Mrs. Frisby and Zechut Avot

We are reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH because Matan is interested in animal intelligence. He recently listened to a podcast about rats who were trained to drive small cars, and then he saw the cover of Mrs. Frisby, which depicts a group of rats carrying an electric cable. So I’m reading the book aloud to the big kids after school. Yesterday we met the rats for the first time. Mrs. Frisby, a widowed field mouse and a mother of four, approaches the rats because she needs help – she has just learned that in five days Farmer Fitzgibbon will plow the winter soil, destroying the tunnels and holes and nests and cocoon of all the animals burrowing there; but Mrs. Frisby’s youngest son Timothy is too sick and weak to relocate. At the advice of a crow, Mrs. Frisby takes counsel with a wise owl, who is at first dismissive – he tells her there is nothing to be done. But then as she is about to leave, he asks her name, and learns that she “Mrs. Jonathan Frisby,” wife of the late Jonathan Frisby.

That in itself required a fair amount of explanation. How could a Mrs. be named Jonathan? Was Jonathan also a woman’s name? Even after they understand this archaic method of address—I ought not to have used the example of Mrs. Daniel Feldman, because then they called me that all afternoon—why was Mrs. Frisby’s husband late? Is it because after you die, you can never come on time? I tried to rush through the explanations because the kids wanted me to read on, but I had something else to tell them first.

When the owl learns that the mouse who has come to seek his counsel is the wife of the late Jonathan Frisby, he changes his tune. Suddenly he is all too eager to help her in any way he can. He tells her he was an admirer of her late husband, and he will do whatever he can to save Timothy’s life. He instructs Mrs. Frisby to go to the rats that live in the rosebush on Mr. Fitzgibbon’s farm, and to be sure to tell them who she is. She must mention her husband and then they will let her in. Mrs. Frisby does not know why, but once again she will learn that her husband’s name opens doors for her that would otherwise remain firmly shut.

“What does this remind you of?” I ask the kids, and they already know what kind of answer I am looking for. “What does this remind you of?” is a question I ask them often, and as they know, it invites a specific kind of answer. It’s the equivalent of the question frequently asked in the Talmud: “M’na haney miley – where do these words come from, that is, how do we know this?” In the Talmud the response is always a biblical verse, or a rabbinic exegesis on a biblical verse, which serves as the prooftext for whatever it is the rabbis are claiming. A sukkah can’t be higher than twenty cubits, says the Mishnah. How do we know this, ask the rabbis? Because the Torah says, “So that your descendants know that I caused the Israelites to reside in Sukkot.” So long as the sukkah is twenty cubits or less, a person will be cognizant of dwelling in it; once the roof is higher, a person does not know where he or she is dwelling because the eye can no longer catch sight of the roof. My kids are more interested in Mrs. Frisby’s urgent need to find a new temporary dwelling place before her winter house is plowed. What am I trying to elicit from them?

I tell them that when we start davening the Amidah, we always invoke zechut avot – the merit of our ancestors. We don’t just stand before God and start asking for whatever it is we want. First we remind God that our forefathers are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the ones God made a covenant with and promised to sustain. Once we remind God that we are their descendants, God is more likely to listen to our prayers. By the merit of our ancestors, we receive a divine audience each time we pray.

“But Mrs. Frisby isn’t mentioning her great great great grandparents – she’s mentioning her husband,” Matan quibbles. “The one who was always late,” he adds, just to make his sisters titter. I tell him that it’s the same idea. Mrs. Frisby invokes her husband for the same reason that we invoke our forefathers every time we pray. We know that our own merits are insufficient, but we are fortunate to be related to individuals much greater than ourselves who can open doors for us.

Even our forefathers invoked their own fathers, I tell them. In this week’s parsha Jacob prays to God to be delivered from the hands of his brother Esav, whom he is preparing to meet. He says, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac… deliver me, I pray” (Gen. 32:10,12). Jacob feels that he does not deserve God’s kindness on account of his own merits alone: “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have shown Your servant.” But while he may be unworthy, his father and grandfather are certainly not. God will help Jacob by the merit of Abraham and Isaac, just like the rats will help Mrs. Frisby by the merit of her late husband.

But how will the rats help her, and will their help come fast enough? In five days the plow will destroy their home. “Ima, keep reading,” Matan urges eagerly. And I will, until we come to the next biblical intertext, which is surely not that far off. My children are used to these interruptions. The fiction I read them is inherently valuable, but almost nothing in our home remains secular for long. Whatever novel we are reading becomes a springboard for learning about the parsha, or about Torah more broadly construed. Scholars of midrash argue that for the ancient rabbis, biblical verses were often treated as a springboard for discussing other aspects of Jewish learning. The rabbis would go through each verse in a biblical book and then launch into an excursus about some teaching loosely connected to that particular verse. This is why the exegetical midrashim on Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are so lengthy and encyclopedic – there is so much learning to associate with each and every verse. I try to follow their example, using fiction they used the Bible, so that various passages in the novels we read serve as frameworks for expounding on Torah.

Just when I am about to turn the page to start the next chapter, I recall that the only reason Mrs. Frisby was afforded a consult with the owl was because the crow carried her there on his back. And the crow carried her on his back because he owed her a favor – not long ago, in a previous chapter, she had rescued the crow from the farmer’s fearsome cat. It was middah k’negged middah, as the sages called it – measure for measure. One good turn deserved another. Mrs. Frisby was not just riding on her husband’s coattails when the crow offered to carry her on its back and take her to the owl. It was by the merit of her own good deed that she had won a favor from the crow, who brought her to the owl, who sent her to the rats, who would help her save Timothy. Dayenu, I decided. It was enough for one day. That lesson would wait for tomorrow.

