Blossoms of Snow

Sunday was supposed to be my twins’ Siddur Ceremony. During the past few months of first grade it seems they have been exclusively preparing for the occasion – learning about Tefillah, practicing to navigate the Siddur, singing songs about God’s protective presence, and rehearsing the choreography for an elaborate 45-minute dance performance. Two weeks ago, when the government forbade gatherings of over one hundred, we were told that the ceremony would take place without parents. Our girls were crestfallen. Just one week later, the event was canceled entirely. To my surprise, rather than losing heart, the girls informed us that they would be performing the ceremony at home instead, just the two of them – and sure enough, the rehearsals continued apace.

On Sunday just before 5pm, when the original ceremony was scheduled, our girls ushered us into the living room. They were wearing their white school shirts and black skirts, their hair tied back in tight ponytails, their faces beaming with excitement – only their unshod feet betrayed that they were not in fact participating in an actual school event. They sat us down and instructed Daniel to call up the playlist they had prepared with him in advance. Daniel then came on stage in the role of the principal, welcoming the parents, thanking the teachers, and commending the students for all their hard work to prepare for this momentous occasion. He did such a fine job mimicking the gestures and intonations of their school principal that I had to stifle my giggles. Next I came on stage in the role of the school rabbi to offer some words of Torah about the siddur as the soul of the Jewish people. We took our seats and the music began. The girls twirled down our hallway and stood on our makeshift stage, extending their arms in flowing motions and spinning around in perfect unison. They had mastered every move perfectly, and never once did they break out in embarrassed or self-conscious titters. They were dead serious, and as we sat there watching them with tears in our eyes, so were we.

The main song they sang and danced to was Rak Yeladim by Yishai Lapidot. It was a song they had practiced so frequently at home that even our four-year-old knew the lyrics by heart, and she silently mouthed the words from her perch on my lap:

I am trying not to cry, I am trying to wait
And father then says that we have to have hope
To pray quite a lot, make our pleading requests,
But all that I am is a child without answers,
I am trying to comprehend, to act a bit older
But the grown-ups do not always understand either.
There are not always answers, so many new thoughts,
So I try and I call out to You.
God, please protect us…
God who dwells in the heavens
The angel who redeems us from all harm….

I watched the twins’ synchronized dancing and tried not to cry. I certainly did not have the answers, and none of the grown-up world leaders seemed to have them either. The I.C.U. rooms in Italy were overflowing. Very soon it may be the same in New York, where our families live. In just a week we would celebrate Pesach, and I prayed that the angel of death would pass over us and those we love if only we stayed indoors at home. But the verse that kept running through my head throughout this modern-day plague was “there was no household in which there was not a death” (Exodus 12:30). Were it not written, it would be impossible to say it.

When the girls finished singing, dancing, and delivering the recitations they knew by heart, Daniel and I stood up and handed them their Siddurim – not the actual Siddurim they are supposed to receive, which I assume are locked up in a classroom in their now-shuttered school, but rather some of the extra Siddurim we have at home which we’ve been using when we daven with the kids every morning. Then he and I, in our roles as school principal and rabbi, held up Daniel’s Tallit and the girls stood under it to receive our blessing. “May God bless and protect you…may God shine His countenance upon you.” We recited the chapter of Psalms that we have been adding to our prayers every morning: “I will lift up my eyes to the heavens….The Lord will keep you from all harm – He will watch over your life. The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” I prayed with all my heart that it would be so.

The girls then performed their final dance, to the music and lyrics of Ofra Haza’s Shmor Na Aleinu: “He Who sits somewhere up in the heavens, He who heals all the sick…. Watch over us like children.” Here, too, the words were so very relevant, and yet I found myself thinking of another song instead. I looked at my girls in their white shirts and thought of the Von Trapp family singers onstage in Salzberg for the music festival, singing Edelweiss with their pure sweet voices as the world around them collapses: “Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow. Bloom and grow forever.” I thought of the almond tree outside our window, the one my four-year-old used to say goodbye to every morning on our walk to school – back when there still was school. The Shkediya is our Edelweiss, our blossom of snow. May we all stay healthy and safe and merit to watch our blossoms bloom and grow in happier, more hopeful seasons.

Daf Yomi in the Time of Corona

I began learning Masechet Shabbat against the backdrop of the Corona Crisis, as I gradually realized that people all over the world were being asked to accept upon themselves an extended period of resting, retreating, and desisting from labor. Here in Israel, the Ministry of Health issued increasingly stringent guidelines every few days regarding the extent to which we were permitted to leave our homes and engage socially: No gatherings of over 100 became no gatherings of over ten which became no minyanim and no unnecessary social interaction with anyone outside one’s own family. First the schools were shuttered, then the restaurants and malls were closed, and then we were told not to leave home unless absolutely necessary. And so it was while increasingly confined to the private domain of my home that I learned the first chapter of tractate Shabbat, which begins with a discussion of the limits placed on our interactions with people outside.

In the Torah, one of the defining features of Shabbat is the injunction to stay put: “Mark that the Lord has given you Shabbat… Let everyone remain where he is. Let no one leave his place on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:29). One of the thirty-nine labors prohibited on Shabbat is that of carrying an object from one domain to another. The rabbis of the Talmud explain that there are four domains—public, private, an in-between domain known as a Carmelit, and a Mekom Petor which is none of the above—and it is prohibited to carry from a public domain like the city square to the private domain of one’s home and vice versa. During the past few weeks of tightening restrictions, each passing day has felt more and more like Shabbat. As the reality of this pandemic increasingly set in, I realized that each time I left my home, I was potentially carrying germs that could infect those around me; and each time I returned home from outside, I was potentially carrying germs that might infect my family. I found myself fearing that I might unwittingly be a carrier, and that no amount of handwashing or sanitizing would save the people I love or the communities I am a part of from the threat of contagion.

The opening pages of tractate Shabbat describe a series of hypothetical exchanges between a poor man standing outside a house, and the homeowner inside. May the poor man reach his hand into the house so that the homeowner might place food in his basket? May he take food out of the homeowner’s hand? That is, to what extent are we permitted to engage with those around us who might need our help, or who might be able to help us? I have thought about this question often in the past few days, as I’ve tried to “reach out” to friends in far more difficult situations than my own – single moms isolated at home with young kids, unmarried friends living alone, an octogenarian friend from the pool who is now confined to her assisted living facility. It is more difficult to make contact without contact, but I am learning how to extend my proverbial basket. This week my son taught me how to host a zoom meeting, my twins davened with their first grade teacher on whatsapp video, and I called a few friends I have not spoken with in months. I would like to be able to extend a real hand, but the Corona virus is transmitted rampantly when people use their hands and touch surfaces that have been contaminated. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that the hand of a person has a unique halakhic status and is considered neither like the public nor like the private domains (3b). The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 14a) that the sages decreed that hands are ritually impure because they are “preoccupied” – they tend to touch dirty or impure objects. That is, our hands are not ours alone, because they bear the traces of everything in the public domain that we as private individuals have touched.

