The Divine Helicopter

I am a much better parent in public. When I am home alone with my children, I am quick to anger and slow to forgive. When my son spills his water for the second time during dinner, I grow exasperated and yell at him instead of helping him find a better place for his cup; when my daughters refuses to get in the bath, I holler that they’re not going to get dessert tomorrow, instead of encouraging the imaginative game in which they’re absorbed. But when we’re in the playground, playing around other children and their parents, I rarely seem to need my outside voice. When the kids spray water from the fountain on each other or refuse to take turns on the slide, I merely exchange eye-rolling glances with other parents and let the kids work it out. Somehow the knowledge that I am being watched enables me to hold myself in check, to restrain my frustration and anger, and to judge my kids favorably.

Of course, Jewish tradition teaches that we are always being watched. The Talmud (Brachot 28a) relates a story about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who fell ill and was visited by his disciples. When he saw them, he began to weep. His disciples asked him why he was weeping, and he responded that he did not know whether he was being led to heaven or hell. His students, realizing that he was close to death, asked him for a blessing. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai responded, “May it be God’s will that your fear of Heaven be like your fear of mortals.” His disciples were taken aback. “Is that all?” they asked him. He responded, “If only it were so! Know that when a person transgresses, he says, ‘May no man see me.’”

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai knew that it is often much easier to act properly in public. When others are watching us, we are less likely to commit offenses – not just violations that would get us in trouble, like jaywalking or shoplifting, but ways of acting and speaking that we’d be embarrassed for others to witness. “I hope no one else can see me now,” I sometimes think when I criticize my son for making a silly mistake in his homework, even though I know I should be patient and encouraging of his efforts. There are times when I’m herding my kids home from their after-school activities and I don’t even want my husband to see me, because I know I’m too tired and too irritable to treat my children the way they deserve to be treated. “I hope no one can see me,” I say, as I pile four kids into a stroller that is made for one because I simply have no patience to continue prodding them all to walk faster.

Rabbi Yochanan’s blessing to his sons has become part of the daily liturgy, and it is one of the first texts recited every morning—as if we all need to start our days with the reminder that we are, at all times, being watched. “Anyone who commits a sin in secret – it is as if he or she is bumping against the legs of the divine presence,” the Talmud teaches elsewhere (Hagigah 16a), quoting a line from Isaiah: “The heavens are my seat, and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). I imagine God sitting on a divine throne up in heaven with legs dangling down to earth. Any time we sin when we are alone, we are in fact bumping up against God’s feet. While it is all too easy to sin when alone, it is in fact when we are by ourselves with no one else around that we have the greatest potential for intimacy with God.

The Israeli poet Natan Zach writes about sitting by the side of the road people-watching. The poet asks, “Is this how God looks at us / without us sensing anything, without us understanding / without us asking?” Like a parent watching from the sidelines at the playground, God watches us all the time, aware of how we speak to our children both when we are in public and when we are home alone, exhausted after a long day and willing to do or say anything just to get the kids in bed. God is watching, yet we are oblivious.

There has been much talk of late of helicopter parenting. But I find it more instructive to think not of parents who hover, but of those who hover over us as parents. It’s hard to imagine the legs of the divine presence dangling down into my living room, and in any case I don’t think the quality of one’s parenting should be contingent upon faith in God. But I do find it helpful to imagine that my friend or neighbor has stopped by and is sitting beside me as I feed my kids dinner or read them bedtime stories. “Goodnight moon,” I read, thinking all the while of the little old lady who sits there watching. Just when I’m about to lose my temper, she rocks back and forth and whispers hush.

Nicanor and Yonah: A Meditation to Precede Tefilat Neilah

I am struck by the parallels between Nicanor, who donated magnificent bronze doors to the Temple courtyard, and Jonah, whose prayers reached the Temple sanctuary. The Talmud (Yoma 38a) relates that Nicanor traveled by ship to Alexandria to bring the doors, and on his return, a huge wave threatened to engulf him. Thereupon the sailors took one of the doors and cast it into the sea, but the sea continued to rage. When they prepared to cast the other door in too, Nicanor rose and clung to it, saying, “Cast me in too.” The sea became calm. When they reached the harbor of Akko, the door broke through the surface of the water; a sea beast had swallowed it and then spit it up on to try land. Subsequently all the gates of the Temple were changed to golden ones, except the Nicanor gates, because of the miracles wrought with them.

