Rededicating Chanukah

Last year I lit Chanukah candles in a shiva house. My father-in-law had just passed away, and my husband, his mother, and his four siblings were sitting shiva in their New Jersey home. Each afternoon at about 5pm, the family would get up from their low chairs, take leave of any visitors, and make their way to the foyer to try to introduce a few moments of light into one of the darkest weeks of their lives. Several of my husband’s siblings commented that lighting Chanukah candles and saying Hallel and Shehechiyanu seemed so incongruous during a period of mourning; and it was especially hard to say the final line of the psalm for Chanukah, “You have converted my mourning into dance.” I remember standing alone by the burning candles after everyone had returned to their shiva chairs, watching the flames flicker like trembling tears and wondering whether my husband would ever be able to celebrate Chanukah with a full heart again.

Now, a year later, my associations with Chanukah could not be more different. Our son Matan, now 18 months, has been learning about Chanukah in Gan since Rosh Chodesh. He has come home with painted Styrofoam candles, homemade dreidls, and several new additions to his vocabulary: “Yvonne” (which we eventually realized is “Sevivon”), “Kad katan,” and “Poe” (not the author, but the emphatic completion of the sentence that begins Nes Gadol Haya). He refuses to eat dinner without an Yvonne in each hand, and he responds with glee each time it spins and lands on the floor. If you sing Matan the Sevivon song, he will put his hands on his head and spin around like a whirling dervish until he collapses from dizziness or exhaustion. I have been looking for an electrical Chanukiya for him, since he is obsessed with electricity and enamored of anything he can turn “on” and “off,” but I was told by several storeowners that they are not sold in Israel because the Israeli rabbinate won’t grant a Hekhsher for them lest someone “light” on Shabbat. I was told I could order one from the “Reformim” in America, though I’m still too bemused by this response to pursue the matter any further.

Thanks to Matan, this is the first year I have given Chanukah any thought before the 25thof Kislev, when I usually remember at the last minute to buy a turquoise box of standard-issue candles and dust off my ratty metal Chanukiyah. I have never been able to connect to this holiday; my relationship to most festivals is through texts, but Chanukah lacks a megillah, at least not one that is part of our canon. Although I learned not long ago the chapter of the Talmud that deals with Chanukah, perek Bameh Madlikin of Shabbat, I cannot say that I found the halakhot of candlelighting particularly meaningful or illuminating. Chanukah candles are supposed to be lit only until the last person returns home from the marketplace, but in Jerusalem it is customary to light at nightfall, usually before 5pm. When in the past was I ever home before 5pm to light candles? I identified with the Talmud’s description of Rabbi Zeyra, who would spend the days of Chanukah in an inn and simply add a few coins to a communal pot so that he could be included when the innkeeper lit. This year, though, everything has changed. I pick up Matan at Gan at 4pm every day, and so we are almost always home before 5pm. This seems like the perfect time to light candles, and I can already anticipate how much Matan the pyromaniac (who begs us to do Havdalah every night of the week) will enjoy this mitzvah.

In a sense, my new associations with Chanukah have perhaps re-dedicated this holiday for me, and I hope for my husband as well. Last year Chanukah was a time of darkness and grief, in which we spent more time thinking about a flame—a Nishmat Adam—that had been snuffed out before its time than about the miracle of a small jug of oil that lasted longer than anyone expected. Chanukah, I am reminded, is about how things can last longer than one ever dreamed possible – not just burning oil, but also the memories of those we love who are no longer with us. As we stand watching the candles by the window in the winter chill, I hope that God will indeed convert mourning into rejoicing, and that the flames that once seemed to be flickering will be dancing instead.

Speech for Pidyon HaBen of Matan Aharon 10.6.11

Two days ago, on Shavuot morning, Daniel and I sat in this park with Matan trying to lull him to sleep. Matan had conducted his own Tikun Leyl the night before, waking each hour to eat milk and spit up cheese in accordance with the custom to eat dairy on this chag. After a night of no sleep, I did not make it to shul that morning, so I davened in the park with Matan, sharing with him the highlights of Shacharit. Chief among them was Akdamut, the piyut recited before beginning the Torah reading, a long liturgical poem composed in the eleventh century by Rabbi Meir Yitzchak of Worms. This mystical poem moves from a description of the creation of the world to the splendors of the World to Come, and as I chanted aloud to Matan each of the ninety Aramaic stanzas, I realized how much of the piyut’s imagery was appropriate to the place where we were sitting that morning and where we are all now gathered today – beneath a trellis covered by a canopy of trees in a quiet corner of this beautiful park. The poem describes a messianic future in which all of the Tzadikim will gather in Yerushalayim, beneath a divine bridal canopy inside the Garden of Eden. There God will prepare a banquet for the righteous, and they will sit around tables of precious gems and drink their fill from overflowing goblets in a redeemed world. As we stand here today overflowing with joy, preparing to redeem our precious son and enjoy a Seudat Mitzvah on this beautiful Jerusalem morning, I cannot help but think that after joining with God in the creation of Matan, we have truly been granted a taste of the World to Come.

