Lying with My Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: Restricted Access

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in the World of Cordelia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siyum Masekhet Shekalim (and Siyum HaShas #2)

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

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

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

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

The Literary Canine

The porch of our apartment overlooks a dog park where the neighborhood dogs run around at all hours of the day, to my children’s delight. I’m not sure when they became so dog-crazed, though it surely began with Matan, who spends countless hours sitting on a bench inside the enclosed fence of the dog park watching the various dogs chase one another, petting any who come near and chatting with their owners. Now the other kids have begun joining him, and even Yitzvi, who still doesn’t say a word, will bark “hav hav” whenever he spies a cat or a dog or anything with four legs and fur. At dinner, when I finally manage to drag the kids home—sometimes I wish I had a long leash I could yank on to pull them up from the park directly into our third-story apartment—they are often too excited to eat, regaling us with stories about how Eva is being trained, and why it’s not safe for Patat and Joy to be in the park together, and how old Skye was when his owner first brought him home. I try to turn the conversation to matters of Torah or literature, but to no avail. The literary canon cannot compete with illiterate canines, and the best I can do is read to them books about dogs.

A few weeks ago, when I asked Liav to choose a new book to read together, I was surprised when she picked Henry and Beezus – another novel by the author of Beezus and Ramona which features many of the same characters. I had read the kids the entire Beezus and Ramona series during the first Corona lockdown, and I assumed that Liav just wanted more. But now I wonder if perhaps she was drawn to the book because of the dog on the back cover – the book is not just about Henry and Beezus and the neighborhood kids, but also about Henry’s dog Ribsy, who is responsible for most of their adventures. Liav, for as long as I can remember, has been petrified of dogs, but now that is changing. She is becoming a dog lover too, to our astonishment.

I used to think, back when Matan was two and the twins were just learning to walk, that I could tell my children’s personalities based on the way they greeted dogs. Every day, on our walk up the railway track park coming home from Gan, we would pass several. Tagel would bound forward and pet them. Liav would burst into tears if any dog came close, even a tiny puppy on a short leash. Matan would eye any passing dog circumspectly and reach for my hand, checking to see if the dog was friendly. In some ways they haven’t changed: Tagel is still exuberant, Liav remains terribly sensitive, Matan is just as guarded and methodical. But Liav is finally overcoming her fear of dogs, thanks to Matan, who takes her to the dog park at least once a day and insists that she sit by his side. He tells us he is “training” Liav to get over her fear, in the hope that we might then get a dog of our own. The truth is that we won’t get a dog regardless—Daniel and I are of one mind about that—but we’re happy for any activities the kids do together. And so Matan is training Liav to overcome her fear of dogs, and I’m training Liav to read more fluently in English, and he is as happy when she doesn’t cower as I am when she doesn’t give up in the middle of a paragraph about Henry and Ribsy and insist that I take over.

Ribsy is always getting Henry into trouble. He runs off with the meat the neighbors are preparing to grill on their barbecue. Then he steals all the newspapers and risks Henry’s chances of getting his own paper route. And then, when Henry ties him to a parking meter outside the supermarket, he lands Henry with a ticket from the police. Matan, who often comes in to curl up at my feet and listen when Liav reads aloud to me, assures me that when we get him a dog—it is always when and not if—we won’t need to worry about any of that, because he’s going to train it all by himself. “You know that to train a dog, you need to wake up very early to take it out for walks,” Daniel informs Matan, who generally rolls out of bed and staggers into the kitchen fifteen minutes before the school bell rings. Sure enough, the next morning, Matan set an alarm and was up by six to play with the dogs before school. On Purim morning, when one of the dog owners informed my kids that she’d be walking her dog at 5:30am, Matan managed to set an alarm and get himself out in time to join her – in costume. Not surprisingly, e dressed up as a dogwalker, dragging around Yitzvi’s stuffed talk on a leash he had made by looping together all our rubber bands.Matan would love to be a professional dog walker, but for now, he’s content taking out the neighbor’s dog every few days. I insisted on coming with him the first time, because I felt responsible for making sure everything went smoothly – what if the dog stole meat off a grill, or ran off with someone’s newspaper? But I didn’t stay for long. As soon as soon as I saw Matan confidently scoop up the poop and discard it neatly, I realized that he didn’t need me.