Vayishlach: Keeping Things Whole

In this week’s parsha, Jacob is described as being shalem, a term that is often translated as “whole” and connotes peace, completion, and perfection: “And Jacob arrived shalem to Shechem” (Gen. 33:18). This verse appears after an account of the patriarch’s mounting anxiety as he anticipates encountering Esau and the surprising anticlimax that follows. Jacob, after sending abundant gifts of cattle to appease his brother and praying to God for deliverance, resorts to the desperate measure of dividing his family into two camps, in the hope that if Esau were to attack, he would lose only half his family. To his surprise, however, he finds himself struggling not with Esau but with a mysterious figure who approaches him in the darkness while he waits alone on a river bank. Somehow Jacob succeeds in fighting off the unnamed aggressor and concludes that he has seen “Peniel” – the face of God. Even more surprising, when Esau finally makes his appearance, he kisses and embraces Jacob, and the brothers part in peace. Having successfully navigated these two encounters – one with an angel who acts like an aggressor, and one with an aggressor who acts like an angel – Jacob arrives at Shechem in a state of perfect, complete, and peaceful wholeness.

The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) interprets this type of wholeness as having three components: It refers to Jacob’s body, his finances, and his Torah study. In spite of his limp, and in spite of his generous gifts to his brother, and in spite of the fact that he has just spent twenty years working as a shepherd for his uncle, Jacob nonetheless arrives at Shechem feeling content physically, financially, and intellectually. It seems that this sense of wholeness is related less to objective circumstances and more to the way that Jacob feels about himself following the challenges he has managed to overcome. The Torah goes on to relate that Jacob, upon his arrival in Shechem, “encamped before the city” (Gen. 33:18). The word for “encamped,” va-yichan, comes from the same root as chen, meaning “grace.” The rabbis explain that Jacob graced the city by acting as benefactor, furnishing it with new coins, marketplaces and bathhouses. Jacob arrives in Shechem feeling so whole and complete that he is able to give of himself freely and generously.

The Talmudic discussion of Jacob’s arrival in Shechem appears in the context of the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) a first-century sage who spent thirteen years hidden in a cave studying Torah with his son to escape Roman persecution. When Rashbi emerges from the cave, it is after years of subsisting on only the carobs and water miraculously provided by God. His skin is so flayed that his son-in-law immediately takes him to a bathhouse to tend his wounds. Presumably he has no material possessions to speak of, having just spent his life cut off from human society. But as he assures his son-in-law, his years of privation have been worthwhile, since he has attained prominence in Torah. He declares, “Since a miracle has been performed for me, I will go and fix something.”

It is at this point that the Talmud references Jacob’s sense of wholeness, noting that Jacob, too, made a contribution to the city where he had newly arrived. The juxtaposition of the stories of Jacob and Rashbi allows for one story to illuminate and fill in the gaps in the other. Rashbi believed that a miracle had been performed for him, and presumably Jacob did as well, having just been spared a potentially violent and devastating clash with his brother. Jacob assured Esau that “God has favored me and I have plenty” (Gen. 33:11), just as Rashbi assured his son-in-law that he did not mind his wounds because they were a testament to his single-minded devotion to Torah. Both men found themselves at a place in life where they felt safe, secure, satisfied with their accomplishments, and ready to give to the world around them.

When Jacob and Rashbi reach that place of wholeness, they do not rest or retire; they immediately look around them to see what needs repair. Rashi, commenting on “vayeshev Yaakov”—”and Jacob settled” (Gen. 37:1)—explains that Jacob wanted to settle down in tranquility at the beginning of next week’s parsha, but God said to him that righteous people do not merit to settle in tranquility in this world. They must always be rushing around to make the world better. It is only by moving that they remain whole, complete and shalem, as American poet Mark Strand captures so beautifully:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

When we feel whole, we are able to keep other things whole. After Jacob’s intense introspection and Rashbi’s extended isolation, both men reached a point in life where they were able to turn their focus outward and share their gifts with the world. Indeed, perhaps their greatest gift is the worthy example they set for all of us.

Vayetze: The Morning After

Our parsha tells the story of Jacob’s marriage to two sisters, Leah and Rachel. A simple reading of the biblical text suggests that Rachel was Jacob’s beloved—the woman he fell in love with at first sight when he met her by the well upon his arrival in Haran—whereas Leah was her unloved older sister whom Jacob was tricked into marrying against his will. But the Talmud contains several midrashim that tell a different story – a story that has much to teach about the complexity of love as it unfolds over the course of marriage.

The Torah suggests that Jacob’s love for Rachel was related to her extraordinary beauty: “Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel” (Gen. 29:17-18). In contrast, Leah is described as the “hated” wife: “The Lord saw that Leah was hated” (29:31). But the Talmud offers a different reading of these verses amidst a discussion of the laws of inheritance in tractate Bava Batra (123a). The rabbis consider the relative status of Reuven, Leah’s eldest son, and Joseph, Rachel’s eldest. They explain that God had originally ordained for Rachel to give birth to Jacob’s firstborn, but then Leah pre-empted Rachel on account of her prayers. While Rachel succeeded in winning over Jacob with her beauty, it was Leah who succeeded in winning over God with her appeals to divine mercy.

The rabbis link Leah’s prayers to her “weak eyes,” which the Torah contrasts with Rachel’s beauty. They explain that Leah’s eyes were weak from crying because she feared the fate that awaited her. But contrary to what we might expect, it was not the fate of being Jacob’s unloved wife that she feared, but rather the fate of marrying Jacob’s twin. The Talmudic sage Rav relates that Leah used to sit by the crossroads and listen to the gossip of passersby. The word on the street was that since Rivka had two sons and Lavan had two daughters, the oldest son was destined to marry the oldest daughter, and the youngest son was intended for the youngest daughter. When Leah heard that she was to be matched with Rivka’s oldest son Esau, she inquired about his character, and was told that he was an evil bandit, whereas his younger brother Jacob was a quiet tent-dweller. Leah was so distraught at the prospect of marrying the evil twin that she cried and prayed for divine mercy until her eyelashes fell out. While the prophet Jeremiah immortalized the image of Rachel crying inconsolably by the roadside for her exiled children (Jer. 31:14), in the midrash, Leah sheds her own share of tears at the crossroads.

Leah cried her eyes out until her tears drained her of her beauty, which was presumably one reason that Jacob found Rachel more attractive. Rachel was also the kindred spirit he fell in love with at first sight when he first arrived at the well in Haran; he met Leah only later, in the domestic space of the home of Uncle Lavan, who was eager to marry her off. Even so, according to the rabbis, Leah wasn’t truly hated. After all, Leah was one of the matriarchs and so she must have been righteous; how then could the Torah speak negatively of her? The answer, according to Rav, was that when the Torah refers to Leah as “hated,” it is not referring to Jacob’s hatred for Leah, but rather to Leah’s hatred for Esau – a hatred which God regarded as meritorious. It was because Leah hated “Esau’s actions” that God opened Leah’s womb and gave her children.

