtrack for my children’s lives too, but at this point, none of them is willing to sit in synagogue and follow along as I chant each week. At night, though, when they can’t fall asleep and beg me to stay with them, I have a captive audience. The full Torah portion is chanted in synagogue every Shabbat morning, and if not for the nightly ritual with my kids, I probably wouldn’t start learning until mid-week. But on Saturday night, when I’m stuck at their bedside, I figure it can’t hurt to get an early start. I begin chanting the first few verses, and then going over them again, and again, until sometimes the kids chime in because they’ve begun learning it by heart as well. Often I’ll shush them, because I do want them to fall asleep; but if it’s not too late, I let them ask questions.

“What is the land they keep talking about again and again,” Shalvi asked me last night when I was practicing Kedoshim, about all the abhorrent practices that would fill the land with depravity. “Is it Israel?” I told her she was right. And when I then went on to read about the sinner who would have to bring atonement “before God,” Shalvi was puzzled. “What do you mean, before God? Nothing comes before God. God is first.” I told her she was right, God is first, but “before” can also mean “in front of,” and when people come to God’s holy Temple, it is as if they are coming “before God.” And then I told her that I would keep chanting, but she should save all her questions for the morning, because it was time to go to sleep.

In truth, though, the real reason I didn’t want her to ask any questions was because the part of the Torah that I was chanting wasn’t really appropriate for her. I was reading about all the forbidden sexual liaisons – a man may not sleep with a married woman, or with his father’s wife, or with his daughter-in-law… I didn’t mind if she heard me read these verses; there is no part of the Torah I wouldn’t want my children to hear. But to hear and to comprehend are two very different things.

The rabbis of the Talmud understood that not every verse in the Torah is appropriate for explaining in a public forum. In the early centuries of the common era, it became customary when chanting from the Torah for a professional “translator” to explain the text in Aramaic, the lingua franca, so that the congregation would understand. The Targum was recited alternately with the Torah portion, verse by verse. But the rabbis caution that not every verse should be interpreted; sometimes the translator ought to keep silent. For instance, the account in the book of Genesis of how Reuven slept with his father’s concubine Bilha is chanted without Targum (Megilla 25b). Reuven’s sin need not be amplified and explained for the entire congregation; some affairs are better left unexplained.

There are many verses from the Torah that I heard chanted as a child long before I had any inkling of what they meant; they became part of the fabric of my being even before my conscious mind had processed them. This is still true for me – not just with Torah, but also with poetry. Often I will read a poem several times without any real idea of what it is about; all I know is that it is beautiful, and that this beauty is related to a commingling of sound and sense that enchants but still eludes me. I know that I will keep reading the poem again and again until I have begun to tease out meaning. In the case of Torah, it will be a lifelong engagement. The Torah is described as “morasha kehilat Yaakov,” the inheritance of the people of Israel, but the rabbis say to read the word “morasha” as “me’orasa,” meaning an engaged bride. I want my kids to remain engaged with Torah their whole lives as I am, courting her, uncovering her layers of meaning, getting to know her ever more intimately.

But not all at once, and not all right now. My five-year-old does not need to know about the forbidden relationships at the end of Kedoshim; let her think, for the time being, that “lie with” is what I am doing at that very moment, lying down next to her in bed with the verses of Torah aglow on my cell phone screen. Let her fall asleep wondering why all these people are not supposed to lie with one another; maybe she will have wild dreams. Sometimes when I read a particularly outlandish rabbinic midrash, in which the rabbis come up with a reading of the Torah that is at once highly literal and wildly creative, I find myself imagining that long, long ago, a rabbinic sage fell asleep contemplating a biblical verse he didn’t fully understand, and then he had a wild dream about it that he taught to his students in the beit midrash the next morning. Shalvi is a vivid dreamer, and as I lie with her chanting aloud from the Torah as she sinks into sleep, I’m excited to hear what questions she wakes up with in the morning.

