Divrei Vayera

            Last week was the first Shabbat that we could make Kiddush and Havdalah with the kids, thanks to what is known in Israel as shaon horef, the winter clock. For the first time this season, the kids were awake when the Shabbat siren went off and Matan could rebuke me with cries of “Muktzah, muktzah” when I tried to give our very congested Liav one more dosage on the nebulizer machine during the “eighteen” minutes. Soon we were all lighting candles together in front of an open window, watching the rainstorm abate and breathing in the scent of the freshly-washed earth, as if it too had bathed for Shabbat. The twins, now 1.5, saw me cover my eyes and started playing along, convinced that it was a game of peek-a-boo, known in Hebrew as “Cuckoo.” And so I blessed over the candles to cries of Cuckoo, and then we all made our way around the corner to the neighborhood shul. On the five-minute walk home Matan and Tagel delighted in splashing through the puddle-wonderful driveway; Liav simply took off her shoes and sat on the ground, waiting for someone to pick her up. We came home, took off the kids’ wet clothes, and made Kiddush and Motzi – and miraculously everyone managed to hold off on drinking or spilling their grape juice until it was time. It felt like an idyllic Shabbat — until it was not.
            On Shabbat afternoon we were all cooped up inside because it was raining again. The sky was dark and overcast and I was reminded of the first line of Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” For us, too, “the cold winter had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.” The kids needed constant attention and D and I were exhausted, and at some point I snapped at him unnecessarily. He snapped back. We kept carping at one another, and before long the storm outside was nothing compared to the tempest in our teapot. Arguing in front of the kids on Shabbat; it doesn’t get worse than that, I thought.
            I am fortunate that D has a capacious and forgiving soul, and by the time we had turned off the lights and gathered around the havdalah candle—with the kids all washed and ready for bed, excited about the fire and the grape juice—we had more or less made up. But I was still reeling from our fight when I sat down later that evening to read through the following week’s parsha, Vayera. It is a parsha about family dynamics – about the relationship between Abraham and his wife Sarah, Lot and his daughters, Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac. No one has an out-and-out fight, but nor are these models of exemplary relationships.
            When the parsha opens, Abraham invites three strangers into his tent, commanding Sarah to “Hurry, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” (18:6) He does not say please or invoke any terms of endearment, nor does he take the time to explain to her why he needs this food so quickly or invite her to join the messengers once they break bread. When Sarah overhears the news that she is going to have a son, she laughs: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” (18:12) Later she realizes that she has insulted Abraham and covers up by lying, insisting that in fact she did not laugh.
            In the parsha’s next scene, Abraham tries and fails to count out ten righteous men so as to defend Sodom from destruction. The angels arrive at the gates of the city and Lot greets them and welcomes them into his home. When the townsmen demand that he release these new arrivals so that they can abuse them, Lot instead offers his own daughters: “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof” (19:7-8). It is presumably those same daughters who then go on to get their father drunk and sleep with him after the destruction of Sodom: “Our father is old… Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father” (20:31-32).
            If these family dynamics weren’t awful enough, the camera then pans back to Abraham and Sarah, who have just arrived in Gerar. Abraham lies and says that Sarah is his sister so as to save his own life, since he is concerned that the king of the place, Avimelech, will kill him so as to take his wife. Following the episode with Avimelech, Isaac is born and Sarah insists that Abraham cast out his other son Ishmael, who is banished to the wilderness. And of course, after banishing one son, Abraham proceeds nearly to sacrifice his second son in response to a divine command in the parsha’s climactic final scene.
Taken as a whole, the figures who populate this week’s parsha seem to be far kinder and more sympathetic to outsiders than to their own family members. Abraham privileges the needs of strangers over his wife’s feelings, and Lot protects those same strangers by sacrificing his own daughters. Abraham listens to God’s voice, which makes him the patriarch of the Jewish people; but he does so at the expense of his own sons. Why?
Alas, I can identify all too well with this tendency. With our own families, we sometimes make the mistake of believing that we can get away with behavior that would be unpardonable with others. Our family members love us unconditionally, so if we fly off the handle on a particular rainy afternoon, then surely they will come around and forgive us. Perhaps it is also the case that we assume that our family members are part of ourselves; if we are rude to them, it is only because we are acting as a team towards some higher purpose – say, to be hospitable to angelic guests, or to perpetuate humanity after terrible destruction. We forget that the people we love have feelings, and that those feelings ought to be as dear to us as our own. When they hurt, we hurt. And it is precisely because they love us unconditionally that we must guard their feelings so carefully.
The midrash states, “Great is peace, for the great name that was written in holiness may be erased for the sake of peace between a man and his wife” (Vayikra Rabba 9:9). The midrash refers to the Sotah ritual, whereby a man who suspects his wife of adultery tests her by bringing her to the Temple, where the priest writes out the divine name and dissolves it in water. God allows for God’s own name to be erased so that there is peace within the house. My intention here is not to condemn our Biblical forbears, who are powerful if complex role models. But the next time I find myself about to lose my temper with the people I love most, I hope I will stop and count to ten. I may not be able to save the city, but hopefully I will preserve peace within the walls of our home. 