Though Leah was unlucky in love, she was favored when it came to fertility. She was the dependable wife who could be counted on to get pregnant with ease, in contrast to her sister who cried out in anguish, “Give me children or give me death” (30:10). A midrash in tractate Berakhot (60a) teaches that when Leah became pregnant for the seventh time, the fetus was originally a boy. Leah knew that twelve sons were destined to be born to Jacob. She had already birthed six sons, and the handmaidens had birthed four sons between them. This left only two more boys, and Rachel was still childless. So Leah prayed to God, who turned the child into a girl – Dinah. Once again, Leah appealed to God’s mercy, but this time she asked God to have compassion not on herself, but on the sister she had so long resented for being the more beloved wife.

Did Jacob always love Rachel more than Leah? At the end of his life, Jacob recalls the deaths of his wives in language that suggests that they each had a unique place in his heart. He recounts to his son Joseph that “Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan… and I buried her there on the road to Efrat” (48:7). The loss of his beloved Rachel was devastating for Jacob, but it is beside Leah that he asks his sons to bury him: “Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Efron…there I buried Leah” (49:29-30). While Rachel represented the passion of his youth—a passion that never died—Leah represented the stable relationship that developed and deepened over time.

In a sense we might think of Rachel and Leah not as two separate women, but as two aspects of the same woman. Yehuda Amichai captures this notion beautifully in a short poetic fragment (my translation):

Morning now, and behold you are Leah; you were Rachel last night.
It wasn’t Laban who deceived me in darkness with spite.
It has always been this way – by darkness, by light–
Now you are Leah. You were Rachel last night.

Every Rachel in the evening becomes Leah the morning after. The fiery passion of youth is eventually contained inside the steadily-burning hearth. Perhaps for this reason, both women are mentioned in the marriage blessing at the end of the book of Ruth (4:11): “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel.” It takes both a Rachel and a Leah to build up the house of Israel, and in every loving partnership we can learn from their example.

Sinai in the Cranny of the Gym

When my twins told me about their upcoming Chumash ceremony, I at first did not believe them. “Ima, on Rosh Hodesh Kislev we have a Mesibat Chumash – everyone is going to receive their own copy of the Torah,” they told me excitedly. “Are you sure?” I asked them, knitting my brows in suspicion. The first of Kislev was only two days away. The school usually sent out calendar notifications weeks in advance. Even if it was just a Zoom link—which I assumed it would be—I expected that the teachers would have sent it by now. Prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai, God gave the Israelites three days’ notice, instructing Moses to “Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:11). Why hadn’t we heard anything about this event?

I thought back to my son’s Chumash ceremony two years earlier, held in the spacious high-ceilinged sanctuary of a local synagogue because the school auditorium—also known as the lobby—was not large enough to contain all the parents, grandparents, and siblings who came to celebrate the occasion. The room was decorated with branches and flowers, as is customary on Shavuot as well, because of the tradition that Mount Sinai was carpeted with flowers and greenery during the revelation. The children sang and danced and paraded before us in their “festive dress” – white shirts and dark pants and skirts, and a paper crown with a pop-up of the Ten Commandments over their foreheads. One by one they were called up by the school rabbi, who shook their hands and handed them a certificate; then their teacher hugged each child and presented a Chumash. Afterwards the parents lingered to mingle and take more photos and only very slowly did the crowd disperse.

I knew that with the twins it would be different. The pandemic is far from over – the Chumash ceremony is generally held at the end of first grade, just when the kids begin learning Genesis, but now it’s already November of second grade. They finished Breishit and started Noah two weeks ago — just last night I clarified for Liav that no, Yephet was not a girl, but a boy like Shem and Ham. I wasn’t expecting to be invited—even at Sinai there were boundaries: “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death’” (19:12). It was dangerous to draw too close to Sinai when God descended in a cloud to give the Torah, just as it was dangerous to congregate too closely in Corona times. But I would have thought that at the very least we’d receive a Zoom link so we could watch the ceremony from afar.

I almost forgot about the event until I receive a Whatsapp message from the teacher instructing us to dress the kids in “festive dress” the next day. Instead of the school uniform, a solid-colored shirt with the school logo, the girls went to school in their white shirts and black skirts—the same ones they had worn when they organized their own Siddur ceremony at home during the lockdown. But otherwise it felt like a regular day, at least for their parents. When I came to pick them up, they were waiting at the school gate clutching their new Chumashim to their chests, eager to show me the nameplates they had inscribed for themselves: “May I always learn new things in Torah”; “I hope I always find joy in learning from my Chumash.”

“How was the ceremony?” I asked them. “What happened?” They told me that each second grade class had been called to the gym at a different time to receive their Chumash from their teacher. The school rabbi played his guitar from the other side of the basketball court and sang a few songs, his mask lowered to his chin so he could project his voice; the students clapped along from the bleachers. There was a white tablecloth covering the folding table where the Chumashim were stacked, but other than that, the room was unadorned—Tagel told me that the floor mats were still out and she wished they had let her turn some cartwheels. The kids chanted a few verses from the opening of the Torah, and then filed back to their classroom to eat their lunches—the unexciting sandwiches and cucumber slices their parents packed every morning—at their desks.

We were still outside the school. I asked the girls to pose by the fence so I could take their pictures holding up their new Chumashim. They shrugged. “Ima, it wasn’t such a big deal,” Liav insisted. I was dismayed that the event did not seem more significant in their eyes. “Let’s have ice cream after lunch today,” I offered, hoping to make the day feel more special. But as they took off their shoes and washed their hands, I realized that something other than dairy dessert was in order to mark the giving of the Torah. There was something I needed to tell them.

“You know guys,” I told them, addressing my words to both Bnei Yisrael and Beit Yaakov. “Everyone thinks that Maamad Har Sinai happened at just one point in time. That Moshe went up to Mount Sinai, received the Torah, gave it to the people, and that was it.” Matan, who was sitting at the table with us, cut me off, convinced he knew where I was going with this. “Not true,” he said. “Moshe went up the mountain two times because he broke the first set.” That was true, I conceded, but I had something else in mind.