On Shabbat mornings, when we return from shul, we often find Matan dressed in nice clothes but out in the dog park. I’m glad he’s finally managing to get himself dressed for Shabbat—we used to come back and find him still in pajamas, reading in bed by the light streaming in through his window—but I wish he would come with us to shul. “You don’t have to spend the whole day at the dog park,” I tell him when he doesn’t even want to come home for lunch. “It’s bitul zman, don’t you think?” Bitul zman, wasted time, is a phrase I use often with my kids when I question the activities they choose. (Do the twins really need to spend two hours trading items in their Mishloach Manot packages of Purim candy? Bitul zman! Will I let them run off with the Ipad to watch an inane Youtube video? Bitul zman!”) I’d like instead to use the phrase Bitul Torah—implying that they are wasting valuable time that might be spent studying Torah—but my kids are not there yet, and I’m content with any number of other more wholesome alternatives. And yet Matan can’t imagine a better use of his time than getting to know the dogs. “Ima, go away, you’re being like Tock,” he dismisses me, reminding me of another favorite literary canine, the watchdog in The Phantom Tollbooth – a literal watch-dog with a head, four feet, a tail, and the body of a large ticking clock. Tock spends his days sniffing around to make sure that nobody wastes time, and in a way, Matan is right — that’s me. “Do you know how much time you’d have to spend caring for a dog?” I ask him, and when his eyes light up, I realize I need to try another line of argument.

“We don’t need a dog because we have Yitzvi,” I venture, trying to convince him that his little brother comes close enough. Need someone to take out for a walk? Yitzvi is always happy to toddle around the park holding on to someone’s hand. Need someone to get you out of bed early? Yitzvi’s generally ready to rear by 6am. Need someone to eat the leftovers? Yitzvi is generally content to eat the sandwich crusts and browned apple slices that the kids return from school in their lunch containers. Every evening I defrost four pitas so the kids can make themselves sandwiches in the morning. They slice off the tops so as to make an opening through which to fill the pocket with chumus or cheese or peanut butter or tuna. The four sliced-off tops are deposited on Yitzvi’s plastic yellow plate, and he gnaws at them while the other kids rush around packing their schoolbooks and brushing their teeth. Then he makes off with their toothbrushes and hides them in the most unexpected places – under the sink, in the washing machine, inside the chicken soup pot. He reminds me of Harry the Dirty Dog, who hides his brush so no one can wash or groom him. Yitzvi,too, hates baths and hates being groomed, though he was born with a full head of hair. He is hirsute and cuddly and he follows his siblings around adoringly. With him around, who needs a dog?

A few nights ago, after the dog park had emptied, the kids had eaten dinner, and Yitzvi was asleep in his crib, I started reading the older kids from my childhood copy of Bridge to Terebithia, a story about a lonely twelve-year-old boy named Jess who feels adrift in the world – until a new girl named Leslie moves in to the farm next door and they build an imaginary kingdom together. Last night I read the Christmas chapter, in which Jess struggles to think of an idea of a gift for Leslie. He is riding the bus home from school one day when a sign out the window catches his eye, and he asks the driver to stop and let him off. “Free Puppies,” said the sign, and so Jess brings Leslie the furry gift of Prince Terrien, heir to Terebithia. “Free puppies?” Matan exclaimed when I got to that part. “People really give away free puppies? That’s what I need. Who gives away free puppies in Jerusalem? Then you and Abba can’t say no!” The book has very few black-and-white illustrations, but one of them is of Prince Terrien when he is still just a puppy. I pass around the book for all the kids to take a look, and Matan really seems to be salivating as he pores over the floppy ears, the pleading eyes. “Here’s a puppy you can look at for free whenever you want,” I say, pointing to the illustration. I fold over the corner of the page so he can find it easily – I don’t like damaging my cherished books, but this seems like a page to dogear.