Nezirut and Naso: Twenty-Two Years Later

This past Shabbat I chanted my entire bat mitzvah parsha for the first time. When I became a bat mitzvah twenty-two years ago, I read what amounted to only one aliya, albeit the most interesting one. My parents’ Conservative synagogue reads on a triennial cycle, completing the Torah every three years, so that only a selection of the parsha is read each Shabbat. On my bat mitzvah, I read the aliya that includes the description of the Nazir, the individual who takes on additional stringencies so as to become a holier person. The Nazir vows not to drink wine, cut his hair, or come into contact with the dead for a certain period of a time. The term Nazir literally means “one who abstains,” and the Nazir may perhaps be best understood as an ascetic – one who denies himself pleasure for the sake of a higher purpose. It is no wonder, given my personality, that I identified so deeply with the Nazir – both then and now.

            For the dvar Torah at my bat mitzvah, I spoke about the Nazir’s obligation to bring a sin offering at the end of his period of abstention. At first it seems strange that someone who seeks to become more holy has to bring a sin offering. How can holiness be sinful? In the eponymous tractate of the Talmud dedicated to the Nazir, Rabbi Elazar HaKapar considers this question: “Rabbi Elazar HaKapar said in the name of Rebbe: What does it mean, ‘And he shall make expiation for the sin that he incurred on the soul’ (Numbers 6:11). Against what soul did he sin? Rather, he sinned in that he distressed himself [by abstaining] from wine. And if one who distresses himself by abstaining only from wine is called a sinner, how much more so is one who abstains from all things a sinner!” (Nazir 19a). As I said at my bat mitzvah, Judaism is not a religion of asceticism. We are supposed to enjoy the delicious and pleasurable aspects of life – not in a greedy or hedonistic manner, but in a way that acknowledges and pays tribute their divine source. We are not supposed to engage in self-denial, but to enrich ourselves with all that life has to offer.

            At the time, I was on the brink of adolescence, speaking from the bimah in a navy blue polka dot suit chosen by my mother, with my hair tied back in a bow I was sure was too big for my head. I had no idea how prescient my dvar Torah would prove when, just a few years later, I became ill with anorexia. It is a chapter of my life I rarely return to, as it seems both predictably mundane—of course an overachiever like myself would have anorexia—and painfully private. Always a lover of language, I recall musing on the phonetic similarity between “ascetic” and “aesthetic,” believing that through self-denial, I could achieve a sort of delicate beauty. And while I could easily be flooded by memories from that period, the one that seems most pertinent now is of a Shabbat spent in the eating disorders ward of the hospital, holed up with five other skeletons. I requested a cup of grape juice so I could make kiddish; but then I realized that before performing the ritual handwashing, I’d have to unplug my IV, thereby violating Shabbat. I remember standing there wondering what to do. Just weeks ago I was a normal college student, but I had been catapulted from the Ivy League to the IV League with little hope of release.