I told the kids about what happens after God gives Moses the Ten Commandments and after the golden calf episode, when Moses is all alone with God. Moses, having pleaded successfully with God to forgive the people, audaciously demands to see God’s glory. God responds, “You cannot see my face, because man cannot see Me and live” (33:20). However, God concedes that Moses may see His back. God instructs Moses, “Station yourself on the rock and as My Presence passes by, I will put you in the cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back, but My face must not be seen” (33:21-23). I explained to the kids that this was a sort of private revelation, for Moses alone.

I wanted the kids to understand that revelation was not just about the grand theophany at Sinai, when God came down in a cloud of fire with thunder and lightning, accompanied by shofar blasts as the mountain trembled violently. There was also a more subdued revelation that took place without the special effects, when Moses stood alone in the cranny of the rock and saw God from behind. I told them that their Chumash ceremony was sort of like that revelation in the cranny of the rock, since it took place not on the pulpit of a synagogue sanctuary decorated with greenery and crowded with family and friends, but in the bleachers of the otherwise empty school gym.

The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot (3:6) that God is present wherever people sit and study Torah. Even if only one person is engaged in the solitary study of Torah, the divine presence rests upon that individual. I told the girls that every time they opened their Chumash to learn from it, the Shechina would be right there with them. It was a lesson I never would have thought to impart had my girls not received their Chumashim in the cranny of the school gym, their faces obscured by Corona masks.

That night, scrolling through my camera roll, I noticed that the photo I had taken of my girls holding their Chumashim on our way home from school was suffused with a radiant light. I noticed, too, that I had forgotten to ask the girls to take off their masks for the picture, and so I could not see their faces. I thought of Moses coming down the mountain with his skin all aglow – the people were blinded by his radiance and shrank from coming near him, so Moses put a veil over his face. Is a veil like a Corona mask? Is the light of the divine presence like the light in Jerusalem on a crisp autumn afternoon? Hard to know. But one thing is for certain. Though it was a revelation devoid of fireworks and fanfare—no thunder, no lightning, no mountain aflame—my girls in the gym at school had received the Torah.

Prayer as Pitchfork (Toldot)

This week’s parsha takes its name from the “generations” of Isaac, but in the opening verses, Isaac is forty and still childless. His wife Rebecca is barren, and Isaac pleads with God on her behalf. Only then does Rebecca conceive twins, ensuring that the generations of Isaac will continue. Isaac’s groundbreaking prayer, discussed in the Talmud, offers us a lesson in what it means to sow the seeds for a more flourishing future.

The Talmud considers Isaac’s prayer in the context of a discussion in tractate Yevamot (64a) about the case of a married couple who are unable to bear children. The Mishnah teaches that if a man remains married to a woman for ten years and she does not conceive, he is “not permitted to desist” from the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and therefore must divorce her and/or marry an additional wife. The rabbis question whether ten years is really the limit, citing the example of Isaac, who married Rebecca at age forty (Gen. 25:20) but did not become a father until twenty years later (Gen. 25:26). They explain that Isaac is different, because he himself was infertile and therefore he knew there would be no point in divorcing his wife. With this example, the Talmud demonstrates that the law stipulated in the Mishnah is not as clear and absolute as it might seem – there are special cases and exceptions, especially when it comes to a matter so difficult and devastating.

In describing Isaac’s prayer for a child, the Torah uses an unusual term: “Isaac pleaded (va-ye’etar) with the Lord.” The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yitzchak, discussing his namesake, explains that this word comes from the same root as the word for “pitchfork” (eter): “Just as this pitchfork turns over the wheat from one place to another, so the prayer of the righteous turns over the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, from the attribute of rage to attribute of mercy.” Just as the pitchfork turns over the wheat, Isaac’s prayer turns over God—moves God, as it were – to make his wife fertile. Of course, as we now know better than ever before, in our modern age of science and technology, prayer is only one way of seeking to alleviate infertility. But the Talmudic rabbis use the case of Isaac to make an argument—provocative and controversial—about the power of petitionary prayers.

“Why were our forefathers infertile?” the Talmudic rabbis ask, and then go on to answer their own question: “Because God desires the prayers of the righteous.” How can God care more about eliciting prayer than about allaying human suffering? And yet perhaps it is the knowledge that God needs our prayers that can begin to allay our suffering. When confronted with situations that seem so painfully beyond our control, we feel our vulnerability and our dependence on God. In such moments, the Talmud teaches, it may be instructive to remember that God, too, is dependent on us – “because God desires the prayers of the righteous.”

This explanation comes up at only one other point in the Talmud, in the context of the fertility of the soil. The rabbis in tractate Hullin (60b) note that whereas the Torah relates on the third day of creation that “the earth brought forth grass” (Gen. 1:12), we are also told on the sixth day that “no shrub of the field was yet in the earth” (2:5). If the earth brought forth grass on the third day, how was there no vegetation three days later? Rav Asi explains that the grass emerged on the third day and stood poised at the opening of the ground, but did not grow until Adam came and prayed for it – which is meant to teach that “God desires the prayers of the righteous.” And so before Adam came along on the sixth day, there was indeed no “shrub of the field.”

The term used in the creation story for “shrub of the field” is siach ha-sadeh. The Torah employs a similar phrase later in Genesis when recounting that Isaac went out in the late afternoon “to meditate in the field” (la-suach basadeh) (Gen. 24:63) – a phrase the Talmudic rabbis understood as a reference to prayer (Berakhot 26b). Adam prays for the still-barren soil and Isaac prays in the fields and then for the alleviation of his wife’s barrenness. As the Talmud suggests, their prayers do not just nourish the natural world; they also, as it were, sustain and nourish God.

The connection between the growing blades of grass and the prayer of the human heart is captured beautifully in Shirat Ha-Asavim, a song by Naomi Shemer based on sources from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav:

Know that each and every blade of grass has its own song…
How beautiful and pleasant to hear their song
It is very good to pray among them and to serve God in joy.

Isaac, who prayed among the blades of grass when he meditated in the field, ultimately succeeded in arousing divine mercy – his wife became pregnant with twins. Our parsha teaches that once Isaac became a father, he “sowed seeds in that land and reaped a hundredfold” (26:12). Issac the infertile patriarch is transformed not just into a father of multiples, but also into a sower of plentiful seeds. From the formerly impotent Isaac we learn about the potency of prayer to coax forth dormant potential – in the earth, and within ourselves.

Ivy, Bean & Clementine: A Series of Her Own

They say that twins ought to have separate identities. They should be allowed to cultivate different interests, and to have different friends. But for a long time we didn’t take this advice seriously. Our twins seemed to enjoy being in the same preschool and playing together with the same friends. The typical Israeli Gan resembles a one-room schoolhouse – it is big open room with a small kitchen area and bathroom off to the side, and a back door leading into a large yard with riding toys, a jungle gym, a wooden house where the kids can hide and play “Mishpacha,” family – known in English as “playing house.” During recess at Gan there were only two places to be – inside and outside. Liav always preferred the corner with the dolls, whereas Tagel wanted to be upside down on the monkey bars. At night I read them the same books simultaneously on Liav’s trundle bed which pulled out from Tagel’s; they slept just like they were positioned in the womb – twin A on the bottom, twin B on top. Liav sat on the side closer to her pillow; Tagel sat closer to the foot of the bed, and each girl snuggled up beside me. We were all inhabiting the same fictional world, whether it was the cottage where The Seven Silly Eaters were preparing Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake, or the zoo where the otters and leopards were Wild About Books, or the treehouse where The Berenstein Bears were watching Too Much TV. When I turned the last page of the last book in the stack on my lap, it was as if we were all on the same plane that had just landed with a thud, jolting us back from the cottage or the zoo or the treehouse to a darkened room lit by a reading lamp with the door closed and the girls beside me yawning and pleading for just one more story.

Now it is different. In our new house the girls sleep on opposite sides of the room, each on her own twin bed elevated off the floor by a box spring. Sometimes I read them both picture books, but more often they read to themselves. Ever since first grade their social lives have diverged – they are in separate classes, they play with different friends during different recess periods, and after school they have separate playdates. And at night in bed reading, they no longer inhabit the same social worlds either. Their beds are lined not just with stuffed animals but with a new assortment of fictional friends who come to visit every evening between bathtime and lights out.

At first I assumed the girls would just share books. We are allowed to take out eight books from the library at a time – I figured that meant that each girl would read her books and then exchange them with her sister. But for the most part Liav was uninterested in any book that Tagel had already read, and vice versa. Neither girl wanted to enter into a world with which her sister was already familiar. At first I didn’t notice, because in any case only Tagel would agree to read with me; Liav read voraciously in Hebrew but refused to read in English, especially as Tagel increasingly found her stride. I was reminded of an earlier stage of their development when Tagel had begun crawling but Liav refused to move anywhere; Tagel used to fetch anything Liav needed while Liav sat there regally. Each evening Tagel was delighted to lie next to me in her bed and take turns reading pages with me in Ivy & Bean, a series about two best friends living a few houses over from one another on a quiet cul-de-sac in a leafy American town. Tagel fell in love with both friends, perhaps because she saw elements of herself in each of them: She is athletic and spunky like Bean, but also bookish and self-reliant like Ivy. If I were to draw a caricature of Tagel, she’d be reading while standing on her head, legs shooting high up against the wall and face obscured by an upside-down paperback of Ivy & Bean. It sounds, come to think of it, like an illustration right out of an Ivy & Bean book.

The illustrations are part of the genius of this series, because they not just decorative but explanatory. Each black-and-white line drawing is perfectly accurate, capturing all the details in the text such that the young reader who does not understand a part of the story can look to the accompanying illustration for the clue. The illustrations are a sort of Rashi’s commentary, illuminating the text but also adding more details to fill in the missing parts of the picture. Rashi, who lived in eleventh-century France, was the preeminent commentator on the Bible and Talmud. Sometimes he merely explains what is meant by a given word or phrase, but often he will round out a story by adding details from the literary exegetical literature known as midrash. Tagel has been known to pore over the illustrations with the intensity of a scholar poring over the marginal notes in a sacred tome, teasing out every last detail, like the erasers. Ivy and Bean have a collection of them – 56 erasers in different shapes that they use to play Eraser Valley, in which the various eraser figurines battle hurricanes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. Tagel spent at least ten minutes examining each eraser in the drawing, and she wouldn’t let me turn the page until we each picked our favorites. She wanted Liav to weigh in as well, but Liav refused to set foot in Eraser Valley. Ivy & Bean was Tagel’s domain, and Liav wanted no part of it.

Eventually Liav agreed to start reading with me, but it had to be her own series. Ivy & Bean was Tagel’s social world; Tagel had already befriended not just the titular characters, but also the family members and classmates who comprise a cast of supporting characters in each of the books. We had plenty of Ivy & Bean books on our shelves, but if Liav were to begin reading in English, she needed her own series. I was transported back to that moment when we’d decided to separate them for first grade. Liav needed her own friends – she wasn’t going to tag along with Dusit and Emma and Sophie S. and Sophie W. and Ivy and Bean’s other classmates. (Sophie S. and Sophie W.! I love the ingenious verisimilitude of two characters with the same first name distinguished by the first initials of their last names, though the author of course has the whole name dictionary at her disposal. It is so true: Nearly every elementary school classroom has at least two kids with twinned names who have to lug around the first initial of their last names in order to individuate.)

Liav knew that if she entered Ivy and Bean’s milieu, she would always be known as Tagel’s kid sister. Tagel would be books and chapters and pages ahead of her, and Liav would forever lag behind. Tagel would know just how to annoy her sister; she would pretend she could hardly hold herself back from spoiling the endings and wink at me above Liav’s head to show off what she and I already knew but Liav had not yet read. Literary scholars use the term dramatic irony to refer to a situation where the audience knows more than the characters; Tagel would always know more than Liav and would lord it over her sister, twisting dramatic irony into cruelty. Liav wanted none of it. And so I found her a series of her own.

Instead of the quiet cul-de-sac of Pancake Court, Liav and I found a home for ourselves in an apartment building in Boston, where eight-year-old Clementine—the well-intentioned but troublemaking heroine of the eponymous series by Sara Pennypacker—lives with her father, mother, and young brother. We befriended Clementine’s best friend Margaret, though we both agreed she was a bit stuck-up and obnoxious sometimes. We laughed together at Clementine’s antics and cheered her on when she managed to shine against all odds. We both agreed that the best book in the series was the one about the class talent show, in which spunky Clementine—convinced that she has no talent whatsoever and therefore can’t participate in the show—ends up helping the principal run the entire production, thereby proving that she has talent after all. We agreed, lying there in her bed together, that sometimes the best talent is just being yourself and finding the way that you can be most helpful. I told Liav that she had an extraordinary ability to connect with her young sister – often she was the only one who could understand what was upsetting Shalvi and calm her down. That too is a talent, we agreed. Liav has many talents in the conventional sense, but we both took away from the book an important lesson: Sometimes the art you create is not something you sketch or perform but the arc of the life you live by just trying to be your best self, day in and day out.

At night I alternated between reading Ivy & Bean with Tagel and Clementine with Liav. Sometimes I imagined their bedroom was divided down the center, midway between their beds – Tagel’s side of the room was lined with the potions Ivy had concocted in training to become a witch; Liav’s side was decorated with Clementine’s drawings. When we had ample time to read, I traveled from Boston to Pancake Court as I made my way from one bed to the other, sitting in on Ivy and Bean’s classroom and then on Clementine’s, joining in on one family dinner and then the other. I tried to keep their friends straight, but sometimes I’d get confused, and Tagel would look at me with a puzzled expression when I jokingly referred to baby Yitzvi as Mushroom, and then I would remember that it is Clementine—Liav’s friend!—who teasingly refers to her younger brother by various vegetable names.

I didn’t always make up the pages I’d missed when the girls read on their own, but I tried always to check in so I was up to date. “Did Clementine get sent to the principal again?” I’d ask Liav on our walk home from school, and it wouldn’t seem at all strange to her that I was asking about a fictional character and not a member of the class with whom she had just spent the morning. “This reminds me of the secret spot in Ivy’s backyard,” I’d comment to Tagel when we found a quiet corner of the park in which to change Yitzvi’s diaper. These comments, though seemingly offhand, became a way for me to connect with each twin individually – a sort of secret language that only we shared.

The two series of books are not all that different; they both feature annoying siblings, misunderstanding teachers, friends who show-off too much, and parents who seem at times unfairly strict. But then again, Liav’s school friends are not all that different from Tagel’s; they gravitate to the same kinds of girls, and occasionally they all end up playing all together in the yard after school, blurring the class boundaries. Inevitably there are arguments about who is allowed to play with whom, and who is considered a closer friend. These arguments are normal and perhaps even salutary. But at least when it comes to their fictional friends, there is a clear divide: Clementine will never play in the backyard at Pancake Court, and Ivy and Bean will never ride Clementine’s school bus. Sometimes the best talent is being yourself, which can be hard for all children, and especially twins. I’m grateful that Liav and Tagel each has her own fictional space—small enough to fit into her side of the bedroom, but large enough to fill the expanse of her imagination—in which to daydream, develop, and discover her talents.

Possession: A Romance (Hayey Sarah)

In the immediate aftermath of Sarah’s death, Abraham is consumed by the task of purchasing a plot of land in Canaan in which to bury his wife. At first the Hittim offer the land for free, and indeed we might think that Abraham would take them up on the offer – after all, God has just promised all the land of Canaan for him and his descendants. But in spite of the divine promise, Abraham insists on a financial deal that is fair and square, and he buys the land at full price for 400 shekels. This seems at first glance to be merely a dry account of an economic transaction, but when we dig deeper and look beneath the surface—this is, after all a story about burial—we see that for the rabbis of the Talmud, the burial of Sarah became the basis for several foundational discussions about marriage, ownership, and what it means for our love to outlive us.

On the first page of Masechet Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud that deals with betrothal, the rabbis draw explicitly on the story of Sarah’s burial to derive the law that a man may betroth a woman in any one of three ways – with money, with a document, or by means of sexual intercourse. The rabbis explain that the way we know that a woman may be betrothed by means of money is because of the story of Abraham’s burial of Sarah in our parsha. Just as the Torah uses the term “take” (kicha) to describe how a man marries a woman (“When a man takes a wife and possesses her,” Deuteronomy 24:1), so too does the Torah use this term to describe Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot (“Let me pay the price of the land, take it from me,” Gen. 23:13). And since we know that Abraham purchased the land with money, the rabbis conclude, we also know that a woman may be betrothed by means of money.

The notion of a woman being acquired by money—as if the woman is an object that can be owned—is antithetical if not outrageous to our modern sensibilities, especially since the transaction must always be the husband’s initiative. But as the analogy to Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot suggests, a woman is actually not like a commodity that can be transferred freely from one person to another, but rather like land, which is something else entirely. Throughout the Talmud the rabbis distinguish between moveable property (m’taltelin) and land (karka). Moveable property like a refrigerator or a bicycle can be owned fully. But as we know from the laws of the sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:23), the only one who truly owns the land is God; we humans are merely temporary custodians put on this earth to work it and to safeguard it. Land may belong to someone, just as one spouse may belong to another in marriage; but land, like a person, can never be truly owned.

And while the analogy between betrothal and burial may still seem unromantic, we must remember that it is not just any land that Abraham is buying – it is land in Canaan, the beloved homeland of the Jewish people, and the land that God has promised him. Abraham’s love for Sarah thus becomes a metaphor for the Jewish people’s love for the land of Israel. Our parsha suggests that theirs was quite a fierce love; when Sarah dies, Abraham weeps profoundly over her loss: “Sarah’s lifetime came to one hundred and twenty-seven years…and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her” (23:1-2). Regardless of how complex their marriage may have been—there was tension over the angels’ visit, tension over Hagar and Ishmael, and at least according to the midrash, tension over the Akedah—Abraham was devastated by Sarah’s death.