Jonah also found himself at sea amidst a terrible storm. The sailors flung the ship’s cargo overboard, but the sea continued to rage. Thereupon Jonah said, “Cast me in too.” The sea became calm. A sea beast swallowed Jonah and then spit him up on to dry land. From the belly of the beast, Jonah cried: “My prayer came before you into your holy Temple.”

The rabbis of the Talmud (Y. Berachot 4:1) disagree about which gates are locked during Neilah. Is it the gates of the Temple? Or the gates of the heavens? Rabbi Elazar teaches: Ever since the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer are locked. But even though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears remain open.”

Below – a meditation on the gates of the Temple and the gates of prayer. As the day fades and the sun sinks, may our prayers merit to enter the heavenly gates.

פתח לנו שער
בעת נעילת שער
כי פנה היום

היום יפנה
השמש יבוא ויפנה
נבואה שעריך

“.עת נעילת שער.” מחלוקת.  רבי יוחנן אומר “נעילת ההיכל”  ורב  אומר “נעילת שערי שמים”

שערי ההיכל מנלן. מניקנור. כדתנן: ניקנור נעשו נסים לדלתוליו.

מאי נסים? כשהלך ניקנור להביא דלתות מאלכסנדריא של מצרים, בחזרתו עמד עליו נחשול שבים לטבעו. נטלו אחת מהן והטילוה לים, ועדיין לא נח הים מזעפו. בקשו להטיל את חברתה, עמד הוא וכרכה, אמר להם: הטילוני עמה! מיד נח הים מזעפו. והיה מצטער על חברתה. כיון שהגיע לנמלה של עכו- היתה מבצבצת ויוצאה מתחת דופני הספינה. ויש אומרים: בְּרִיָּה  שבים בלעתה והקיאתה ליבשה. לפיכך, כל השערים שהיו במקדש נשתנו להיות של זהב, חוץ משערי ניקנור, מפני שנעשו בו נסים

ויש אומרים: שערי היכל מנלן? מיונה. כדכתיב. ויקם יונה לברוח תרשישה. וימצא אניה. וה’ הטיל רוח גדולה אל היום ויהי סער גדול בים והאניה חשבה להישבר. וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים, וַיָּטִלוּ אֶת-הַכֵּלִים אֲשֶׁר בָּאֳנִיָּה אֶל-הַיָּם, לְהָקֵל מֵעֲלֵיהֶם. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם, שָׂאוּנִי וַהֲטִילֻנִי אֶל-הַיָּם,

.וַיִּשְׂאוּ, אֶת-יוֹנָה, וַיְטִלֻהוּ, אֶל-הַיָּם; וַיַּעֲמֹד הַיָּם, מִזַּעְפּוֹ.

וימן ה’ דג גדול לבלוע את יונה.  וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל יוֹנָה, אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו, מִמְּעֵי, הַדָּגָה.  ג וַיֹּאמֶר, קָרָאתִי מִצָּרָה לִי אֶל-יְהוָה–וַיַּעֲנֵנִי; וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי, נִגְרַשְׁתִּי מִנֶּגֶד עֵינֶיךָ; אַךְ אוֹסִיף לְהַבִּיט, אֶל-הֵיכַל קָדְשֶׁךָ.   ח בְּהִתְעַטֵּף עָלַי נַפְשִׁי, אֶת-יְהוָה זָכָרְתִּי; וַתָּבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ תְּפִלָּתִי, אֶל-הֵיכַל קָדְשֶׁךָ.

היכל קדשך. אמר רבי אלעזר: מיום שחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי תפילה שנאמר “גם כי אזעק ואשוע שתם תפילתי.” ואף על פי ששערי תפילה ננעלו שערי דמעה לא ננעלו

.כל השערים ננעלו חוץ משערי דמעה מפני שנעשו בו נסים

.אבינו מלכינו פתח שערי שמים לתפילתינו. ותבוא אליך תפילתינו אל היכל קדשך

פתח לנו שער
בעת נעילת שער
כי פנה היום

היום יפנה
השמש יבוא ויפנה
נבואה שעריך

And now the oral version, for reading in shul:

כוונה לתפילת נעילה

פתח לנו שער
בעת נעילת שער
כי פנה היום

היום יפנה
השמש יבוא ויפנה
נבואה שעריך

עת נעילת שער. התלמוד ירושלמי מביא מחלוקת – איזו שערים ננעלים? רבי יוחנן אומר: נעילת היכל. רב אומר: נעילת שערי שמים.