            I thought about these matters again as I prepared to leyn Naso in full for the first time. Like the anorexic, the Nazir aspires to a certain level of self-perfection, believing that he or she can transcend the needs and desires to which most people submit. This perfectionist strain has always run deep within me, particularly when it comes to reading Torah. As far as I know, I leyned the parsha flawlessly last Shabbat – not because I wanted to make a show of reading perfectly, but simply because, well, I wanted to read perfectly. I also leyned the haftara, returning to the story of the prophet Shimshon, who was a Nazir from birth. The haftara portrays the annunciation scene in which an angel informs the unnamed wife of Manoach that she will become a mother to a savior of Israel. In the past I have always read this chapter of Judges as a feminist tale about a woman who could see what her husband could not; she knew immediately that she had spoken with an angel, whereas her husband – to whom the angel initially did not even deign to appear—needs to be hit on the head again and again until he gets it. This time, however, I read the haftara in a new light. Manoach’s wife, formerly barren, is told that at last she is going to have a child. But even though this dream will be realized, she is going to have to accept a less-than-perfect reality, because her son is going to be subject to difficult strictures – he may not cut his hair, or eat any grape products whatsoever, for he will be a Nazir from womb to tomb.

            As I realized this year, this haftara is also a story about becoming a mother. And if being a Nazir is about being perfect, being a mother is just the opposite. It is about accepting that one cannot even presume to be perfect, and that any attempt to do so will inevitably fail. I used to think that being perfect meant waking up, davening, jogging, showering and learning daf yomi all before 9am. These days at 9am I am almost always still in pajamas, sitting on the couch with one baby on the breast and one baby wailing after her morning nap. Sometimes I am balancing a Gemara on the shoulder of the couch, but more often I am dozing off. Yesterday morning a grape rolled by as I was nursing. Our son was throwing his breakfast, which he insisted on eating while holding one of his favorite toys: his father’s shaver. (We take off the blade before giving it to him.) He will never be perfect, and neither will I. For that I suppose I can bring a Korban Todah, an offering of thanks.

The Divine Ultrasound: Getting a Kick out of Parshat Toldot

We don’t know how pregnant Rivka was at the beginning of this week’s parsha, but judging from how I’ve been feeling, I would guess she was at least five months along. Just a few weeks ago I started feeling the babies kicking for the first time, and this week, I was able to detect two distinctive patterns of fetal movement. The doctor has told me that one baby is on top and one on the bottom, and I am beginning to get to know them both. The one on top gives sudden, jolting kicks just to the right of my navel, as if leveling a blow at an imaginary opponent; when this baby moves, my whole stomach protrudes and the motion is visible even through my clothing. The baby on the bottom doesn’t so much kick as undulate, fluttering around just above my pelvic bone in a gentle, rhythmic dance. I wouldn’t say that the two wombmates are struggling with one another, but much like Rivka, I find myself preoccupied with my own interiority and wondering, “What is this self I have become?”

As Avivah Zornberg points out, Rivka’s name is an anagram of Kirbah, that interior space where the babies struggled: “And the babies struggled inside her (b’kirbah).” When pregnant with twins, Rivka’s very identity was jumbled inside her, to the extent that she could no longer recognize herself: “If so, why I?” she asks in a moment of existential doubt. Unlike me, Rivka did not have the advantage of modern ultrasound technology, nor did she have an entire shelf of books to tell her what to expect when she was expecting. She didn’t receive weekly emails from BabyCenter comparing her baby’s size to various fruits and vegetables and informing her of the various stages of development: Week One: Your baby is the size of a lentil! Week Two: Your baby now has heels! Week Three: Your baby is covered in a soft coating of hair! Instead, God had to serve as her ultrasound and her sounding board, illuminating the reason for her distress and discomfort: “Two nations are in your womb. Two separate people shall issue from your body.” And indeed, as we are told in the very next verse, so it came to pass.

