Nicanor and Yonah: A Meditation to Precede Tefilat Neilah

I am struck by the parallels between Nicanor, who donated magnificent bronze doors to the Temple courtyard, and Jonah, whose prayers reached the Temple sanctuary. The Talmud (Yoma 38a) relates that Nicanor traveled by ship to Alexandria to bring the doors, and on his return, a huge wave threatened to engulf him. Thereupon the sailors took one of the doors and cast it into the sea, but the sea continued to rage. When they prepared to cast the other door in too, Nicanor rose and clung to it, saying, “Cast me in too.” The sea became calm. When they reached the harbor of Akko, the door broke through the surface of the water; a sea beast had swallowed it and then spit it up on to try land. Subsequently all the gates of the Temple were changed to golden ones, except the Nicanor gates, because of the miracles wrought with them.

Jonah also found himself at sea amidst a terrible storm. The sailors flung the ship’s cargo overboard, but the sea continued to rage. Thereupon Jonah said, “Cast me in too.” The sea became calm. A sea beast swallowed Jonah and then spit him up on to dry land. From the belly of the beast, Jonah cried: “My prayer came before you into your holy Temple.”

The rabbis of the Talmud (Y. Berachot 4:1) disagree about which gates are locked during Neilah. Is it the gates of the Temple? Or the gates of the heavens? Rabbi Elazar teaches: Ever since the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer are locked. But even though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears remain open.”

Below – a meditation on the gates of the Temple and the gates of prayer. As the day fades and the sun sinks, may our prayers merit to enter the heavenly gates.

פתח לנו שער
בעת נעילת שער
כי פנה היום

היום יפנה
השמש יבוא ויפנה
נבואה שעריך

“.עת נעילת שער.” מחלוקת.  רבי יוחנן אומר “נעילת ההיכל”  ורב  אומר “נעילת שערי שמים”

שערי ההיכל מנלן. מניקנור. כדתנן: ניקנור נעשו נסים לדלתוליו.

מאי נסים? כשהלך ניקנור להביא דלתות מאלכסנדריא של מצרים, בחזרתו עמד עליו נחשול שבים לטבעו. נטלו אחת מהן והטילוה לים, ועדיין לא נח הים מזעפו. בקשו להטיל את חברתה, עמד הוא וכרכה, אמר להם: הטילוני עמה! מיד נח הים מזעפו. והיה מצטער על חברתה. כיון שהגיע לנמלה של עכו- היתה מבצבצת ויוצאה מתחת דופני הספינה. ויש אומרים: בְּרִיָּה  שבים בלעתה והקיאתה ליבשה. לפיכך, כל השערים שהיו במקדש נשתנו להיות של זהב, חוץ משערי ניקנור, מפני שנעשו בו נסים

ויש אומרים: שערי היכל מנלן? מיונה. כדכתיב. ויקם יונה לברוח תרשישה. וימצא אניה. וה’ הטיל רוח גדולה אל היום ויהי סער גדול בים והאניה חשבה להישבר. וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים, וַיָּטִלוּ אֶת-הַכֵּלִים אֲשֶׁר בָּאֳנִיָּה אֶל-הַיָּם, לְהָקֵל מֵעֲלֵיהֶם. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם, שָׂאוּנִי וַהֲטִילֻנִי אֶל-הַיָּם,

.וַיִּשְׂאוּ, אֶת-יוֹנָה, וַיְטִלֻהוּ, אֶל-הַיָּם; וַיַּעֲמֹד הַיָּם, מִזַּעְפּוֹ.

וימן ה’ דג גדול לבלוע את יונה.  וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל יוֹנָה, אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו, מִמְּעֵי, הַדָּגָה.  ג וַיֹּאמֶר, קָרָאתִי מִצָּרָה לִי אֶל-יְהוָה–וַיַּעֲנֵנִי; וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי, נִגְרַשְׁתִּי מִנֶּגֶד עֵינֶיךָ; אַךְ אוֹסִיף לְהַבִּיט, אֶל-הֵיכַל קָדְשֶׁךָ.   ח בְּהִתְעַטֵּף עָלַי נַפְשִׁי, אֶת-יְהוָה זָכָרְתִּי; וַתָּבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ תְּפִלָּתִי, אֶל-הֵיכַל קָדְשֶׁךָ.