It seems fitting that we are celebrating Matan’s Pidyon HaBen not just two days after reciting Akdamut but also one day before reading parashat Baha’alotcha, the parsha that provides the textual underpinning for this ceremony.

כִּי לִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי אֹתָם לִי. יח וָאֶקַּח אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל-בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. יט וָאֶתְּנָה אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם נְתֻנִים לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַעֲבֹד אֶת-עֲבֹדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
“Every firstborn among the Israelites, man as well as beast, is Mine; I consecrated them to Myself at the time that I smote the firstborn in the land of Egypt. Now I take the Levites instead of every firstborn of the Israelites, and from among the Israelites I formally assign the Levites and Aharon and his sons, to perform the ritual service for the Israelites in Ohel Moed.” (Numbers 8:17-19).

Another connection to this week’s parsha appears in a recent daf yomi, Menachot 86b. In speaking of the lights that were kindled in the Mishkan—which is also the subject of the opening of the parsha, B’haalotcha et HaNerot– we are told:
צו את בני ישראל ויקחו אליך שמן זית זך כתית למאור להעלות נר תמיד

“Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling the eternal lamp.” (Leviticus 24:2). The Talmud teaches:
אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אליך ולא לי לא לאורה אני צריך
Shmuel bar Nachmani questions why the Torah adds the extra word Elecha, for you. The Talmud’s response is that God specifies that the oil for this light is “for you” because the Ner Tamid is lit for the sake of human beings who need to be reminded of God’s eternal presence, and not for God, who needs no such reminder. It is we human beings whose faith in God’s presence may flicker and grow dim, and it is therefore we who need the eternal lamp, which burns not for God’s sake, but for ours.

We might extend this concept to say that God does not need the Bekhorot consecrated to him, and when we redeem them back, we are not just exempting them from priestly service. Just as God does not need the light of the eternal lamp, so too does God not need Matan Aharon to engage in Temple service. It is human beings of imperfect faith who need the reminder the lamp provides, just as it is human beings in an imperfect world who look to the potential of new life to perform some act of Tikun in the world, thereby inspiring us with hope for the future. And so Daniel and I would like to think that today we are not just buying back our son from the Kohanim; we are also dedicating him to doing God’s work in a world sorely in need of repair and renewal. We offer our Matan as a gift to partner in some aspect of God’s work, and to heal some part of God’s creation.

It is in this spirit of partnering in creation that we will shortly be planting a tree in honor of Matan’s birth and in honor of the birth of Hallel Libson, daughter of our friends Ayelet and Adi. The Talmud teaches in Masechet Gittin, in the midst of the aggadot about the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem, that there was a custom whereby whenever a baby boy was born, a cedar tree would be planted in his honor; and when a girl was born, a cypress. And when they would get married, the two trees would be cut down and used to make the poles for their chuppah. Now, we don’t want to make any assumptions about Hallel and Matan’s future romantic predilections –we cannot know whether Matan will date older women, or whether Hallel will consent to marry the boy next door—but Daniel and I do like the idea of putting down roots in the soil of Eretz Yisrael just a few years after we each made aliyah, as per the words of Shirat HaYam:
תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ פָּעַלְתָּ יְהוָה מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָי כּוֹנְנוּ יָדֶיךָ.
You, God, will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain, the place You made to dwell in, O Lord, the sanctuary O Lord. (Exodus 15:17)

The Mikdash is the province of Aharon HaKohen, Matan’s Biblical namesake, to whom many of the commandments of this week’s parsha are addressed. It is Aharon who is supposed to mount the lamps of the Menorah, and it is Aharon who supervises the Levites and prepares them to serve in Ohel Moed, the place of God’s dwelling during the Israelites’ journey to the promised land where they ultimately put down roots. More generally, Aharon is responsible for the ritual aspects of Jewish worship, whereas his brother Moshe gives them the Torah, the book of laws and teachings that we are meant to occupy ourselves with day and night, as we are reminded in Akdamut:
צבי וחמיד ורגיג דילאון בלעותא
God desires and longs and covets that Israel should toil in Torah study.