Rivka is not the only woman in our tradition to suffer during a twin pregnancy. The Talmud (Yevamot 65b) relates that Yehudit, the wife of Rabbi Hiya, gave birth to twin sons born two months apart; the first one came out at 32 weeks! Poor Yehudit went into labor twice, and had to spend her eighth and ninth month of pregnancy caring for a newborn, presumably while on bedrest. Traumatized by the experience, she tried to prevent herself from ever becoming pregnant again. She disguised herself and came before her husband, a story reminiscent of Jacob disguising himself as Esau as per Rivka’s instructions. “Is a woman obligated in the mitzvah of procreation,” she asked him. Her husband responded no. She then drank a drug to make her barren, an act we might interpret as stealing the birthright, or at least as stealing the right to give birth. Rabbi Hiya then got wind of the matter and cried forth in great distress upon realizing that he had been tricked. If his wife was to birth him no more sons, what blessing could possibly be left for him? “I wish you would give birth to another bellyful,” he blessed his wife, and so she did – although this time, they were girls. Thus Hiya and Yehudit were the parents of two sets of twins: First Yehuda and Hizkiya, and then Pazi and Tavi.

I, for one, shall be more than happy if this one set of twins comes out safely and healthily, and hopefully not months apart from one another. I’m not sure if the one on top or the one on the bottom will make its way out first, especially since I am due on Purim, the holiday of v’nahafoch hu, in which everything is turned upside down. My goal is just to make it as close to 40 weeks (and as close to the end of Masekhet Shabbat) as possible, hopefully while remaining ambulatory. This in itself would be a miracle, as the Talmud teaches:”Come and see that the attributes of the Holy One are not like the attributes of man. A man puts an object in a container with the opening facing downward, and it may or may not be preserved inside the container. But God shapes the fetus in the womb of an open woman, with the opening facing down, and the fetus is preserved” (Niddah 31a). I hope the babies are comfortable in their upper and lower berths, folded up like writing tablets with candles burning atop their heads as they peer from one end of the world to the other (Niddah 30b) and as they study Masekhet Shabbat with me each morning. We still have 110 pages left, so while the twins are free to keep kicking, I hope that neither one has any intention of emerging any time soon.

Parshat Hayey Sarah: Revisiting Machpelah

This week’s parsha, Hayey Sarah, begins with the death and burial of Sarah, and concludes with the death and burial of Abraham. Both are buried in the cave of Machpelah, a site which has a rich and colorful history in the Talmud and midrash. According to the Talmud in Eruvin (53a), four couples are buried in this cave: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. For the most part, these dead are left undisturbed, until Rabbi Banaa comes along in the third century and knocks on the door of the dead.

Rabbi Banaa, as we are told in the Talmud (Bava Batra 58a), used to mark the burial caves of the dead. (Until medieval times, Jews generally placed their dead in caves rather than burying them underground.) Presumably he did so in order to prevent people from accidentally contracting impurity as a result of contact with a corpse. As Rashi explains, Rabbi Banaa would enter burial caves, measure their dimensions, and then outline with lime the corresponding surface above the ground so as to ward off anyone who might otherwise walk right over them unaware. At some point in his grave markings, he came to the cave of Machpelah, as the Talmud relates:

“When Rabbi Banaa reached the cave of Abraham, he found Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, standing in front of the entrance. He said to him: What is Abraham doing? He said to him: He is lying in the arms of Sarah, and she is peering at his head. He said to him: Go and tell him that Banaa is standing at the entrance. Abraham said to him: Let him enter. It is well known that there is no physical desire in this world.”

Rabbi Banaa finds himself at the threshold of Abraham’s grave. Abraham, as we know from last week’s parsha, was famous for his hospitality, and so of course he instructed his servant Eliezer, who was guarding the door, to let Banaa inside. Even though Abraham and Sarah were engaged in a moment of intimacy—he was lying in her arms, and she was peering at his head or perhaps picking out the lice from his hair—Banaa was invited to enter. “There is no physical desire [yetzer] in this world,” Abraham explains cryptically from the crypt. Does he mean that he and Sarah’s behavior is entirely innocent, since after all they are already dead? Or does he mean that Rabbi Banaa, having entered the world of the dead, is in another realm where such voyeurism would not be titillating? Why is Banaa permitted to observe this intimacy?