היכל קדשך. אמר רבי אלעזר: מיום שחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי תפילה שנאמר “גם כי אזעק ואשוע שתם תפילתי.” ואף על פי ששערי תפילה ננעלו שערי דמעה לא ננעלו

.כל השערים ננעלו חוץ משערי דמעה מפני שנעשו בו נסים

.אבינו מלכינו פתח שערי שמים לתפילתינו. ותבוא אליך תפילתינו אל היכל קדשך

פתח לנו שער
בעת נעילת שער
כי פנה היום

היום יפנה
השמש יבוא ויפנה
נבואה שעריך

And now the oral version, for reading in shul:

כוונה לתפילת נעילה

פתח לנו שער
בעת נעילת שער
כי פנה היום

היום יפנה
השמש יבוא ויפנה
נבואה שעריך

עת נעילת שער. התלמוד ירושלמי מביא מחלוקת – איזו שערים ננעלים? רבי יוחנן אומר: נעילת היכל. רב אומר: נעילת שערי שמים.

איך להבין את שיטת רבי יוחנן? איזה דלתות ננעלין בהיכל? בגמרא מסכת יומא מובא סיפור על דלתות המקדש. מסופר על איש בשם ניקנור שהלך לאלכסנדרה להביא דלתות למקדש. אני מצטטת:

כשהלך ניקנור להביא דלתות מאלכסנדריא של מצרים, בחזרתו עמד עליו נחשול שבים לטבעו. נטלו אחת מהן והטילוה לים, ועדיין לא נח הים מזעפו. בקשו להטיל את חברתה, עמד הוא וכרכה, אמר להם: הטילוני עמה! מיד נח הים מזעפו. והיה מצטער על חברתה – על הדלת השנייה. כיון שהגיע לנמלה של עכו- היתה מבצבצת ויוצאה מתחת דופני הספינה. ויש אומרים: בְּרִיָּה  (חיה גדולה) שבים בלעתה והקיאתה ליבשה. לפיכך, כל השערים שהיו במקדש נשתנו להיות של זהב, חוץ משערי ניקנור, מפני שנעשו בו נסים.

הסיפור נשמע מוכר? כן. גם יונה, כידוע, מצא את עצמו בירכתי ספינה באמצע סערה. אני מצטטת:

ויקם יונה לברוח תרשישה. וימצא אניה. וה’ התיל רוח גדולה אל היום ויהי סער גדול בים והאניה חשבה להישבר. וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים, וַיָּטִלוּ אֶת-הַכֵּלִים אֲשֶׁר בָּאֳנִיָּה אֶל-הַיָּם, לְהָקֵל מֵעֲלֵיהֶם. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם, שָׂאוּנִי וַהֲטִילֻנִי אֶל-הַיָּם,וַיִּשְׂאוּ, אֶת-יוֹנָה, וַיְטִלֻהוּ, אֶל-הַיָּם; וַיַּעֲמֹד הַיָּם, מִזַּעְפּוֹ.

כמו שחיה בלעה את דלת ההיכל והקיאה אותה ליבשה, גם יונה נבלע. ושם במעי הדגה, הוא מתפלל שתפילותיו יגיעו אל היכל המקדש. אני מצטטת:  וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל יוֹנָה, אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו, מִמְּעֵי, הַדָּגָה.  ג וַיֹּאמֶר, קָרָאתִי מִצָּרָה לִי אֶל-יְהוָה–וַיַּעֲנֵנִי; וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי, נִגְרַשְׁתִּי מִנֶּגֶד עֵינֶיךָ; אַךְ אוֹסִיף לְהַבִּיט, אֶל-הֵיכַל קָדְשֶׁךָ.   ח בְּהִתְעַטֵּף עָלַי נַפְשִׁי, אֶת-יְהוָה זָכָרְתִּי; וַתָּבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ תְּפִלָּתִי, אֶל-הֵיכַל קָדְשֶׁךָ.

כשיונה במעי הדגה הוא מתפלל שיכנסו תפילתיו לשערי המקדש, היינו שערי ניקנור.

אבל רב ממושבו על נהרות בבל חולק. נעילת שערים? הוא אומר. לא שערי היכל, אלא שערי שמים. אחרי החורבן אין עוד אופציה. מיום שחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי היכל. ובשעת נעילה ננעלו שערי תפילה. ואף על פי ששערי תפילה ננעלו, אומרת לנו הגמרא בברכות, שערי דמעה לא ננעלו.