In naming our son Matan Aharon, we hope that he will embody both of these aspects of Jewish tradition – the lifelong commitment to Talmud Torah, as well as the rituals involved in divine service. We hope that our son, like his namesake, will be Ohev et HaBriot, and that his love for human beings will find expression in the teaching of Torah, so that he might be m’karvan la Torah – bringing other people closer to Torah. The root of m’karvan is also the root of korban, sacrifice. As we redeem our Matan Aharon today from the priestly responsibility for the korbanot, it is our fervent wish that he will dedicate himself to being one who is m’karvan laTorah, one who brings the light of Torah into people’s lives so that it may burn steadily and unwaveringly for all eternity.

Speeches for Brit of Matan Aharon, 18.5.11


From the moment we found out I was pregnant, D and I began counting. A pregnancy is measured in nine months or forty weeks, each of which we counted in excited anticipation. By the time we came to Pesach and sang about Tisha Yarchei Leida, we were no longer counting months or weeks, but days to my due date. And then that date passed, and we moved to counting the days past my due date. By Yom HaZikaron the baby was three days late, so we walked the entire way back from Har Herzl to our apartment in the German Colony to try to stimulate the onset of labor. Then on Yom Haatzmaut, when I was four days overdue, we went to the Jerusalem Theatre for Hidon HaTanakh, a program I watch every year on the internet, hoping that if we watched it live, then the suspense that accompanied each Biblical trivia question would intensify the contractions that had already begun. We also wanted to give our baby a chance to review all the Torah he had learned in the womb, before he came out and forgot it all. (We are confident that if only his voice could have been heard from inside my uterus, he would have been the winner this year!) The Hidon seemed to have done the trick, because by the time we got home that afternoon, we were already counting the minutes between contractions.

That night, in between contractions I remembered to count the Omer – I guess that my head was already so used to counting by that point, which is perhaps the reason that this is one of the only years that I have made it so far in the Sefira. When we count the Omer, we are of course counting up the days to Shavuot, Zman Matan Torateinu, for which our son is named. He was born during the week of Shabbat Parashat Behar Sinai, which reviews the laws given at Sinai, including the countdown to שנת השמיטה. And he was also born during the sixth perek of Masekhet Menahot in the Daf Yomi cycle, the chapter that deals with Minchat HaOmer, the barley sacrifice brought to the Temple on the sixteenth day of Nisan, the second night of Pesach. The Talmud explains that this is also the night that we begin counting the Omer, and this chapter elaborates on the details of how we count, when we count, and what happens if we miss a day in the countdown to Matan Torah.

Our own Matan, having internalized the lesson of Yom Haatzmaut, held out until he could have his own independent birthday, and so he was not born until 7am the next morning. He was given to us after an unforgettable Tikun Leyl, a long night which I spent at home with my mother and D and our wonderful doula. As the night drew on and my labor intensified, it truly felt like the heavens were opening for our child to pass through into this world. When we finally drove to the hospital at 5:30am, the sun rising in a magnificent האיר מזרח over the hills of Ein Karem, it felt a little like the delirium of early Shavuot morning davening after a night of no sleep. Like Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai, it was with loud cries and trembling that I received from heaven the gift of our son, our Matan.

Matan means gift, and it is used to refer to the gift of Torah, which Matan learned in the womb and which D and I have been teaching him since the moment he was born – today he is eight dapim old. The first letter of his name, Mem, is a remez to the first name of my mother’s father, Rabbi Mordecai Rubin, a beloved teacher of Torah with whom I had the privilege to study before he died just a year after my Bat Mitzvah. Matan’s name also contains the two letters Taf and Nun, which are the root of the Aramaic word for “teach” or “learn,” used in the Talmud to introduce an earlier teaching: Tanya, Tani, Tanu Rabbanan. Torah is passed down from generation to generation by teaching and learning, and it is our fervent wish to transmit to our son the love of Talmud Torah which is such an integral part of the lives of both of our families, and of our love for one another. D, I feel so fortunate that my son has such a special father, and so blessed that you are my husband. Watching you fall in love in love with our son has made me fall in love with you all over again. I pray that God will grant us the merit to raise our son to Torah, as well as to Chuppah and Maasim Tovim, and that the gift of our Matan will teach us the lessons of gratitude and awe, so that we may forever remember to count our blessings.