איך להבין את שיטת רבי יוחנן? איזה דלתות ננעלין בהיכל? בגמרא מסכת יומא מובא סיפור על דלתות המקדש. מסופר על איש בשם ניקנור שהלך לאלכסנדרה להביא דלתות למקדש. אני מצטטת:

כשהלך ניקנור להביא דלתות מאלכסנדריא של מצרים, בחזרתו עמד עליו נחשול שבים לטבעו. נטלו אחת מהן והטילוה לים, ועדיין לא נח הים מזעפו. בקשו להטיל את חברתה, עמד הוא וכרכה, אמר להם: הטילוני עמה! מיד נח הים מזעפו. והיה מצטער על חברתה – על הדלת השנייה. כיון שהגיע לנמלה של עכו- היתה מבצבצת ויוצאה מתחת דופני הספינה. ויש אומרים: בְּרִיָּה  (חיה גדולה) שבים בלעתה והקיאתה ליבשה. לפיכך, כל השערים שהיו במקדש נשתנו להיות של זהב, חוץ משערי ניקנור, מפני שנעשו בו נסים.

הסיפור נשמע מוכר? כן. גם יונה, כידוע, מצא את עצמו בירכתי ספינה באמצע סערה. אני מצטטת:

ויקם יונה לברוח תרשישה. וימצא אניה. וה’ התיל רוח גדולה אל היום ויהי סער גדול בים והאניה חשבה להישבר. וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים, וַיָּטִלוּ אֶת-הַכֵּלִים אֲשֶׁר בָּאֳנִיָּה אֶל-הַיָּם, לְהָקֵל מֵעֲלֵיהֶם. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם, שָׂאוּנִי וַהֲטִילֻנִי אֶל-הַיָּם,וַיִּשְׂאוּ, אֶת-יוֹנָה, וַיְטִלֻהוּ, אֶל-הַיָּם; וַיַּעֲמֹד הַיָּם, מִזַּעְפּוֹ.

כמו שחיה בלעה את דלת ההיכל והקיאה אותה ליבשה, גם יונה נבלע. ושם במעי הדגה, הוא מתפלל שתפילותיו יגיעו אל היכל המקדש. אני מצטטת:  וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל יוֹנָה, אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו, מִמְּעֵי, הַדָּגָה.  ג וַיֹּאמֶר, קָרָאתִי מִצָּרָה לִי אֶל-יְהוָה–וַיַּעֲנֵנִי; וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי, נִגְרַשְׁתִּי מִנֶּגֶד עֵינֶיךָ; אַךְ אוֹסִיף לְהַבִּיט, אֶל-הֵיכַל קָדְשֶׁךָ.   ח בְּהִתְעַטֵּף עָלַי נַפְשִׁי, אֶת-יְהוָה זָכָרְתִּי; וַתָּבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ תְּפִלָּתִי, אֶל-הֵיכַל קָדְשֶׁךָ.

כשיונה במעי הדגה הוא מתפלל שיכנסו תפילתיו לשערי המקדש, היינו שערי ניקנור.

אבל רב ממושבו על נהרות בבל חולק. נעילת שערים? הוא אומר. לא שערי היכל, אלא שערי שמים. אחרי החורבן אין עוד אופציה. מיום שחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי היכל. ובשעת נעילה ננעלו שערי תפילה. ואף על פי ששערי תפילה ננעלו, אומרת לנו הגמרא בברכות, שערי דמעה לא ננעלו.

ואני מביאה מדרש אישי: כל השערים ננעלו חוץ משערי דמעה מפני שנעשו בו נסים.

אבינו מלכינו פתח שערי שמים לתפילתינו. ותבוא אליך תפילתינו אל היכל קדשך.