ואני מביאה מדרש אישי: כל השערים ננעלו חוץ משערי דמעה מפני שנעשו בו נסים.

אבינו מלכינו פתח שערי שמים לתפילתינו. ותבוא אליך תפילתינו אל היכל קדשך.

פתח לנו שער
בעת נעילת שער
כי פנה היום

היום יפנה
השמש יבוא ויפנה
נבואה שעריך

I Never Promised You Dessert: Reflections on Kol Nidre

I make all sorts of promises to my children that I do not keep. Many are made in the exigency of the moment: When  my toddler twins are refusing to get in the stroller because they want to stay at the zoo, I promise them we’ll come back the following week– even if I know that won’t happen, and I’m just relying on the fact that they’ll forget by the time they’ve calmed down. When they are fighting over a toy in synagogue and disturbing everyone around us, I tell them that if they don’t stop arguing, they won’t get lollipops at the end of the service – even though I would be powerless to keep them from the Candy Man. Sometimes my promises take the forms of bribes, as when I tell my son that if he eats all the food in his plate, he can have as much dessert as he wants – even though I then limit him after the third cookie, telling him that it’s for his own good, so he doesn’t get a stomachache.

I’ve been feeling very ill-at-ease about all these unkept promises, particularly now that the high holiday season is upon us. My children are all very young, and they are unlikely to remember tomorrow what I promised them today. But as we recite in the section on remembrance in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, “There is no forgetting before the throne of God’s glory.” God remembers His promise after the Flood never again to destroy the earth again, as well as His covenant with Abraham, as we affirm in our prayers. And so even if my children forget what I’ve promised before my credibility erodes, I know that God does not forget, and that these unkept promises will not go unrecorded.

I don’t think the rabbis of the Talmud would have been pleased with my unkept promises either. In tractate Nedarim, which deals with vows that a person takes upon himself or herself, they quote from the book of Ecclesiastes: “It is better not to vow than to vow and not to fulfill.” They warn that every time a person takes a vow, a notebook recording all his deeds is opened in heaven, and God reevaluates his fate more critically. Before Rosh Hashanah, when we ask God to inscribe us in the Book of Life, we are supposed to annul any vows we made the previous year. On the eve of Yom Kippur, this is solemnized in the Kol Nidre service, where we declare all our vows from the previous year to be null and void. But I have already voided so many of my own promises to my children by failing to fulfill them, and I find the beautiful melody of Kol Nidre even more haunting as I think about how thin is the line between unkept vows and outright lies.

But then I am reminded of the history of Kol Nidre, which was originally formulated as a way of annulling vows made the previous year, but then became in the Middle Ages a way of pre-emptively declaring that all vows in the future—from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur—will have no legal force. If so, then Kol Nidre is not just about looking back with regret, but also about looking forwards with resolve. And so perhaps that is what I’ll try to do as well. I’m not going to promise that I won’t make any more vain promises to my children, because to do so would just be to make one vow on top of another. But looking forwards, I hope I’ll think twice before making promises I can’t keep. If my children eat all the food on their plates, I’ll promise them that they will feel better and have more energy to play. If that’s all I promise, I imagine I’ll feel better too.