A Stately Pleasure Dome (Vayakhel-Pekudei)

The two parshiyot we read this week, Vayakhel and Pekudei, describe the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, in accordance with the specifications that appeared in Terumah and Tetzaveh. Indeed, much of the language of this week’s parshiyot repeats the language of those earlier parshiyot, suggesting that the building of the Mishkan was merely the mechanical, mindless execution of God’s plan, without any room for human initiative. But the Talmud and midrash tell a very different story about the vision and creativity involved in building a dwelling place for God.

A simple reading of the biblical text suggests that God communicated a blueprint for building the Mishkan to Moshe, who imparted it to the artisans, who built in exact accordance with these specifications. But the rabbis did not imagine the process so smoothly. The Talmud (Menachot 29b) relates that the ark, table, and Menorah descended from heaven in fiery form for Moshe to replicate. Moshe turned to God in bewilderment: “How am I supposed to make like those?” (Bemidbar Rabbah 12:10). God responded that he is supposed to use wood and gold to recreate the structures shown to him in a fiery vision: “See and follow the patterns for them that are being shown to you on the mountain” (Exodus 25:40). This midrash suggests that when Moshe went up on Mount Sinai, he was given a vision of a Platonic ideal of the Temple vessels which he then had to translate into earthly materials.

The act of translating vision into reality was not easy for Moshe. The midrash (Tanchuma Vayikra 11:8) plays on the term used in the Torah to describe the fashioning of the Menorah from gold – it had to be mikshah, made of hammered work. The word mikshah comes from the same root as kashah, which means hardness and difficulty. The Menorah posed a particular challenge to Moshe, perhaps because of the elaborate cups, calyxes, and petals adorning its branches. As the midrash relates, God therefore engraved the Menorah upon Moshe’s hand when Moshe was up on Sinai. Moshe was instructed to descend the mountain and then copy the image God had engraved on his hand so as to fashion the Menorah. Only after receiving an in-person tutorial from God on the mountain was Moshe able to come down and fashion the Menorah.

According to this understanding, the challenge of building the Mishkan was the challenge of taking a heavenly vision and transforming it into human terms. This is a challenge familiar to many artists who are afforded a moment of inspiration in which they glimpse a vision which they must then translate into the materials at their disposal – whether it is paint or stone or music or language. The British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge dramatizes this artistic challenge in his poem “Kublah Khan.” Coleridge explains in a preface 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 knock at the door and the vision fled. The poem depicts 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 longed to 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. Devastatingly, the vision fled before he could take down notes on the palm of his hand, and the poem remained, as Coleridge termed it “a fragment.” His Mishkan was never built.

As Coleridge knew, much of the frustration of the artistic life is the frustration of trying to translate vision into reality and inevitably falling short. But this is also the challenge of the religious life. Our tradition imparts to us spiritual ideals that we have to incorporate into the messy reality of life on earth. Like the instructions for building the Mishkan, the Torah may be read as an instruction manual for building an ideal society: Care for the stranger. Respect the elderly. Do not covet. But when it comes to implementing those ideals in our legislation and in our lives, it is often far from simple.

And yet somewhat miraculously, as the Torah reports at the end of Pekudei, the Mishkan was completed according to plan: “Just as the Lord commanded Moshe, so the Israelites did all the work” (39:42). The cloud covers the Tent of Meeting and God’s presence fills the Tabernacle – with its golden Menorah and its braided chains of corded work and its embroidered screens of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all exactly as God ordained. The building of the Mishkan reminds us that when we are able to translate heavenly visions into human terms, we do not just craft works of magnificent beauty – we also create a space that points to God’s presence in our midst.