פתח לנו שער
בעת נעילת שער
כי פנה היום

היום יפנה
השמש יבוא ויפנה
נבואה שעריך

The Fable of the Goat (Bava Kama 79b)

My 18-month-old daughter has been home sick all week, screaming and writhing in pain. She refuses all food, her gums bleed whenever I touch them, and she has cold sores on her tongue. When I took her to the doctor on Sunday morning, he diagnosed her with a virus and told me there was nothing to be done. “You really just have to wait it out. She should be better in 7-10 days.” My jaw dropped. Seven to ten days of enduring this agony? “Is there really nothing I can do?” I asked him desperately. “Well,” he told me, “There is one proven remedy – you can put fresh goats’ milk on her tongue. That works like a charm.” I looked at him like he was crazy. “Goats milk? Can I get that at the supermarket?” “You can,” said the doctor, “But what you really want is the unpasteurized kind, and that you can get only from a farm. It’s best if they milk the goat for you, and then she drinks it right away.” I couldn’t believe that squeezing the udders of a goat was the only hope for my daughter, and so I tried the pharmacy, where I was told the same thing. “Take her to a goat farm, and get her some fresh milk.” On the one hand, my heart was sinking – was there no other way to help my child? On the other hand, my mind was racing – now I was finally beginning to understand a Tamudic story that has long baffled me.

The story appears in the context of a Mishnah (Bava Kama 79b) about the prohibition on raising “small animals” in the land of Israel, namely goats and sheep, since these animals are prone to pasture everywhere and thus destroy the surrounding vegetation. However, as the Talmud goes on to explain, it is permissible to raise “large animals,” even though these are also bad for the land, because they are too unwieldy to import, and “we do not impose a decree on the public that the public cannot uphold.” (The same Mishnah forbids keeping a dog unless it is on a leash – this prohibition is clearly one the public could not uphold, judging from the pets in our neighborhood.)

Following this legal discussion, the Talmud quotes a Brayta from the Tosefta (T. Bava Kama 8:13) about the pious sage Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, who was “groaning from his heart,” that is, moaning in severe pain. His friends asked the doctors what to do, and they responded, “The only remedy is for him to drink warm milk straight from a goat every morning at dawn.” So they brought him a goat and tied it around his bedpost, and he would nurse from it every morning. One day Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava’s rabbinic colleagues came to visit him. When they saw that he had a goat tied around his bedpost, they recoiled in horror; how could such a pious man so brazenly override a rabbinic prohibition? “He is keeping armed robbers in his home!” they exclaimed. (I find myself wondering, once again, whether the Hebrew word for goat, עז, is etymologically related to the word להעיז, to be brazen and bold; this story seems to be playing on that pun.) When he eventually died, the sages reviewed all his actions and discovered that this was the only sin he had committed. He is reputed to have said, on his deathbed, “I know that I did not commit any sins except the sin of that goat, since I transgressed against the words of my colleagues.”

I used to read this story and wonder what illness this man could possibly have had, such that goats’ milk was the only remedy. I wondered what we’d call that illness today, and how it would be treated in the twenty-first century. Clearly it was the same illness as the father in Agnon’s famous “Fable of the Goat” (first published in 1925), which begins with the same words as the Talmudic story: “There is a tale of an old man who was groaning from his heart. They went and asked the doctors what to do…” This man, too, ties a goat to his bedpost and suckles its milk, which is sweeter than honey from the Garden of Eden. Ultimately his curiosity about the goat leads to his tragic separation from his son, who ties a rope to the goat’s tail and follows the animal through a cave that leads—like C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe or J.K. Rowling’s platform Nine and Three-Quarters—to a place near Tzfat. What illness did Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava and the father have, I wondered? Now I know. They had the same cold sores as my daughter, and the remedy in the twenty-first century is the same as it was back then.

After several days of attempting to forcibly squirt pasteurized goats milk from my local market onto my daughter’s tongue, I decided I needed to be bolder and take more drastic measures. I went around to a few natural health stores in my area, but none sold unpasteurized goats’ milk. Then a friend mentioned that there was going to be a festival at our local leprosy hospital, where they would be selling fresh goats’ milk. I ran over there with my still-hysterical baby the next morning, but alas, they told me that the festival was postponed until the following week. “Why don’t you try the school down the block, where they have a little petting zoo?” I put the wailing baby back in her stroller, and off we went on our wild goat chase. By this point I felt very much like I, like the son in Agnon’s fable, was just holding on to the rope attached to the goat’s tail and letting it carry me along for the ride. We arrived at the school.  I spotted the goats in the yard. “Can you help?” I asked the guard at the gate. “You have to ask Shlomo, and he just stepped out for a few hours.” My face fell. The baby howled, and the man looked down at us in pity. “Hold on, let me call Ihmed.” Ihmed appeared with a twinkle in his eye. “Who told you we have goats here?” Perhaps he didn’t want me to out his secret – that he was raising “small animals” in the land of Israel. “They told me at the leprosy hospital,” I confessed. “Follow me,” he said, and I parked the stroller, picked up the baby, and continued to follow the proverbial rope attached to the proverbial goat’s tail. He called his friend Hassan, who held onto the head of his goat. “Do you have a bottle?” he asked me. I emptied out the water from the baby’s sippy cup, and he held it under the goat’s udder. My daughter, who loves animals, had forgotten her groaning heart and began squealing in delight and shrieking, “Cat! Cat!” – her term for anything with four legs that moves. I thanked Ihmed and Hassan profusely, retrieved my stroller, and gave the baby her cup. She drank. She calmed down. She fell asleep.