The Talmud in Bava Batra (58a) tells a story about a sage named Rabbi B’na’a whose job it was to mark burial sites so that people would not inadvertently step over them and contract impurity. When he came to the cave where Abraham and Sarah were buried, he discovered that Abraham was lying between Sarah’s arms, and she was caressing his head. It is a testament to the power of love to outlast even death, as articulated so beautifully in the Song of Songs (8:6): “For love is as fierce as death.” On account the force of his love for this woman to whom he promised himself in marriage, Abraham was determined to bury Sarah in the land promised to him by God. His “taking” of this land, like the “taking” of a woman in marriage, is not merely an economic transaction, but a model of what it means to be possessed by a love we can never truly own.

My Children and the Giant Peach

We are reading James and the Giant Peach and I’m not quite following this storyline. I’m reading aloud to the kids from my childhood copy, which is covered in red crayon scribblings. Even as a child it seems I didn’t care much for this book – I don’t remember being upset when a younger sister or brother defaced the back cover. I’ve never related much to animal stories, even when the animals are just stand-ins for human beings. In the same way that I can’t bring myself to follow the plot in animated films, I need real people in my books. I know it’s blasphemous to say so, but for me, Where the Wild Things Are is a book about a boy who gets in trouble, has an adventure, and then comes back home to find his supper still hot. My eyes glaze over the entire middle section, where Max becomes king of the Wild Things. I want to know what Max did wrong to deserve being sent to bed without supper, and whether his supper is still hot because his mother warmed it up again or whether we are supposed to conclude that he was away for no time at all because the wild things were in fact just a dream. I am far more preoccupied with the domestic drama than with where the wild things are.

This is my third time rolling down the garden slope inside the cavernous peach, and I still don’t remember much of the middle, where James meets the grasshopper and ladybug and centipede and all the other animals who have made their home inside the fully-furnished fruit. I’m caught up in the human story that begins, like so many of Dahl’s beloved tales, with a child in an unhappy family who gets lifted out of his misery by a fantastical turn of events that lands him in an entirely different and much-improved situation. James’ parents die in an accident that recalls the famous parenthetical at the beginning of Lolita, where Nabokov relates succinctly but suggestively that the narrator’s mother “died in a very freak accident (picnic, lightning)” – leaving us to imagine the rest. James’ parents “suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.” I read that line quickly and looked up to see if the kids had followed. It’s a sentence that demands a pause when reading aloud – you don’t just go on breezily to the next paragraph after the main character’s parents get eaten by an escaped zoo animal, even if you’ve only known that character for two pages.

“Ima, keep reading, keep reading,” my son urged, as he does whenever I stop. I want to ask the kids if this reminds them of anything – of all the other books we’ve read in which the parents die or disappear on the opening pages. It’s every child’s fantasy and nightmare – to be liberated from their parents and to find adventure elsewhere, in a large country house with a secret garden or an enormous wardrobe leading to another realm. But my kids have already moved past the rhinoceros accident and want to know what it going to happen to James. So I read to them about the two horrible aunts who take him in, the fat, greedy Aunt Sponge and the bony, ghastly Aunt Spiker, who put James to work chopping wood. Until one day James meets an elfin old man, small and balding, who hands him a bag of magical green seeds, but James trips, and the seeds spill and fall into the earth – and we worry for a moment that this will be another devastating loss for recently-orphaned James. Except that instead it leads to all sorts of marvelous adventures involving the insects that ingest the seeds and the peach that grows magically bigger and bigger and eventually tramples the hideous aunts to death, so that for much of the book James is the only human character and the drama revolves around the centipede’s boots and the earthworm’s blindness and I keep reading but I’m not paying all that much attention anymore.

And yet my kids are riveted. They pore over every picture, trying to make out the finest details. They ask me questions about the intricacies of the plot – how exactly does James use the earthworm and the spider’s silken threads to bait the seagulls and rescue their sailing peach from the sharks threatening to eat it? I have to stop every few pages to remind them to take another bite of their sandwiches – we read during lunch, as soon as they come home from school and before they start their homework. They forget the food in front of them, their mouths gaping open I read of the giant peach that rises out of the water on seagulls’ wings.

Meanwhile I’m still focused on the elfin man and his bag of rustling green seeds, which transport James out of his wood-chopping drudgery into a world of magical creatures. School is not all that exciting for my kids, and nor is an afternoon of homework and violin practice and the unvarying evening triumvirate of bathtime, dinner, bed. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, and they can’t invite friends over or attend birthday parties or play in the crowded playground. But the books we read are the magical seeds that lift the kids up, up and away from the fractions and the sandwiches and the violin scales. I feel fortunate that I get to be not just their parent—disciplining and demanding because daily devotion demands that too—but also the elfin man who bends down to proffer the magic. In a way I’m luckier – he scurries away leaving James with the bag of seeds, but I get to watch them grow and sprout. With every page we read together, our home reminds me more and more of the magical giant peach.

The Divine Marriage Counselor (Vayera)

When the angels visit Abraham to inform him that he will soon father a child, Sarah listens in from the sidelines. “Where is your wife Sarah?” (Gen. 18:9), the angels inquire, as if they are uncomfortable relaying news that will affect her so intimately—transforming not just her destiny but also her physical body—without at least knowing her whereabouts. The Torah relates that Sarah was listening from the entrance of the tent and Abraham was behind her, presumably unaware of her presence. When Sarah hears the news, she laughs b’kirbah, in that same inner space in which Rebecca would later feel the twins moving inside her (“and the boys struggled in her womb, b’kirbah,” [Gen. 25:22]). It is an instinctive laughter, one that is followed but not preceded by language: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” (18:12). Sarah may be laughing out of joy and wonder, but God gets angry at her seeming lack of faith and confides in Abraham – an exchange which the Talmud draws on to offer a lesson in the relative merits of truth and peace.

The Talmud in tractate Yevamot (65b) discusses this scene in an extended passage about the merit of preserving peace and harmony between individuals. The Talmud cites several instances in which biblical characters deviated from the truth or told a “white lie” in order to avoid causing offense. Following Jacob’s death, for instance, Joseph’s brothers told Joseph that their father had commanded them to tell him to pardon them (Gen. 50:16-17). Jacob never said any such thing, but his sons falsely attributed this statement to him in order to make peace with Joseph.

The Talmudic passage culminates with the assertion that even God deviated from the truth in order to make peace between individuals, citing a verse from our parsha: “Then the Lord said to Abraham: Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?” (18:14). This reads like a quote within a quote, but it is in fact a misquotation. Sarah actually expressed surprise at the news given her husband’s advanced age, but God omits all mention of Abraham. “Great is peace,” teaches the Talmud, since even God departed from the truth to preserve peace. God did not want Abraham to be angry at Sarah for laughing at his age, and so God stepped in as marriage counselor and emended Sarah’s words for the sake of peace.

The midrash in Leviticus Rabbah (9:9), picking up on this teaching, contains an extended discussion of the value of peace. Rabbi Yishmael points out that peace is so important that God was even willing to allow His great name to be blotted out in water for the sake of marital harmony. This is a reference to the Sotah ritual, in which a scroll containing God’s name is erased in water in a trial by ordeal conducted in the Temple to prove whether a woman suspected of adultery is guilty or not. According to the Talmud, God’s signature is truth (Shabbat 55a), and so when God’s name is dissolved in water, truth is erased for the sake of peace. Sometimes it is necessary to embellish or to change the details ever so slightly so as to avoid offending another person or mend a rift, and even God is not above dissolving truth for the sake of peace.

And yet perhaps the tension is not really between truth and peace, but between two different kinds of truth. There is the truth of what “really” happened – what we might call factual or objective truth. This is the truth that historians and scientists are beholden to, and it would be wrong if not criminal to willfully deviate from it. But there is also the truth of what we mean and what we feel at any given moment – what we might call emotional truth. This is the truth that poets and novelists seek to capture. Often a novelist will develop the germ of a character or scene from real-life people and events and then change the details while remaining true to the emotional reality – and, in so doing, offer deeper insight into how it feels to be a particular person, or to undergo a particular experience.

The factual or objective truth, based on what Sarah uttered, was that she was incredulous that her husband might bring her pleasure when he was so advanced in years: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” (18:12). But the emotional truth, which she could not even bring herself to say, is captured by her laughter and articulated by God: Sarah was astonished by the possibility of miraculously conceiving after so many years of hoping against hope. God, cognizant of what was happening b’kirbah—in her womb, and in her innermost self—reinterpreted her words so that they reflected this emotional truth and thus restored peace between Abraham and Sarah, who went on to name their long-awaited child for the laughter invoked by God to heal the rift.

Abraham the Astrologer (Lech Lecha)

From the moment he first encounters God, Abram is promised that he will become the progenitor of a great nation. Ultimately his name will be changed to reflect this destiny – Abram will become Abraham, meaning av hamon goyim, “a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5). But for the duration of parshat Lech Lecha, Abraham remains childless, and even he—a man of such great faith that he uprooted his family in response to a divine call—begins to doubt God’s promise. Our parsha offers us a fascinating window into Abraham’s struggle with faith and doubt, offering us a way to navigate our own theological uncertainties.
As our parsha relates, following Abraham’s journey to Canaan, his descent to Egypt on account of famine, his subsequent return to Canaan, and his war against the four kings, Abraham finds himself in a crisis of faith: “O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless” (15:2). In response, God takes him outside and instructs him to “look toward the heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… so shall your offspring be” (15:5). The parsha book my children read beautifully illustrates this page with a dark sky filled with connect-the-dot constellations in the shape of little babies. And indeed, this sounds like a rather poetic promise—Abraham will have as many children as the stars in the sky—until we realize that Abraham was not just the first monotheist, but also an eminent astrologist.
Perhaps the most extensive treatment of astrology in the Talmud appears on the penultimate page of tractate Shabbat (156a), in which the sages debate whether the Jewish people have a mazal or not. (Mazal refers to a celestial body – when we say mazal tov, we are basically wishing that the stars should align.) The issue under discussion is whether astrological predictions apply to Jews, or whether divine providence overrides astrology. The third-century Babylonian sage Rav, who argues the latter, cites evidence from Abraham’s dialogue with God under the starry sky. According to Rav’s reading, Abraham expressed concern to God that his horoscope indicated that he would not have a son. God then took Abraham “outside” – not just outside into the night air, but also outside of his astrological mindset. God informed Abraham that while the planets control the fate of the Jewish people, God controls the movements of the planets. Even though Jupiter was situated in the west, God would move it to the east, thereby altering Abraham’s destiny and ensuring him an heir.
This is not the only Talmudic source that associates Abraham with astrology; after all, he came from the land of the Chaldeans, who were known for their astrological prowess. In tractate Bava Batra (16b), for instance, the Talmud interprets the verse “and God blessed Abraham with everything” (Gen. 24:1) as signifying that Abraham was so knowledgeable about astrology that all the kings of east and west would come to seek his wisdom. But it seems from Rav’s reading of the verses in our parsha that the true greatness of Abraham was not his skill at reading the stars, but rather his willingness to relinquish astrology in favor of faith in God.
The Torah relates that after God told Abraham to count the stars, Abraham “put his faith in God, and He reckoned it to His righteousness” (15:6). The Torah’s term for righteousness, tzedakah, is nearly synonymous with tzedek, the Hebrew name for Jupiter, which serves to explain why it is that particular planet that God had to shift. And indeed it took tremendous faith for Abraham to believe in God, especially when we consider that this exchange with God about counting the stars seems to have taken place not at night, but in broad daylight. This is apparent from the biblical verses that immediately follow God’s instruction to Abraham to count the stars. Abraham, commanded by God, takes a heifer, goat, ram, turtledove and bird and sacrifice them for the covenant of the pieces, and “as the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him” (15:12). If the sun set during the covenant of the pieces, then God must have told Abraham to go outside when it was still day.
God told Abraham to count the stars at a time when there were in fact no stars visible in the sky, such that he could only imagine their presence. This kind of imagining is an affirmation of faith that recalls the anonymous inscription discovered in the wall of a German internment camp following World War II: “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I feel it not. I believe in God even when He is silent.” Abraham had to count the stars even when he could not see them, and he had to believe in God’s promise even though the heavenly signs indicated otherwise. No wonder he serves as such a powerful religious model for us today, reminding us then even when God’s face is shrouded in darkness, we must nonetheless conjure forth points of light.