In fact, intimacy and voyeurism are themes central to this sugya and to the opening chapters of tractate Bava Batra, where this story appears. The first chapter deals with Hezek Reiya, visual trespass, the notion that observing another’s activities is tantamount to trespassing on his domain. Banaa, who ostensibly wishes to prevent others from inadvertently trespassing over dead bodies and contracting impurity, instead “visually trespasses” over the private domestic space of Abraham and Sarah. He observes them in a moment of intimacy, much like the laundering women who are described in the halakhic sugya that immediately precedes this story, which deals with the question of Hazaka, that is, the duration of time that property must be owned and uncontested in order to establish the legal presumption of ownership. The Mishnah on 57a considers which uses of property indicate that the user has acquired rights to use the property in this manner from the property’s owner. The Talmud quotes Rabbi Banaa, who states that residents who share a jointly-owned courtyard can prevent each other from engaging in most activities that are disruptive, except for the washing of clothes, “for it is not the practice of Jewish daughters to debase themselves by washing clothes in public.” While washing clothes, a woman had to roll up her sleeves and expose herself in ways that would not be appropriate in a more public setting; therefore, a woman may not be barred from doing laundry in the private space of her own courtyard.

In the continuation of this halakhic sugya, Rabbi Banaa goes on to make other remarks about privacy and intimacy, including the stipulation that a Torah scholar’s tunic must be long enough “so that his flesh should not be visible below the hem.” He also states that the bed of a Torah scholar must have nothing stored beneath it. The Meiri explains that conceivably this could result in a member of the household entering the bedroom at an inopportune time. Immediately after this statement, the Talmud launches into our story of Rabbi Banaa, who “walks in on” Abraham and Sarah lying in each other’s arms.

As the story proceeds, we follow Banaa deeper and deeper into the cave, until a heavenly voice stops him dead in his tracks and forbids him from trespassing any further:

“Rabbi Banaa entered, surveyed [the dimensions of the crypt], and departed. When he reached the crypt of Adam, a heavenly voice came forth and proclaimed: You have gazed at the likeness of My image. Do not gaze at My image itself.
[Rabbi Banaa replied]: But I wish to mark the crypt!
[The heavenly voice said:] As the dimensions of the outer crypt, so are the dimensions of the inner crypt…
Rabbi Banaa said: I glimpsed his two heels and they were like two orbs of the sun.”

Rabbi Banaa, after measuring the chamber of the cave where Abraham and Sarah are buried, wishes to go even further and measure the chamber where Adam and Eve lie. But instead of Eliezer, it is God Himself who stands guard at the entrance and warns Banaa that he has seen enough: “You have gazed at the likeness of my image. Do not gaze at My image itself.” This is a strange protest, since presumably Adam—who was created in the image of God—is the likeness of the divine image, and yet Banaa has not yet gazed at Adam. This confusion is resolved in the heavenly voice’s next declaration: “As the dimensions of the outer crypt, so are the dimensions of the inner crypt.” The outer crypt where Abraham is buried resembles the inner crypt where Adam is buried. By gazing upon Abraham, Banaa has effectively gazed upon Adam, who is God’s likeness. Were he to proceed to gaze upon Adam, he would effectively be gazing upon God Himself, which no human being is permitted to do. But Banaa, ever the voyeur, proves unstoppable. He insists on exposing publicly the intimacy he witnesses when he peeks in at Adam’s grave, where it seems Adam is lying on the ground with his feet facing Rabbi Banaa. “I glimpsed his two heels,” he cannot resist gushing exultantly, “and they were like the two orbs of the sun!” Ostensibly on a mission to notify others about the location of burial caves, Banaa’s true purpose seems to be to document what he sees inside them.