Stronghold of the Mothers

For the first time in my life I made it a regular practice to attend Selichot services this year. Selichot are penitentiary prayers traditionally recited between midnight and dawn in the weeks preceding Yom Kippur. As a child I never went to Selichot because either I was too young to be awake at that hour, or else I was old enough to babysit for parents who were willing to pay me so that they could attend. And as an adult, I shied away from Selichot because I had enough trouble maintaining my focus during the long Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services; the last thing I was looking for was more time in shul. But now, with three kids under the age of four, things have shifted, and Selichot have suddenly become the spiritual climax of my high holiday experience.
            To some extent this is simply a matter of timing. In my synagogue Selichot are recited at 10:30pm, once all my kids are blessedly asleep and I’ve had a chance to eat dinner, clean up from the day, and prepare for tomorrow. By 10:30pm I am rarely doing anything productive, and I welcome the twenty-minute walk in the cool evening air. Unlike all the other major services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which take place either when my kids are awake or else when I need to be putting them to bed, the timing of Selichot means that I can sit in synagogue by myself, without my toddler twins vying for space on my lap while rummaging through my bag in search of lollipops or begging me to read aloud to them from the books I’ve brought to distract them. Even praying at home has become difficult lately—this year on Rosh Hashanah my husband went to a 5:30am service while I davened Shacharit at home with the kids underfoot, where embarrassingly I found myself in the very same breath affirming God’s sovereignty—HaMelech—and assuring the two-year-old relentlessly tugging at my skirt that yes, Elmo also has a tushie. I can’t do that anymore.
            And so now I do most of my soul-searching during Selichot, where the metaphors that dominate the liturgy seem surprisingly resonant. The focal point of the Selichot service is the repeated recitation of God’s thirteen attributes of mercy; we appeal to God’s compassion in the hope that we, too, will be forgiven. God is slow to anger, gracious, and abundant in kindness –He is our king, but also our father, and I would do well to emulate Him as a parent. Lately in our household, bedtime has been extremely trying, and most nights I end up yelling at my twins when they insist, a half hour after their official bedtime, that they need to come out of their cribs to make one more peepee. “Enough! No more!” I yell in frustration, only later to regret that I am not slower to anger. During the Aneinu prayer, where we appeal to God to answer us, I think about all the times my kids wake up crying in the middle of the night–itself a theme of Selichot, where we are explicitly enjoined to “Arise, cry out in the night” (Lamentations 2:19)–and I am tempted to burrow beneath my pillow and hope they learn to soothe themselves instead of soaking their beds with tears. “Answer us, stronghold of the mothers, answer us,” we plead. I pray that God will be the stronghold of this mother too, and instill in me the strength to rally in the wee hours. “Act for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; act for the sake of those who still nurse from breasts; act for the sake of those who are weaned of milk; act for the sake of the children of Beit Rabban who have never sinned.” And so we petition God to act on behalf of those who are innocent as children – those who are dependent on their parents for their every need, as I know all too well.
            The shofar sounded on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and also during Selichot—is supposed to resemble a cry or a wail. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) compares it to the wailing of the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite military general who fought against the Israelites in the book of Judges. The sound of the shofar is the sound of the wailing mother, and it is, too, the wailing sound familiar to all mothers. As I sit in synagogue at midnight trying to focus on the words in the prayer book before me, I am grateful that at least at that moment, the sound of the shofar is the only cry I hear.

 

Elul Reflections: When Pesach Falls in August

Everyone has been commenting about the strange timing of the Jewish holidays this year, with Elul coinciding with August and Rosh Hashana falling out during the first weekend in September. But for those of us who learn daf yomi, this coincidence is even more jarring, because our preparations for the high holidays also unfold against the backdrop of Pesach, or at least of tractate Pesachim, which we’ve been studying since June. When summer began we learned about how to search the house for hametz and when to burn any remaining traces. By July we were deep into a discussion about when and to what extent it is permissible to perform work on the day before Pesach. And since Rosh Hodesh Elul at the beginning of August, we have been immersed in the laws of the Pesach sacrifice: When is it slaughtered, and by whom, and how is it roasted, and who eats it, etc.

Indeed, much of the second half of tractate Pesachim could just as easily have been included in Seder Kodshim, the order of the Talmud that deals with sacrificial worship. As with the tractates in Seder Kodshim, Pesachim has us knee-deep in splattered blood and roasted entrails and animal fat that may not be left over until dawn. Since the start of chapter five, Tamid She-nishchat, I have stood by the Temple outskirts watching as representatives of all of Israel arrive in three shifts, each shift consisting of those individuals appointed to slaughter the Pesach sacrifice on behalf of a larger group who will then eat the roasted meat together. As each shift enters, the doors of the Temple courtyard are closed and the shofar blasts are sounded. The priests stand in rows carrying bowls of gold and silver in which to catch the sacrificial blood, which they then sprinkle on the altar as the Israelites sing the psalms of Hallel. Then then hang the sacrificial meat on iron hooks and flay it to prepare for the roasting. All the while, my vegetarian self watches from the sidelines, dodging the sprinkled blood and averting my eyes when necessary.