Was it a miraculous cure? I am not sure. She is still sleeping, which is why I have time to write this up. Throughout the entire week that she’s been home sick with me, she’s never slept this long or this comfortably, and I’m starting to hope—to be so bold as to hope—that perhaps the milk she imbibed, like the milk in Agnon’s fable, came straight from the Garden of Eden. I’ve come so far already that if this doesn’t do the trick, tomorrow I’ll stop at nothing short of tying a goat to the post of her crib and giving her warm milk at dawn.


Hitting the Rock: Instant Gratification and the Long Walk Home

Yesterday on our walk home from Gan, my son gave me new insight into the weekly parsha, Hukkat. I was making my way with my four kids along the train tracks that link their various Ganim with our home. The walk is about a mile, and especially on hot summer days, it’s a challenge – even with scooters and snacks and all the helicopters and street sweepers we spot excitedly on our way home. Each of my kids has a water bottle, which I store in a compartment on top of the stroller. Only I can reach that compartment, and so I spend much of the walk home fielding requests for water and then apologizing when I inadvertently hand someone the wrong bottle, or rub “sunscream” (as the kids call it) on the twin who has already been covered in it rather than the one who has not.

We were about halfway home yesterday – the baby was screaming “cat” and pointing and squealing excitedly from her stroller, the twins were belting out the theme song of a TV show they have never watched (we don’t have a TV, but their friends teach them the songs), and my son Matan was apparently vying for my attention, though I was busy tying the strings on the baby’s hat under her chin while acknowledging with a vigorous nod that I, too, had seen the cat. I was kneeling down in front of the stroller when suddenly I felt a whack on my back. I turned around sharply to find Matan standing behind me wielding a long tree branch. “Matan!” I yelled at him. “I told you that you can only carry that branch if you don’t hit anyone with it. Now I have to take it away.” Matan looked at me, angry and affronted. “But Ima, I want my water, and you’re not listening to me.”

I stood up and reached for his blue water bottle in the top of the stroller. His is easy – it’s the twins’ pink and purple bottles that I’m forever mixing up.

“Matan,” I said sternly. “If you want your water, I’m happy to give it to you. But you have to ask for it using words. You can’t just hit me.”

And then – it hit me, too, how similar this episode was to one of the more dramatic scenes in this week’s parsha. While the Israelites were wandering through the desert – in a climate probably not all that different from Jerusalem in July, when you take into account global warming – they complained frequently to Moses about the food, their fondness for Egypt, and the futility of it all. “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates!” It reminds me of my kids’ frequent complaints. “Why can’t we stay in Gan and play until nighttime? Why do you make us leave the playground? And why did you bring pretzels? We want rice cakes!”

The Israelites’ complaints last for most of the book of Numbers, though they reach a crisis point in this week’s parsha when Miriam dies and the people run out of water. (At least on our walk home we pass several water fountains.) Moses and Aaron, exhausted by the people’s grumbling and probably also dehydrated themselves, fall on their faces before God, and God responds: “Take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation.” Famously, though, Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it, water pours forth, and Moses is punished harshly: Since he has disobeyed God, he will not be permitted to enter the promised land.

We were trekking through that same promised land when Matan, exhausted and thirsty from all our wandering, hit me—the source of water—instead of asking me for his bottle. Perhaps I ought to have rebuked him, paraphrasing Moses, “Do you think that if you hit me, water will come forth?” Instead I punished him by taking away his stick as I’d threatened to do.

I wondered whether I was being too harsh. After all, as Matan later pointed out to me, he was tired and “parched” (his new favorite word) and he just didn’t have patience to talk nicely above the din of his sisters. Even so, as I explained to him, it is important to recognize that life is not an automat. Not everything comes quickly and easily as soon as you drop in a coin or kick the  slot machine. This is also the reason I don’t let my kids watch television – I worry that the instant gratification offered by bright colors, loud sounds, and fast-moving images will gradually and insidiously erode their capacity to appreciate life’s slower pleasures: a symphony the builds over four movements, a novel that unfolds over three hundred pages, a poem that only really begins to resonate upon the fourth or fifth re-reading, if even then.