The discussion of carrying in and out of the house on Shabbat begins with the cryptic assertion that these laws are “two which are four” (2a). That is, although the Bible stipulates only two scenarios involving carrying into and out of the home, these cases multiply to four in rabbinic law – an exponential expansion reminiscent of the rate of Corona’s transmission. Each day we check the news, concerned and alarmed by how quickly the number of cases continues to rise. And that is not all – v’lo zo bilvad – because the exponential growth in cases is matched by the exponential growth of our own realization of the magnitude of this calamity. Again and again I find that yesterday’s deliberations are rendered irrelevant by today’s policies. Should we send our kids to school after Purim, we wondered? And then the very next day, school was canceled. Should we take our kids for their annual dentist appointment, we asked each other? And then the very next day, the Health Ministry issued a new policy advising against all non-emergency medical and dental visits. Was it safe to take our mop top son for a much-needed haircut? Clearly not, if we were not supposed to leave the house. Now we are told that only “essential businesses” may remain open, and I find myself thinking about the list of prohibited activities stipulated in the mishnayot of the first chapter of tractate Shabbat: “A person may not sit before the barber… A person may not work in a tannery…. The tailor may not leave the house with his needle, nor the scribe with his quill” (9b, 11a). The Mishnah is speaking about activities that are forbidden too close to the time for Minchah, or on the eve of the Sabbath, lest a person come to miss the time for prayer or perform labor on Shabbat. These are precautionary measures, much like the Corona policies: No haircuts. No shopping. No library visits. We can feel the impending darkness, but it descends not with the angels that visit on the Sabbath eve, but with the specter of the angel of death.

Corona, like all aspects of germ theory, requires a leap of faith. We cannot see the droplets that may be infecting others when we touch a doorknob or hug a friend or sneeze into our elbows. And yet we are expected to respond with extreme measures. We are being asked to desist from most forms of labor, to stay inside our homes, to spend time only with our families. But if so many people are not working, we wonder, won’t the economy come to a grinding halt? Is the threat of Corona so dire as to warrant such a drastic cessation of productive and creative human activity? In the first of this week’s parshiyot, Vayakhel, Moses interrupts the inventory of objects and materials used in the construction of the Mishkan to remind the people of the sanctity of Shabbat. One might have thought that the productive labor of building the Mishkan would override the commandment to keep Shabbat, but this is not the case. The mention of Shabbat interrupts the detailed discussion of the Mishkan to teach that on Shabbat, all such labors must be ceased. Shabbat, like Corona, is a matter of such great magnitude that it overrides regular human activity. Avivah Zornberg notes that in Parshat Vayekhel, the commandment to keep Shabbat precedes the discussion of the Mishkan as if to suggest that “the effect [of Shabbat] is not simply counteractive, but prophylactic.” We stay indoors and keep away from our workplaces not just in response to Corona, but in an attempt to reduce its spread.

And so we are home with our families, working by Zoom in button-down shirts and pajama bottoms in a surreal reality in which the second half of Adar is more topsy-turvy than the first. My husband and I speak of the period of our lives before Purim as B.C.E. – Before the Corona Epidemic. My kids fantasize about what they will do “acharey HaKorona” – after this virus at last has passed and they can go to the park and see their friends again. I sleep five hours a night, not because I’m restless and insomniac, but because I relish the early-morning and late-night hours when the kids are not underfoot. Often when I wake before dawn or stay up past midnight, it is to learn daf yomi – in bed on my cellphone, on the couch with an open Gemara, by podcast as I take a solitary walk through the darkness. As I near the end of my second cycle, I am grateful to have daf yomi as one of the few constants in my life when so much normalcy has been suspended. Shabbat lasts 25 hours, but the length of “Chufshat HaKorona” is indefinite. Each week in Lecha Dodi we welcome Shabbat with the words, “Arise! Get up! Your light is coming.” I pray that by the time we conclude the last chapter of tractate Shabbat, the chapter that begins with the words “one on whom darkness descended” (מי שהחשיך),  the light will have come at last so that we may arise and get up – and go out.

The Madonna in the Monastery

Nehemia is a Hebrew novel by Yakov Z. Mayer published in Israel to rave reviews in January 2020. The novel is based on the real historical figure of Nehemia HaCohen, a Polish kabbalist who denounced the false Messiah Shabbtai Zvi as an imposter. In this richly imagined, brilliantly allusive, and raucously funny picaresque, Nehemia is also a Torah scholar, a crook, and a sworn vagabond who leaves his wife and daughters back in Poland to set off on a journey where he will encounter sages, robbers, prophets, visionaries, a bird that quotes the Bible in rhyming quatrains, and even a Shakespearean actor who once met Shakespeare himself. In the passage below, which is taken from the middle of the book, Nehemia tries to pass as a Christian pilgrim, pretending to worship the Madonna while en route to the Messiah.
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The early morning chill permeated Nehemia’s bones, and the site of the fracture ached. He leaned on his walking stick and limped to the place where he’d arranged to meet the wagon driver – he’d rented an entire wagon to himself, at full price. His face stung from the tincture he’d rubbed over his flesh, which had already started to rot. For a week or two his face would hurt as the skin shriveled, Nehemia knew, and then it would return to normal. His clothes were filthy and torn – he had slaved over them with acid and mud to make them look sufficiently worn. The coins he had amassed along the way were secured in a pocket sewn into his clothes. Nehemia traveled west along the main road, to Olkusz, where he paid the wagon driver his fare, adding an extra ten groszy as hush money. He changed wagons at Katowice and alighted at the northern junction, which was deserted. Two roads led out from that point, a side road the Jews took to Mizkow and from there to Janow, and a wide thoroughfare the non-Jews took northwards. Nehemia crossed the dusty road and stood facing north, toward Czestochowa.

It was the middle of the day and the sun stood at its zenith. The crusty layer of skin on Nehemia’s right temple and on his nose had already turned black and his entire forehead was wrinkled. A wagon arrived, this time driven by a non-Jew. Two Jews alighted and turned east toward Janow. “Reb Jew, you’ll want to head to Janow from here – Jews are forbidden to continue in that direction,” one of them called to him. Nehemia trembled and promptly examined himself to make sure no strand of tzitzit was peeking out from beneath his shirt and no sidelock had escaped his hat. He lifted his head and shouted back in Goyish, “You filthy Jew, scram!” The man, bewildered, sat down with his friend by the side of the road to wait for the wagon to Janow.

Nehemia hunched his back further. The tincture had toughened his skin, making it hard for him to move his features and forcing him to contort his face so as to be able to breathe. He cleared his throat once or twice and tried to adopt a sufficiently foreign accent so that his Jewishness would not be perceptible. The wagon driver stopped alongside him and Nehemia boarded the back of the wagon and sat among the passengers. “Ivan,” he responded to the leper he sat down beside, “from Kiev. En route to the monastery in Czestochowa, to kneel before the Black Madonna.” He lifted his right hand to his head and passed it over his shoulder, in a sort of half cross. The leper’s name was Gyorgy, a Greek, born Orthodox in Athens; then he turned Catholic and was struck with leprosy. “In order to always remember,” he smiled horridly—he had no lips, and the roots of his last remaining teeth protruded from the rotting flesh of his face—“whom the body belongs to, and whom the soul.” He removed a piece of sausage and bread from his raiment, cut a thin slice, and offered it to Nehemia. “You ought to accept,” the leper said when Nehemia politely declined. “It’s not every day that people like us can eat such delicacies. It came from the bishop of Krakow.” “I’m fasting,” Nehemia said, “in honor of Our Lady.” He once again passed his hand from the crown of his head to his shoulder. “Ahh,” the leper said admiringly while chewing heartily. “In honor of the visitation?” “Of course,” Nehemia replied hastily, “the visitation.” A cold sweat covered his skin beneath the peeling black layer. From the conversation that unfolded among the other passengers in the wagon, Nehemia quickly gathered the pertinent details. The visitation was when the Virgin Mary visited Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, when the two were pregnant. Heaven help me, Nehemia said to himself, this is just the beginning. I’m still lacking so much information in order to see this act through to the end.