It has been several weeks now that I have been ensconced in the Temple witnessing each stage of the preparation of the Pesach sacrifice. Come to think of it, this is not unlike how I usually spend the month of Elul. For most of the past fifteen years, I have led the Musaf davening on Yom Kippur in various egalitarian minyanim on both sides of the ocean. To prepare myself spiritually and liturgically, I’d spend most of Elul listening to recordings of the Yom Kippur musaf service. My favorite part of the davening has always been the Avodah, the ritual reenactment of the high priest’s activities on Yom Kippur: the donning of gold and white vestments, the designation of a sacrificial goat and a scapegoat that is knocked off a cliff, and the entry into the holy of holies. The Avodah service, too, is rather bloody: We count each of the sprinklings of blood (achat v’achat….) and run with the high priest to slaughter a bull as his personal sin offering. By the end of the Avodah, I too feel as if my white linen vestments have been splattered red.

This year, for the first time in over a decade, I am not leading any high holiday services. The twins are six months and Matan is a rambunctious toddler, and so it will be hard enough for D and me to take turns just showing up in shul to daven, let alone trying to inspire an entire congregation. Since I am not leading services, I have also not bothered to listen to recordings of the various tefillot, which is how I have always managed to get into the proper spiritual mood in advance of the days of awe. And so for the first time, I feel woefully unprepared for the high holidays, my study of Pesachim notwithstanding. Though we’ve been to shul almost every Shabbat since the girls were born, I never daven without a baby in my lap. (When I relayed this to my mother, she told me that she did not hold a siddur in her hand for a full decade of her life, because her hands were always full of babies who would grab at the pages.) These days my davening consists primarily of singing Modeh Ani with Matan when we raise the shades in his room each morning and let the light in, and then chanting the full three paragraphs of the Shema to him each evening (often while he interrupts me to insist that he wants “not that one. Sing Rubber Ducky you’re the one!”) Between Modeh Ani and the bedtime Shema there looms a large gulf that is the sorry state of my spiritual life.

Just this morning I found myself lamenting this sad state of affairs while emptying the dishwasher. I had woken at 5am, eager to steal the only quiet moments of the day before the kids roused. I stood there putting away yesterday’s dishes while listening to my daf yomi podcast. The daf mentioned trumat hadeshen, the first ritual activity performed in the Temple every morning, which involved clearing away the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices. I thought about how trumat hadeshen is not unlike emptying the dishwasher, a ritual that links the day that has passed to the day that is dawning. While trying not to let the glasses clink against one another, I peered out our kitchen window to watch the sun begin to paint the sky above our view of the Old City where the Temple once stood. I froze the breast milk I had pumped the previous day and cleaned out the bottles, and then I set up Matan’s place setting with his map-of-the-world placemat and his monkey sippy cup. These are activities I perform every morning; they are love’s austere and lonely offices, and they are, in a sense, my version of the Korban Tamid, the daily sacrifice offered every morning in the Temple. Absorbed in my preparations for the day ahead, I’ve had little time to prepare for The Day ahead, by which I mean Yoma, “The Day,” the Talmud’s term for Yom Kippur. But the gates of prayer are still open, and so I offer mine: May the high holidays herald a year that is as sweet as the taste of mother’s milk on a baby’s tongue, and as full of blessing and promise as every new day that dawns.

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.

Elul Reflections: What does God do on Rosh Hashanah morning?

I have spent the past few weeks practicing Rosh Hashanah Musaf, and so my interest was piqued when I read on a recent daf of masechet Avodah Zara (4b) that “a person should not daven Musaf during the first three hours of the day on Rosh Hashanah.” There is no chance that will happen in my minyan, where Rosh Hashanah Shacharit is interminable; but my husband, who will be leaving for shul at 6am, might run into trouble. And so I read on.

The Talmud explains that the reason a person should not daven Musaf early in the day is “lest his deeds be scrutinized and his prayer be rejected, since judgment is then proceeding.” In other words, since God is in judgment-mode on Rosh Hashanah morning, we don’t want to attract His attention, lest He judge us too harshly. The Talmud explains that Shacharit is less of a problem because everyone is davening shacharit in the morning, so God is not likely to pay special attention to any one person. Even if the individual has sinned grievously, he will be absolved on account of the collective merit of the community with whom he prays. This is a good reason to choose your minyan carefully, because if the ship goes down, you don’t want to be on it (unless there’s a Dag Gadol waiting to rescue you and belch you out beside a leafy Kikayon). It’s also a compelling argument for Tefillah b’tzibur: when we pray with others, we can ride on their coattails, like a lagging biker drafting behind the big guys in front. Or to invoke a more serious image: If prayer is truly uplifting, it lifts all of us up to a higher spiritual place than where we would otherwise stand alone.