Matan’s middle name is Aharon in memory of his great-grandfather, Aharon Yizhak Levenstein, whose twenty-fourth yahrzeit was yesterday. My zaidie was an extraordinary man: a devoted husband, father, and grandfather, a noted baal tzedaka, Holocaust survivor, businessman, and ardent Zionist. But first and foremost, he was a builder in every sense of the word: he sought, after the Shoah, to lay the foundations for future generations. Like Aharon HaKohen, he suffered the devastating loss of his first children but never lost his optimism and faith in a more vibrant future. After he survived the Shoah thanks to Oskar Schindler, he reconnected with his wife, who had survived separately, and at age 42 and 40, in an Austrian DP camp, they miraculously gave birth to my mother, an only child who in turn raised five children of her own and is now grandmother to ten, ken yirbu. We hope my zaidie is watching today with joy at the enormous success of his efforts to build the family and Jewish future which our Matan inherits.

We hope our son will combine the legacy he inherits with his own unique gifts, fulfilling a bracha in this week’s parsha:
וַאֲכַלְתֶּם יָשָׁן, נוֹשָׁן; וְיָשָׁן, מִפְּנֵי חָדָשׁ תּוֹצִיאוּ.
As a sign of Hashem’s blessing, harvests will be so abundant that older crops will overlap with the newer ones that, during the times of the Beit HaMikdash, were permitted only after the Omer offering had been brought. In naming our son after both of maternal grandfathers, we hope to mingle the old with the new. We pray that our son will embody the values of the older generation, while also coming into his own as a first-generation Israeli, which would have made all of our grandparents very proud.

As we stand here today with Matan Aharon on this seam between the Old City of Yerushalayim and the new, surrounded by all four of Matan’s grandparents and five of his many aunts and uncles, we feel the plenitude of Hashem’s bracha.

The prior generations played an active role in bringing Matan into this world. We are grateful to my parents, Baba and Saba, for remaining in Israel since Pesach and for organizing this simcha. We will also forever remember the devoted role played by Matan’s Savta Alisa, who has been living in our second bedroom for the past two weeks and can now add to her Jewish continuity professional portfolio the title of midwife par excellence. Thank you Savta, and thank you Saba Neil for making the trip at the last minute to join us at Matan’s brit. We know you also bring love and greetings from Matan’s great grandparents in Princeton, שיבדלו לחיים ארוכים. May we merit to celebrate all his milestones in good health together.

We also want to recognize our siblings Michael, Mindy, and Eytan who likewise made the trip to be here today. And a special thanks to Estie and Elizur, who prepared us with every conceivable baby provision except the baby himself. If our child is better dressed than we are, Estie deserves the credit. To all of you and Matan’s many uncles, aunts, and cousins, we love you much and are grateful for your support.

Finally, INK focused on the significance of Matan’s birth during Sefirat HaOmer, but I want to add that this transitional time has additional meaning for the two of us, as it was the period during which we fell in love. It is through the sacrifice of the Omer that the new generation, the latest offspring is celebrated and enjoyed on a festive morning when the eastern sky is illuminated. And it is during the Omer that we find the equilibrium of our love, as we move from the passionate ardor of Shir Hashirim to the more mature commitment of Rut and Boaz. So it is appropriate that it was on an unforgettable night and morning of the Omer that I found my love for you, INK, renewed. As I told our son immediately after he was born, he is blessed with a very special mother, which you have shown yourself to be in the first week of his life. Few mothers would begin reading to their children fifteen minutes after birth, and you are perhaps the only mother who has sung Daf Yomi to your baby each morning throughout his first week. You gave birth to Matan with a sensitivity, vulnerability, and profound strength that is authentically and wholly your own, and I am supremely privileged to share my life with you. Matan’s birth, which we celebrate today on Pesach Sheni, will forever be a midway point for us between Shir Hashirim and Megillat Rut, between passionate Ahava Raba and enduring Ahavat Olam. May we merit to shower our son with every form of affection, as we raise him in the image of our parents and grandparents to love Torah, Am Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael, and to always seek out the tzelem elokim that is inscribed on his adorable, perfect face.

Against Writer’s Festivals: A Manifesto

Next week is the second annual international writer’s festival in Jerusalem, where authors from all over the world congregate in Yemin Moshe to engage in a dialogue with one another. The festival is open to the public, and for a 40-shekel ticket, one can hear David Grossman in conversation with Paul Auster, or Jonathan Safran-Foer sharing a podium with Etgar Keret. A rare opportunity, and the talk of the town among the literati of Jerusalem. Since I work in publishing, and since my friends know me as a lover of books, everyone I meet keeps stopping to ask: “So, will I see you at the writer’s festival? You must be going to everything!” Contrary to their expectations, I am attending nothing.