When my kids are thirsty on a hot day, yes, I should make sure they get water immediately. There are forms of gratification that ought to be instant. But talking is always preferable to hitting, and the lesson of appreciating life’s slower pleasures is one I care deeply about inculcating in my children. It is also a lesson I try to practice myself. When I sit down to nurse the baby, I try to remember that if I keep picking up my smartphone for a “hit” of data, I’ll never finish reading my novel. If I rush my kids home in a car (that is, were I to own a car and know how to drive it), I’d miss out on all of our long conversations about everything we see on the way home, and I imagine my kids would be less likely to free associate with me about all their memories from the day. I understand why God wanted the Israelites to take the long and circuitous route to the promised land. And if my children don’t yet understand, I trust that eventually they’ll get there too.

The Unreliable Narrator

I have long been drawn to novels that feature unreliable narrators – until I discovered the perils of living with the most unreliable of narrators in my very own home.

Two days ago we were invited out to Shavuot lunch at the home of a family with many children. Not only was the  house chaotic, but our hosts had invited at least thirty guests, including over a dozen children who ran around freely between the upstairs, the downstairs and the backyard, such that it was impossible for my husband Daniel and me to keep tabs on our four little ones, the oldest of whom just turned six. At the end of the meal, when we were gathering everyone up to leave, we noticed that our oldest was nowhere to be found. “Where is Matan?” we started asking around, until our four year old daughter piped up, “He went to walk the dog.”

“What dog?” I asked, suddenly worried. And our host repeated, “What dog? We don’t have a dog.”

“The dog,” Liav repeated matter-of-factly, as if surely I understood.

“When did he leave?” I asked her – hoping that a four-year-old’s sense of time would not be too far off.

“Um, I think lots of hours ago. Yes. In ten minutes he left.”

“Did he go with anyone?”

“No. He went by himself. But the big kids left first. He went to find them.”

“Oh. Which way did he go?”

“He went to Raanana, I think. To our cousins.” We were in the heart of the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. This was not going well.

My first thought was of Joseph, who was sent by his father to go find his brothers in the pastures of Shechem (Genesis 37:12). Joseph did not find his brothers there, but he ran into a man who was able to point him in the right direction, toward Dotan. Rashi says this man was the angel Gabriel, who appeared to show Joseph the way to his brothers. Where was the angel Gabriel when I needed him? And why was my only source of evidence someone with no sense of time or direction?

I was reminded of a phrase that appears in the Talmud in the context of women’s testimony. לא מפיה אנו חיים – we do not live off her words. The Mishnah in Ketubot (12b) speaks of a case in which a man marries a woman but does not find signs of her virginity on their wedding night. The bride claims, “Actually, I was a virgin when you betrothed me, but I was raped after our engagement, and, well, your field got flooded.” The Mishnah’s term “your field got flooded” is essentially the English equivalent of “shit happens” or “sucks for you” – that is, you had the bad luck of betrothing a woman who got raped when she was already your acquisition. Rabban Gamliel says that we believe the bride, but Rabbi Yehoshua insists that no, “we do not live off her words.” According to Rabbi Yehoshua, the bride in such a situation is always an unreliable narrator whose words cannot be trusted.

A few minutes later, Liav changed her story. “I think he went with the big kids,” she told us, “Not alone.” I looked at Daniel. If he had left with a group of big kids, then hopefully those same kids would return him. But then I was reminded of another Talmudic phrase that once again gave me pause. הפה שאסר הוא הפה שהתיר – that is, the mouth that forbade is the mouth that permitted. The Mishnah (Ketubot 22a) speaks of a woman who announces—presumably upon arriving in a new town where she is a stranger to everyone—“I used to be married, but I’m now divorced.”  The rabbis say that she is believed. Similarly, if she announces, “I was taken captive, but I was not defiled by my captors,” she is also believed, because “the mouth that forbade is the mouth that permitted.” That is, the very same woman both incriminated and exonerated herself; had she not announced that she was taken captive, there would be no reason to suspect her of sexual impurity in the first place. (The rabbis assume that any woman who was taken captive was likely raped by her captors.) In other words, one statement is canceled out by another – which seemed to be the case with Liav as well. Had Matan left the house alone, or under supervision? And had he really left the house at all? Or was he merely playing upstairs behind a door we had yet to open?

A half hour later Matan indeed returned with the aforementioned big kids, an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old who had taken him under their wing when he ran out of the house to tag along as they walked a neighbor’s dog. We reprimanded him, gently but firmly. “You can’t leave the house without telling us where you’re going!”

Matan looked at us earnestly and explained. “It’s OK. I told Liav where I was going.” Liav looked at me, blinking fast and furious. “I told you. I was right and you were wrong.” I looked at Liav, my little Nelly Dean and Humbert Humbert, my Nick and Amy rolled up into one. I didn’t know what to say. But the next day, when Matan told me that he’d forgotten his glasses at the Kotel—where my husband had taken the kids at 6am—I told Daniel to wait a minute before jumping on his bike to race back to the Old City. I walked into the bedroom and looked on the ledge by Matan’s bed, where he often rested his things absent-mindedly. Sure enough, there they were – my child’s glasses, the lenses through which I have come to see the world.

You May Want to Feed My Children

Yesterday my twins bit each other when an argument between them escalated rather quickly into a violent row. We were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast, and I was just about to read aloud to them from Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Spoon, a longstanding dinnertime favorite in our family. My husband and I had selected this book together during our “date night” out last summer, when his mother watched our kids so that we could have an evening to ourselves outside of the home. We got in the car and drove straight to Barnes and  Noble, where we spent our kid-free evening—um—picking out books for our kids. Spoon caught our attention immediately because of its fetching illustrations of anthropomorphized cutlery – the spoon on the cover has wide eager eyes and a friendly arm raised in greeting.

Only when we began reading did we realize that we were in the hands of a witty, word-loving wonder of a writer – which is to say that her Spoon was in our hands. The eponymous Spoon, we learn, is jealous of the knives and forks, who get to cut and spread and who never go stir-crazy. But then Spoon’s mother reminds him that only he gets to dive head-first into a bowl of ice cream and relax in a hot cup of tea, and Spoon begins to appreciate what only he can enjoy.

The book, on one level, is a simple tale about being content with one’s lot. As indeed, it seems, Amy Krouse Rosenthal was as well. Two weeks ago she had broken my heart and the hearts of thousands of other New York Times readers with her Modern Love column entitled “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” about her love of life and the love of her life, her husband of 26 years whom she would soon be parting with because she was tragically dying of terminal cancer. Just that morning—yesterday morning—I woke up to her obituary, which I read in bed on my iphone before any of my kids had roused. I got out of bed, tiptoed to the kitchen, and set our copy of Spoon on the kitchen table, where it served as a sort of grave marker—a sad reminder of what is no more, and what still endures. When my kids woke up, I told them we’d be reading Spoon at breakfast, though I didn’t say why.

“This is Spoon,” the book begins, and then we turn the page and are greeted by a motley assortment of elderly and proper silver spoons, young teaspoons holding on to the hands of their mothers the tablespoons, and a baby measuring spoon linked by a ring to his older sibling: “This is Spoon’s family.” A few pages later, we hear about Spoon’s “adventurous great-grandmother who fell in love with a dish and ran off to a distant land.”

My kids listened attentively, as they almost always do. I have made it a regular practice of reading to them at the table so that they won’t argue – they are 5,4,4 and 1, and hence too young for proper table conversation. If left to their own devices, they will grab each other’s spoons, stab each other with plastic knives, and fork over any food they don’t want on to one another’s plates. And so I read to them as a way of maintaining order. It usually works, except when it doesn’t.

“Read it in Hebrew!” my daughter stays my hand as I try to turn the page. “No, the book is in English, she has to read it in English,” my older son insists. “But the last time we read this book in English. Now it’s time to read in Hebrew.” I work as a translator, and many of the books I translate are rhyming picture books. I enjoy the challenge of rhyme, the constraints imposed by the illustrations, and the opportunity to play around with words and sounds. Often I “test out” potential translations on my kids, reading them books first in the Hebrew original and then in my English translation to see if they have any suggestions. “All right,” I say. “I’ll read the book in English and then in Hebrew.” “I know,” says my son. “You can read one page in English and then one in Hebrew, and keep switching.” ‘No,” insists my daughter. “Hebrew!” Her twin shrieks, “English.” I put down the book and turn to my baby to spoonfeed her a few bites before I return to reading. But the moment I turn away, the twins give up on language and bite each other, ignoring their food, the book, and my own protestations.

Sometimes I wish my kids could get along better, like Fork and Knife and Chopsticks, who assure Spoon that he, too, has what to offer. My children’s cutting remarks to one another are hurtful to witness, and often I lament that I can’t spoonfeed them the values I so fervently wish to inculcate. But this doesn’t stop me from trying. When I put them to bed last night, lying between them just as Spoon “spoons” with his parents in the silverware draw on the last page of the book, I reminded them of their fight at breakfast. “You can’t bite each other just because you don’t agree on what language to read in,” I said, and I wondered if Amy Krouse Rosenthal would approve of my attempt at literary criticism.


Reading While Mothering

This past weekend all three of my daughters were sick with bad colds, and I spent much of Shabbat afternoon curled up at the foot of one of my twins’ beds in the room all three of them share, staying with them as they coughed away and tried to rest their aching heads. I could not leave the room because then the baby—who uncannily seems to sense my presence at all times—would start crying, waking the toddler sleeping next to her, who would kick angrily and surely wake her twin sister by the window. I knew that the only chance that everyone would get well was if they took a long nap, and so I spent three hours in their room, getting up only to reinsert the pacifier in the baby’s mouth when necessary, or to help my daughter find her water bottle when she sat up thirstily, or to accompany her sister to the bathroom.

Keeping vigil in a sickroom does not sound like fun, but I had left the window shade open a crack, letting in just enough light to illuminate my page so that I could read from my perch at the end of the bed lining the window. I was reading a new collection of short stories by a young Israeli writer named Hila Amit, and I was utterly in thrall to the gripping story of a single mother who takes her children camping by a lake on vacation, only to wake up and discover that one of the children who had been sleeping by her side was missing. My heart raced as I turned page after page, and I found myself unconsciously casting my eyes over the three sleeping girls, counting their heads and listening for their breathing in spite of myself. I tend to get very absorbed in the books I am reading, but usually I do not have time to read when my children are home. Though I would never wish sickness upon my children, of course, I could not help but relish the opportunity to read for a long afternoon stretch with all my girls present and accounted for and calm.

People sometimes ask me if I enjoy being a mother, perhaps because all my children were born in quick succession after I lived alone for much of my adult life. I tell them the truth, which is that I enjoy—or I most enjoy—those aspects of motherhood that can be accomplished while reading. I do not mind holding my children’s hands and staying with them at night, or waiting on the side during their gymnastics lessons, or breastfeeding, which I always have done with a book in one hand. (My babies each learned to wave their free hand to check for the book, only then settling comfortably on the breast.) And I hardly need mention that my favorite aspect of being a parent is reading to my children, which I do all day long, at every possible moment. I always keep picture books under the stroller in case we are stuck with time to kill, and we read snuggling in my bed in the early morning, and over breakfast and dinner, and of course before bed.

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed anything in life that can be done while reading, and I’ve tended to avoid activities incompatible with holding a book in one hand. Perhaps that’s why I always prefer to walk than to drive or ride a bicycle—I am a master of reading while walking—and perhaps that’s why I never became very good at shopping or cooking or playing music. But many of aspects of motherhood require being fully present in mind and body, attentive to my children with both hands free. It has been a challenge, in recent years, to let go of that part of me that always wants to be elsewhere, immersed in a fictional world, caught up in the thicket of someone else’s plot. Sometimes I find myself writing my own plots, narrating our daily experiences in my head at the very moment they are unfolding, documenting life in real time and occasionally changing the ending to make for a better tale. Once I stood outside my daughter’s preschool trying the finish the last few paragraphs of a chapter before heading in to pick her up. But all of a sudden I heard  my daughter calling to me through the open window, and I realized that even though I still had a few sentences left, I was already in the middle of a very different chapter of my day.

I have never managed to learn to meditate or do yoga—I lack the calmness and the focus—but motherhood, like these disciplines, is teaching me every day anew the value of drawing my attention back to the present moment and being in just one place at one time. “It goes by so fast,” people always tell me when they see me trying to fit three kids into a double stroller or struggling to quiet down one twin so I can hear why the other is crying. I imagine the pages of a book flipping by, turning faster than I can read them. And then I stop for a moment, put my finger between the pages to mark my place, and look up into my daughter’s eager eyes, setting the book aside.