First Fruit

This week I returned from my maternity leave from leyning. Since Matan’s birth, I have leyned only rarely. I was reluctant to commit to reading Torah because I worried that Matan might need to eat at that very moment when I was at the Amud, or that I’d be so exhausted from yet another sleepless night that I would not wake up in time for shul. Perhaps I was still traumatized by the memory of last Yom Kippur, when I nearly fainted while leading shacharit – this was also on account of Matan, though at the time I did not even know I was pregnant. But now with Matan more or less sleeping through half the night and blessed with patience and equanimity far beyond his four months, I felt it was time to return, at last, to reading an aliyah or two each week.

This week’s parsha is Ki Tavo, a reference to Benei Yisrael’s entry into the land of Israel and a reminder to me that I am re-entering the Torah reading cycle, this time as a mother. Like the farmer bringing his first fruit to the priest in the opening verses, I will come to shul with my own first fruit so that Matan might hear me recite from the Torah before the Lord my God. Unfortunately, it is not the Bikurim passage that I am leyning but rather the Tohekha, the long list of curses that will befall the people of Israel if they fail to observe God’s commandments. Poor Matan has been listening to me practice all week, and trembles at the breast each time I come to the verse about mothers eating their children. (He ought to realize that in his case it is the child who is eating from the mother and not vice versa.) In an attempt to reassure my hungry boy, I shift him from Har Eyval to Har Gerizim, and he latches right back on.

And perhaps I am correct in doing so. After all, when I look down lovingly at Matan (whose nicknames include everything from Matanushi to Nuni-nu), I find myself thinking about the words of the blessings shouted from one hilltop rather than the curses shouted from the other. I truly feel that God has opened for us the bounteous stores of the heavens to bless all our undertakings. Each night I watch Matan sleep with his arms above his head like Moshe fighting Amalek, confident and trusting that the world is a safe place. In the morning (“Would that it were evening,” I sometimes mutter groggily) I wake to the sound of our son gurgling to himself and staring mesmerized at his own two hands, which he turns slowly in each direction as if he is conjuring the dead. (I hope he is not doing that, because then, as the Torah threatens, the curses will catch up with him!) Lately he has also started turning around in his crib, so that I put him down with his head on one side and find him a few hours later with his feet and head reversed. (He who was once at the tail will soon be at the head.) He seizes every opportunity to stand up on his two feet, and perhaps it won’t be long until he is walking in His ways….

Matan and I do quite a bit of walking together, hopefully in God’s ways. Tonight, for instance, we walked back from the shuk in the early hours of the evening, his stroller laden with an overflowing basket of the last of the summer nectarines and the first of the green winter clementines. I sang the blessings and curses to Matan from memory, using the same nursery rhyme lilt for both so as not to scare him. He stayed awake for the entire 45 minutes of our walk, looking at me with his wide blue eyes and occasionally smiling and then looking away bashfully, as he is wont. Each time we came to a red light I leaned in close, planting small kisses on his cheeks and his forehead that will grow, someday, into mountains of blessings.

Moses and Motherhood: Of Manna, Melons, and Matan

I was walking home yesterday, carrying Matan in a sling that hung over one shoulder, when I passed a watermelon kiosk. Since watermelons are so heavy, no one wants to carry them home from the market. And so throughout the month of June, when watermelons are at peak season, kiosks that sell nothing but watermelons spring up all around the city so that people can buy this heavy fruit close to home. As a nursing mother in need of constant hydration, I’ve been eating nearly half a watermelon a day since Matan was born. And so I stopped at the kiosk to buy another. The watermelons were four shekel a kilo; my purchase came to sixteen shekel. As the vendor put my melon in a plastic bag, I realized that it was exactly the same weight as Matan. I lugged baby and watermelon home – Matan in the sling, and the melon in the plastic bag – and deposited them in the bassinet and the refrigerator, respectively.

When I got home, I quickly prepared some lunch. I have learned to eat quickly, since Matan may stir at any moment, and then I’ll have to drop everything to feed him. Like most days, I ate my husband’s homemade gazpacho for lunch (made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, peppers, and leeks), followed by watermelon slices. I realized that I was eating almost all of the foods mentioned by Bnei Yisrael in their bitter complaints about their desert diet: “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions, and garlic” (Numbers 11:5). Had Moses turned the Nile into a blood-red river of gazpacho, with the fish swimming among the vegetables? Before I could pursue this absurd speculation, I heard the first whimpers from Matan’s bassinet. I knew it was a matter of moments before his whimpering would turn to full-throated wailing for food.

I confess that whenever Matan stirs (and he is stirring at this very moment, as I type!), my first reaction is often a sigh of exasperation. Like Coleridge with his person from Porlock, I do not handle interruptions well; and I struggle with how to manage my time given that I never know when Matan will want to be fed. In this sense he resembles Bnei Yisrael in the desert: “Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov said: In the beginning the children of Israel were like hens that peck continuously at scraps, until Moses came along and established fixed meal times” (Yoma 95b). Bnei Yisrael, a people still in their infancy after recently leaving the narrow birth canal of Mitzrayim, had not yet learned how to eat fixed meals. Perhaps, like Matan, their stomachs were still too small to sustain them for more than three hours. And so God rained down manna for them to gather. The manna tasted like shad ha-shamen, rich cream, a phrase that might more literally be translated as “the fat breast.” Like breastmilk, which will taste like whatever the mother ate the day before, the manna had a variety of different flavors. The Talmud makes this analogy explicit: “Rabbi Abahu said: Just as with the breast, a baby can taste a variety of flavors, so too when Bnei Yisrael ate the manna, they could taste a variety of flavors. And some say: It was like an actual breast. Just as a breast can have various shapes and colors, the manna too had various flavors” (Yoma 95a). In any case, Matan seems far more content with his breastmilk than Bnei Yisrael with their manna; the people of Israel began clamoring for solids to be introduced to their diet only months after their delivery from Egypt.

[An excursus] The episode about the people’s clamoring and complaining takes place just after they have “marched from the mountain of the Lord” (Numbers 10:33), which was also the site of the burning bush: “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Yitro, priest of Midyan, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horev, the mountain of the Lord” (Exodus 3:1). Both episodes involve the complaints of the people: In Exodus God tells Moses that he has “heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters” (3:7), and in Numbers the people “took to complaining bitterly against the Lord” (11:1). Both episodes also involve fire: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush” (3:2), and “a fire of the Lord broke out against the people” (11:1). Moses questions his role in both scenes: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites form Egypt” (3:11), and “Why have I not enjoyed your favor, that you have laid the burden of all this people upon me?” (11:11). At the bush, God tells Moses to put his hand into his bosom as a proof that the people will listen to him (4:6); and when the people complain, Moses asks how God could say to him, “Carry them in your bosom” (11:12). In both episodes, God’s response to Moses involves gathering the elders of Israel: “Go and assemble the elders of Israel” (3:16), and “Gather for me seventy of Israel’s elders” (11:16). The passages parallel each other with uncanny linguistic precision as Moses balks at the burdensome role with which God had previously saddled him. [End of excursus]

Moses has had it with the querulous people, who cry out to him like little babies – the text uses the word bocheh, which is the same word used when little baby Moses cried out in his ark (Exodus 2:6). And indeed Moses relates to the people as babies when he in turn cries out to God: “Why have you dealt ill with your servant, and why have I not enjoyed your favor, that you have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive this people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant?” (Numbers 11:11-12). Moses insists that he is sick and tired of nursing the people and responding to their every whimper and wail. Why can’t they leave him alone? Is he their mother? Did he give birth to them? Avivah Zornberg points out that Moses himself did not have a normal nursing experience. He went through a period in the ark when he was deprived of breastmilk altogether, and when he was returned to his mother’s bosom, his mother acted as a hired wet nurse in the employ of Pharaoh’s daughter. We might say (with apologies to Freud, as per the title of this post) that Moses was traumatized at the breast, and has not recovered. No wonder he wants the heavy burden of the people –who weighed surely much more than a watermelon—taken out of his sling.

Like Moses, I sometimes find motherhood frustrating – especially now, as I sit nursing Matan while typing the end of this post, pecking at the computer with one hand like a hen pecking at scraps. But as I look down at Matan’s big fishy eyes staring up at me from my bosom, I’m struck once again by how adorable he is. I did in fact conceive Matan, and bear him; and so unlike Bnei Yisrael and unlike Moses, I really cannot complain.

Love in the Time of Omer, Again

This Lag Ba’Omer I found myself thinking of Shimon bar Yochai and his son, who studied Torah together in a cave for twelve years. The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) relates that they shed their clothes and sat covered in sand up to their necks and broke from study only to dress and daven. It dawns on me that this is not so different from how Matan and I have been spending our mornings — albeit without the sand.

Matan generally wakes up around 6am (to the extent that one can generalize about the daily habits of a two-week old). He doesn’t cry, but when I peer into his bassinet in the early morning light, I notice that his eyes (which are no longer brown, but bluish) are wide open. He blinks furiously when he catches my gaze, and I lift him up out and begin singing “Rise and Shine.” By the time Noah is getting his children into the “arky arky,” I’ve changed his diaper and carried him over to the rocking chair where I sit and nurse him. I marvel at the fact that my body can satisfy all his nutritional needs, like the carob tree and spring of water miraculously created for Bar Yochai and his son to sustain them in the cave. During this first nursing of the morning, I sing him Modeh Ani followed by “greatest hits” from Psukei D’Zimra and Shacharit, including most of the Hallelujahs. (My repertoire also includes El Adon, even on weekdays, because I love the melody so much.) Often he’ll wait to detach from the breast until I finish a particular Tefillah, though I’m not sure whether this is out of Koved Rosh or a keen sense of melody.

When Matan finishes nursing, we move on to Daf Yomi, which I don’t really learn but rather sing aloud. In the interest of time, I merely read through Steinstaltz’s commentary, making my best attempt to understand the discussion at hand. (As a friend recently quipped, instead of Baby Einstein, we are educating Matan through Baby Steinsaltz.) Yesterday we learned a sugya about the number of times oil must be added to a Minchah sacrifice that is offered in a vessel. The term used for each addition of oil is “Matan Shemen,” as I was excited to point out to our Matan. And now that we are on the Korban Todah, the thanksgiving offering (and the bread that came with it), I have the opportunity to share with Matan all the many reasons I have to be thankful after nine months of anticipating what it would be like to hold our child in my arms.

Matan usually falls asleep at some point in the middle of Daf Yomi (lately he’s been holding out until Amud Bet, so maybe there’s hope). I put him down in his bassinet and take advantage of the break to brush my teeth (at last!), jump in the shower, throw on some clothes, and eat breakfast. Then we head out for a morning walk. I gently place Matan in a sling without rousing him, strap the diaper bag (which has replaced my L.L. Bean backpack) over my shoulder, and invent a destination. Everywhere we go, we see the rest of the world busy at work, and I am reminded of how my life is so different now that I am on maternity leave. I think about Bar Yochai and his son, who emerged from the cave and saw everyone around them plowing and sowing and engaging in other forms of labor. They had just spent twelve years learning Torah, and so they could not identify with the working life. I know how they must have felt. Our apartment often feels like a cave, with my whole existence confined to the seat where I nurse and the table where I change Matan. It is hard to imagine that just two weeks ago, I was at my desk at work at 8:30 every morning, selling books to publishers across the country and communicating with clients around the world.

By the time Matan and I return from our walk, he is usually just waking up again, so I change him and nurse him while reading to him aloud from my novel. I want Matan to be exposed only to wholesome literature – thus far he’s been read Alexander McCall Smith’s The Lost Art of Gratitude and the first half of Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’ s Last Stand. I enjoy reading him novels with dialogue because I can act out the various voices. Nonfiction doesn’t work as well; inevitably I give up and start reading to myself, because it doesn’t seem worth the effort of vocalizing in a monotone.

Matan falls asleep as I read to him, so I wheel his bassinet into the kitchen and place him down in it. While he sleeps I eat my lunch and try to answer a few emails. As soon as he wakes up, we turn on Skype and speak with either Matan’s Savta or my grandmother, depending on who is available. Everyone wants to see Matan on the video, but he’s too short to reach the camera, so I construct a booster seat atop the kitchen table consisting of my Norton Anthology of Poetry and Heschel’s Man is Not Alone. Matan’s feet dangle over the edge of the books, about an inch off the table, and he swings them while we Skype. Often he falls asleep mid-conversation, generally when my grandmother starts complaining about the weather in Princeton. I quickly lift him over my shoulder so his back is to the camera and he doesn’t seem rude.

Although he is a big sleeper, Matan always wakes up when I start playing our CD of Bialik nursery rhymes. We dance around the house to Yossi BaKinor and Rutz Ben Susi, two songs that I learned for the first time only this past week. (I now know them both by heart.) As the light begins to fade, I place Matan in his mechanical swing and play NadNed, and once again he dozes off. His head slumps forward and his blue hat creeps down over his eyes, so he looks like a smurf, or like one of the seven dwarves.

By the time Matan next stirs, his Abba is home to entertain him, make dinner, and relieve me for a while. One night last week the three of us tried to go to an evening shiur. We brought Matan in a carseat and D sat in between the two of us. After about ten minutes, Matan had woken up and I’d fallen fast asleep. D looked to his left and then to his right, trying to figure out what was wrong with this picture….

When Matan falls asleep for the night (errr, for the first Ashmura of the night) we sing him the Shema followed by a few soothing songs, mostly Seudah Shlishit melodies. He will wake up every two hours throughout the night. Each time I hear him whimper, I find myself muttering God’s words to Bar Yochai: “Have you come to destroy my world?” But then I peer into his bassinet at his tiny clenched fists which he holds over his head, and at his fingernails the size of sesame seeds. As I lift him out to feed him yet again, I remember that I have created his world, and that he has essentially recreated mine. His eyes peek out from under his hat like Bar Yochai’s head beneath the sand, and I kiss him and hold him close.

Making Seder: Towards an Idea of Order

For the past few weeks, my husband has been urging me to clear off my desk so that we can replace it with a baby crib. The crib, which arrived just a few days ago from my sister-in-law along with an array of car seats, strollers, and bright orange garbage bags filled with baby clothes, will not fit in our apartment until I get rid of my desk. But I have not been able to let it go. And so my great wooden desk–stacked with folders marked “ideas for the Pesach seder,” “Bronfman seduction,” “Babylonian menstruation,” as well as a pile of books including the JPS tanakh, Masechet Menachot, the current issue of Lilith, and Benne Lau’s book on Hazal–is an island in a sea of baby supplies. When sitting down before it, I cannot get up unless I push back one of the strollers, climb over a garbage bag, and straddle a big wicker box labeled “toys.” You might say that the baby supplies form a wall, to my right and to my left, and I am harboring a murderous urge to hurl rocking horse and rider into the sea.

Of course, I am extremely grateful to have received a full supply of baby goods from my sister-in-law, which saves us many hours and shekels in the weeks ahead. But the sheer physical reality of this paraphernalia crowding what was once my office has left me quite overwhelmed. In an attempt to reclaim some idea of order, I packed my bag for the hospital tonight, as instructed by the stack of eleven baby books behind my bed (all courtesy of the literary agency where I work): It is never too early to pack for the hospital – you must be prepared! In stuffing my hand cream, underwear, hot water bottle, and Alexander McCall Smith novels (I chose my hospital reading three months ago) into a tote bag, I felt a bit like the Israelites packing to leave Egypt. I too was gathering all the possessions I would need to take with me into the uncharted wilderness of motherhood, a land of flowing with milk, which I am told is characterized by many a Leyl Shimurim– long nights of no sleep without even a pillar of fire to keep vigil beside me.

On the other hand, once the baby is born, it will no longer be inside of me, which I suppose offers some degree of relief. I find it amusing that watermelons came into season in Israel the very week I entered my eighth month, just when I began to feel like I was carrying one around. Perhaps in a few weeks, when beset by the wailing cries of a baby that wishes it were back in my narrow womb, I, too, will pine for the watermelon to be curled up mutely inside me again. We remember the watermelons we ate in Egypt….

That watermelon-sized baby inside me is really all I need at this stage. If I had to, I could flee to the hospital b’chipazon, without my hospital bag and with only my girded loins and my sandals on my feet. If my contractions drive me out of my home so that I cannot delay, I could leave even without preparing any provisions for myself. After all, Pesach is not a holiday of preparedness. No one is ever fully ready for Pesach when the sun sets on the fourteenth of Nisan. There is always more to cook, more to clean, more to study, more to prepare. Perhaps that’s why the matzah is such a powerful symbol. Matzah is unfinished bread. It is dough that has not been given sufficient time to rise. Eating matzah is a reminder that we don’t always have time to plan in advance, and that sometimes we must just pick up and run, placing our trust in God as we hurl ourselves forwards towards our divinely ordained destiny. I hope the baby that is cooking inside me does not emerge half-baked–and certainly I feel quite puffed up and leavened–but I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely ready for labor and childbirth, let alone motherhood. I do know, though, that this year I have a very different understanding of what it means to see myself as if I have left Egypt. I will be as prepared as I can be, and, in spirit of Dayenu, it will have to be enough.

בניית המשכן כעבודה יצירתית: פרשת ויקהל

האם בניית המשכן היתה עבודה יצירתית?
אנו מוצאים בתורה שכל פרטי בניית המשכן נמצאים פעמיים, בפרשות תרומה-תצוה כצויי מהאל למשה (“ועשית”), ובפרשת ויקהל פקודי כדווח על מה עשו (“ויעש”). כמעט כל הפרטים—המזבח, הכיור, המנורה, הכלים—זהים בין הצויי לבין הביצוע. ה’ מצוה למשה איך לבנות את המשכן עם כל פרטיה, ואז בצלאל—האומן הראשי בונה לפי ההוראות. אבל – האם אכן כך היה המעשה?

אני רוצה להסתכל איתכם על כמה מדרשים שמראים שעבודת המשכן לא היתה רק מלאכה, אלא גם אמנות יצירתית. המדרש מביא תמונה אחר של בניית המשכן, תמונה שמראה שהחזון—הנושא של השבתון שלנו—היה חלק עיקרי בבניית המשכן. נקרא את המדרשים ביחד וננסה להבין –האם בצלאל היה אומן, או פשוט בעל מקצוע? האם יש לנו מה ללמוד מבניית המשכן, לגבי חזון ויצירתיות?

במדבר רבה י”ב:י
רבי יהושע דסכנין, בשם רבי לוי אמר: בשעה שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה: עשו לי משכן היה לו להעמיד ארבע קונטיסים ולמתוח את המשכן עליהם, אלא מלמד שהראה הקב”ה למשה למעלן, אש אדומה, אש ירוקה, אש שחורה, אש לבנה.
אמר לו: כתבניתם אשר אתה מראה בהר.
רבי ברכיה בשם ר’ בצלה: למלך שהיה לו לבוש משובח עשוי במרגליטון.
אמר לבן ביתו: עשה לי כזה.
אמר לו: אדוני המלך, יכול אני לעשות כמותו?!
אמר לו: אני בכבודי ואתה בסממנך.
כך, אמר משה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: אלהי יכול אני לעשות כאלה?!
אמר לו: כתבנית אשר אני וגו’ בתכלת, ובארגמן, ובתולעת שני, ובשש.
אמר הקב”ה למשה: אם את עושה, מה שלמעלה למטה, אני מניח סנקליטון שלי של מעלה, וארד ואצמצם שכינתי ביניהם למטה.
למעלה, שרפים עומדים, אף למטה, עצי שטים עומדים.
העמד אין כתיב כא, ן אלא עומדים, כנתון באסטרטיא של מעלה. הה”ד (שם ו): שרפים עומדים ממעל לו מה למעלה כוכבים, אף למטה כוכבים.

מה מפריע לדרשן? כתוב בתורה, ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, וגם “וראה ועשה בתבניתם אשר אני מראה בהר.” מה בדיוק הראה ה’ למשה בהר? לא תבנית של המקדש שהוא היה צריך לזכור ולהעתיק, אלא חזון של אש בארבעה צבעים—דבר שבכלל לא קים בעולם שלנו! זה רק מגדיל את הבעיה – אם החומרים לא נמצאים בעולם, איך אפשר לבנות משכן מהם?

עבודת המשכן, אני רוצה לטעון, היתה עבודה של תרגום. משה היה צריך לתרגם את החזון שראה בהר סיני לעבודה של ממש בעולם שבו אנו חיים. משה לא אמור פשוט להעתיק דגם, אלא לתרגם את הדגם השמימי לורזיה ארצי. במקום שרפים עומדים, יהיה עצי שטים עומדים. אנו רואים את הקשר בין החזון לבין המימוש במדרש הבא:

תנחומא ויקרא י”א:ח’
וזה מעשה המנורה ( במד’ ח ד).
מלמד, שהראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא באצבע את המנורה, ואף על פי כן נתקשה בה הרבה משה לעשותו.
מה עשה הקדוש ברוך הוא?
חקקה על כף ידו של משה.
אמר לו: וראה ועשה בתבניתם (שמו’ כה מ), כשם שחקקתיה על כף ידך.
ואף על פי כן נתקשה בה משה ואמר: מקשה תיעשה המנורה (שם שם לא). כלומר, מה קשה לעשות.
אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: השלך את הזהב לאש והמנורה תיעשה מאליה, שנאמר: מקשה תיעשה המנורה.
כתיב תיעשה, מעצמה תיעשה.
מלמד, שנתקשה לו המנורה, והראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא באצבע, שנאמר: [ו]זה.

המדרש הזה משחק בקשר בין העין לבין האצבע. ה’ מראה למשה את המשכן, אבל “מקשה תעשה את המנורה” – מה קשה היה המנורה למשה, עם כל נביעה, כפתוריה, פרחיה,וששה הקנים. לכן ה’ חקק את המנורה על ידו של משה. זה לא רק שהלוחות היו כתובים באצבע אלוהים, אלא גם התבנית של בית אלוקים, היינו המשכן. ובכך משה יכול להביא את המשכן חקוק על ידו משמים—מקום החזון—אל הארץ—מקום המימוש.

אבל עבודת המשכן היה לא רק עבודה של משה. עיקר העבודה נעשית על ידי העם, אנשים שנקראים “חכמת לב.” מי היו?

רמב”ן שמות ל”ה: כ”א
(כא): ויבאו כל איש אשר נשאו לבו –
על החכמים העושים במלאכה יאמר כן, כי לא מצינו על המתנדבים נשיאות לב, אבל יזכיר בהם נדיבות.
וטעם אשר נשאו לבו –
לקרבה אל המלאכה, כי לא היה בהם שלמד את המלאכות האלה ממלמד, או מי שאימן בהן ידיו כלל, אבל מצא בטבעו שידע לעשות כן, ויגבה לבו בדרכי ה’ לבא לפני משה לאמר לו אני אעשה כל אשר אדני דובר. וכבר הזכרתי זה בסדר האחר (לעיל לא ב). והנה אמר שבאו לפני משה כל אשר נשאו לבו לקרבה אל המלאכה, וכל אשר נדבה רוחו אותו הביאו התרומה. והנה משה אמר לכולם כי קרא ה’ בשם בצלאל ואהליאב (פסוק ל), ואחרי כן קרא להם משה ואל כל חכם לב (להלן לו ב): שיבואו לפניו ונתן להם הנדבה:

מה מפריע לרמב”ן? למה כתוב גם “נשאו לבו” וגם “נדבה רוחו”? מה ההבדל? כנראה אלו שנדבה רוחם היו אלו שתרמו למשכן. אבל אלו שנשאו לבו היו אלו שמצאו בלבם ובטבעם שידעו איך לבנות בית לה’. הם קבלו סוג של השראה ומצאו שהם יודעים איך לבנות משכן, למרות שלא היה בהן שלמד את המלאכות האלו.

ובראשם היה בצלאל. מי היה בצלאל ומאיפה הוא קיבל את הידע שלו?

רמב”ן שמות ל”א: ב’
(ב): ראה קראתי בשם בצלאל בן אורי בן חור –
אמר השם למשה ראה קראתי בשם, ומשה אמר לישראל ראו קרא ה’ בשם (להלן לה ל). והטעם, כי ישראל במצרים פרוכים בעבודת חומר ולבנים, לא למדו מלאכת כסף וזהב וחרושת אבנים טובות ולא ראו אותם כלל. והנה הוא פלא שימצא בהם אדם חכם גדול בכסף ובזהב ובחרושת אבן ועץ וחושב ורוקם ואורג, כי אף בלומדים לפני חכמים לא ימצא בקי בכל האומניות כלם, והיודעים ורגילים בהם בבא ידיהם תמיד בטיט ורפש לא יוכלו לעשות בהן אומנות דקה ויפה.
ועוד, שהוא חכם גדול בחכמה בתבונה ובדעת להבין סוד המשכן וכל כליו למה צוו ואל מה ירמוזו. ולכן אמר השם למשה שיראה הפלא הזה, וידע כי הוא מלא אותו רוח אלוהים לדעת כל אלה בעבור שיעשה המשכן, כי היה רצון מלפניו לעשות המשכן במדבר, ולכבודו בראו, כי הוא קורא הדורות מראש (ישעיה מא ד), כדרך בטרם אצרך בבטן ידעתיך ובטרם תצא מרחם הקדשתיך (ירמיה א ה). ובלשון הזה (לעיל טז כט): ראו כי ה’ נתן לכם השבת על כן הוא נותן לכם ביום השישי לחם יומיים:
ולרבותינו בזה מדרש (שמו”ר מ ב):
הראה אותו ספרו של אדם הראשון ואמר לו כל אחד התקנתיו מאותה שעה, ואף בצלאל מאותה שעה התקנתי אותו, שנאמר ראה קראתי בשם בצלאל.
והוא כענין שפירשתי.
ועוד אמרו (ברכות נה א):
יודע היה בצלאל לצרף אותיות שנבראו בהן שמים וארץ.
והעניין, כי המשכן ירמוז באלו והוא היודע ומבין סודו:

מי היה בצלאל? המדרש מזכיר לנו שבני ישראל היו עבדים במצרים – הם עבדו בפרך, בחומר ובלבינים. עבודה לשם פרעה היה ההפך של עבודת המשכן – היא היתה עבודה גסה, בלי מנוחה, בלי מטרה—כי אם היתה מטרה, למה פרעה היה לוקח מהם את חומרי הבנייה כדי שצטרכו לעבוד יותר?(לא תוסיפון לתת תבן לעם ללבון הלבנים כתמול שלשלום מם ילכו וקששו להם תבן – שמות ה: ז) אבל עבודת המקדש היא עבודה מעודנת עם חומרים עשירים ודקים כמו זהב וכסף. מאיפה יש לעבדי פרעה לכשעבר מסורות של עבודה בחומרים אלו?

בצלאל כנראה קבל את הכשרונות שלו מה’. ה’ מלא אותו רוח אלוהים, כמו שהוא מלא את אדם הראשון ברוח ה’: ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים. חלקו השני של מדרש זה מקשר אותנו לבריאת העולם – בצלאל ידע לצרף אותיות שנבראו בהן שמים וארץ. מאמר זה מופיע בתלמוד מסכת שבת נ”ה, בפרק ט, מיד לפני הסוגיה הארוכה על חלומות ופתרונם. למה מופיע דווקא פה? אולי בצלאל מופיע כהקדמה לדיונם של חז”ל על חלומות ופתרונם כי בצלאל היה מין פותר חלומות. הוא ראה חזון—היינו החלום—והבין איך לפרש אותו, היינו איך לממש אותו. הוא ידע לצרף אותיות שנבראו בהם שמים וארץ, ולכן הוא היה סוג של בורא עולם: הוא ברא את עולמו של המשכן. כמובן, היה לו תבנית, אבל גם לה’ היה תבנית כשהוא ברא את העולם: המדרש בבראשית רבה מתארת לנו שה’ הסתכל בתורה ובכך ידע איך לבנות את העולם. אי אפשר להתחיל פרויקט אומנותי בלי שום דגם או מודל. הדרשה שלי היום באה מדגם של שיעור ששמעתי באנגלית לפני שנים ממורי אביבה זורנברג, שאני מתרגמת בשבילכם וכמובן, תוך כדי, מוסיפה את היצירתיות שלי. ככה זה לדרוש בתורה, ככה זה לכתוב, וככה זה להיות יצירתי. אפילו הקב”ה היה צריך להיעזר בדגם כדי לברוא את העולם:

בראשית רבה א:א:
אמון – אומן. התורה אומרת אני הייתי כלי אומנתו של הקב”ה.
בנוהג שבעולם, מלך בשר ודם בונה פלטין אינו בונה אותה מדעת עצמו, אלא מדעת אומן. והאומן אינו בונה אותה מדעת עצמו, אלא דיפתראות ופינקסאות יש לו, לדעת היאך הוא עושה חדרים, היאך הוא עושה פשפשין.
כך היה הקדוש ברוך הוא, מביט בתורה ובורא את העולם.
והתורה אמרה: בראשית ברא אלהים ואין ראשית אלא תורה.
היאך מה דאת אמר (משלי ח) ה’ קנני ראשית דרכו:

אין בריאה ללא חזון שקודם לו. קודם כל צריכים לדמיין – אפילו אם באש שחורה ואדומה וירוקה ולבנה –את הפרוייקט, ורק אז אפשר להתחיל לממש אותו. כל סופר ומשורר צריך לעלות להר סיני בדמיון שלו ולראות את הדגם עשוי מאש לפני שהוא חוזר לשולחן כתיבה שלו ומתחיל לעבוד. ברור שהספר שהוא כותב לא יהיה גם עשוי מאש – הוא יהיה התרגום של החזון באש. אבל אם הסופר מצליח, עבודה הסופית תהיה משהו שיוכל להתיז ניצוצות בתוך הקורא, ולגרום אם לא ללהבי אש אז להתלהבות.

לפני שאני מסיימת אני רוצה לחזור לענין של השבת, שמוזכר במדרש האחרון שהבאתי, שמקשר בין “ראה קראתי בשם בצלאל” ל”ראו כי ה’ נתן לכם השבת.” מה הקשר בין בצלאל ועבודתו לבין השבת? פרשתנו מתחילה עם הצווי לשמור את השבת, ורק אז אנו עוברים לתיאור של בניית המשכן מה ענין שבת אצל משכן? בשבת אסור לבער אש. חז”ל למדו את כל ל”ט המלאכות שאסורות בשבת מעבודת המשכן – כל המלאכות שהיו חלק מבניית המשכן הם אסורות בשבת. אפשר להגיד שהשבת הוא ההפך של המשכן – בשבת אנו לא עוסקים במלאכה, ובניית המשכן כלל בו את כל המלאכות. אבל לדעתי זו תמונה יותר מדי פשוטה, כי גם החזון—גם העלייה להר—הוא חלק מהיצירה. למה פרשת ויקהל מתחילה עם מצוות שבת? כי התורה מבינה שהשבת היא לא רק המנוחה שמגיע לנו אחרי ששת ימי מלאכה, אלא גם המנוחה וההשראה שמאפשרת לנו להיות אומנים בשאר הימים. שבת היא אות בינינו לבין ה’ – לכן לא לובשים תפילין בשבת, כי שבת היא אות בפני עצמה. בשבת ה’ חוקק על ידינו—מקום לבוש תפילון–את הפרוייקטים שנעסוק בהם בשבוע הבא. שבת היא מעין עולם הבא – טעם של עולם אחר, כמו האש בארבע צבעי שאין לו קיום בעולם הארצי. בשבת יש לנו נשמה יתירה – כמו שה’ מלא את בצלאל ברוח אלוהים, ה’ גם ממלא אותנו ברוח ומראה לנו את החזון שהוא סוד אומנותינו. לכלנו יש נדבה ייחודי לתרום לעולם זה, ולכולנו יש את היכולת להיות מי שנשאו לבו לתרום לתיקון עולמינו. תפילתי היא שבשבתות כמו היום, נזכה לראות את החזון, ובימות השבוע, נשב כולנו ליד שולחן הכתיבה או מקום עבודה כל שהו, ונתחיל את מלאכת הקודש של מימוש החזון. שבת שלום.

Radical Judaism

Tonight I went to a lecture by Rabbi Arthur Green, professor and rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and author of Radical Judaism. As soon as I got home, I typed up everything I could remember. I post it here:

During the twentieth century, traditional religion fought and lost two great battles against modernity. These were the battles against Darwinism and against Biblical criticism. These battles are over, and what we are left with is a level of consciousness that has to confront the radical awareness that God is not there. But if this is Emet, there is also Emet L’Amito, and that is the even deeper level of consciousness that says that nonetheless, God is there. How do we live with and make sense of that double consciousness, in light of the strides made by both evolution and Biblical criticism?

Evolution takes us to the subject of creation, which was the focus of medieval theology and the theology of the Zohar. But throughout the past hundred years, Jews have been primarily concerned with providence (is God there?) and authority (why listen to Him?). We moderns must realize that creation is every bit as essential to our theology, if not more. We speak often of Nachshon ben Aminadav, the first Israelite to jump into the Red Sea — but what about the first organism to come out of the sea, and try to make its life on land? Evolution is the greatest sacred drama of all time. The question we must ask ourselves is what do religious people have to offer to this drama? As religious people, we understand that creation is the ongoing inbuilt desire in God to reveal itself to its many forms. Creation is the push towards greater diversity and greater complexity. Greater diversity means greater beauty, and greater complexity means greater consciousness. This greater consciousness pushes towards beings who are ever more aware of God. This notion of God is both immanent and transcendent, but its transcendence is a part of its immanence. We access the transcendent God when we realize that God is present in every moment in such a profound way that we will never be able to grasp it. Transcendence is thus the elusiveness of immanence.

We must strive to access a God that is both immanent and transcendent so that we can be partners in creation. Heschel spoke of being partners in creation, but when we say this today we speak with much more urgency. To be partners in creation is to take responsibility for the future of the planet. We live in an age of great environmental responsibility. We will need to change human behavior in massive ways, making drastic transitions in our lifestyle if we want to ensure the future of humanity. We would like to think that in another 100,000 years, the human beings of the future will be as ashamed at the terribly misguided decisions that we have made as we are ashamed of our chimpanzee ancestors.

In terms of Biblical criticism, we must recognize that yes, the Torah is human; but yes, the Torah is divine. The first question that God asks man in the Bible is Ayeka, where are you. This is the same divine voice that continues to call out to us. But it calls out in a language beyond words; it is we who create the words. The Torah that preceded creation contained nothing other than the name of God, Yud Hey Vav Hey, which is just vowels, just aspirated breath from a time before language existed. It is we who add the consonants. God spoke the first two commandments, Ehyeh and Lo Yihyeh (both plays on the divine name), and then Moshe translated the rest. This process of translating the divine call into words is a sacred process, which is why Torah is sacred. At the same time, though, we must remember Heschel’s answer to the question: Is the prophet an active partner in prophecy, or is he an empty vessel for the divine voice? Heschel answered the former. But if so, then the prophet is fallible, and is shaped by the constraints and conventions of his age. Prophecy (i.e. Torah) is a partly human creation, with all the limitations of any human creation. Sometimes we have to object to it, because it is antithetical to the values of our own age, which are ever-evolving. We must remember that it is we human beings who brought God into language, but that in bringing God into language, we ourselves were transformed. This is the Sfat Emet’s midrash on
את ה’ האמרת היום…וה’ האמירך היום
At Sinai human beings spoke God into words. And so yes, I believe in the covenant at Sinai, even though I believe that it was our idea. Sinai is essential language for me; it is a key element of my spiritual life, and of our spiritual language as Jews, regardless of whether or not it happened historically. We must not forget that when Moses took blood and dashed it on the people in Exodus 24, he was not doing so because God had told him to. This blood covenant was Moses’ invention for the sake of binding the people to God. And so the human impulse to create ritual is encoded in our divinely inspired human text.

The subject of ritual brings me to the subject of Mitzvah. A Mitzvah is a man-made opportunity for encountering the divine. Davening with tefillin is a reminder to stop for a moment in our fast-paced cyber-wired lives to listen to the call of Ayeka. Tefillin, like Shabbat, is a sign and reminder to heed the divine call. Unfortunately, we sometimes get so involved in doing the reminders that we forget what it is that we are supposed to remember. The rabbis thought that if they told us to say one hundred brachot every day, they would ensure that we live each day with a consciousness of God. But Jews are smart. They found a way of forgetting God even with one hundred blessings. They became so obsessed with counting the blessings that they forgot Who it is they are meant to be blessing.

Of course, Judaism is not the only response to the divine. All religions are human creations in response to the divine call. Is Judaism better than all the others? I wouldn’t say that. But I consider it a privilege to be born into a small religion that has such a great tradition, and I want to be part of developing and updating that tradition. I believe that Jews have some specific things to say that no other tradition says as well. Shabbat is one of the great gifts of Judaism to humanity. I’d love to be able to give it to the world, if I could first give it to the Jews again. And then there is the notion of being created in the image of God, one of the most important ideas that Judaism has to offer. Who would have thought that having a Jewish state would call this fundamental religious notion so much into question? We Jews have not done a good job of spreading the notion of Tzelem Elokim in the last 65years. This is not a political lecture, but given our track record, it will be very hard to convince the world that Tzelem Elokim is a fundamental idea of our tradition.

You ask me how to know which mitzvot to follow, and how to find a Jewish practice that works for you. To this I say: Learn a lot, try a lot of experiments, and take responsibility for your own Neshama. Theology is an art, not a science. We religious people have nothing we can prove, but proving and disproving is not a chessboard I am interested in playing on. I believe that religion takes place in the realm of the imagination, that realm which allows us to open our minds to music and poetry and to deeper levels of reality. Our job is to bring evolution and science to that realm of poetry. To do so we must silence ourselves to hear the Ayeka, and seek out ever richer and more vibrant language in which to translate the divine call into the language of human beings.

Disembarking from the Summer Ark

It happened as if on cue. The moment we finished reading Parashat Noach in shul this past Shabbat, just after the forty days of rain came to an end and God promised that “so long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall never cease,” the floodgates of the sky opened and a heavy rain poured down over Jerusalem. Those who were early to shul came in summer clothes and stayed dry; those who were late walked in sopping wet; and those who were really late arrived in long-sleeves and raincoats. It was the first real rain of the season (other than a brief 7am drizzle a few weeks ago), and we could feel the ground thirsting to drink up every last drop after six months of parched dryness. By the afternoon the air was clean and crisp as if the whole atmosphere had just been laundered, and we went for a walk under the clear blue sky to mark that summer had ended and autumn had begun.

At kiddish after shul I told a friend that I don’t think women menstruated on the ark, because all natural processes ceased. There was no seedtime in the earth or in the human body. The ark was a place of stasis and suspended animation, with no birth or growth or death or rebirth. It was the opposite of the world we know, with its changing seasons, its days that grow longer and shorter, its waxing and waning moon. Although sometimes during hot August afternoons it may seem that “summer days will never cease,” as Keats said in his majestic “Ode to Autumn,” the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” always comes around. This year, when we sat sweating under the hot sun in the sukkah on account of the early holiday schedule, I found myself memorizing Rilke’s “Autumn Day,” a poem that captures the bittersweetness of summer’s end:

Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.

The first stanza captures the immensity of summer, whose hot days are as oppressive as its long evenings are liberating. In those last hot days we find ourselves entreating the Lord to rein in the long days and dispel the heat with autumn breezes. And yet as the second stanza indicates, we don’t really want summer to end quite yet:

Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

We want just a bit more summer, enough to allow the final fruits to ripen and swell and sweeten. Like Chazal, Rilke distinguishes between all fruit and the heavy wine, which is worthy of its own mention and its own blessing: Let all fruits be full, but blessed and sweet be the fruit of the heavy vine. This stanza is clearly heavily influenced by Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” which the poet composed on a September afternoon while taking a walk through the fields:

Ode to Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Summer cannot end until all fruit is filled with ripeness to the core. We must have the last pomegranates and mangoes to seed and peel with sticky hands as the redness splatters the cabinets and the yellow juice trickles down to our elbows. It cannot rain before Sukkot because first we must gather in the gourds and the hazel shells and all the bounty of the harvest. Rilke invokes Keats’ powers of close observation and rich sensual language to describe the natural world at a particular moment in time. But Rilke is not a nature poet like Keats; he is, primarily, the poet of loneliness. And so for Rilke, the end of summer is about ripeness, but also resignation. As we see in the third and final stanza, the winds that are let loose are also stately sighs:

Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

Conjoining house and spouse, as the Talmud, too, is wont, Rilke asserts that to everything there is a season, and the time of building is over. Those who did not find someone to snuggle with during the cold winter nights ahead will have to wait until the next seedtime. Those who are alone—a state with which the poet is clearly intimately familiar—will find themselves staying up alone and wandering the avenues “restlessly,” a word that sounds (in this beautiful translation) like the rustling of the leaves with which the poem concludes. I imagine these solitary souls wandering with their chins up and their heads held high, and even as their jaws tremble with the enormity of the pain of loneliness, they do not cry. They have fixed their sights on the next corner, and the next, and they will acquaint themselves with the night until they are so tired that they are ready to collapse from exhaustion — and only then, when they can be sure there is no danger of crying themselves to sleep, do they permit themselves to go inside again.

When I think of these night wanderers I am reminded of Steven Millhauser’s hypnotic novella “Enchanted Night,” about the lonely inhabitants of a small town in Connecticut who cannot sleep on a hot late summer night. Indeed, the first chapter is called “Restless,” and depicts someone who can’t bear to stay inside anymore:

“A hot summer night in southern Connecticut, tide going out and the moon still rising. Laura Engstrom, fourteen years old, sits in bed and throws the covers off. Her forehead is damp, her hair feels wet. Through the screens of the two half-open windows she can hear a rasp of crickets and a dim rush of traffic on the distant thruway. Five past twelve. The room is so hot that the heat is gripping her throat. Got to move, got to do something. Moonlight is streaming in past the edges of the closed and slightly raised venetian blinds. She can’t breathe in this room, in this house. Oh man, do something. Do it… She can’t stay in this room, oh no. If she doesn’t do something right away, this second, she’ll scream. The inside of her skin itches. Her bones itch. So how do you scratch your bones? She has to get out there, she has to breathe. If you don’t breathe, you’re dead. The room is killing her.”

When does the moment come when we accept that summer is over and the long, lonely coldness is beginning to set in? e.e. cummings takes a hard-nosed look at the cruelty of summer’s end, with the loss of any hope that blossoming friendships will ripen into mature love:

“summer is over
— it’s no use demanding
that lending be giving;
it’s no good pretending
befriending means loving”
(sighs mind:and he’s clever)
“for all,yes for all
sweet things are until”

“spring follows winter
as clover knows,maybe”
(heart makes the suggestion)
“or even a daisy—
your thorniest question
my roses will answer”
“but dying’s meanwhile” (mind murmurs;the fool)

“truth would prove truthless
and life a mere pastime
— each joy a deceiver,
and sorrow a system—
if now than forever
could never(by breathless
one breathing)be” soul
“more” cries;with a smile

The mind, ever clever, knows that summer is over, because experience has proven that nothing lasts forever: “all sweet things are until.” And yet while the mind has acknowledged the reality of the changing seasons, the soul is not ready to let go. As in Rilke’s second stanza, the soul cries out “more” in a final gasp for fresh air to breathe in a hot stuffy room, wishing for just a bit more ripeness and fruitfulness, and another chance for friendship to become love. The brain may be an expert in truth, but truth would have no point (“truth would prove truthless”) if the soul did not retain the hope that “now” could become “forever,” that is, that summer days might never cease. The stubborn soul will continue to write the poetry of summer in the lonely days of winter, to enclose those poems in long letters, and to memorize them while walking up and down the Connecticut avenues at night.

But summer is over. There’s no use pretending. This week the creation and destruction stories will give way to the beginning of the saga of the Jewish people, starting with the charge to Abraham to get up, leave his home, and walk the streets from Ur Kasdim to Canaan. By the end of the week we will have begun praying for rain and dew, and Lord it is time. But I still want to carry with me some of the wonder and marvel of the first two parshiyot, those end of summer weeks when life remains full of ripeness and precarious potential. And I want to imagine that when the rain comes again, even the poet of loneliness will find himself seeking refuge in another’s arms, two by two.