Why not? Well, it is true that my life revolves around books. During the day I sell translation rights for books to Israeli publishers; I also moonlight as an editor and translator; and in the corners of my time I organize and edit the book reviews section of a Jewish magazine. In addition, I write study guides about books for reader’s groups; and I critique the manuscripts written by the friends of the friends of the friends of my friends (since I don’t seem to know how to say no to anybody, ever). On Shabbat, and when I am too tired to translate or edit or review, I indulge in reading books — not those that have yet to be published (which I must squint at on screen as my eyesight continues to fail me), but those that are already printed and bound and available for sale on Amazon. And so yes, I love books. But loving books is very different from loving writers.

I do not love writers, certainly not most of them. In fact, having made a career out of working with them, I find most writers insufferable. (And here I must add warily: If you are an author-friend of mine kind enough to read the blog of my amateur writing self, please believe me: I am not talking about you!) From my experience, most writers, like most artists, are extremely egotistical. As well they must be. It takes tremendous self-confidence to believe that you have something to say that is worth writing. It takes a healthy ego to think that the best way for you to spend your time when you wake up in the morning is to sit at your desk and write. You have to have faith in yourself, in your talent, and in the fertility of your own creative mind. You have to be patient when the ideas do not flow, and you have to be willing to stare at a blinking cursor and trust that the floodgates of the imagination will burst forth again.

As I do not. I am besieged by doubts about whether what I have to say is worth saying, and I never think that writing is a good use of my prime working hours. I write only in the wee hours of the night (like now!), after I’ve come home from work, translated my daily quota of paragraphs, edited whatever is in my inbox, and read whatever I’ve promised to read for others. I permit myself to write—because writing requires permission, as if I am still in grade school waving my hand in the air for a bathroom pass—only when I have no other commitments, or when I feel sufficiently ahead in my work to take a brief break from other people’s words and indulge in organizing my own thoughts on paper. Disregarding Hillel I say: When I have time, I will write; and then rarely do I have time. Moreover, when the ideas do not come to me as quickly as I would like, I abandon ship and fix myself a bowl of ice cream. And when I do manage to finish a piece, more often than not I am reluctant to share what I have written, convinced that the words I plant excitedly tonight I will want to uproot regretfully in the morning, bearing sheaves of crossed-out pages…..

The writers who speak at writer’s festivals are not like me. For the most part, they trust in themselves and in their craft, and they speak with confidence to a crowd of adoring fans who ask them such inane questions as: Do you use a pen or a computer? Did you always know you were an author? I’m sorry, but I could do without this literary lovefest. Yes, there is much to learn from writers – but I learn not from hearing them speak, but from reading their words. I will read a book several times over and underline and copy out and buttonhole strangers with the passages I love (most recently, the peach seduction scene in Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector). This is far more valuable than hearing an author read from his book (unless he is a poet, but that is a different meter), or discuss the genesis of his most recent masterpiece. If I love a writer, I want to inhabit her paragraphs; I want to read her words until I can recite them by heart — until I find myself unconsciously writing in her style and dreaming about her characters. I do not need to shake his hand. I do not need my copy of his book autographed. And I certainly don’t need to know where and when and how he writes.

I have attended author readings in the past, and rarely do I leave feeling satisfied. Often I become angry at myself for not writing more. Or worse, I grow jealous and resentful of the writer up there on stage, who allowed himself all those hours of cultivating his own ideas instead of editing and translating other people’s words like the lowly amanuensis that I am. What can I say? Literary events do not bring out the best in me. Books do.

I wonder if I will ever allow myself to become a “real” writer, by which I mean someone who dedicates her primary working hours to trying to write. Sometimes I hope I’ll give myself this chance. Most of the time I am just so excited to curl up in bed with a book by a writer I’ve never met and never hope to meet, and call it a day.

Love poems are never as good as sad ones

Love poems are never as good as sad ones—
And rarely do we write in times of joy.
If I could gaze into your eyes forever
I’d happily sink into dreaded cliché
Or abandon my pen to the wind, to the wings of a bird
To a feathered quill that would script out our names in the sky.

They say she will tire of his poems,
Emailed to her desk at work
Not with flowers or fanfare or fantails
Nor folded-up newspaper wrapping
Just his words, in times new roman, time again
–And could I ever want for more than this–
She asks herself, composing
Her features for when she will see him next.

i read too much billy collins
and everything i write sounds much like him.
sometimes i must ask–
is this a poem?
or just a confession i scribbled once
on the bottom of a shopping list–
i read
too much

Why I Leyn: A Manifesto

Last Thursday night I was waiting at a bus stop in Givat Shaul, practicing the leyning that I had xeroxed onto a few folded sheets of paper. Moses was late in coming down the mountain, and the bus was late in coming to our part of Jerusalem, so I went ahead with the golden calf. Although I was chanting very quietly, almost inaudibly, I nevertheless managed to arouse the attention of the two Haredi young men who were waiting with me on the street corner. “Listen to her,” one of them said to the other in Hebrew. “I have heard there are girls who do that! Weird, weird. Can you believe it?” I lowered my voice even more, conscious that once again I had become a Curiosity (not to mention a girl!).

I am aware, though, that it is not just among Haredi men that I am regarded as “weird” for my dedication to reading Torah. Anyone who has ever lived with me (including my Catholic college roommate, who knew how to leyn herself after four years of sharing a suite) has inevitably asked me, at some point or another, “Why do you do that? Why spend so much time going over the same thing again and again? What’s the point?” And yet for me, I cannot imagine a life without reading Torah. If not for leyning, as I see it, what would be the point?

Reading Torah, for one thing, is a way of structuring my life so that I am always attuned to the rhythm of the Torah reading cycle, in the same way that davening keeps us attuned to the cycle of light and darkness. V’higita bo yomam valayla, Joshua charges the people (Joshua 1:8) – you should recite Torah day and night. When I practice a little bit of Torah reading each day, I ensure that the words of Torah are always running through my mind. As a result, I find myself quoting verses that suddenly become relevant in other contexts, making jokes that invoke the parsha, and even occasionally choosing what I will eat on Shabbat based on which foods are mentioned in the coming week’s reading. This, for me, is the true way of following Rav Ami’s interpretation of Proverbs 22:18, which states that words of Torah should be “in your belly, that they be set together on your lips.” Explains Rav Ami, “When do you preserve words of Torah in your belly? Whey they are set together constantly on your lips (Eruvin 54a).

I do believe that it is by leyning that Torah is best remembered. Only when you learn Torah along with the cantillations do you ensure that you never accidentally omit a word or change around vowels or stresses when reading. No one who has leyned the first aliyah of Trumah would ever say “v’aSU li mikdash” (or at least I should hope not). By setting Torah to music, Torah develops a rhythm and a life-force of its own, infused with human breath. The words come to life off the page, as if the letters of the scroll have suddenly arisen from their fixed places and begun to dance, gaily waving their crowns. This is how I feel sometimes when I am leyning an aliyah that I have truly mastered. (Note: This happens very rarely; I am no grandmaster, though I am related to a few of them!) I feel like I am not leyning the Torah, but that the Torah is leyning me, carrying me aloft on its eagle wings. I think of this as a “leyner’s high,” similar to a “runner’s high.” After a few verses of leyning an aliyah well, I begin to feel like I am flying, carried forwards by the words that are singing out from me in full-throated ease. (Aye, Keats. It was the nightingale, and not the eagle!)

Leyning Torah is also a hobby that fits quite well into my life. I learn not from a Tikun but from xeroxes. These xeroxes are mostly courtesy of Random House, where my like-mindedly frum colleague and I used to share a Tikun Simanim, stored on the shelf between our cubicles. Each week we’d go together to the xerox machine and photocopy our respective aliyot. There was no Genizah, so I saved all of those pages. I went on to bring them with me to Israel, where a very organized friend encouraged me to sort them into color-coded vinyl sleeves by parsha, arranged in two great looseleaf binders. Each week I pick out the pages for that particular parsha and carry them with me wherever I go. Since I tend to live like a turtle, carrying much of my life in the heavy L.L. Bean backpack that I have owned since high school, I’m grateful not to have to shoulder the extra weight. In addition, I’ve discovered that xeroxed leyning is the perfect reading material to bring to a party, where entering with a book may be taboo. But who would notice a couple of folded sheets of paper in my back pocket? And who would notice if I slip off to the corner for a few minutes to practice, reveling in whatever it is I am leyning?

Of course, there are aliyot that I enjoy more than others. I have my favorites, and generally they are other people’s favorites as well, which results in a fair amount of alpha-male style competition. The most desirable aliyot are generally the narratives with the most intense dramas: the temptation in the garden, the binding of Isaac, the rape of Dina, the seduction of Judah, the revelation of Joseph, the night of the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, the golden calf. Would that I could leyn them all!

Around this time of year, when we are deep into the wilderness of Mishkan building instructions, the competition dies down. And yet I have to confess that I, for one, love leyning the vast tracts of Mishkan material, and try to take on as much as possible! Leyning an aliyah from Vayakhel-Pekudei, as I see it, is a bit like reciting the Avoda service on Yom Kippur – the recitation becomes a reenactment. In her mind-boggling article “The Yom Kippur Avoda within the Female Enclosure,” Bonna Devora Haberman argues that this part of the high holiday liturgy, the prayer leader becomes symbolically identified with the high priest in the Holy of Holies:

“The prayer leader does not lay her hands on a bull, a ram, or goats; she does not sprinkle blood; she does not enter the Holy of Holies. Indeed, she does not displace her two parallel touching stocking feet even when fully prostrating herself on the ground as part of the Avoda. She is absorbed in a standing prayer as the representative of the community. Recounting the acts with the intentionality of prayer substitutes for performing them. The Avoda is a symbolic representation of the service performed first in the desert Tabernacle, then in the holy Temple in Jerusalem through a gesticulated, cantillated community prayer experience.”

Just as the prayer leader on Yom Kippur symbolically reenacts the rituals performed by the high priest in the Temple, so too does the Torah reader of the Mishkan parshiyot symbolically reenact the building of the this structure. This is why the leyning of the Mishkan, more so than any other section in the Torah, must be absolutely flawless. After all, the Mishkan is described in the most specific of dimensional detail, dictated from God on high: “And on the front side, to the east, fifty cubits: fifteen cubits of hangings on the one flank, with their three posts and their three sockets, and fifteen cubits of hangings on the other flank–on each side of the gate of the enclosure–with their three posts and their three sockets” (Exodus 38: 13-15). To recite these verses is to construct in words the Mishkan that the Isrealites built in the desert, much as Coleridge’s speaker sought to recreate in measured language the pleasure dome of Kubla Khan:

With music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

Beware – because words construct verbal edifices. Torah is the blueprint God used in creating the world, as we learn in Breishit Rabbah, and so the way we read Torah determines the way we construct the world. If we mispronounce even one syllable of Vayakhel-Pekudei, if we read, say, forty cubits instead of fifty, then the entire edifice could come tumbling down. (Or at least so I tell myself, as I practice this week’s leyning.) And furthermore: If Rabbi Akiva could find meaning to every “Et” in the Torah, must we not be sure to pronounce each one properly? Think of how many drashot hang on every word (if not every letter; if not every tip of the yud) in the Torah. We who leyn are playing with fire, much like Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua in the house of Elisha’s father — for were not the words of Torah given in fire on Sinai? (Tosafot to B. Chagigah 15a).

Reading Torah, I am arguing, is a weighty responsibility; but it is also a great source of pleasure. Each time I leyn, I discover new puzzles in the text: I muse on why a particular syllable is stressed, or why a concept seems to repeat itself. These questions inform my writing and thinking all week, and carry me into Shabbat. Most weeks, the very last thing I do before Shabbat is swim. Generally I am down to the wire, and I only have about twenty minutes in the pool. But just before I dive in, I go over my leyning once more, so that I will be immersed in words of Torah as I cut through the water. One Friday afternoon a few months ago, I found myself dreaming of a pool that would enable me to practice my leyning while swimming. In such a pool, I envisioned, there would be seven lanes (leyns?), one corresponding to each aliyah. A series of overhead projectors would flash the words of each aliyah onto the bottom pool surface of each lane, so that the swimmer could follow along as she made her way face-down through the water. Now there’s an invention to rival the pleasure domes of Kubla Khan, and the hanging curtains of the Mishkan!

The Sexy Widow (Ketubot 65a), my costume this Purim

My translation from Ruth Calderon’s Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

Long-limbed Choma crossed the entrance hall of the courthouse with purposeful strides. Her thick mass of black hair stubbornly peeked out of her kerchief to see what was going on in the world. Even now, when dressed in black mourning clothes, she was enveloped in the same loveliness — as simple as fresh baked bread and just as appealing. It was impossible to mistake her gait for anyone else’s. The walls swayed like young lambs to the rhythm of her heels.

That morning the courtroom was empty. It was the height of summer, and even market day did not bring anyone to plead their case in court. Peddlers did not even bother to tip their scales before the handful of buyers who made their way through the humid heat. Lead weights carved in the shape of ducks, each one a bit larger than the next, sat still like a family of birds who had fallen asleep, their beaks tucked into their gray metal backs.

The gaming stands, which were usually noisy and crowded, were deserted. The game boards and the mosaic tiles lay at rest. The pigeon racers scattered seeds to their pigeons, who pecked aimlessly at the emptiness. No one showed up to gamble.

On a day like this, the courtroom effectively became a study house. Rava reviewed his learning on his own. If only he could learn with Abayey, his study partner, they would be able to knock off a difficult section of the Gemara from Tiberias. Rava felt Abayey’s absence like a phantom limb that continued to ache. Without Abayey, he grew more distant from the world. He missed his friend’s learnedness, the way he always looked at everything through a different lens. Rava reviewed the passage on “presumed despair,” part of the laws about returning lost objects to their rightful owners. He tried to recall Abayey’s voice, his manner of speaking, his gait.

The beadle who was nodding off by the doorway almost did not notice Choma when she entered. The beadle roused suddenly and announced: “Next case: The provision of alimony to Choma, the widow of Abayey.”

It was difficult for Rava to hear the name of his beloved friend spoken aloud. He smiled as he remembered how Abayey used to juggle eight eggs, throwing one into the air and catching another, without any of the fragile shells touching one another. How when they used to walk through the market, Abayey would shake hands with even those elders who were not Jewish. Rava sat in the judge’s seat at the front of the courtroom and recited his oath of justice. The responsibility of presiding in court weighed heavily on him. He had chosen this life in spite of the wishes of his wife, who had wanted him to go into business. She wanted wealth and he came home with empty pockets, hoping only to return in the evening as he had left in the morning: free from sin or error. He wondered to himself whether it was in fact an exaggeration to compare the fear instilled in the heart of the judge to the fear of death. Was it really as intense?

While he was still mulling it over, Choma was sitting silently, her hands folded in her lap. Rava did not know how to address her after the beadle had retired to the side room to eat, when they were left alone in the courtroom. “Rule on the alimony due to me,” the woman said. Rava knew that it was his duty to rule on the amount of money that the widow would receive from her husband’s heirs, an amount that would ensure that she could maintain the same standard of living as she had when her husband was alive. He ruled accordingly. “Rule on an additional sum due to me for wine.” For wine? He and Rava never drank wine when they were together. He grew suspicious, and looked at Choma intently. He used his friend’s nickname in an attempt to show the grounds for his claim: “I know Nachmani. He wasn’t a wine drinker…. You’re telling me that he would serve it to you?” Choma stood up. The dark fabric of her dress glided down the curves of her body and stopped at her ankles, swaying slightly. When she stood upright before him, she was taller than he remembered her. The thread of justice hung taut between them.

The woman paraded over to the judge’s bench, keeping her eyes fixed squarely upon him. He looked at her dark lips and heard her voice, low and slightly hoarse: “I swear, my lord, he used to serve me wine in a goblet this big.” As she spoke, she flung her hand above her in a deliberate motion, and the sleeve of her black dress bunched at her shoulder and revealed her arm all the way up to her elbow. For a split second, the smooth whiteness of her arm was bared. Splendor enveloped the courtroom. Rava looked at Choma. The whole world faded into a blurry background, and the arm glowed. The woman and her light attracted him with a force that was beyond his control. Somehow he managed to turn from his seat and escape from the courtroom as if chased by a demon. As he fled he muttered something unintelligible about how he was unfit to serve as a judge and about the wine that she would either receive or not. From the entrance he turned back to look at her – a dark and erect figure, her kerchief pulled back and her hair exposed, enveloped in a great light.

When he came to his home he found his wife, the daughter of Rav Chisda, seated beside the stove. Rava stood behind her, and although it was not his usual way, he grabbed her and carried her off to bed. He seemed like a total stranger when, without saying a word, he took off his clothes, peeled back her garments, and ravished his wife. When he later lifted himself up and dragged himself to his room, she was arranging her dress, blushing like a young girl. There was one moment of serenity in the house. Then suddenly a shadow passed over his wife’s brow and she asked: “Who was in the courtroom just now?” He could not bring himself to lie to her. “Choma, the wife of Abayey.”

His wife’s face lost its softness. Rejecting the hand he offered, she ripped the lock off the bureau and left the house in a frenzy. The door to the courtyard slammed behind her.

Rava did not move from where he stood. He did not see how his wife chased Choma to the outskirts of Machoza, and he did not hear how she screamed, “You killed three husbands and now you’ve come to kill mine too!”

This story is based on a sugya from Ketubot 65a, translated here:

Choma, the wife of Abayey, came before Rava.
She said to him: “Rule on the food due to me in alimony.” So he did.
[She said:] “Rule on the wine due to me.”
He said to her: “I know Nachmani” (a nickname for Abayey), “He wouldn’t serve you wine.”
She said to him: “I swear, my lord, he used to serve me wine in a goblet this big.”
When she demonstrated what she meant by lifting her arm, her arm became exposed.
And a great light fell upon the courtroom.
Rava stood up and went home
He demanded sex from his wife, the daughter of Rav Chisda.
The daughter of Rav Chisda said to him: “Who was in the courtroom today?”
He said to her: “Choma, the wife of Abayey.”
She [Rava’s wife] went after her [Choma] and beat her with the lock of a chest until she was driven out of Machoza.
She [Rava’s wife] said to her [Choma]: “You killed three men, and now you’ve come to kill another?”