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: Restricted Access

The first parsha we read this week, Aharei Mot, takes its name from a reference to the death of the sons of Aaron, who brought a “strange fire” into the Holy of Holies. The parsha begins with the laws governing the high priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur, which are followed, one chapter later, by a list of illicit sexual relations. What is the connection between the death of Aaron’s sons, the Yom Kippur rites, and the prohibition on uncovering the nakedness of various individuals? And how can the juxtaposition of laws about sacred space and sexuality speak to the sanctification of intimacy in our own lives?

We might start by looking to the Yom Kippur liturgy, where the two parts of our parsha are also juxtaposed. The first part, about the death of Aaron’s sons and the priestly rituals of Yom Kippur, are chanted as the Torah reading on the morning of Yom Kippur; the second part of the parsha, about forbidden sexual relations, is the afternoon reading, as prescribed in the Talmud (Megillah 31a). Rashi comments that the afternoon reading was chosen so as to warn people not to sleep with those who are forbidden to them, because sexual sin is so prevalent. This does not explain why this reading was chosen for Yom Kippur in particular, and here Tosafot step in, explaining that women dress up on Yom Kippur and so it is especially important to warn men not to succumb to their wiles. According to this understanding, the afternoon reading was not chosen simply because it follows the morning reading in the Torah, but because it serves as a much-needed warning on this particular day. Yet shouldn’t this kind of sin be furthest from our mind on Yom Kippur, a day on which all sexual intercourse is forbidden? A close reading of our parsha suggests otherwise.

The beginning of the parsha draws a connection between the death of Aaron’s sons and the prohibition on entering the Holy of Holies “at all times” (16:2). Since God appears in a cloud in the Holy of Holies, Aaron must enter only when specifically authorized to do so, which, as we learn from the end of the chapter, was “in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month” (16:29), namely Yom Kippur. When entering the Holy of Holies, Aaron had to first bathe and dress in specific sacred vestments, bearing specific sacrificial offerings to atone for himself, his household, and the whole congregation of Israel. These detailed instructions, following immediately after the reference to the death of Aaron’s sons, suggest that Nadav and Avihu failed to observe the highly specific regulations governing entry into the Holy of Holies, whether by entering at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes, or bearing the wrong sacrifices.

The Talmud adds that the entry into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur was a moment of such trepidation that the High Priest would make sure to offer only a short prayer (Yoma 52b), lest the people waiting outside grow frightened that something terrible had befallen him inside the sacred precinct. Since only the High Priest could enter, the maintenance of the Holy of Holies posed a particular challenge; how could anyone get inside to clean it out? The Mishnah (Middot 4:5) relates that there were trapdoors in an upper chamber opening into the Holy of Holies by which workmen were let down in baskets so that they would not “feast their eyes on the Holy of Holies.” This most sacred chamber of the Temple was a place of highly restricted access, with very specific rules governing who might enter and when.

It is against this backdrop that we can read the laws of forbidden sexual relations in our parsha, which are also about restricted access. Just as it was forbidden for the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies “at all times,” it is also forbidden—by the laws of Niddah—for a man to sleep with a woman “at all times.” And just as not anyone could enter the Holy of Holies, so too not anyone is permitted sexually to everyone else. A man may not sleep with his mother, or his father’s wife, or his son’s daughter, etc. The Torah uses the phrase “uncovering the nakedness” to describe these prohibitions, reminiscent of the prohibition on the workers “feasting their eyes” on the sacred shrine. Not everything is meant to be flaunted and out in the open; the most sacred spaces, like the most sacred connections, are for certain individuals only. Perhaps this is why the Talmud, in describing the plundering of the Temple by the Romans (Gittin 56b), relates that Titus entered the sacred shrine and committed an act of rape – suggesting that violating the Temple, for the rabbis, was as much an abomination as violating a woman.

Of course, the gendered language of these texts may seem foreign if not outright offensive to our modern sensibilities. The priest is always male, and the Torah’s laws about uncovering nakedness are addressed to men alone. But to dismiss these texts on account of their sexist rhetoric is to ignore their message for our own time, when we aspire to more egalitarian relationships. Yom Kippur, a day of supreme intimacy between human beings and God, is an occasion to focus on other intimate connections as well. As Bonna Devora Haberman z”l has eloquently argued, entry into the Holy of Holies can be a model for sexual intimacy, which should not take place at any time, with any person. The rabbinic term for marriage—the exclusive partnership between two individuals—is “Kiddushin,” meaning sanctity. The Yom Kippur rites, with their emphasis on exclusivity and restricted access to sacred space, precede the laws of forbidden sexual relations to remind us we can elevate our most intimate relationships to the level of the sacred.

Living in the World of Cordelia

I am rereading Anne of Green Gables for the first time in over two decades, not with the kids, but in advance of teaching the novel to Daniel’s children’s literature class next week. I would like to read it with the kids as well, but I’m not sure how they’ll respond to the extensive descriptive passages; I worry that they’ll grow impatient with the blushing cherry blossoms and the rustling poplar leaves and the mellow sunset light. I’d rather not introduce them to Anne than run the risk that they might find her tedious. So I’m waiting until they are a bit older, a bit more romantic, a bit more (dare I say) literary — in the hope that they will fall in love with Anne as I am, all over again.

Unlike many of the other children’s books I’ve reread in recent years, in which I am struck by how much I’d forgotten, I’ve remembered everything about Anne. I can finish her sentences even now, when I’m three times her age. When I scan the titles of the chapters, I know exactly what is going to happen in each – here she will arrive, an orphan, at Green Gables, driven from train station in a buggy by Matthew Cuthbert, who was expecting a boy to help him and Marilla on the farm. Here the stern but warm-hearted Marilla will decide that even though Anne is not a boy, they will keep her nonetheless. Here Anne will meet her bosom friend, Diana Barry, and here her temper will get the better of her and she’ll break the slate over the head of Gilbert Blythe, her rival for the next decade, until ultimately she will come to reciprocate his affection. There is no surprise in re-discovering Anne; the surprise of this rereading is in re-discovering myself.

Like Anne, I am painfully aware of my faults and my foibles. I know which of my traits most aggravate those around me, and now that I’m closer to Marilla’s age than to Anne’s, I know how hard it is to change myself. But in re-reading the Anne books, I am struck by how much I modeled myself after Anne. Did I identify as much with Anne as a child as I do now? Or did I read the book as a child and then re-invent myself in Anne’s image, such that she is in no small part responsible for the person I became?

Anne’s most distinguishing characteristic—aside from her thick red hair—is her vivid imagination. Again and again she will lose herself in the world of her imaginings. She finds it difficult to concentrate on completing household chores, because she gets distracted by her own wandering thoughts. And so when Marilla tells her to put the pudding sauce on a high shelf and cover it, she takes the bowl in her hands and imagines that she is a nun taking the veil “to bury a broken heart in cloistered seclusion,” and forgets to cover it; the next day she discovers that a mouse has drowned in the sauce, as she admits to Marilla only as the pudding is being brought to the table to serve to Marilla’s illustrious dinner guests. I’ve never found a mouse in my pudding, but I’ve forgotten to cover the challah dough while letting it rise, and I’ve left the laundry out on the porch when it starts to rain, and I’ve swept only half the kitchen floor because even though I told myself I’d get back to it in just a moment, I got lost in a book instead.

In the kitchen I’m at my worst. Shortly after Anne arrives at Green Gables, Marilla tells Anne that she’d like to teach her to cook, but she’s so “featherbrained” that she’s waiting to see if Anne first learns to be a bit more focused. A few chapters later, Anne tells Diana that when she tries to bake a cake, she gets lost in a daydream in which Diana is deathly ill with smallpox and Anne nurses her back to health, only to lose her own life in so doing. She is so caught up in her reverie that her tears fall into the cake while she mixes it, and she forgets to add any flour. The only time Anne meets with any culinary success, perhaps, is when she writes a romantic story and gives a copy to Diana, who learns of a short story competition sponsored by the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company and adds a product-placement scene to Anne’s story in which the heroine bakes a cake with baking powder; Anne wins the contest, to her utter humiliation. Like Anne, I am much better at writing about my failures in the kitchen than at getting my cakes to rise.

My uncanny ability to get distracted while doing anything other than reading or studying or writing is aggravating to those around me, but it is not a moral flaw. Even Marilla realizes that Anne means well when she starches Matthew’s handkerchiefs while trying to think up a name for a new island in the brook, or leaves the pie to burn in the oven while imagining herself an enchanted princess shut up in a lonely tower. Daniel will resignedly throw the wet laundry in the dryer or sweep up the other half of the kitchen floor, muttering under his breath in exasperation. And Tagel has learned, when she sees me staring at the back of the pasta bag for minutes on end, to call out, “Eleven minutes, Ima, turn on the timer.” But my family is less tolerant when, like Anne, I begin to mistake imagination for reality, becoming so swept up by what might have happened that I forget what actually did.

When Marilla first meets Anne and asks her name, Anne responds that she wishes to be called Cordelia. Marilla is puzzled; is Cordelia her name? Well, no, Anne reluctantly admits, it’s not exactly her name, but it’s so much more elegant than Anne Shirley. Anne lives in a world in which she might as well be called Cordelia, because that is how she fancies herself. The world she imagines it is so vivid and bright that it nearly eclipses the world as it is. I too often find myself living in the world of Cordelia rather than the world of Anne. The moment events are unfolding around me, I am already imagining how I will write about them, and which details I will tweak so as to make for a better story: “We caught the very last bus before Shabbat, which pulled up while we were still on the other side of the street – so I dropped one of our vegetable bags and picked up Shalvi and ran breathlessly, the back doors closing on my skirt as we entered.” Daniel will look at me quizzically. “The last bus? It’s still two hours before candlelighting.” And I’ll tell him I know, it wasn’t really the last bus, but in that moment I was so sure we wouldn’t make it that it felt like our last hope of getting home in time. It was the last bus for Cordelia, albeit not for Anne.

On account of her vivid imagination, Anne convinces herself that the spruce forest over the brook is a haunted wood, and that she is a lily maid floating down a river in a barge to meet her tragic death. She confesses with full conviction that she accidentally dropped Marilla’s heirloom amethyst brooch into a pond even though she did not touch it; since Marilla is unsatisfied with the truth, Anne invents a more compelling narrative instead in the hope that Marilla will let her go to Sunday school picnic. Her imagination is colored by her hopes and dreams, whereas mine is more often overshadowed by my fears – I tell Daniel that the school won’t let Matan move up to fifth grade if he doesn’t start doing his math homework, even though his teacher has said no such thing. I tell myself that I won’t be able to live with myself if I don’t run three times a week, even though I’ve survived for longer than that without running. I am not speaking the truth, but I’m also not willfully lying. It is just that what-might-have-been and what-might-be loom so much larger, in my imagination, than what-is.

My family has little patience for my might-have-beens. When I exaggerate, or rework my accounts, they often call me on it. At night sometimes I read the kids the stories I write about them, and they shout out corrections left and right; I don’t dare admit that I care more about a good story than a true one. I know this is a character flaw, and most of me wishes I could change. But a small part of me stubbornly holds on, convinced that surrendering imagination for reality would be a betrayal of Anne.

I have not yet re-read the later books in the series, where Anne becomes a teacher, and then gets married, and then becomes a mother of six, including twin girls. Anne’s imagination and spunk are mellowed by the responsibilities of adulthood, and when I read those books as I child, I thought that growing up must be terribly boring. I wonder whether I ought to read through the series again as an investment in my own moral education, because even the most richly imagined and imaginative heroine I have ever encountered in fiction eventually roots herself squarely in reality. It’s not the future the young Anne would have imagined for herself, and there is a reason the first book is so much more popular than any of the seven that follow. As readers, we prefer to dwell in possibility – which is perhaps why Anne of Green Gables remains, for so many of us, such a kindred spirit.

Tazria: When We Talk About Birth, We Need to Talk About Death

The Torah’s discussion of purity and impurity in parshiot Tazria and Metzora begins, somewhat surprisingly, with the laws governing a woman who has just given birth. Unlike some of the other conditions discussed in these parshiot—such as irregular emissions from the genitals, or the scaly skin disease commonly translated as leprosy—childbirth is a natural process and generally a welcome one. And yet the Torah stipulates that after giving birth, a woman becomes impure. Even following her period of impurity, she must wait several weeks before coming into contact with sacred items or entering the Temple precincts. In the biblical and rabbinic worlds, impurity was associated with death – the highest form of impurity is a dead body. The laws governing purification following childbirth in our parsha remind us that birth and death are intimately connected, and that even today, childbirth is as much about confronting our own mortality as it is about life.

The Talmudic discussion of childbirth reflects an awareness of the dangers inherent in giving birth and the precariousness of new life. The rabbis teach that it is permissible to desecrate Shabbat so as to assist a woman in labor – if the laboring woman demands light, for instance, it is permitted to turn on a light for her on Shabbat even if she is blind and merely wants the light for the sake of those in the room with her (Shabbat 128b). The rabbis were aware that a woman giving birth is in touch with something very primal and elemental – they note that there are three sounds that resonate from one end of the earth to the other, one of which is the howl of a woman in labor (Yoma 20a). (One of the others is the sound of the soul leaving the body, which further serves to underscore the connection between birth and death.) The rabbis also note that a woman must bring a sin offering after giving birth because every woman, in the throes of labor, vows never to have relations with her husband again; since she will inevitably renege on this pledge, she must bring a sacrifice for vowing in vain (Niddah 31b). Childbirth was not just a time of danger and distress for the mother, but for the baby as well – the rabbis state that if a baby dies within thirty days of birth, it is not mourned, because it is considered a “nefel,” a stillbirth (Shabbat 135b). Although several modern halakhic decisors rule otherwise, in Talmudic times, it was only after thirty days had elapsed that a baby was considered fully viable (Niddah 44b).

Of course infant mortality rates are significantly lower in an age of medicalized births and increasingly sophisticated interventions. Yet even in modern times, a woman in labor pushes her body to extreme physical limits, and childbirth remains haunted by the specter of death. Women who are fortunate to have given birth to healthy babies are nonetheless likely to have encountered medical scares along the way. In so many births there is that moment of panic when the umbilical cord wraps around the baby’s neck, the fetal heartbeat plummets, the labor stops progressing. “When we talk about birth, we need to talk about death,” writes Dr. Chavi Eve Karkowsky, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, in her recent book High Risk: A Doctor’s Notes on Pregnancy, Birth and the Unexpected. She describes the extent to which modern obstetric protocols are guided by an attempt to avoid stillbirth—this is the reason, for instance, that a woman who has passed her due date must receive regular fetal heartrate monitoring, and it is the reason that labor is often induced after 41 to 42 weeks of pregnancy. As Karkowsky and her colleagues are all too aware, childbirth remains a time of tremendous vulnerability for infant and mother alike.

“There are three sins for which women die in childbirth,” the Mishnah states in a tractate Shabbat, and then proceeds to enumerate them: “Because they are not careful about the laws of menstrual purity, the laws of separating a portion of challah for the priests, and the lighting of Shabbat candles” (M. Shabbat 2:6). Each of these commandments is specifically associated with women – this is evident from a rabbinic midrash about Hannah, who in pleading with God for a child, insists that she deserves to become pregnant because she has been careful about these three mitzvot (Brachot 31b). The rabbis ask why it is specifically in childbirth when women are punished for these lapses, and respond that “when an ox falls, sharpen the knife” (Shabbat 32a). It is easiest to slaughter an ox that has already been weakened by a fall, and likewise, whatever punishment a person deserves is more likely to befall her when she is already vulnerable. A woman is most vulnerable while giving birth; a man, the Talmud goes on to relate, is most vulnerable while crossing a bridge. “Only a bridge and nothing else?” the rabbis ask, and then respond, “Anything that is like a bridge.”

Childbirth is like a bridge – a woman birthing a child is shepherding a soul across the bridge into this world, and tragically, the soul does not always make it safely. As Karkowsky writes, invoking similar imagery: “On the day of a stillbirth and the subsequent labor and delivery, I feel like a hooded Charon, a guide across the river of death… She [the birthing woman] will never be grateful for this trip; it is still the worst day of her life. But having it only be the worst day of her life is the sole gift that Charon can give.” Karkowsky’s book reinforces the message that in that moment of crossing the bridge into life, we must remember that the journey is always precarious. Or, as the rabbis put it in their discussion of childbirth and bridges, “A person should never stand in a place of danger and count on a miracle – lest a miracle not happen.”

This Mishnah about mothers dying in childbirth appears in tractate Shabbat in the context of the laws of candlelighting, and it is recited between Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv as part of the traditional Friday night liturgy. This association with Shabbat hints at another aspect of the experience of childbirth. We observe Shabbat so as to imitate God; like the Creator, we engage in productive labor for six days and then rest on the seventh. Perhaps for the rabbis, it stood to reason that if a woman were not careful about emulating the Creator by keeping Shabbat, she would not merit to emulate the Creator by bringing life into the world. According to this understanding, childbirth is not just about crossing the bridge between life and death, but also about bridging the human and the divine by fulfilling our ultimate creative potential.

The ability to birth a child is a great privilege, but also a great risk. At a time when we can no longer undergo the Torah’s purification rituals or bring sacrifices to God, may an awareness of our vulnerability heighten our appreciation for the miracle of birth and the sanctity of all new life.

Siyum Masekhet Shekalim (and Siyum HaShas #2)

The final chapter of masekhet Shekalim, which I completed today, is entitled “all the spittle,” and refers to spit found in Jerusalem. Do we assume such spit belongs to someone who is in a state of purity or impurity? Reading this chapter after a year of wearing a mask over my face and nose every time I go out into the streets of Jerusalem, I have to say that I’m not sure whether to be more or less concerned. According to some rabbinic opinions, it depends on whether the spit was found in the middle of the street or on the sides; we assume that most people are impure and walk in the middle of the street, whereas those who are concerned about purity make sure to keep to the sides. The only exception is the pilgrimage festivals, when everyone takes care to ascend to Jerusalem in a state of purity; then the masses of people streaming through the streets are pure, and those who are impure are relegated to the sidelines. It is only recently that Jerusalem has begun to fill again after a year of quarantines and lockdowns, and though it would certainly be disgusting to find spittle on the streets, I am filled with hope now that the infection rates are down, the weather is warmer, and the streets are streaming with people again.

The Mishnah’s discussion of spittle is immediately followed by a question about vessels found in the streets of Jerusalem. Do we assume such vessels are pure or impure? The rabbis consider the case of a slaughtering knife found in the streets of Jerusalem on the fourteenth of Nisan. They reason that we can assume such a knife is pure because it was surely prepared in advance for the slaughtering of the korban Pesach on this day. This case, which also appeared in Masekhet Pesachim—the pervious daf yomi masekhet – if of course particularly apt today, on the twelfth of Nisan, in the height of our Pesach preparations.

The final Mishnah in the tractate is about which Temple-related mitzvot remain in effect even in the absence of the Temple. We learn that it is no longer necessary to donate the annual half-shekel tax or to bring the first fruits, but it is still necessary to tithe one’s animals and redeem the firstborn. The rabbis explain that we need no longer bring the Bikurim, the first fruits, because the Torah explicitly says “Bring the best of the first fruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God” (Exodus 34:25). As the קרבן העדהputs it, “When there is a House, there are Bikurim; when there is no House, there are no Bikurim.” Nonetheless, we keep the mitzvah of Bikurim alive every year at our Seder tables, because the Haggadah uses the formula recited by the individual bringing Bikurim as the core text to expound upon midrashically in the Magid section. We retell the story of the exodus by using the same words spoken by the individual bringing Bikurim to the Temple, and so we invoke this mitzvah each year on Pesach.

May our study of the verses about Bikurim this Pesach remind us of the power of learning to keep our traditions alive – may we look forward to the day when all the spittle in Jerusalem is pure and all the inhabitants of the city are healthy and vaccinated. לשנה הבאה בירושלים הבנויה