At this point, the story comes to a close, and the Talmud goes on to enumerate two genealogies of beauty, one consisting of Biblical figures and one linking rabbinic figures to their Biblical forbears:

1. “The radiance of any person’s countenance in comparison to that of Sarah is like that of a monkey in comparison to a human being. Sarah in comparison to Eve is like a monkey in comparison to a human being. Eve in comparison to Adam is like a monkey in comparison to a human being. Adam in comparison to the divine presence is like a monkey in comparison to a human being.

2. The beauty of Rav Kahana was a semblance of the beauty of Rav. The beauty of Rav was a semblance of the beauty of Rabbi Abahu. The beauty of Rabbi Abahu was a semblance of the beauty of Jacob. The beauty of Jacob was a semblance of the beauty of Adam.”

The first genealogy reads like a sort of reverse evolution, in which we are not descended from monkeys, but rather our beautiful human ancestors degenerate into ugly monkeys. The starting point is Sarah, whom Banaa has just glimpsed in our story. We know from the Torah that Abraham regarded his wife as beautiful, to such an extent that he insisted on two occasions that she present herself as his sister. But even Sarah paled in comparison to Eve, the first woman. And Eve could not hold a candle to Adam, a reading that presumably accords with Genesis 2 rather than Genesis1, in which Eve is not created simultaneously with Adam but is rather fashioned from his rib. Finally, Adam, who was created in the image of God, was still just a monkey when compared to God. Each generation thus degenerates into monkeys when compared with its more aesthetically pleasing forbears.

Likewise, in the second genealogy, each subsequent rabbinic generation represents only a fraction of the beauty of preceding generations, and the leap from rabbinic to Biblical figures is accomplished without remark: Rabbi Abahu resembles Jacob. This sugya thus establishes continuity between the sages like Banaa who mark burial caves, and the Biblical characters buried therein. And the story of Banaa, the only aggada (until the very last page) buried in a Talmudic chapter that deals with matters of property ownership, is set in the cave of Machpelah, which was the first piece of land ever purchased by a Jew — thus establishing the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel. Though Ephron the Hittite offered to give Abraham the cave for free, Abraham insisted on paying full price for it, a fact that the Torah emphasizes both at the beginning and end of the parsha lest the matter be contested. There he buried his beautiful wife Sarah, in whose arms he lies to this day, waiting for us to read the story of Banaa and to knock on the door once again.

Ki Tavo: Speaking God’s Language

In this week’s parsha we find the following two verses, which contain a pair of words that appear nowhere else in the Torah, and whose meaning is not entirely clear:

את ה’ האמרת היום להיות לך לאלהים וללכת בדרכיו ולשמור חקיו ומצותיו ומשפטיו ולשמוע בקולו.
וה’ האמירך היום להיות לו לעם סגולה כאשר דבר לך ולשמור כל מצותיו.

You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people…. (Deuteronomy 26:17-18)

The repetition of the words האמרתand האמירך seems to suggest a reciprocity between God and Israel in which we affirm God and God affirms us, though it’s unclear how exactly this mutual affirmation takes place. The classical commentators offer a range of interpretations: Rashi argues that these terms refer to setting aside and consecrating; Ramban claims it refers to magnifying and elevating in status; Rashbam states that this term reflects the fact that each party caused the other to enter into a covenant. But it is also worthy of note that the root of this term is אמר, to say, which seems to suggest that we and God are somehow speaking the same language.

I came to a deeper understanding of what this might mean while reviewing Musaf for Rosh Hashana this past week. The bulk of Rosh Hashana musaf consists of collections of verses relating to three central themes: God’s kingship, God’s perfect memory, and God’s revelation at Sinai amidst the sound of the Shofar. We recite verses that span most of the Bible, from Noah to Abraham to Sinai to Isaiah. And so in our davening on Rosh Hashana, we speak to God using the language of the Bible, which is the language with which God spoke to Israel. In other words (so to speak), we speak to God using the very same words with which God spoke to us. Perhaps this is another way to understand what it means for us to affirm God.