Charlotte’s Web

On Shabbat afternoon I was home alone with Tagel and Yitzvi, and the house felt unusually quiet. Yitzvi was tired so I took him into his room to put him to sleep. Usually he nurses before napping at home, but when I put him on the breast, he wasn’t interested. He reached for his pacifier instead, and although he protested for a few moments after I lay him down—kicking his legs, thrashing his head from side to side—he soon fell into a deep slumber and I crept out of the room on tiptoe. I went to check on Tagel. These days she always insists on reading with the door closed, and she gets annoyed at anyone who enters her room and then leaves without shutting the door – especially her roommate and twin sister, who couldn’t care less. I knocked on her door. It felt strange; usually the kids’ doors are left open. We shut them only at night, and open them when we hear them crying or calling for us. But I wanted to respect her privacy. “Tagel, you OK?” I asked her. “I’m reading,” she told me, glancing up at the doorway where I stood with my own book in my arms. “Can you go out?”
“Maybe I’ll read in your room?” I offered. Daniel was out with the three other kids in the park, and I couldn’t quite imagine that no one needed me.
“OK Ima, fine, but can you close the door?” she asked, not without a trace of annoyance.
I dutifully got up, shut the door, and then perched on the rug between her bed and her sister’s bed to read my book, still somewhat incredulous that I was actually going to have time to read on Shabbat afternoon. “Do you want me to read with you?” I asked her. She shook her head without even looking up from the book. “But you can stay here and I’ll ask you if I have any questions,” she told me. She’s just started reading Charlotte’s Web to herself. I had initially offered to read it to her, but this lasted for half a chapter. When she asked me to keep going, I was busy, and Tagel—being Tagel—didn’t complain, but simply continued on her own. “Fern loved Wilbur more than anything,” the second chapter began. “Wait, Ima – Fern is the girl who is my age? And Wilbur is the pig?”
“That’s right,” I told her, and she kept on. “What does it mean, ‘adoring’?” she asked, looking up at me a few moments later.
“When you adore someone, you love them very much. You adore Yitzvi.” Tagel smiled and went back to reading about how Fern cared for the baby pig, warming bottles of milk for him and pushing him around in her doll carriage.
I went back to my book. I was up to the chapter in Dori Pinto’s Moon when Sharly, who is seven, pretends he doesn’t know how to read yet so that his mother will keep reading aloud to him from their gold-embossed edition of Don Quixote, translated by Bialik. “Read on,” Sharly urges his mother, and I felt like he was encouraging me as well. But I wasn’t really reading. I was thinking about Charlotte, whom Tagel had not even met yet, and trying to imagine what it was like to read the story for the first time, without knowing what would become of the girl and the pig and the spider.
“Ima, it’s so sad, they are going to get rid of Wilbur even though Fern loves him.”
“Really?” I asked. I didn’t think she was already up to that part.
“Yes,” she told me. “Fern’s father says that it is time. He said that Fern had fun raising her baby pig, but he is not a baby any longer – he’s getting too big. So they’re going to sell him. Poor Fern.”
I looked over her shoulder at the end of the second chapter. “It’s OK,” I reassured her. “Her father says he’s going to sell Wilbur to her Uncle Homer, who lives down the road. That means she can visit whenever she wants and sit by the side of the barn and watch him.”
“Yeah,” she said, “but it’s not the same. He’s her baby. Pig baby, I mean.”
I looked over at Tagel. I was watching her from about the same distance that Fern, perched on an old milking stool in the sheepfold, would watch Wilbur in his pen. Just two weeks ago, on their birthday, we had asked Tagel and Liav to each make a list of their birthday wishes, and Tagel had written – “I hope my baby will always stay a baby.” Tagel really does adore Yitzvi – she comes with me every day to pick him up from Gan, greets him with effusive hugs, sings him “The Yitzvi Bitsy Spider,” and entertains him in the afternoons with endless games of “peek-a-boo” and “I’m-gonna-get-you,” as Yitzvi squeals in delight. But now Yitzvi has started having his first tantrums – he’ll throw himself on the ground and thrash wildly when we force his arms into the sleeves of a sweater or tell him that he can’t press all the buttons in the elevator. He is getting older, and he can’t always be calmed with a hug or a pacifier or milk. Lately he’s not all that interested in milk anymore – instead he wants to sit at the table with the rest of us, in the same chairs we sit in, spooning yogurt into his mouth and refusing to let me wipe up the milky whiteness that drops onto his chin, his shirt, his seat. I know what food I place in front of him, but sometimes I look away and I’m not sure what he ate and what he dropped – did he finish that slice of apple I really ought to have peeled and cut smaller? I don’t see it in the fold of his bib or on the floor, but I can’t be sure.
I know which books I take out of the library and buy for Tagel, but I don’t always know what she reads and how much she absorbs. Does she have any idea what Fern’s uncle plans to do with Wilbur? Will she be able to handle the sad ending? Maybe I should make sure to read the last chapter with her – but with three children reading to themselves in all corners of the house, I can’t really make sure of that anymore. My readers, like my baby, are weaning themselves. From the milking stool I watch them, adoringly.