This text would be a short and sweet message for Rosh Hashanah, if only it ended there. But the Talmud goes on to question whether God actually spends the first three hours of the day judging the world. After all, we have a baraita on the previous daf (3b) which tells us that “The day consists of twelve hours. In the first three, God sits and studies Torah. In the second three, God sits and judges the whole world. When he sees that the world deserves to be destroyed, he gets up off his seat of justice and sits on his seat of mercy. For the third three hours, God sits and feeds the whole world, from ram’s horns to lice eggs. During the last fourth of the day, God sits and plays with the Leviathan.” This baraita deserves Gufa-treatment in its own right, especially in light of a recent New Yorker article by Rebecca Mead about the history of playgrounds and the purpose of play. For our purposes, we note that the baraita states explicitly that God spends the first three hours of the day not judging the world, but studying Torah. (Apparently God is as compulsive as I am about daf yomi!) And so why does our source on 4b assume that God spends the morning in judgment?

The Talmud, after first trying to play around with God’s schedule a bit (ahem, no dualistic double-booking! There is just one Reshut in the heavens!), ultimately concludes that the baraita is correct – God does indeed spend the morning studying Torah, and only later does He begin judging the world. And then the Talmud offers a surprising take on the nature of these activities: “Torah has ‘truth’ written in it, as it says, ‘Buy truth, and never sell it.’And so while occupied with Torah, the Holy One, blessed be He, will not overstep the line of justice. But when sitting in judgment, which is not designated as ‘truth,’ God may overstep the line of justice.” In other words, in quite a revolutionary reading, the Talmud is suggesting that the person who is being judged has more to fear when God is studying Torah than when God is judging the world. How so?

The Talmud explains that so long as God is judging, God is likely to “overstep the line of justice,” that is, to go lifnim mishurat hadin. This phrase, which is often translated as “going beyond the letter of the law,” appears throughout rabbinic literature, usually to describe a person who goes above and beyond the call of duty. For instance, in Bava Metzia (24b) we are told that Shmuel would return a lost object even if it did not have any identifying signs. Technically a person has to return a lost object only if it has such Simanim. Rav was surprised, but Shmuel explained that he was acting lifnim mishurat hadin. In one other instance that I can think of, we are told of God going lifnim mishurat hadin. This is in the Sifrei to Dvarim, in a commentary on the verse, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Rabbi Haggai comments: “God says: Not just have I given two paths, but I have gone lifnim mishurat hadin and said to you: Choose life!” In other words, God not only gives us a multiple-choice test, but He tells us the right answer! Certainly this is above and beyond the call of divine duty.

And so this source suggests that an inherent characteristic of justice is the ability to transcend what is just, and to go above and beyond what the law requires of us. But this is not true of Torah, which is described as Emet, truth. With Torah, we cannot go beyond the letter of the law, because Torah is the law. When studying Torah, we can’t smooth things over. Talmud Torah demands our strict attention to the finer points and nuances of the text. The goal is to figure out the truth of the text—what the text is trying to tell us—and not to offer a compassionate or forgiving interpretation when reading a harsh prophetic rebuke or a story that instills fear and trembling. When dealing with human beings, as we know from a famous midrash in Breishit Rabbah, God may opt to cast Truth to the ground. But not when studying Torah.

This text speaks to me as I work on my own Cheshbon HaNefesh during this month of Elul. All too often, I hold myself and others to the standards of strict justice, unable to overstep its line. I do not allow myself to go to bed until I have answered all the emails in my inbox, writing long and detailed responses to anyone who has written me in search of advice or emotional support; only to find myself resenting those people who do not, in turn, respond to me in a timely and thorough fashion. Likewise, I always make sure that all my work is finished before I leave the office, only to grow frustrated with my colleague when she leaves early for a weekend trip. I force myself to hold to a specific pace when swimming, only to get annoyed when one of the floating old ladies breaks my stride. Instead of viewing myself as just another member of this endearingly fallible human race, I become embittered and self-righteous, holding my stiff neck high as I summarily clear my inbox, lock the office door, and cut through the water.