את ה’ האמרת היום –

On Rosh Hashana, we affirm God by invoking God’s words to us. After all, how else could we coronate God, or speak to a being of infallible memory, or recall the transcendence of revelation? Surely our own language is insufficient, which is why we plead in our piyutim for God to open our lips in prayer and give voice to our supplications. When our own language fails us, we speak God’s language, כאשר דבר לך– as God spoke to us.

As we prepare to open our Mahzorim on Rosh Hashana, we hope that the echoes of divine speech will permeate our prayers to God and our exchanges with one another throughout the coming year.

Parshat Vayishlach: Learning to be Shalem

Here in Jerusalem I live between two languages, yet I try to speak only one at a time. I cringe when I hear other Americans in Jerusalem peppering their English with select words of Hebrew: “We’re doing a total shiputz with an amazing kablan!” I aspire to access the full range of expression in whatever language I am speaking, without smuggling in words from another tongue. And yet sometimes I find myself guilty of the same shoddy linguistic border patrol, like last week, when I kept borrowing a key word from the parsha: “I’m just not shalem with this decision” or “I wish I could agree with shlemut” or “she’s just such a put-together, shalem person.”

In last week’s parshat Vayishlach it is Yaakov who is described as being shalem: “And Yaakov came shalem to Shechem” (33:18). This verse appears after the parsha’s mounting anticipation about the confrontation with Esav and the surprising anticlimax that follows. Yaakov, terrified of the impending confrontation with his estranged twin, attempts to appease Esav by sending messages of peace and bountiful gifs of he-goats, she-goats, ewes, rams, camels, colts, cowls, and bulls: “If I propitiate him with presents in advance and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor” (32:21). Quaking in his boots, Yaakov prays to God to save him from the dreaded clash with his brother: “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike” (32:13). Worried for the welfare of his wives and children, Yaakov resorts to the desperate measure of dividing his family into two camps in the hope that if Esav were to attack, he would lose only half his numbers.

Although Yaakov is fully prepared—militarily and psychologically—to fight off his brother, Esav surprises him by coming in peace. As David Flatow points out in a d’var Torah on the Drisha Institute website, instead of the expected confrontation with Esav, Yaakov finds himself instead wrestling with a mysterious man who approaches him in the darkness when he waits alone on the far side of the river. Somehow Yaakov succeeds in fighting off this anonymous aggressor, perhaps because he was already prepared for battle (with Esav) at the moment when he met him. Flatow points out that Yaakov is the kind of person who prepares thoroughly for everything that he expects in life, and as a result, when he is confronted by the unexpected, he has the wherewithal and the reserve strength to deal with those challenges as well. According to Flatow, this is the source of the shlemut that we are told about in the first verse after the anticlimactic meeting with Esav: “And Yaakov came shalem to Shechem.” Yaakov, in a state of constant preparedness, had an inner peace and wholeness that enabled him to successfully navigate even those challenges that he least expected.

I aspire to the shlemut of Yaakov even as I recognize how sorely I lack it. I wish to be able to reach that level of ease and inner peace that enables me to confront everyone I meet with a smile and a willingness to take on whatever the situation might require of me. And yet instead I find myself answering the telephone with a sense of dread creeping into my voice: “Who is calling me now, and why are they interrupting me, and what am I going to have to do for them,” instead of “oh how lovely, an opportunity for human encounter!” Yaakov takes the time to put his life in order, and as a result, he is able to deal with anything that comes his way. He accepts that life is not always what you expect, and that sometimes it is the willingness to embrace the unexpected that enables us to glimpse Peniel, the face of God. Moreover, he engages in regular dialogue with God, which instills in him the wholeness and the sense of self-awareness that enables him to be receptive to other human beings. I can learn from this as well; all too often I find myself so caught up in my own turmoil and “issues” that I must unload them on the first person I meet, instead of greeting others with a receptiveness to their needs and concerns. Perhaps if I spent more time emptying myself out to God in prayer, I’d have more room for the needs of the other people in my life.

I still do not have a suitable English translation for shlemut, perhaps because, as David Bellos writes in Is That a Fish in Your Ear, his recently-published book on translation, “It’s an indisputable fact about languages that the sets of words that each possesses divide up the features of the world in slightly and sometimes radically different ways.” Shlemut is a combination of several English phrases: it is the sense of wholeness that allows for the inner peace and that enables us to confront the challenges at hand without being torn apart by whatever we are dreading or anticipating at any given moment. It is also a kind of maturity and a willingness to make room for others, even if we meet them unexpectedly, and even if they surprise us by being pacific rather than aggressive – or vice versa. I am blessed with many models of shlemut in my life: from my husband who never loses his cool regardless of what goes wrong; to my sister-in-law who is so comfortable in her own skin that she is able to devote her entire existence to being there for others; to my baby son who has been lying on our bed content to play with his feet and delay his breakfast for the past twenty minutes so I could type up these thoughts. Perhaps one day I will learn how to put his needs first, but that, I fear, involves a sense of shlemut that I am still working to master.

Fumbling for the Thumb: Parshat Noach

In this week’s parsha we read about Noach, though we first learn of his birth at the end of Parshat Breishit. There we are told that his father Lemech calls him Noach because “this one will relieve us (yeNACHamenu) from our work and from the toil (itzavon) of our hands” (5:29). Lemech creates a midrash to explain his son’s name: Noach, whose name means comfort, will provide relief to a humanity that has just been cursed by God with the burden of working the soil with toil (itzavon) all the days of their lives. (Yeats: “It’s certain there is no fine thing / Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.”) The midrash relates that Noach provided this comfort because he was the first human being to be created with opposable thumbs, which made it much easier to till the earth or do almost anything with one’s hands.

I thought about this midrash when Matan began sucking his thumb for the first time this week. He has been trying to master this skill for quite some time now: First he noticed the thumb and stared at it for a few days; then he realized that he could put it in his mouth; and then he would chomp on it and gag himself, only to stick the thumb back in and gag again. Yet now he sucks away gleefully. As a result, his parents can sleep better at night – in the past, each time Matan would stir, one of us would have to reach over the side of our bed, feel around for the pacifier strewn somewhere across his crib, and poke our hands around in the dark (like a blind person groping around in broad daylight, to invoke an image from the Tohekha) until we found (oops, that was the wrong side of his head; nope, an eyelid; yeah, there it is!) his mouth and could stick the pacifier back in and then roll over back to sleep. But now Matan knows how to pacify himself: He wakes up, finds his thumb, and sticks it in his mouth with gusto. This one will comfort us indeed! Matan can rest (Nach) more deeply, and this solution finds favor (Chen) in his parents’ eyes much as Noach (in another anagrammatic midrash – chen is Noach backwards) found favor in the eyes of God.

Inevitably, in our lives as parents, I’m sure Matan will be the source of some Itzavon, which Rashi interprets as צער גידול בנים, the pain of raising children. It is not just pregnancy and childbirth that are part of God’s curse to Eve, but also the gap between expectation and reality: Parents invest everything in their children, only to find that thorns and thistles spring up from the soil in which they have planted their hopes and dreams. Itzavon, like Teshuka (desire), is the difference between what we have and what we want. Eve is saddled with Teshuka for her husband and Itzavon for her children, leaving her with little room for satisfaction. And yet until this point, Matan has been only a source of Naches, which of course comes from the Hebrew word Nachat, itself a variant on Noach/comfort. When I peer into the Teyva (ark) of his crib at night and watch him fumble for his thumb, I find myself paraphrasing the most poetic line from this week’s parsha: So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night; my love for you, Matan, shall never cease.

Note: Like everything I write, this dvar Torah owes much to the insights of Avivah Zornberg. For more on Noach and Itzavon, see “Despondent Intoxication” in The Murmuring Deep.