Eat It or Wear It

Yitzvi is officially no longer a baby, but a toddler. He waddles around the house with his unsteady gait, moving his legs without bending his knees and falling every few steps before lifting himself right back up. He refuses to stay in one place, preferring to toddle from room to room such that every few moments I have to ask myself, “Wait, where is Yitzvi?” And then I find him crouched in front of the washing machine watching the laundry spin, or sucking on one of his sister’s toothbrushes while trying to get down from the bathroom stool, or picking the raisins one by one out of a plastic container that we inadvertently left on the lowest shelf of the pantry. When he realizes that I’ve spotted him, he will gleefully belt out, “Dad-DEE, Dad-DEE,” which bears no relation to Daniel but is simply his preferred combination of sounds. This is all fine, though. The only real cause for alarm is when he goes into Matan’s room – not just because Matan will be furious, but also because, thanks to Matan’s networking skills, an actual alarm is likely to go off, sending a notification to his computer.

Matan is the only person in our house who has his own room, and with good reason. He has an extensive collection of electronic devices, most of them long-ago outdated, all of which have a specific place that is known only to him. He has also set up an elaborate system of cameras which track all motion in his room, such that even if Yitzvi merely opens the door a crack, Matan will receive a notification. But usually Yitzvi does much worse. He’ll enter Matan’s room, rattle his night table so that his water bottle falls to the floor like a loosened coconut, tug his blanket down from his bed, and pull his bookmark mischievously out from his book. “Yitzvi!” Matan will shout as soon as he discovers the damage. And then Yitzvi’s grin will freeze on his face for a moment before his lips turn down, his eyes scrunch up, and he bursts into tears of fright.

And so perhaps it is not surprisingly that Matan identified so much with Peter Hatcher, the hero of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. He and I read the book together in bed over the course of the last few weeks, alternating pages – he read all the shorter pages where a new chapter starts or stops, while I read the longer ones. Matan, who learned to read in Hebrew long before he learned to sound out words in English, remains disturbed by the unphonetic nature of English orthography, and insists on using his own original pronunciations for various proper nouns. “Peter” is pita, like the bread. “Fudge,” in Matan’s rendering, sounds like “Fudaja.” But there’s no question about the identity of these characters in Matan’s imagination: He is Peter, and Yitzvi is Fudge. He is the nine-year-old responsible fourth grader; Yitzvi is his toddler brother who is always getting into scrapes. Never mind the three sisters in between Matan and Yitzvi; now that he has a brother, Matan can finally appreciate this novel, which I remember fondly from my own childhood and have wanted to read with him from the moment Yitzvi was born. With each chapter we complete, Matan compares their antics and quotes Fudge’s more memorable lines.

“Eat it or wear it!” Fudge’s father shouts exasperatingly at Fudge, an extremely picky eater. He refuses stew, milkshakes (even when his grandmother promises him a surprise at the bottom of the cup), and the lamp chops his mother made especially for him. At dinner he hides under the kitchen table and barks like a dog, and his mother is so desperate for him to eat that she gives him food under the table, which he eats between barks. Finally, when Fudge refuses even cereal—the one food he’d always enjoyed—his father decides he has had enough. “Fudge, you will eat that cereal or you will wear it!” he pronounces angrily. When Fudge remains firm in his refusal, he carries Fudge and his cereal into the bathroom, places Fudge in the tub, and dumps the entire contents of the bowl onto his head, to Peter’s—and Matan’s—amusement.

Yitzvi, too, loves cereal. He used to have oatmeal with goat milk yogurt every morning while the other kids ate corn flakes and sweetened cheerios; then one day I let him finish someone else’s bowl of cereal. That was the end of the oatmeal. The only problem, though, is that he refuses to be spoon fed, and when it comes to directing the spoon to his mouth, he does not have very good aim. Most of the milky cereal usually ends up in his lap or in his hair, and when he is finished, he will toss the bowl to the ground even if it’s not yet empty. At that point, I lower him to the ground and begin sponging the counter – only to discover that he is kneeling on the floor, picking up soggy cornflakes to nibble on as if he, too, thinks he’s the family dog. At this point the cereal is not just in his lap but under the soles of his feet, smeared across his face, and stuck to his hair as well. At dinner, we have a repeat performance – by the end of the meal, Yitzvi looks like he has couscous dandruff. “Eat it or wear it,” Matan quotes gleefully.

Not only does Fudge refuse to eat with the family, but he also puts all sorts of objects in his mouth that he is not supposed to ingest. He eats two flowers from his mother’s silver flower bowl. He grabs a rose off his own birthday cake and gobbles it down even before it is cut. And worst of all, he sneaks into Peter’s room when Peter is at school—in spite of the chain latch that Peter’s father affixed after Fudge scribbled all over Peter’s homework—and eats Peter’s beloved pet turtle, swallowing it whole in one gulp. Matan does not have a pet turtle, but his network of wires and cameras is just as dear to him, and he would love a chain latch on his door so that Yitzvi can’t get in. So far Yitzvi can’t open doors, so we’re pretty safe – as long as we all remember to keep Matan’s door closed. Otherwise, we find Yitzvi emptying the electronics box in Matan’s cubby, wrapped in a Walkman, a talkman, several sets of broken headphones, and various cables with colored tips that Yitzvi seems to mistake for licorice. I try to swoop in before Matan discovers the damage – I’m more concerned about Matan’s wrath than about Yitzvi’s welfare.

And yet like Peter, Matan can actually be surprisingly helpful with Yitzvi. Sometimes at night, when Daniel and I despair of getting him to bed, Matan offers to take over. He stands beside the crib rubbing Yitzvi’s back with endless patience. For him bedtime is so much less fraught, and Yitzvi senses his calmness and drifts off into a peaceful slumber. When the last lockdown restriction finally eased a bit and we could at last take Yitzvi shopping for shoes, Matan seems to have taken inspiration from Peter, who managed to bring Fudge back from the brink of a temper tantrum in the shoe sore when Fudge refused to buy the saddle shoes his mother wanted. Matan, who dutifully waited outside with the stroller because Corona restrictions allowed only two people in the shoe store at a time, tried to cheer Yitzvi on when I brought him out to the sidewalk to squeeze his tiny foot into his first shoe, his whole body writhing in protest. “I know what you’re thinking, Yitzvi. What are these heavy weights they are putting around my feet? But don’t worry, you’ll see, shoes are cool,” Matan encouraged him. And then Matan gave me advice too: “Just put them on his feet while he’s sleeping. When he wakes up, he’ll forget there was ever a time when he didn’t wear shoes.” We’ll have to see if it works.

When we finished Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, we moved on to the sequel, Superfudge, in which Peter and Fudge’s parents announce that they have news: They are expecting a new baby and the family will be moving from New York City to Princeton for a year. Peter is none too happy– he worries that his new sibling with be as difficult as Fudge, and he can’t bear the thought of starting a new school and having to make all new friends. The day after we read that chapter, I picked up Matan at school, eager to share with him that we had finally received Yitzvi’s passport in the mail – Matan, who checks our mail every day, had been eagerly anticipating it. “I have news,” I said to Matan outside the schoolyard gate. “What?” said Matan. “You’re having a baby? We’re moving to Princeton?” I laughed. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “No more babies, and we’re not going anywhere – though finally we all have passports now.” Matan smiled excitedly. “That’s great!” he told me. “As soon as Corona is over, I can take Yitzvi on a trip to America.” I guess I looked skeptical. “It’s OK,” he assured me, “I’ll put a security camera on him so he doesn’t get lost. You just have to promise that no one goes into my room while we’re away.” I’d have to discuss it with Daniel, but we might just take him up on it.

Mishpatim: Torah on an Endless Loop

Our parsha features the famous phrase na’aseh v’nishma, in which the Israelites commit first to do and then to listen to everything that God commands them on Mount Sinai. Although the rabbis praise the Israelites for their unconditional obedience, the Talmud also contains several voices that criticize the Jewish people for their impulsiveness. After all, what is the meaning of pledging to comply when you don’t yet know what is expected of you? A close reading of this rabbinic discussion suggests that perhaps “we will do and we will listen” is not about blind obedience, but about acting in a way that enables us to hear God’s word.

The Talmudic rabbis discuss the Israelites’ response to the revelation at Sinai in tractate Shabbat (88a). Rabbi Elazar regards the Israelites’ willingness to act before listening as angelic behavior, arguing that it is a characteristic of the ministering angels to do God’s will and only then to hearken to God’s voice. Unlike human beings, who may question or even challenge authority, the angels act as if programmed to do God’s bidding. But Rabbi Simlai raises doubts about whether this angelic behavior was really so pure and praiseworthy. He states that in the moment when the Israelites spoke na’aseh before nishma, six hundred thousand ministering angels came and tied two crowns to every member of the Jewish people, one corresponding to na’aseh and one corresponding to nishma. Then when the people sinned very soon afterward with the Golden Calf—while still standing at Sinai, awaiting Moshe’s descent down the mountain—thousands of other angels descended and removed those crowns. The Israelites may have pledged their blind obedience, but then they tripped over the very first stumbling block placed in their path, violating the first two commandments just moments after they had been inscribed on the divinely chiseled tablets.

Was it really so wise for the Israelites to agree to keep the Torah even before hearing what God had to say to them? Often when the Talmudic rabbis wish to give voice to opinions that seem too heretical to utter themselves, they place them in the mouths of others – heretics, Roman matrons or foreign kings. The Talmud goes on to relate that a certain heretic once saw that the sage, Rava, was immersed in the study of Jewish law. Presumably the matter he was studying was very difficult, because he was sitting on his hands and squeezing them together so hard that his fingers were spurting blood. Was it just a complicated passage to understand? Or was it the prospect of fulfilling what he was learning – “doing” and not just “listening”—that made Rava seem paralyzed, unable to move his hands freely? We do not know. But the Talmud relates that upon seeing Rava in such a state, the heretic said, “You impulsive nation, who preceded your ears with your mouths! You are still so impulsive!” It is not always easy to live a life of Torah and mitzvot, and sometimes it really does seem like the effort is so draining that it might have been wise first to negotiate with God over the nature of our commitment.

But perhaps Rava was not distressed by the challenge of Torah study, but rather so deeply immersed in it that the heretic’s critique did not seem to matter. We might read the Israelites’ response at Sinai not as an unconditional commitment to accept God’s laws, but rather as a description of what will happen as a consequence of living in accordance with them. Na’aseh v’nishma is less about chronology than about causation: It is not “we will do and then we will listen,” but rather “we will do so that we might listen.” The more we live in accordance with God’s Torah, the more receptive we will be to God’s will, and the less distracted we will be by competing voices. By keeping Shabbat, we allow for the stillness that enables us to hear God’s voice. By honoring our parents, we learn to submit ourselves to a higher authority. By caring for the disempowered – the widow, orphan, and stranger, as our parsha demands of us – we internalize what it means to be created in the image of God. Our actions bring us to a deeper understanding of God’s Torah and enable us to listen more deeply.

At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God instructs Moshe to write down the words of the Torah and teach them to the people of Israel: “Put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be my witness.” (31:19). Words of Torah ought to be like the song we can never get out of our head – the one that runs on an endless loop until we know all the lyrics by heart and find ourselves singing them unawares. This happens to those who chant regularly from the Torah, but it also happens to anyone who is deeply committed to making the words of Torah a part of themselves. It resonates inside us with every breath we take.