In the catalogue of my own faults, I think not just of how I judge others, but also of how I study Torah. When I am learning or working—activities which constitute about 90% of a typical day—I find it very hard to break away from the text in front of me to attend to humanity. If the phone rings while I’m learning, my first instinct is often to be annoyed, rather than to be grateful that I have friends who want to spend time speaking with me. I can think of many other examples, but I’m too ashamed to share them here. Suffice it to say that all too often, I am in Emet mode, bent on figuring out the truth even at the expense of the living, loving human beings around me. I fail to remember that those human beings—and indeed all of humanity—would not have been created if God Himself had not once cast the angel of truth aside.

As I work on both my davening and my teshuva in preparation for the Yamim Noraim, I feel relieved that Musaf will not start until at least 11am. I would not want to be judged by a God in Emet mode, because I’m not always proud of the truth of who I have been. I hope that the new year will be filled with Torah study—with close and careful readings of the book of law that God gave us. But I hope, too, that this will be a year when we are all able to go beyond the letter of the law to be present for the people we care about, to forgive ourselves and others, and to take part in a religious community that lifts us up and brings us ever closer to the God in whose image we are created.

A Womb of His Own

I have long been baffled by the choice of Torah reading for minchah on Yom Kippur. Why do we read the long list of prohibited sexual relations on the afternoon of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar? Yom Kippur is a day when we are commanded rise above the physical needs of our body. We do not eat or drink, and we dress in white like angels. Moreover, this is the one day of the year when sexual relations are explicitly prohibited by the Torah. Why then do we proceed to read about all those individuals whose nakedness we are forbidden to uncover?

Apparently I am not the only one troubled by this question. The new machzor from the Conservative movement, Lev Shalem, offers two possible Torah readings for minchah on Yom Kippur – the “traditional” reading about sexual unions, and an “alternate” reading that consists of the holiness code at the beginning of parshat Kedoshim. The latter choice is a compelling one, both because it dovetails with the shacharit reading from Acharey Mot (since these two parshiyot are consecutive and are often conjoined), and also because, as the editors of the machzor explain, “this passage has been called the holy of holies of the book of Leviticus” (and Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year). In defense of the traditional reading, the editors note that “in pre-modern societies, privacy in the family rarely existed. A public recitation of the rules that define and protect the family was deemed important on this day, when the entire community gathered for prayer and reflection.” They go on to surmise that the choice of Torah reading may have been associated with the custom of young men and women going out into the fields to arrange marriage proposals on Yom Kippur in the days when the Temple was still standing.

If these reasons seem too historically specific for our timeless tradition, they are at least more satisfying than the traditional explanations, cited in commentaries to Megillah 31a, where the rabbis establish the Torah readings for the various holidays. The Talmud states without elaboration, “On Kom Kippur we read Acharei Mot and the maftir is Ki Choh Amar Ram v’Nisa; at Minchah we read the Arayot (forbidden sexual relations) and the maftir is Yonah.” Rashi comments that “We read the Arayot – so that anyone who is sleeping with someone forbidden to him (literally: who has Arayot in his hands) will separate from them, because Arayot are a prevalent sin, because man’s soul enjoys them and his evil inclination wins him over.” According to Rashi, then, the minchah Torah reading is intended as a warning against this particular sin. The Tosafot offer a rather anti-feminist alternative to this commentary: “We read the Arayot—because women dress up in honor of the day, and so we need to warn the men not to fall into their trap.” The women are wearing their new white dresses and their holiday finery, rendering them particularly seductive. I might add that since Yom Kippur is a fast day, the women don’t need to be in the kitchen but can actually set foot in shul, for a change. Caveat gever! According to the traditional commentators as well, then, the minchah reading serves as a warning against sexual sins — even though these are the sins that are supposed to be furthest from our minds on Yom Kippur.

This summer, when learning Masechet Shevuot, I was reminded of a rather startling connection between Yom Kippur at the Arayot. The second chapter of Shevuot deals with Yediot HaTumah, that is, with a person’s awareness (or his lack of awareness) that he is impure, or that he is entering a place of purity. There are several ways in which a person can sin in this regard. He or she may become impure but forget that he is impure and enter the Temple; or he may remember that he is impure but forget that he is in the Temple (apparently this was more likely the case for Babylonians, who did not have as strong a sense of Israel’s geography, and were therefore more likely to suddenly find themselves—oops!—in the Temple, of all places!); or he may forget both that he is impure and that he is in the Temple. In all such cases, the offender must exit the Mikdash by the shortest route possible and later bring a Korban Oleh V’Yored, that is, a sacrifice whose value depends on his financial state.