The sun set and the wagon arrived at the outskirts of the city. “Come,” the leper motioned to him. “I’ll show you an excellent place to sleep, right at the foot of the monastery. Tomorrow we can be there before sunrise to watch the morning reveal the face of the Madonna.” “Ahh,” Nehemia mumbled, and he silently prayed a short prayer. Please, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God of David and Solomon, God of Abraham Elazar the Jew and Tubal Cain, please send me heavenly assistance in this sacred duty so that I do not stumble or falter in spirit. So that my ignorance will not defeat or thwart me from here on. Amen.

There is something about the grandeur of the Jasna Gora monastery that inspires awe in anyone who stands before it for the first time – an awe that is tinged with reverence for the Master of the Universe, Nehemia thought. The high turret, the fortified walls, the path that leads directly up to its gates. “Eh, Ivan,” Gyorgy bellowed raucously, tapping on Nehemia’s shoulder. “Your first time here, eh? It’s obvious. Stand and gaze for as long as you wish.” He crossed himself devotedly and went off to find a place to sleep at the edge of the wheat field. Beggars, lepers, and individuals with various deformities gathered in that corner to wait for dawn and anticipate the revelation of the Madonna’s face. For the Madonna, so they explained to Nehemia patiently, reveals her face during morning mass and then hides herself back away again.

Somewhere off in the distance a bonfire was kindled, musical instruments were strummed, and hoarse throats broke out in devotional hymns to the black Madonna. A bottle of cheap alcohol was opened and Nehemia lay on his back on the dry grass and observed the revelers from afar. He removed a hunk of dry bread from his raiment and broke it into crumbs, which he snuck furtively into his mouth. When he finished cleaning the crumbs from his beard he prayed the evening prayer stealthily, lay down on his back, looked up at the treetop and listened to the sounds of the revelers. While his mind was preoccupied with trying to devise a strategy to put on his Tefillin in the morning, sleep caught hold of him unawares.

Images leaped all around him: Berel the wagon driver, Fruma his wife, and then there she was – his daughter Shayna, joking just as he remembered her when she was eleven, no, twelve. That Shabbat it was Shimel’s turn to stand before the pulpit and chant “Anim Zemirot.” But when he got up and stood before the podium, his voice was softer than he’d remembered, and clearer, and then in a sudden frenzy Nehemia understood what the two of them had concocted – Shimel had given Shayna his clothes, since after all they were the same height, and she had covered her red hair in a prayer shawl to avoid detection. But the scoundrels, who can bear them, understood immediately what was going on and they approached her from behind and just when she came to the line “Radiant and ruddy, clad in red,” they pulled the prayer shawl off her head, exposing her fiery red braid to the startled eyes of the congregation. Nehemia carried her by the ear out of the synagogue and all the way home, his face burning with fury and his heart teeming with pride. Now the pride returned and filled his heart, the wrinkles of anger smoothed themselves out and the laughter burst forth and mixed with the images of the night. From outside his window the dancers sang, “From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses,” and Nehemia found himself mumbling along with them, “From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses.” Flaming torches leapt up before his eyes, and a violin and drum, and more and more faces took shape and then dissolved before his eyes. There was Nehemia leaping and dancing, with Shayna behind him, and Bird the dog behind her and images from the world above and the world below leaping before them, the circle sweeping him up along with it as he leapt and danced and leapt and fell and ran. Black dogs danced around him and atop him in the air, and the child prodigy Moshe-David circled round and round with a cloth belt tied over his waist and his eyes closed in rapt devotion.

A firm hand shook him awake. “Ivan, Ivan,” he heard Gyorgy’s voice. Nehemia recognized him from the noxious odor of his leprosy. “Get up, we need to start ascending. It’s almost sunrise.” Nehemia went off to stand among a cluster of trees and do his business, and once he had made certain that no one was watching, he snuck his Tefillin from his clothing, donned them surreptitiously, and hastily recited the abridged Havinenu prayer.

At Tara in this Fateful Hour (Berakhot 2a-5b)

The first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud begins, rather surprisingly, with an extended discussion of the architectonics of the night. The Mishnah opens with the question of how late one may recite the evening Shema prayer, but the lights remain dim as the rabbis go on to consider such questions as: How many military watches comprised a single night? Did the redemption from Egypt begin at dawn or in the dead of night? What did King David do from midnight until daybreak? Does twilight last longer than the blink of an eye? The sages pose answers to some of these questions, but I find myself left in the dark as I ponder: In a tractate on blessing and prayer, why begin with these extended nocturnal musings?

I was thinking about this question last night when my three-year-old daughter came into our room to report her most recent recurrent nightmare. “I had a dream about a bad guy who came into our house,” she told us. My husband is convinced that the bad guy in our house is her newborn brother, but needless to say we are not sharing that with her. Instead, we reassure her each time that her dream is not real – it is just a nightmare. Or perhaps not a night-mare but a night donkey, as per the rabbis’ explanation that the first watch of the night is the one in which a donkey brays. We tell our daughter that one of us will tuck her back into bed and sing her Shema again, and now I know why – the rabbis teach in the opening pages of Berakhot (5a) that the recitation of the bedtime Shema serves to ward off demons. And indeed, after our second recitation of the Shema, she usually sleeps soundly until dawn.

We sing Shema again to our daughter not just to ward off the demons, but also because prayer is a way of coping with fear. This is a lesson that has helped me as a mother. I try not to show my children my fear – I do not want to frighten them or add to their anxiety by exposing them to my own. And so whenever I feel too worried or anxious to be fully present for them, I instead break out in singing Esah Einai, a musical rendition of Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord…. He who watches over you will not slumber… The Lord will keep you from all harm.” My children know this is the song we sing when we need to daven for something important, and they willingly join in until the rise and fall of the melody soothes and comforts us all.

Perhaps the rabbis deliberately chose to begin the first tractate of the Talmud—which is about prayer and blessing—with a discussion of the night because certainly in the ancient world, the night was a time of tremendous fear and vulnerability. In the absence of natural lighting, it was unsafe to be out alone at night. And so it was at night, when people felt most fearful, that prayer felt most instinctive. Scientists speak of the “fight or flight” response, a physiological response to a perceived harmful event. But as the rabbis remind us, there’s another option – some of us, in such moments, naturally gravitate to prayer. We might think of it instead as the “fight or flight or recite” response – when we feel endangered we can counterattack or run away, but we can also speak to God.

The rabbis, who viewed prayer as an essential part of every Jew’s daily life, began their tractate on prayer by alluding to the night and to other moments of fear and vulnerability because it is at such moments that we are most inclined to pray. In an effort to make prayer seem natural, they began with those moments when prayer already felt that way: When we are alone at night, or when we are entering a crumbling ruin that might be haunted, or when we are lying very sick in our beds – all of which are scenarios considered in the opening pages of the tractate. Over the course of the tractate, they discuss various other impulses to pray – out of gratitude and longing and satiety, to give just a few examples. In these moments, it is harder to move ourselves toward a posture of prayer, because prayer feels far less urgent when we feel comfortable, safe, and content. By the time we get to the final chapter of the tractate, the rabbis teach that we have to thank God even when doing so feels counterintuitive and difficult – we are obligated to thank God for the bad just as we thank God for the good. And so the trajectory of the tractate begins with those moments when prayer feels most natural, where the impulse for prayer takes root, and then challenges us to reach a place in our spiritual lives where we are able to pray even when doing so feels most incongruous.

“Why begin with the evening Shema?” the rabbis of the Talmud ask about the opening Mishnah of the tractate. Why does the Talmud begin at night? Because when we feel alone and afraid and lost in the dark, we draw close to God. And once we learn to draw close to God out of fear, it becomes that much easier to draw close to God out of love. The dark times in our lives have the potential to bring us closest to God, and it is in our moments of fear and terror that we may offer our most eloquent expressions of devotion – a notion captured by a medieval Gaelic poem:

“At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the earth with its starkness:
All these I place,
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness!”

I first encountered this poem in Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, where it is recited by a star-gazing Charles Wallace who stands alone in the night trying to fight off the threat of nuclear war. His brother-in-law Calvin’s mother has taught him to recite this poem to ward off danger – placing “all Heaven with its power” between himself and the “powers of darkness.” The sages of the Talmud begin their tractate on prayer and blessing by invoking the powers of darkness in the hope that we, too, might learn to invoke the almighty help and grace of God by assuming the most fundamental of religious postures and accustoming our souls to prayer.

Toldot: Waiting at the Gate

Now that I am on maternity leave, I have been trying to come on time to pick up my children at school. I aim to get to the gate of school yard at least two or three minutes before the bell rings, so that by the time the kids come streaming out—my twins in their bright red school sweatshirts with heavy backpacks on their backs, my son in a light T-shirt oblivious to the weather and to the whereabouts of his schoolbooks—I am ready and waiting for them. I have noticed that there are several parents who congregate outside of the school gate every day to wait for their kids. Some even arrive a good ten to fifteen minutes early. And then there are the parents who show up breathless right as the bell rings, if not a few minutes later, scanning the schoolyard frantically for their kids who already ran off to play, having long-ago abandoned any expectation that a parent will be waiting to greet them.

I’m hoping not to be that kind of parent anymore. I want my children to hear the bell and have the confidence that their mother will be waiting at the gate, ready with a smile, if not also a snack. I want them to be able to count on me. In essence, I want them to enjoy the blessing that Isaac gives to both his sons, first to Jacob and then to Esau. In blessing his sons, Isaac invokes the dew: “May God give you of the dew of the heaven and the fat of the earth,” he tells Jacob, and then, in an echo of that blessing, he tells Esau, “See your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of the heaven above.” Rabbanit Penina Neuwirth explains that the blessing of dew is the blessing of reliability. Unlike the rain, which falls only in certain seasons and at unpredictable times of day, the dew appears every morning at dawn, regardless of the season. God tells the Jewish people in the Shema prayer that if they heed His will, the rain will fall upon them. Rain is conditional on our behavior. But dew is a daily unconditional guarantee.

As parents, there is room for both the conditional rain and the unconditional dew. There are times when we must reward and punish our children, showering or withholding our bounty depending on their behavior. But then there are the aspects of parenting that are entirely unconditional. When a small child wakes up crying at night, he should know, regardless of how he behaved that day, that his mother will come to him. When a toddler falls off the monkey bars and scrapes her knee, she should know that even if she wasn’t listening when she was told to come home a few minutes earlier, her father will nonetheless bandage her cut and ice her bruise. And when my children coming running out of school at the end of the day, they should have full confidence that their mother will be waiting at the gate to greet them.

Alice Shalvi writes in her memoir that as a mother, she was rarely around for her children. That said, she quotes one of her children who tells her that when she was home, she was far more interesting than the parents who were always there. Alice Shalvi did great things for Israeli women and for the Jewish people when she wasn’t at home. But that’s not the kind of mother I want to be – at least not right now. I imagine that when Shalvi came home at the end of the day, she burst in like a rainstorm, regaling her family with her stories. I’d like to be more like the dew, patiently waiting on the grass for my children to come to me.

“They also serve who only stand and wait,” John Milton famously wrote in a sonnet about his inability to serve God in the same way after he lost his vision. I, too, am somewhat incapacitated with a new baby; I can’t run around as much as I used to do. But I look at the parents who show up every day before the bell and realize that this too is a form of holy devotion. If I can stand and wait for my children every day, perhaps I am, in my own way, showering them in blessing.

Brit Milah — Yitzchak Tzvi

(Translation of speeches given at Shira Chadasha, Jerusalem, Shabbat Parshat Noach)

Ilana’s speech:

Last Shabbat morning my daughter came into our bedroom and asked me to read her from the children’s parsha book we read together every Shabbat. It was still early in the morning – Daniel had left for Hashkama, my mother-in-law was awake with Matan, and the other two girls were still asleep. At that point I had been having contractions since 2am, and so I decided to stand leaning on the edge of the bed so that I would be in the right position the next time a wave of pain came on. “Imma, why do you keep stopping in the middle,” my daughter asked me, as we went through the story of the creation of the world, the creation of life, the creation of humanity. Just when we got God’s words to Chava – בעצב תלדי בנים – in pain you shall birth children– I found myself unable to get through another line, and thankfully it was at that moment that Daniel walked in from shul and I told him it was time to go to the hospital to birth our child.

We generally think of God’s words to Chava as a curse, but as I have come to appreciate, they are in a sense also a blessing. God tells Chava that birth is going to take time, it is going to involve a long period known as pregnancy, הריון, and that pregnancy is not always going to go smoothly – it is going to involve עצבון. Rashi says that עצבון is the pain of raising children, but this has never really seemed like a satisfactory explanation to me, because the word Itzavon precedes Herayon in the biblical verse. And so I think of Itzavon as the disappointments that precede pregnancy, a reminder that a successful pregnancy often comes after pain and loss. By the time a healthy child is please God born, the parents are likely to have internalized the notion that every stage of bringing new life into the world is as miraculous as מעשה בראשית. In this sense God’s words to Chava very much parallel God’s words to Adam, who was told that he would have to eat bread by the sweat of his brow. Unlike in Eden, where food was readily available to be eaten right off the trees – according to one midrash, the fruit of Etz Hadaat was wheat – after the fall, mankind would have to work hard for his sustenance. Inevitably crops would fail, or be struck by blight, and a successful harvest – like a healthy baby – was something to be appreciated and valued.

I did not know if we would be blessed with another child, if our family would grow to seven. In Judaism the number seven has tremendous significance—from the seven days of creation to the seven words in the first verse of the Torah to the holiness of the seventh day and the seventh Shemitta year and the end of the seventh cycle at Yovel, as well as the seven branches of the Menora, the sheva brachot, the seven species of the land of Israel. Seven seemed to me like the perfect number, but as it seemed increasingly unlikely, I tried to remind myself of how blessed we already were. When I found out I was pregnant with this child at age 40, I immediately thought of Sarah Imeinu laughing in wonder and incredulity at the news that she and Avraham would have a child at their advanced age. Their son, Yitzchak, was the anticipated but unexpected bracha – they had held out the hope of they would have a child even as it seemed increasingly unlikely, even as they remained somewhat embarrassed about what others would think should their dream come true – כל השומע יצחק לי. But as we read on Rosh Hashanah and as we will read again in just two weeks, God remembered Sarah and Yitzchak was born, the laughter of incredulity became the laughter of joy, and what seemed wondrous became wonderful.

“Expand the space of your tents,” we read in the Haftarah this morning (Isaiah 54:4). We feel so blessed that our family has expanded – which brings me to Yitzchak’s middle name, Tzvi. The Talmud in Masechet Gittin compares Eretz Yisrael to a deer – just as the skin of a deer expands as its flesh expands, so too, the land of Israel expands when it is settled by more and more inhabitants. All too often it feels to Daniel and me like our hands and our hearts are full – how could we possibly handle another child, more responsibility, more Aruchot Eser to prepare every evening? Daniel’s father, for whom we have named our son, used to remind us that there was always more room at the table – and all the more so when we merit to set our table and raise our family in ארץ צבי. Miraculously, like the skin of a deer and like the land of Eretz Yisrael, our hearts have all expanded, and we are so thrilled to welcome this child into our family and into the world. May we all merit to experience the miracle of creation, the fruits of anticipation, the wonder and the wonderfulness of עשייה ובריאה. We pray that our son Yitchak Tzvi will continue to remind us that the laughter of our incredulity can become the laughter of our joy, and there is always more room for our hearts to grow. שבת שלום.

Daniel’s speech:

Our son Yitzchak Tzvi is named for his grandfather, Yitzchak Tzvi ben Yaakov v’Leah, Dr. Charles Feldman, may his memory be for a blessing. My father was an incredible person – an only child who grew up at the heart of a large, warm extended family in Elizabeth, New Jersey in a Jewish community his grandparents had founded. It was in this environment that my father learned to treat all people favorably and kindly. My father was a true Renaissance man: He was a devoted and dedicated doctor, a scholar who engaged in groundbreaking research in the fields of asthma and public health, a communal leader in his town of Teaneck, NJ, an advisor, study partner, and friend to many great rabbis, and above all, a beloved family man who always put his wife and children first. As a doctor who ministered to children suffering from asthma, my father was an old-fashioned physician in the best sense of the term: an important figure in the lives of his patients and their parents, who trusted him and sought his advice on various topics, not just medical. As a communal leader he was active in synagogues and Jewish educational institutions, including serving terms as president of Hovevei Tora and the Frisch High School. As his immediate family we were the beneficiaries of his kindness and pleasantness. He loved and treasured his wife, my mother Rella Feldman, may she live long, and he always had a smile and a kind word for his five children and ever-expanding circle of grandchildren. We have missed him deeply in the eight years since his passing.

Our Yitzchak Tzvi is the third grandchild to carry his grandfather’s name, following Charles Harold Feldman and Charles Shalom Hecht – and the threefold cord is not easily severed. But our Yitzchak Tzvi is the first of my father’s descendants to bear his name in the land of Israel. Given that our son merited to grow up in the promised land, we chose my father’s Hebrew name, which reflects the great blessing of having descendants who carry their forebear’s name. With the birth of our Yitzchak Tzvi, our dreams have come true – the dream of another boy, a fifth child and a little brother for Matan, Liav, Tagel and Shalvi, another Israeli grandchild for our wonderful parents, and a tenth Israeli grandchild for my mother, completing the minyan on this side of the ocean. Yitzchak Tzvi is a crown jewel for our family. This is the boy we prayed for but never expected. Our forefather Yitzchak was the first baby who entered into the covenant of Abraham, and the story of his birth is a reminder that every birth is miraculous. Likewise, each of Ilana’s births is wondrous and awe-inspiring. These are the foundational moments in our family’s life, where Ilana stands at the center. [Followed by Ilana’s speech]

Sitting in Shul with Kids

There is a custom that one should not speak between the Shofar blasts sounded on Rosh Hashanah at the conclusion of the Torah service and those sounded at the end of Musaf. It is a tradition that dates back at least to the tenth century and is quoted throughout medieval halakhic responsa. The rabbis explain that since a major purpose of sounding the shofar is to focus our minds on our prayers, we are supposed to remain in a state of heightened concentration throughout the full duration of the shofar blasts. I have known about this custom for a long time, but this year, for the first time since becoming a mother, I was able to observe it.

Ever since my children were born, I have been trying to train them to sit quietly in shul. I was blessed with easy births, and so I was able to bring each of my babies with me to shul the first Shabbat after they were born. In infancy each baby nestled in a carrier, feeling the rise and fall of my chest as my voice burst forth in song and prayer. When they got older I began bringing one child up to the Bimah with me each time I read from the Torah; they stood on a chair at my side and peered over my shoulder as I tracked the words with a silver Yad. Sometimes I worried that the child at my side would distract or interrupt my concentration, but then I would think of the verse from Parshat Nitzavim, ki karov elecha hadavar meod (“for this thing is very close to you”), and I would hope that I was teaching them what it means for Torah to feel close and accessible.

My oldest is now eight and my youngest is three, and I am constantly on the lookout for ways to keep them occupied in shul. I bring them books with interesting pictures so that they want to flip through the pages again and again, such as Peter Spier’s People and Karla Kuskin’s The Philharmonic Gets Dressed. I pack games that are compact, easy to clean up, and can be played silently on the floor, such as Double, Plus Plus and—created exclusively for this purpose — Magnetic Shul. And then I have my stash of snacks that can be chewed silently and consumed slowly without making too many crumbs; some of them are, admittedly, less nutritious than others. My children know that candy is off limits except in shul – last week my daughter pleaded with me to buy her sour sticks, and I gave in on the condition that we save them to be eaten only in synagogue. Each Shabbat morning they get one lollipop (two if they stay for Shacharit and Musaf!), and as they know well, the rule is that the lollipop must be entirely consumed in the sanctuary. It reminds me of the laws surrounding Maaser Sheni, the tithed produce that had to be eaten only in Jerusalem; the walls of Jerusalem had to “absorb” the tithe, and once they did, the produce could not exit the city. My children know that if they leave to go to the bathroom or play with friends, they have to deposit their lollipop with me. I make sure to keep the wrappers handy just in case.

I am aware that it all sounds a bit crazy and over-zealous. Why am I so intent on keeping my kids in shul with me, especially if they are not even paying attention to the prayer service? Why not just take them to the children’s service for a half hour and then let them run around outside, as most of my friends opt to do? What is to be gained by having my children sit at my feet for a couple of hours every Shabbat morning, sucking on lollipops and flipping through picture books?

I harbor no illusions. My kids are not learning to pray by sitting in shul. Even if I bring an illustrated kids’ prayer book, they rarely open it, preferring the other distractions in my bag of tricks. But I hope that with time, after weeks and weeks of sitting at my feet for the several hours of Shabbat morning davening, they will begin to absorb the rhythms of the service. “Malachim!” I whisper to them when they try to talk to me during the Kedusha, the prayer where we stand with our feet pressed together in imitation of the angels and mimic the call-and-response among the celestial beings as they seek out God’s presence. My children know that it is forbidden to talk during this “Angels” prayer, and sometimes they even press their feet together and rise up on their tiptoes and bow to the left and right alongside me, as if they too might transcend their sticky-candy-eating embodiment and rise to the level of angels. “Torah!” I tell them quietly at the end of the Torah reading, when the open, sacred parchment scroll is lifted high for congregation to see. Sometimes my children look up from their game, or come with me to kiss the Torah as it is paraded down the aisles. “Kohanim!” I murmur when the priests walk to the front of the sanctuary and stand beneath their tallitot to bless the congregation. Although it is forbidden to look at the priests as they recite their blessing, I am grateful for anything that catches my children’s eyes, and I don’t have the heart to tell them to avert their glance.

Since my Israeli-born children converse in the same language that we pray, the liturgy is more accessible to them than it ever was to me as a child. My three-year-old recently told me that Ein Keloheinu is her favorite prayer. It soon became apparent that she mistook the line “Mi K’Eloheinu”—who is like our God—for a reference to her friend in preschool and told me excitedly, “I have a Mika in my Gan!” (The irony is not lost on me.) Two of my girls, Tagel and Shalva, know to listen for their names at certain points in the service – whenever Tagel’s name appears in a haftarah reading, I make sure she listens up and takes pride in her cameo appearance. We were recently sitting next to my friend Efrat and her daughter Tehilla, a name that appears throughout the liturgy. When both our daughters’ names were mentioned in the span of a few verses of the haftarah for Nitzavim, I looked over at Efrat and whispered, “I guess this is a lot more exciting for us than it is for you.”

I don’t know if my kids will eventually consider the synagogue a home. When they are old enough to make their own decisions, will they choose to spend their Shabbat mornings praying as part of a congregation? I recognize that these matters are largely beyond my control. Even so, I hope that my husband and I will succeed in raising children who make their Jewish decisions from a place of deep familiarity with our traditions. I hope they will come to know the rhythm of the prayer service even if they ultimately march to the beat of a different drummer. Like the Talmudic story about the heretic Elisha ben Abuya, whose feet still counted out the distance that one may walk on Shabbat even after he had thrown off the yoke of the commandments, I hope that my children will always be able to name the weekly Torah portion even if they don’t go to synagogue to hear it.

Most of all, I hope my children will have learned from sitting beside their parents in shul how important prayer is to both of us. I suppose that’s why I care so deeply about my kids sitting in shul, even if my son is tearing through a mystery novel and my daughters are busy devouring sweets. One of my most powerful childhood memories is of watching my father wrap tefillin at a hotel in Disney World. He was a congregational rabbi for forty years and attended a daily minyan, where his presence was expected. When we were on vacation, no one demanded that he pray. And yet he prayed even in Disney World, which taught me that prayer was not merely part of his job description, but a duty of the heart. When my kids ask for a drink of water in the middle of the silent Amidah prayer and I hold up a finger sternly for them to wait, I am trying to impart the same message.

On Rosh Hashanah I had to hold up that finger many times. I managed to sit quietly in shul throughout all the Shofar blasts not because I banished my children from the sanctuary but because they sat there alongside me for much of the service, nibbling on rice cakes and brushing their dolls’ hair. My son, who attended an earlier (5:30am!) service with my husband Daniel, sat beside him reading a novel; when their service ended, he came to retrieve his sisters, so that they could go home with their father. For the last hour and a half, I sat in shul alone. I relished the quiet, but each time the Shofar was sounded, I thought of how its blasts resembled the inarticulate prayers of those who cannot access language – whether because their depths of emotion are too great for words, or because they, like my children, have simply not yet learned how to pray. Maybe by next Rosh Hashanah my son will open the prayer book and follow along, and maybe my daughters will not need quite so many lollipops. The shofar is supposed to sound like a wail or a sob, but this past Rosh Hashanah, it sounded to me like the voice of hope.

Counting Sheep on Rosh Hashanah

When I had trouble falling asleep as a child, my parents would tell me to count sheep. It didn’t work very well; I generally gave up on counting well before sleep overtook me. Now, as a parent of young children, I don’t have trouble falling asleep– I conk out the moment my head hits the pillow, before the first sheep can rear its wooly head. But sometimes when I sit at my desk in the daytime struggling to write, the cursor flashing on the blank screen as I fight off despair, I try counting sheep, hoping that if I stay there a little longer, something will come.

With the high holidays approaching, we think of God as a counter of sheep. The U’netaneh Tokef (“Let us speak of the awesomeness”), the medieval liturgical poem recited at the climax of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, describes the entire people of Israel passing before God like sheep:

As a shepherd herds his flock,
Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,
So do You cause to pass, count, and record,
Visiting the souls of all living,
Decreeing the length of their days,
Inscribing their judgment.

The image is resonant of the Biblical commandment of Maaser, whereby every Jew is obligated to give one tenth of his produce to God. The ninth chapter of the Mishnah in Bekhorot describes the procedure for tithing animals. Each year after the first of Elul, just before the high holiday season, the shepherd must bring his animals into a shed with a small opening so that only one can go out at a time. He passes his staff over each sheep as it exits the shed, counting them one by one. When he gets to the tenth, he marks it with red chalk and says, “Behold, this is the tenth.” The counting is an essential part of the tithing process; the Mishnah stipulates that if the shepherd merely takes out ten lambs from a flock of one hundred, the tithe is invalid. Each and every sheep must pass under the shepherd’s rod, just as each and every person passes before God during the Days of Awe.

By comparing human beings to sheep, the U’netaneh Tokef emphasizes both our commonality and our individuality. Each of us is part of a flock, and in that sense we are as indistinguishable from one another as sheep. But if we really were all identical, why would God examine us one by one? The fact that each of us must pass before God means that each of us receives our own divine judgment. In the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (1:2), where this image first appears, the rabbis teach, “On Rosh Hashanah, all the inhabitants of the world pass before God like B’nei Maron, as it is written, ‘He Who creates all their hearts as one, Who understands all their deeds’ (Psalms 33:15). God creates all of humanity, but each person is evaluated individually.

Yet we are not just docile sheep in God’s eyes. The Babylonian rabbis understood the Mishnah’s phrase “Bnei Maron” as referring to a flock of sheep, but for rabbis in the Land of Israel, the phrase was understood as a geographical reference to Beit Maron, a steep mountain where someone standing at the summit could observe all those ascending (Rosh Hashanah 18b). These images suggest that although we are ultimately at God’s mercy, we are also individuals with the agency to engage in the difficult uphill work of preparing ourselves spiritually to appear before God at the climax of the Jewish calendar.

This uphill climb is the work of striving to nurture the unique divine spark inside ourselves so that we may contribute to the world in a way that only we are able. For most of us this does not comes easily, and it often feels like a battle against competing impulses. No surprise, perhaps, that the Talmud also offers a militaristic interpretation of B’nei Maron as a reference to soldiers in King David’s army. Indeed, the term B’nei Maron comes from numeron, which is Greek for a legion or cohort. From this perspective, we are not vulnerable sheep but brave troops marching rank and file, trying to stay in line with the divine command.

Whether the image is sheep or soldiers, we file before God so that the Almighty can take note of each of us. This taking note is quite literal in the sense that the U’netaneh Tokef imagines God “recording” and “inscribing” our judgement. The next line connects God’s role as the counter of sheep with God’s role as a writer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die…

God spends Rosh Hashanah recording the fate of each of us, dictating who will live and who will die, and how those fated to die meet their end: Who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, and so on.

It seems that God counts sheep for the sake of writing. Only by counting each of us can God decide upon and record our fates. With the high holiday liturgy dominated by images of God as father and God as king, we may fail to note that being the Creator is also about being a writer, inscribing the fates of all human beings after considering them one by one.

But can we really think of God’s writing in the same terms as we think about human authorship? Rabbinic literature is no stranger to such analogies. “Were it not written, it would be impossible to say it,” the Talmud states on several occasions. This phrase is generally a prelude to a difficult theological concept which the rabbis try to root in a biblical verse. Since the concept has a basis in the written text, the rabbis argue, it has legitimacy no matter how brazen or outlandish it may seem. For instance, the rabbis in tractate Rosh Hashanah (17b) cite a biblical verse to prove that God wrapped God’s self in a prayer shawl and showed Moses the order of the prayer service. And so invoking this rabbinic phrase, I venture to make my own difficult theological claim, rooted in the imagery of the Unetaneh Tokef: The Creator is a writer, yes, but the writer is also a creator. The writer uses words to create worlds, just as God spoke the world into being during the six days when the world came into being. Creation through language is not a one-time event but the enterprise of all writers and poets throughout time.

The notion of the poet creating a world through language lies at the heart of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kublah Khan,” a poem about words and worlds and the struggle to write. In his preface, Coleridge explains that he wrote the poem one night after he fell asleep reading about Xanadu, the palace of the Mongol ruler Kublah Khan. He woke with a poetic vision of the palace, which he set about writing down, but he was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock and forgot the lines. The poem seeks to depict the glory of Xanadu while also capturing the poet’s despair at his inability to recreate that “stately pleasure dome” in words, including the damsel who appeared in his vision of the palace:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry “Beware, beware!”

The poet wishes that he could revive the symphony he heard and recreate the vision of the palace he saw in his dream, so that he might make domes and caves out of the airy immateriality of language. He knows that words can have a dangerous world-creating power – the type of power that makes people cry out “Beware, beware!” But the vision fled and the words eluded him, so the poem remained merely, as Coleridge put it, “a fragment.”

Coleridge was devastated that he could not put his vision of the palace into language. He longed to recover the dream of the dome and the cave, but it proved as evanescent as a passing shadow, a vanishing cloud, a fleeting dream. Yet he captured that failure in language, and his own shortcoming became an inspiration for generations of writers. A century and a half later, the American poet Stevie Smith confessed in “Thoughts on the Person from Porlock” that she herself longs to be interrupted when writing:

I long for the Person from Porlock
To bring my thoughts to an end,
I am becoming impatient to see him
I think of him as a friend,

Often I look out of the window
Often I run to the gate
I think, He will come this evening,
I think it is rather late.

I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.

Often I’m also hungry to be interrupted so that I might do anything but write. I distract myself for hours—and sometimes even years—by translating and editing other people’s articles and books instead of writing my own. It is so much more satisfying and gratifying to help other people build their pleasure domes, and besides, my own poetic visions often seem hazy and fleeting amidst the sleep-deprived fog of parenting young children. I am convinced, like Coleridge, that I will be unable to revive them within me. But then each year, when Rosh Hashanah rolls around, I beat my breast for failing to nourish the divine spark within me.

Before Rosh Hashanah, God translates our actions into our destinies for the coming year. The way we act this year determines our fate in the coming year, and so when God writes us in the Book of Life, it is in some sense an act of translation. And it is an act of editing as well. On Yom Kippur God seals us in God’s book. The fate God decrees on Rosh Hashanah is re-considered during the Ten Days of Repentance. For ten days, God revisits and edits what God wrote on Rosh Hashanah before giving it the final seal on Yom Kippur. “Were it not written, it would be impossible to say it” – but it is written that we must be holy because God is holy, and the rabbis explain that God’s actions should be a model for our own. Even as a translator and editor – let alone as a counter of sheep – I am imitating the Creator.

According to the rabbis of the Talmud, the world was created on Rosh Hashanah. As we proclaim in the liturgy of the day, “today is the birthday of the world.” And so it seems appropriate that on Rosh Hashanah we think about what it means for us to be creators, and what prevents us from engaging in creative work. God knows what is in our hearts, but sometimes what is in our own heart eludes us, and it becomes all too easy to run away from the difficult work of identifying what we were uniquely meant to contribute to the world. May the one who creates and understands all hearts teach me to understand my own, so that I might begin again.

July Fourth: A Festival of Light

Daniel and I are often oblivious to American holidays. Inevitably we forget about Mother’s and Father’s Day until our siblings start sending messages to our parents and we realize that we ought to chime in; here in Israel we instead have Family Day, a Friday in the winter when parents are invited to the preschools to sit with their children on low chairs, painting and modelling clay or creating some other sort of visual representation of one’s family to hang on the refrigerator until it’s replaced by a Tu Bishvat tree with a toilet paper roll trunk. We generally forget about Halloween entirely, since our families don’t celebrate it, but some time in the middle of November we try to remember to ask our parents and siblings about their Thanksgiving plans. Some of our American-Israeli friends make turkey dinners for Thanksgiving, but we never have; there are enough Jewish holidays to cook for already, and I’m not voluntarily taking on more time in the kitchen.

The one exception is July 4th, which coincides nearly every year with the annual Jersualem light festival, a series of art installations illuminating the walls, towers, gates, and other architectural features in the Old City in vivid color. Although we rarely go out together once the kids are asleep, each year we have tried to set aside one evening to get a babysitter and walk the cobblestone streets holding hands, enjoying the cool evening breeze and taking in the spectacle – video installations, three-dimensional projections on the building facades, and, for the first time this year, a giant illuminated disco ball flashing atop a giant crane.

We’d asked our Roman Catholic Indian babysitter to stay with the kids that evening. She lives in the Christian quarter and had been lamenting to us all week that her neighborhood had become even more of a tourist attraction than usual. She told us which sites—or which sites transformed into sights—we must be sure not to miss. But the other equally important guide was Daniel, who walks to the Jewish Quarter every shabbat morning at dawn to daven at the Kotel and knows all the shortcuts and all the loose rocks. As he led me by the hand up the twisty path to ascend Mt. Zion, he commented that the lighting at dusk is similar to the lighting at dawn; he was accustomed to the shades of gray. I thought of “The City in Gray,” Naomi Shemer’s song about Paris, which I grew up listening to on my parents record player. I always assumed the song was about Jerusalem, since it was in Hebrew; I’m not sure why the mention of the wharf didn’t give me pause:

If you want, I will show you
Show the city in gray
Come and let us go strolling
On the paving stones…
You’ll cover your head with a kerchief
When I give you my hand
And we descend to the wharf.

We didn’t see a wharf and we didn’t see or any fireworks, though I’m told there were some, but the illuminated walls all around us felt like a fitting July 4th festival of light nonetheless. We took one of our first “selfies”—I’m not a fan of the genre—while posing in front of Damascus gate illuminated with a dark-and-light geometrical pattern that recalled the Alhambra, before winding our way through Muslim and ultra-Orthodox families to head to the next attraction. We were surprised to bump into the Torah scholar whose daf yomi classes I listen to every morning; she was visiting Jerusalem with her family for the festival. The book of Proverbs compares Torah to light (23:6), and we exchanged a few words of Torah against a backdrop of columns of neon light. We were learning tractate Erchin, which I joked is the one tractate in the Talmud that deals explicitly with human values – the tractate is about individuals who vow to dedicate their own monetary worth, or the monetary worth of another person, to the Temple. The third chapter, which we were in the midst of, has a long excursus on the dangers associated with lashon hara—evil speech, or slander—with a discussion of the sin of the spies who spoke negatively about the land of Israel they had been sent to scout out. “Tonight the land of Israel—at least this corner of it—is beautiful,” I commented, feeling grateful that unlike the spies and their generation, we had been granted the privilege of making our home here.

Our walk back took us through Gei ben Hinnom, the valley of Hinnom, also known as Gehenna – the valley of hell, which was notorious in biblical times as site of child sacrifice. “Oh look, the food trucks are back this year,” Daniel commented. We’d noted already a few years ago that throughout the summer months some of the more famous restaurants in Jerusalem had set up food trucks in the valley to sell their food at discounted prices. Daniel had asked me earlier that week if I had heard anything about the food truck festival this summer. I’d joked that while our American counterparts were wondering about whether Trump would indeed go ahead with his plan to station tanks on the National Mall as a sign of America’s military prowess on July 4th, we in Jerusalem were wondering whether the city would bring the food trucks in the valley of hell. “I guess they’re both intended to achieve the same effect,” I joked with Daniel. “Americans are supposed to stroll across the National Mall and feel safe and protected by the military, and we’re supposed to walk through the valley of shadows and fear no harm.” I was quoted Psalm 23 in Hebrew, but Daniel responded in English, “I will fear no harm because thy sushi and burgers are with me,” he said, and the melding of old and new in his diction reminded me of the incongruity of children buying hot dogs in what was formerly a site where children were sacrificed to pagan gods.

We came home and checked our phones to find pictures of our siblings’ kids dressed in red, white and blue watching the fireworks and participating in a sand castle competition, and the latest news reports telling of rockets fired at Beer Sheva. Our kids, still blissfully asleep beneath their whirling ceiling fans, know nothing of July 4th and nothing of the political tension. We’ve never been in the States on July 4th, and Jerusalem, in recent years, has been a relatively safe place. Daniel and I agree that when the kids are a little older and can stay up later, we’ll take them to the light show and perhaps even make our way to the fireworks display. I doubt the flares of light will be red, white, and blue, but as long as there are no tanks in sight, it’ll be reason enough to celebrate.

How (Not) to Sin

In Sarah Perry’s masterful novel The Essex Serpent, set in 1890s England, a young boy asks the local parson to explain the nature of sin as the two are standing on the banks of a river by the ruins of an old ship known as the Leviathan. By way of response, the parson instructs the boy to throw a stone at the Leviathan skeleton. The boy casts his stone, and he misses. He tries again, and again he misses. The parson looks at him. “That’s all it is,” he tells him. “To sin is to try, but fall short… We think we know where we’re aiming, and perhaps we do – but morning comes, and a change in the light, and we find out we should’ve been trying in a different direction after all.”

The notion of sin as missing the mark is one of the many meanings of the term explored by David Bashevkin in his book Sin-A-Gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought (Academic Studies Press, 2019). In the book’s opening chapter, he surveys the various biblical and rabbinic terms used for sin and considers their implications: What does it mean to think of sin as a debt we must pay? How is sin as deviation different from sin as transgression? How do we envision our relationship with God if we think of sin as a missed opportunity, like a stone that misses its mark? And why do we Jews seem to have as many words for sin as the Eskimos have for snow? He brilliantly concludes this chapter by invoking Isaiah’s prophecy, quoted each year in the Yom Kippur liturgy, that if our sins be like crimson, they will whiten like snow. Bashevkin writes, “However many words Eskimos have for snow, we pray that our sins will eventually be described with one of them.”

This homiletic tone is not uncommon in this book, which not only explores the various aspects of sin in Jewish thought but also shows us how we can live better in spite of our cognizance that inevitably we will fall short. In the introduction, he notes that we all enjoy summarizing our lives in brief biographical blurbs that highlight our accomplishments and conveniently omit our setbacks. Bashevkin quotes, in consecutive paragraphs, both Orwell and the Kotzker rebbi, who were suspicious of those who keep their good deeds public and their bad deeds private. He encourages his readers to include a “one-sentence tribute to one of the thin envelopes you have received in your life.” Here, as at various points throughout the book, it seems as if Bashevkin is speaking from the pulpit, perhaps to an audience of youth group members; he works as the Director of Education for NCSY, the Orthodox movement’s youth group, and it is clear from his writing that he has a talent for finding just the right colorful anecdote or quotation that will keep his audience engaged.

Sin-a-gogue is organized thematically, with each chapter exploring another aspect of the Jewish view of sin – from Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden, to religious apostasy, to character studies of some of the most famous flawed heroes and anti-heroes, including the biblical figure of Akhan who took from the forbidden spoils of war in the book of Joshua and the rabbinic figure of Acher, who was excised from the boundaries of the Jewish community in Mishnaic times. Another chapter, on sinning for the sake of heaven, is largely a character study of the biblical figure of Esther, who slept with a non-Jewish king (albiet entirely passively, as per the midrash) so as to save the Jewish people. Can sinning ever be holy, Bashevkin asks?

In one of the most compelling chapters, Bashevkin considers the question of whether God repents, starting with a midrash about how God demands that the moon diminish itself so that it does not rival the sun, and then atones for doing so. If repentance is not necessarily divine, forgiveness certainly is, and here Bashevkin considers Moses’ plea with God to forgive the Jewish people in the wake of the golden calf episode. Surprisingly he alludes only briefly to the story of Noah, which one would expect to occupy a much larger place in the story of God’s repentance – after all, no sooner than God creates the world, God nearly destroys it, and then pledges never to do so again. What are we to make of the fact that the Creator regrets creating the world, only then to regret destroying it? And why does this episode play such a prominent role in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, when we are focused on our own repentance? Instead, Bashevkin concludes the chapter by invoking the Hasidic thinker Rabbi Zadok, who writes of God’s attempts to return back to man. Throughout the book, Bashevkin draws heavily on Hasidic teachings, from the Baal Shem Tov to Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav to Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef, the founder of the Izbica-Radzyn school.

Bashevkin quotes impressively from a wide range of literary and philosophical sources, moving freely between Jewish and non-Jewish writers to juxtapose Milton and Nahmanides, or Hume and Maimonides. Only rarely do his references feel gratuitous, as when he reassures his readers that just as Stephen Hawking tried to omit equations from A Brief History of Time so as not to alienate his readers, he will try to omit Talmudic terminology. Occasionally his tone will shift to become unnecessarily moralizing; a chapter on “religious frustration as a factor in religious motivation” begins with a lament about those who turn to religion during difficult life moments, when, according to Bashevkin, they might better be served by turning to “simple, healthy social interactions” or the “guidance of a mental health professional.” Perhaps Bashevkin, in his role as educator, has an appropriate forum in which to raise such concerns, but this book does not seem to be it. Besides, I would argue that in our modern, secular era, people are far more likely to turn to therapy or to yoga when instead they might draw on the resources their religious tradition has to offer – prayer, community, the routine of ritual observance. Although Bashevkin ultimately concludes this chapter, after a reading of Jonah’s religious motivations, by conceding that “religious integrity is not determined by the door through which you enter or even the length of your stay,” it is unclear whether he retracts his lament from the chapter’s beginning.

Of course, one can hardly expect a book on sin and failure to be flawless, and Bashevkin is the first to acknowledge his own shortcomings in his biography. But he has succeeding in writing an entertaining, edifying, and eclectic (if at times a bit too much so) survey of an important aspect of Jewish thought. “A person cannot stand on words of Torah until they have caused him to stumble,” Bashevkin quotes from the Talmud, and those who stumble across Sin-a-gogue will no doubt discover, within its pages, much to stand on.