The Mishnah draws an explicit analogy between the way in which the impure person must exit the Mikdash, and the way in which a man must withdraw from a woman who becomes a Nidah during intercourse. In both cases, a space is entered under the assumption that this space is permitted, but it soon becomes clear that it is in fact prohibited. However, whereas in the case of the Mikdash, the person is expected to take the shortest path out, this is not the case in sex. There a man sins if he withdraws immediately, because to do so would render “his exit to be as enjoyable as his entrance.” Instead, as the Talmud goes on to relate, Rava advises that the man caught in such a situation should “stick his fingernails into the ground until it dies, which is good for him.” This is followed by a series of warnings to B’nei Yisrael to separate from their wives close to their menstrual periods. The Talmud cautions that “Anyone who does not separate from his wife close to her period – even if he has sons like the sons of Aaron, they will die.” (This is particularly interesting because as we read in the Torah reading at Yom Kippur shacharit, two of Aaron’s sons do in fact die young.) Conversely, “Anyone who separates from his wife before her period will have male children.” (The same consequence ensues if one makes havdalah, the Talmud goes on to say, underscoring the notion that separation is good.) This in turn leads to a consideration of the bizarre case of a man who is sure that he committed a sexual sin, but cannot quite remember whether he slept with his sister, or with his menstruating wife. This last case, of course, brings me back to the Arayot.

On Yom Kippur, the day we read the Arayot, much of the liturgy focuses on Temple ritual. This is especially the case during the Avodah service, which re-enacts the high priest’s activities on this day by quoting from the Talmudic tractate Yoma. Seven of the eight chapters of this tractate deal with every single step taken by the high priest as he prepares to enter the holy of holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple. The fifth chapter relates that the high priest would penetrate two levels of curtains, the outer and the inner (who says the rabbis didn’t know female anatomy?), and then heap incense on coals and wait until the whole house became full of smoke. Only after this climactic eruption did he withdraw from the Temple spent and triumphant, corresponding to the exuberant singing of “Mareh Kohen” in the Avodah service’s re-enactment.

In light of the analogy from Shevuot—in which entering the Mikdash is compared to penetrating a woman—the Yom Kippur leyning takes on a new level of meaning. The purpose of entering the Mikdash is to bring a Korban, that is, to be brought close (Karov) to God. This intimacy is analogized to sexual union. In this sense, the story of Nadav and Avihu’s death (on account of their coming too close to the altar when not in the proper state to do so) in the shacharit reading is analogous to all the improper sexual unions described in the minchah Torah reading. Entering the Temple when impure is like entering a woman who is forbidden, and in both cases, the consequences are dire. Moreover, the person enters into the Ezrat Nashim, an area named for the fact that women could not go beyond this point, but perhaps also significant because the whole Temple, with its nested chambers and vessels, was a very feminine space.

While these readings are my own, I am not the first to notice the analogy between the Holy of Holies and the womb. Bonna Devora Haberman, in her brilliant article “The Yom Kippur Avodah in the Female Enclosure,” offers a reading of the Avodah service as an erotic encounter: “The high priest may be understood as the symbolic instrument for attaining union of the Jewish people with the One…which culminates in orgasmic penetration into the holiest space.” Haberman argues that the incense is the aphrodisiac of the Avodah; and the sprinkling of blood offers atonement in much the same way that the shedding of menstrual blood allows for a new start, with the goat to Azazal cast off like a discarded egg. In learning Masechet Shevuot, I was struck by how Haberman’s reading of the Avodah service may be applied to other aspects of Temple ritual, including an ordinary person’s entrance into the Temple to bring a Korban—that is, to achieve closeness (Kirva) and intimacy with God.

The rabbis famously say that since the destruction of the Temple, our impulse to worship idols has been replaced by the sexual impulse. Instead of the temptation to enter into places of worship that are off limits, there is the temptation to sleep with those forbidden to us. The Minchah leyning about the Arayot is thus the contemporary counterpart to the Shacharit reading about entering the Temple in purity. In a nod to the psalm for Elul, the month of “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” both Torah readings remind us what it takes to merit to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives.