Crossing Trestles

Can an eight-month-old have a favorite book? It seems so. Yitzvi squeals and kicks with visible delight any time I take out Freight Train by Donald Crews, and now it has become a regular part of our morning routine. After I drop off the kids at school, he usually has less than half an hour until his morning nap, so we sit on his sister’s bed and tear through a stack of (fortunately untearable) board books. Some of them have proven to be bored books, alas – we’ve eliminated The Runaway Bunny from our repertoire, since the stalker mom always struck me as a bit creepy. Sandra Boynton—whose characters, my daughter recently pointed out, bear a striking resemblance to the Moomintrolls—gets the usual laughs, especially because I’ve composed a silly melody for nearly every book and I act out the story with my singsong. But nothing compares to Freight Train, which I chant in an elevated, somber tone that lies somewhere between Kol Nidre and a slow, plodding composition my older son’s violin teacher once subjected us to for weeks on end. And yet each time, Yitzvi is enthralled.

The book does not have much by way of a plot. The entire story can be encapsulated in the first sentence: “A train runs across this track.” The track, in lieu of a storyline, runs through every page of the book and is visible in all the illustrations. For Yitzvi it’s the narrative thread, but for me it is increasingly resembling a lifeline. On the very first page, where the opening sentence appears in beige, we see only the track but not the train. Aside from this one sentence hovering at the top margin and the beige and brown track beneath, this first page is entirely blank, but it is the blankness of anticipation, like the nine months of pregnancy where you wait for what is coming, hear the whistle growing louder, but can’t quite make out anything yet. And then you turn the page, and all at once – full color!!, like a baby birthed suddenly red and wailing. The red caboose is followed by the orange tank car and the yellow hopper car, all dazzling in their bright red and orange and yellow; but the eyes can’t linger because the hopper car is connected by a black line to the green cattle car on the next page, so you flip quickly and your eyes are treated to the blue gondola car and the purple box car as well. These are the colorful years of childhood, with its vivid intensity, its full spectrum of emotions, its never-a-dull moments.

The complete purple box car appears on the page with the green and blue cars, but then when you turn the page, the front end of the purple car appears again, alongside the black tender and the black steam engine. The memories of childhood linger even as life begins to unfold in more sober, nuanced shades. We turn the next page, and on that page alone we can see the full train clearly, each car a clearly-defined shape and the smoke billowing overhead. Is this the peak of our lives, though we never know it until we’re past? After this, it all begins to blur – on each subsequent page, the train cars lose their definition as the colors fade into one another, much like the way life seems to go by so much faster once “getting older” loses its thrill. I went from 40 to 41 in the blink of an eye, and yet apparently it was in that same period of time that my daughter turned three, then three and a quarters, then three and a half, then three and three-quarters, then “almost almost four,” and then finally finally (up late at night, unable to sleep because tomorrow was the big day) four.

In the second half of the book, the blurry train rushes on. It goes through tunnels, dark subterranean periods when we can barely see any color. It goes by cities, barreling headlong past multi-story skyscrapers fronting on one another. It crosses trestles, suspended perilously between two hulking mountains, hurtling miles and miles above the ground. It moves in darkness and in daylight, through bad times and good – and then, all at once, it is “going, going, gone.” All we see on the final page is the word “gone” and the last billowy plumes of smoke. The train has disappeared from view, but the track continues – much as one life may be over, but life endures.

The book ends, but we read it anew every day. All the mornings in which Yitzvi and I have read this book together are strung together in my mind like train cars. Each car seems to chug along slowly, huffing and puffing to get through the day like the little engine that could. Yitzvi goes down for his nap. I learn the Daf on my phone in his dark shuttered room, sneaking out to find my place in the Gemara to learn by daylight once he falls asleep. He naps. I work at the computer until I hear him crying. We eat breakfast together, often sharing the same spoon and the same containers of yogurt. We play on the floor. We practice moving forwards. We hang laundry or fold it or put it away. And then, just as he gets tired again, the kids come home from school and I reluctantly accept that I won’t get back to work until many hours later, when they are finally all in bed.

And yet if the freight train is my life, then it flashes before me each time we read the book – first the empty track, then each car in its bright-colored intensity, then the full train, and then the blur of color racing past. The Talmud, in discussing the death of Joshua, criticizes the Israelites for failing to mourn their leader properly. Unlike Moses and Aaron, each of whom was mourned for thirty days, there is no mourning period for Joshua mentioned in the Bible. The sages proclaim that “whoever is lazy in eulogizing a sage does not live a long life” (Shabbat 105b) implying that the Israelites who failed to mourn Joshua all died young. But then the Talmud raises an objection, because the book of Judges states, “And the nation worshipped the Lord all the days of Joshua and all the days of the Elders, who lived many days after Joshua” (2:7), indicating that the elders did in fact live long lives in spite of neglecting to eulogize Joshua properly. At this point Rabbi Yohanan chimes in with his close reading, noting that the elders lived “many days” but not “many years.” How they became elders without living many years remains unclear to me. But I take away from this Talmudic passage the notion that the days may seem multitudinous though the years seem preciously few. Or, as several of my older friends are fond of reminding me, the days are long but the years are short.

Donald Crews wrote Freight Train the year I was born – I know this because the four digits appear not just on the copyright page but also on the black tender, a reminder of my own mortality with each rereading. The book is dedicated to “the countless freight trains passed and passing the big house Cottondale.” I wonder if Crews, like my parents, took his children to the railroad crossing to watch the trains pass by on long summer afternoons. I remember that each time it seemed like the train would go on forever, car after car after car, until suddenly—going, going, gone—the train was no more, and I lost count. I am still losing count. Little Yitzvi is growing faster than I can document – the week he was born, a friend gave us a baby book in which to record his milestones, but I have yet to take off the plastic wrap. When the baby is awake I play with him. When he is asleep I use those precious too-few moments to read or write or work or learn or run. I write these words as he is struggling to fall asleep for his midday nap in his crib – I know that his siblings have walked in the door from school, but I am ignoring them for just a moment to finish this paragraph. I sense these words are coming to an end even if I haven’t quite finished, because in just a moment the kids will barrel into the baby’s room to find me, waking him up if I don’t emerge first. My time to write is over. The words have hurtled past and they are going, going, gone.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Hukat)

Yesterday after school I was reading Ivy and Bean with Tagel – she is by far the most advanced English reader among our children, and while she’s not quite ready to read chapter books on her own, she often reads a few pages aloud to me. The series is about two American schoolgirls who are neighbors and kindred spirits, even though Bean is more of a tomboy whereas Ivy wears skirts and dabbles in magic. In the scene we were up to, Bean walks down the path beside Ivy’s house and is surprised to see her friend standing with her arms in the air. “Are you trying to fly?” she asks Ivy. Ivy explains that she is attempting to be perfectly calm in the hope that the birds will not be afraid to land on her arms. “Ivy’s arms were trembling,” read the next sentence, except that Tagel was unable to sound out “trembling,” not did she know what it meant. When I saw her stumbling over the word, I tried to explain. “Shaking,” I said. “Her arms were shaking from holding them up for so long.”

Tagel’s eyes lit up in recognition. “Oh,” she said. “Like Moshe when he had to hold up his hands when Bnei Yisrael were fighting.” My jaw dropped. I had been thinking the exact same thing – the image of Ivy with her trembling arms in the air recalled the scene of Moses raising his arms while the Israelites fought back against Amalek immediately after the exodus from Egypt. The Torah states that Moses’ hands grew heavy and he could no longer hold them up, so Aaron and Hur supported his hands from either side and thus they were stable [emunah] until the sun set. It was no surprise that the image of Moses came to my mind when I read about Ivy’s raised arms, but I was astonished to discover that Tagel had the same association. And at that moment I came to a realization about why I care so deeply about reading with my children and sharing certain books and texts with them. Ultimately, we cannot control what choices our children will make in life and who they will become. But we can try to furnish our children with the associations that matter to us. We can fill their minds with allusions, in the hope that their experiences will evoke the texts they have read, and those texts will in turn evoke other texts, such that the sweet birds of recognition will alight in the choirs of their arms. Or at least, like Ivy, we can try.

One of my favorite early memories as a parent is of bringing my oldest son Matan for his four-year-old check up to the pediatrician. In Israel the notion of a “well-visit” is relatively new; children generally don’t see a doctor unless they are sick. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first part of the examination was just a physical – the doctor peered into my son’s ears with an otoscope and rapped his knees to check his reflexes. But then the second half of the visit was developmental. The doctor showed my son a series of cards, each of which depicted a scene. Matan had to answer questions about what he saw in the pictures. On one of the cards, a boy appeared to have just tripped and fallen and his cup of water was still spilling next to him. Behind him was a large pebble. The doctor pointed to the boy, the rock, and the puddle of spilled water and asked my sons to explain what he saw. My son shrugged his shoulders matter-of-factly – this one was easy. “That’s Moshe,” he told the doctor, pointing to the boy. “He was supposed to talk to that rock to make the water spill out, but instead he hit it.”

When I told that story to my mother, she shared with me that she had a similar memory from my first hearing test when I was a young child. Apparently the clinician told me to raise my right one arm if I heard a sound in my right ear, my left arm if I heard a sound in my left ear, and both arms if I heard a sound in both ears. The daughter of a Conservative pulpit rabbi, I had watched for years as my father signaled to the congregation to stand up by lifting both his arms into the air. And so the first time the clinician played sounds in both ears simultaneously, I did not lift my arms in the air, but simply said, “Please rise.”

Now all these memories of childhood associations—my son’s, my daughter’s, my own—have come to evoke one another, like the many instances of Moses raising his arms. In this week’s parsha, Hukat, Moses’ fate is sealed at Kadesh when he raises his arm to strike the rock instead of talking to it, as God had instructed him. God responds very harshly, telling Moses that he will not enter the promised land on account of his action. But one can understand Moses’ error, because decades earlier, at the beginning of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, he had a similar experience at Merivah, when God told him to strike the rock so that water would flow forth and the parched, ever-querulous Israelites might drink. It is likely that God’s instruction at Kadesh recalled God’s instructions at Merivah, and so Moses assumed that the second rock-water incident was merely a repeat of the first.

But the associations run even deeper, because the two parallel instances of Moses striking the rock recall a formative moment in Moses’ own development, when he left Pharaoh’s palace as a young man and “went out” among his brothers in Egypt. He sees an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew, and strikes down the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. The act seems to have no immediate repercussions, much like the striking of the rock at Merivah in the book of Exodus – for a short while, at least, the incident lies dormant under the desert sands. But then the next day, the episode nearly repeats itself when Moses encounters one Hebrew hitting another: “Why do you strike your fellow?” (Exodus 2:13). The Hebrew man responds harshly: “Who made you the chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” Moses realizes that his murder of the Egyptian is now publicly known, and so he runs for his life. As with the second incident of hitting the rock in our parsha, this second incident will critically shape Moses’ destiny: Moses will flee to Midian and encounter God at the burning bush, an experience that will launch him on his life’s mission. In essence, then, Moses’ mission begins and ends following a second “striking” incident – he becomes the leader of his people after nearly striking the Hebrew in Egypt, and he is told he will no longer merit to lead his people after he strikes the rock at Kadesh.

Moses’ hands, as Avivah Zornberg notes in her book Bewilderments, are infused with tremendous supernatural power. When he stands at the burning bush doubting whether the Israelites will believe him, God tells him to put his arm to his breast and witness as it emerges covered in leprous scales. He then holds out his arm, bearing his rod, and brings a series of ten plagues upon Egypt. I wonder if striking the rock at Kadesh reminded Moses of striking the rock at Merivah, which in turn recalled striking Egypt with plagues and striking the Egyptian when he was still a young man. Each time Moses lifts his arm—or, as in the case of the battle with Amalek, his arms—we are reminded of each prior instance of arm-raising, such that, as Zornberg puts it, the “earlier narrative becomes fraught with memory in the later moment.”

This series of associations may seem traumatic—surely it is difficult to move forwards healthily when every moment is haunted by prior ones. But this is how allusions work, and literary allusions are no different. The image of Ivy lifting her arms in the hope that the birds with mistake her for a tree reminds me not just of Moses, but also of Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” which in turn recalls Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet about the loss of love: “Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree / Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one / Yet knows its boughs more silent than before.” Was Millay referencing Shakespeare? I suspect so. It doesn’t really matter, though, because I cannot think of one poem without recollecting of the other, and thus each functions like a palimpsest revealing traces of the other beneath its surface.

For my daughter Tagel, the image of Ivy raising her trembling arms recalled Moses unable to support his heavy arms in the battle against Amalek. The Torah tells us that Moses’ arms were “emunah” until the sun came, a term that is generally translated as “stable” but is also the word for “faith.” And so I write these words with hope and faith that my children will learn to experience the pleasure of reading as uplifting. I hope they will come to recall not just the moments they trembled and stumbled over rocks and words, but also the stories that inspired them to grow like a tree with arms outstretched into the people they will someday become.

Catching the Bug (Shabbat 90b)

Not long ago, on Shabbat afternoon, my daughter found a rather large beetle in our bathroom and began screeching in horror. Her less squeamish twin sister rather heroically put on a pair of plastic gloves (which we have in ample supply these days) and dropped it off the floor of our porch to the ground below, where I hope it lived to tell the tale. I didn’t think twice about what she had done – she had not dealt with the creature inhumanely (in so far as one can be humane to an insect), nor had she trapped it, which is forbidden on Shabbat. But when I came to a recent daf in Masechet Shabbat (90b), I was reminded of the incident and it started, well, to bug me.

Here, as in most of Masechet Shabbat until this point, the rabbis are discussing the laws of carrying objects from one domain to another on the Sabbath. They consider a wide range of items – dyes, spices, amulets, weapons, animal feed… and dead pets. It was the dead pets that caught my eye. The Mishnah introduces the subject with a discussion about carrying grasshoppers out of the house on Shabbat. One may not carry a live grasshopper out of the house on Shabbat, but if it is dead, it may be carried outside so long as it is smaller than a fig in volume. (A fig is just a standard unit of measurement in the Talmud. We have ounces, pounds, and liters; they had olives, figs, and eggs). The Talmud explains that grasshoppers were stored for medicinal purposes because they were used as a talisman against forgetting one’s Torah learning. The fourth-century Babylonian sage Abaye clarifies that there was a particular species of grasshopper that was used for this purpose, following a detailed procedure: “One eats its right half, and casts its left half into a copper tube, and seals it with sixty seals, and hangs it on his left arm… And one learns as much as he wants, and then eats the other half. If he does not do so, his learning will be forgotten.” I’m not exactly sure what’s going on here, except that I sometimes eat chocolate bars this way – half a bar before I sit down to work at night, and then the other half right before I go to bed. Maybe grasshoppers would be a healthier option?

In any case, in Talmudic times, the grasshoppers were apparently not just food but also playthings. The Mishnaic sage Rabbi Yehuda comments that even if the grasshopper is not kosher, one is liable for carrying it out on Shabbat, because children used to play with them. (Were grasshoppers like marbles? Or more like wind-up toys? I think my kids once had a wind-up bug….) Another sage objects that no one would give a child a non-kosher grasshopper to play with, because if it died the child might eat it. But the Talmud clarifies that Rabbi Yehuda does not share this concern; he insists that a child would never eat his dead pet grasshopper, because he would not regard it as food. In the child’s eyes, what was once a pet could never become a snack.

This question of how the child would regard a grasshopper recalls a famous line from this week’s parsha, when the spies return from the land of Israel and share their reports with the people. Ten of the spies cannot help but give voice to their fears. True, they say, the land does flow with milk and honey (which are, incidentally, the two foods my baby still can’t eat – Matan says he lives in the wrong country). But the cities are fortified, the people are like giants, and – “we looked grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we looked in theirs” (Numbers 13:13). The ten spies, unable to trust in God, are convinced that will be crushed—or at least thrown off the porch—by the giants in the land. Their claim is twofold – they themselves felt like grasshoppers, and they appeared like grasshoppers to the Canaanites. In midrash Tanchuma (Shlach 7), God takes them to task for their second statement, pointing out the error of their assumption:

They said, “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” God said, “This I can overlook. But ‘And so we looked in their eyes’ – here I am angry. Did you know how I made you look in their eyes?

God is angry at the people for assuming that they know how the Canaanites would regard them. After all, God has the power to determine the way the Israelites appear to the inhabitants of the land, and so the spies ought to have trusted that God would make them look good. Who is to say that the Canaanites would have regarded them as food to be eaten in the land that “devours its inhabitants?” Maybe instead, with God’s help, the Israelites would be regarded as pets, or at least welcomed as new arrivals. I can’t promise that the next time we find a bug in the house on Shabbat, I’ll encourage the kids to adopt it as a household pet; I’m far too squeamish for that. But at least I, like the spies, will have a good story to share.

Breast is Blessed

My baby woke up from his nap today just as I was sitting down to breakfast, and so I decided to eat with him before I took him back to the bedroom to nurse. His siblings were all in school, it was a quiet morning, and I let him sit on my lap as I peeled back the silver-backed cover on my container of plain yogurt. The sun streamed in through the window as I dipped the spoon in, breaking the perfect smoothness of the surface like a shovel breaking through a field of newly fallen snow. As I lifted my hand to my mouth, drawing it over my baby’s head, he stopped me, seized hold of my wrist, and directed the spoon to his mouth. I was too astonished to do anything other than surrender control and sit back as my breakfast was hijacked by my seven-month-old, to whom I proceeded to feed the entire container of yogurt. Afterwards, when I offered him the breast, he was not interested. And then the sadness set in.

The connection between weaning and maternal depression is a well-documented phenomenon, and I experienced it with each of my children. The first time it happened, I was caught completely off-guard. I remember breaking down in tears in the library while trying to edit a book about Jewish heretics. It was a rather dry academic book and I wasn’t particularly invested in the subject matter; why, then, was I struggling to keep the tears off my computer touchpad? No one had prepared me for the feeling of futility and despair that overcome me. I thought of the Talmudic phrase חלש דעתיה, which literally means “his mind weakened” but is used to describe a faintness of heart caused by disappointment or heartbreak. The phrase is usually used in the Talmud in reference to men – after one sage is deeply insulted by another, his “mind weakens.” But the term was so well-suited to my mood. My spirits had plummeted, though if anyone asked what was bothering me, I would not have known what to say. It was only when speaking to a close friend on the phone a few days later—a friend who was a more experienced mother—that I was made aware of what was going on. “You’re weaning your baby,” she told me matter-of-factly. “Of course you’re depressed.”

This time it feels different, though, because I’m assuming it’s my last. Now that my baby is past six months, I feel like the sun is setting and the glory is fading and my moments of bliss with baby at the breast are numbered. I remember that when I was a kid, I overheard a conversation in which an adult expressed surprise that the president—whoever the president was at the time—was making a particular trip to some far-flung part of the world. “What’s the problem?” I asked my father. “Can’t he go anywhere he wants?” “But his term is only four years,” he responded. That means he has only 1300 days in office – he ought to use them more wisely.” I don’t know if I got the number exactly right, or if my father did. But I remember marveling at the fact that days could feel so finite even when there were so many of them. And now I felt the same way. Hopefully I have at least another few months of breastfeeding left. But each day feels fleeting and elusive, with the baby already pulling away – getting ready to crawl away, to walk away, to ask using words for more yogurt please.

I expect I will wean him right around the time we finish Masechet Shabbat, and indeed much of his life has unfolded against the backdrop of my study of this tractate. Masechet Shabbat is one of the longest tractates in the Talmud, and hence one of the heaviest tomes. When I nurse I balance it precariously over him with one hand, my other hand secured under his back with his head of curls nestling in the crook of my elbow. The hand holding the book aches and I wish we were back in Berakhot, when the book and the baby were lighter, and the sugyot were simpler. Now I am struggling to follow, and he struggles not to be distracted – Can you throw an object from one ship to another on Shabbat if the two ships are tethered together? May goats go out on Shabbat with their udders bound to inhibit their milk supply? For how long did the Israelites prepare to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai? I read to myself, but if the baby finishes nursing before I have finished the sugya, I hold him upright and read aloud until I come to the end. I do not want him to feel ignored, so I look at him as I read each line with exaggerated emotion, as if he were my study partner and I were posing first the questions and then the answers without letting him get even so much as a burp in edgewise.

I wonder if there are days when the baby is not even conscious that he has come off the breast and has begun to imbibe Torah instead of milk. In the Talmud breastmilk is compared to manna, based on the biblical description of the taste of the manna as שד השמן – the word שד means breast, though the phrase is usually translated as a rich cream. Rabbi Abbahu comments that just as breastmilk tastes like whatever the mother has eaten, so too the manna tasted like many tastes to the Israelites (Yoma 75a). Moreover, the manna was given to the Israelites when they were in their infancy as a nation, preparing to receive the Torah. Indeed, receiving the manna was not unlike receiving the Torah – both were gifts that came down from heaven to the Israelites and provided sustenance. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav writes that the Tzadik is called a mother who breastfeeds Israel with the milk of his Torah (Likutei Moharan 1:19 and 1:4). And the midrash observes that “the Torah could be given only to eaters of the manna” (Mekhilta Beshalach Vayasa Bet). The Israelites, when receiving the manna, had to have faith that new manna would fall every day and not hoard or stockpile it. This same faith was necessary to hear God speak the words “I am the Lord your God.” I hope I am teaching my baby to have faith in me that I will continue to nourish and sustain him even after he is weaned.

Like the Israelites who demanded that God provide them with meat to eat, my baby is someday going to reject the breast entirely, and I will begin to teach him at the table, as I teach his older siblings. I feel fortunate that I have not grown exasperated with nursing, as did Moses in last week’s parsha: “Did I conceive this entire people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your breast as a wet nurse carries an infant?’” (Numbers 11:12). Moses had enough of the Israelites, and demanded that God wean them from him. While there are times when I wish I were not tethered to my baby, I try to remind myself that I will hopefully have the rest of my life ahead of me to leave the house without him, prepare to teach Torah for longer stretches, and engage with my son from a greater distance.

Already he is pulling away, conscious that my milk is not enough. It is like my daughters who are starting to read independently; they still want me to read aloud to them, but they are now taking in sentences and stories on their own as well. Efrat Garber-Aran, an Israeli writer who composed a “blessing for breastfeeding,” muses that in the earliest stages of infancy, a baby might recite the blessing “who has provided me with all I need.” But as the baby gets older and begins to eat solid food as well, a different blessing ought to be recited: “who is good and who does good.” Her blessings reflect the reality that as the baby gets older, breastmilk becomes more about goodness and pleasure and less about nutrition and sustenance. Of course, as Garber-Aran realizes, even a baby as old as my own cannot make such a blessing because he cannot yet speak; therefore the mother should recite the blessing for the baby. Garber-Aran adds that the mother must recite an additional blessing over her own pleasure at breastfeeding: “Blessed is the Lord our God… who has made me a woman.” I will be sad when this stage of life is over, but I am so grateful that God created me with a body that can perform this wonder. Did I conceive this person? Did I bear him? Unlike Moses, I answer with a gratified yes, hopeful that I will merit to lead my children into the uncharted landscapes that beckon with promise ahead.

Unreliable Narrators

Yesterday Liav came home from school with quite a dramatic story to tell. She rushed in the door, breathless and frenzied, and before she had even made it to the sink to wash her hands with soap for two minutes—the first thing we all do when we walk in the door in these crazy Corona times—the story was already pouring out of her. “Ima, Ima, you won’t believe it,” she told me.

Tagel took the words right out of her mouth. “There were Ganavim in school today! Real Ganavim! And Doron caught them and now they are in Beit Keleh!” Sad to say, that is really how my kids speak – a sort of Ramah Hebrew, with the less commonly-used nouns in Hebrew and all other parts of speech in English.

Liav would not stand for it. “No Tagel, it’s my story, be quiet. I’m telling Ima.” The problem of who gets to narrate what has been an issue in our family for years. Back when the twins were in Gan, the Ganenet always assured us that the girls played beautifully together and had their own independent relationships; but when I picked them up each afternoon our entire walk home inevitably devolved into arguments over who got to tell me about a particular incident that had happened that day. For the most part it’s better now that they are in separate classes, and indeed that’s the main reason we separated them when they started first grade—so that they could each have their own stories to tell at the end of the day. But apparently Liav had already relayed this story to Tagel, and now Tagel wanted to be the one to relay it to me. Except that Liav would not stand for it.

Liav has always spoken faster and with greater fluency than Tagel, but Tagel is physically stronger and more agile; so generally in these situations, Liav gets the words out first and then Tagel “accidentally” turns a cartwheel and kicks Liav in the face. I tried to avert this catastrophe.

“Girls, whose class did this happen in?”

“Mine, it’s my story,” said Liav. Tagel stormed off. I let Liav continue, relieved that it hadn’t come to blows.

“OK, so there were thieves in school and now they’re in jail?” I repeated back entirely in English.

“Yes, you won’t believe it,” said Liav. I was already skeptical, but Matan, who was waiting for me to make him lunch, piped in up alert me that “they need a better Shomer at school. It’s very dangerous. Every time Shilon goes inside for a break, Ganavim can climb right over the fence.”

“I’m sure Shilon is an excellent guard,” I assured Matan. “You don’t need to worry.”

“Not true,” insisted Liav. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Today when Doron was going to the bathroom, he saw Ganavim. They were trying to steal Machshevim from Chadar Machshevim.”

“Thieves were trying to steal computers from the computer room?” I echoed.

“And they weren’t wearing masks!” Liav exclaimed indignantly.

This one had me puzzled, but only for a moment. I was picturing bank robbers in comic books. Don’t thieves usually wear masks? But now, in Corona times, when everyone is supposed to be wearing a mask, anyone who isn’t is immediately suspect.

Liav went on to relate that Doron—a diminutive first grader, the son of a lawyer and a policewoman—went straight to the secretaries and reported what he saw. The secretaries called the police, who arrived with handcuffs and apprehended the Ganavim, who are now incarcerated in the Beit Keleh.

“Really?” I asked, still somewhat incredulous.

“Oh yes,” said Matan. “It’s true. I know it’s true. They really need another Shomer to guard the gate when Shilon has to take a break.”

By this point, Tagel, overcome by hunger, had emerged from her bedroom and was sitting at the counter eating the salad I had placed before her. When it comes to salad, they each have their own versions of the same basic story: Peeled cucumbers red peppers yellow peppers Liav. Peeled cucumbers tomatoes Tagel. Unpeeled cucumbers red peppers tomatoes oil salt Matan. They crunched their vegetables heartily and continued to elaborate on the incident. All the kids were determined to impress upon me what seemed to them most critical takeaway. For Liav, it was Doron’s heroism when confronted with real-life criminals in his midst. For Matan, it was the security breach. Tagel just wanted to tell the entire story again herself, which she did, with some embellishment. I tried to make sense of it all. Back when they were in the same Gan, the twins’ narration was more reliable, because they fact-checked one another – as per the biblical injunction that “It is upon two witnesses that a matter is decided” (Deuteronomy 19:15). Liav and Tagel had always been my two witnesses, corroborating or discrediting one another’s tales. But this was Liav’s story, Tagel had heard it only secondhand – and so Tagel’s recapitulation did not help much.

That night, I happened to be texting Doron’s mother, the policewoman, about a homework assignment. After we exchanged a few messages, I added a postscript: “Oh, and by the way, you must be so proud of Doron. I heard all about the thieves.” She wrote back with a bewildered emoji: “I have no idea what you are talking about – for real?” And I realized that I had been duped. “If your son is not a policeman, then my daughter is a creative writer,” I responded with a smiley face.

“Liav,” I said to her the next morning when she was the first to jump into our bed as usual. “I spoke to Doron’s Ima last night and she hadn’t heard anything about the thieves in school. Did that really happen?”

“Well,” she said, “Like I told you, it was mostly true.”

“Like you told me?” I told her that it reminded me of the story in next week’s parsha about the twelve spies who were sent to scout out the land of Canaan while the Israelites were still in the wilderness. Ten of them—all but Caleb and Joshua—returned with a terrifying report about the inhabitants of the land: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (14:32-33). The Canaanites weren’t really giants. The land didn’t really swallow up its inhabitants. The Israelites weren’t really grasshopper-sized. But they were scared about entering the land, and their fear colored their perspective. As Avivah Zornberg writes about the spies’ account, “All language is shot through with hues of fantasy, of love and hatred, wonder and fear.”

I think for Liav, as for the spies, the dominant emotion was fear. The return to school after Corona has been fearsome and fraught for all of us. The first week back, Matan insisted on wearing three masks, and came home each day complaining about classmates who were not following the rules. The girls told me last week that the classroom next door to them had been completely vacated after the class was quarantined – even the tables and chairs had been removed for sanitizing. I imagined it felt haunting each time they passed by. Liav wants to believe that there is a superhero who will rescue her from danger, even if that superhero is three feet tall and carries a Sponge Bob backpack. Matan wants to make sure that someone is always standing guard to keep the bad guys out – whether they are thieves or germs or unmasked germ-bearing thieves. In school they are sometimes scared. They sometimes feel like grasshoppers. No wonder their imaginations are enthralled by tales of stolen computers – they, like the spies, are finding the images with which to articulate their fears.

I suppose I ought to have known to be more skeptical, if not from the spies then from “Charles,” a story Shirley Jackson tells in Life Among the Savages. Jackson writes about her son Laurie, who returned from kindergarten each day regaling his parents with stories of an ill-mannered, undisciplined classmate named Charles. Charles yelled during story hour, Laurie reported. Charles said an evil word. Charles hit the teacher. Charles had to stay after school. Jackson wondered if her son ought to be exposed to such a problematic child, but her husband assured her, “Bound to be people like Charles in the world. Might as well meet them now as later.” Soon Laurie began reporting that Charles had begun to shape up– he was helping the teacher by passing out crayons and behaving so nicely that the teacher gave him an apple. Jackson became increasingly intrigued about the reformed hooligan in her son’s kindergarten, and she was eager to ask the teacher about him at parent-teacher conferences – after she heard about her own son first, of course. When she showed up at the conference, the teacher assured her that her son Laurie had had a difficult first few weeks of school, but he had become a “fine little helper.” Jackson asked about the boy named Charles, and the teacher responded with surprise. “Charles? We don’t have any Charles in the kindergarten.”

In his own eyes, Laurie looked like Charles, much as the spies looked like grasshoppers to themselves. For my kids, school looked like a crime scene, or perhaps a haunted house, with danger lurking in the halls. Should I have reacted to my kids with more skepticism? Laurie’s parents believed him. The people of Israel believed the ten spies. And I’d believed Liav — as perhaps well I should. The sin of the spies was one of skepticism – they refused to believe God, who assured them that the land was good. The midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 16:6) compares it to the case of a king who secured his son a beautiful wife, but whose son insisted on seeing her first because he did not trust his father. I believed Liav’s story because her story was true – it was true to the emotions that she and her siblings were experiencing at school. Sometimes unreliable narrators are the most reliable narrators of all, even if the story they are telling us is not the story we think we are hearing. I’m glad that in Liav’s account, the thieves were apprehended and order was restored. May the story of our own times, too, have a happy ending.

Forty Years of Quarantine

(Someone asked me today for a quick dvar Torah for Shavuot. So in case anyone else needs one, feel free to use this!)

This past Shabbat, we began reading Sefer Bemidbar, which we will continue to read for the next several weeks, long past Shavuot. The book of Bemidbar chronicles Bnei Yisrael’s wandering in the desert — when the book begins, they are in the second year after the exodus, still in Midbar Sinai. What should have been a quick journey from the Sinai desert to the holy land becomes, in the words of Avivah Zornberg, a “forty-year death march” — God punishes the people for the sin of the spies by making them wander until an entire generation dies out.

At the end of the book, in parshat Masei, we are given an account of all the places the Israelites wandered. Rashi asks why the Torah takes pains to record all the journeys of the Israelites, and offers a midrashic answer:

Rabbi Tanchuma interpreted: This is like a king whose son was sick so he took him to a distant place to heal him. On their way back, his father began to enumerate all the separate stages of the journey. He told him: Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache, etc. (Rashi on Bemidbar 33:1)

According to this account, the Midbar history is a history of sickness. This midrash makes me think that the Midbar experience is in some ways like our experience of Corona — a prolonged period of sickness, with the days seeming endless. There’s something nonsensical about it all — why should it take forty years to get from the Sinai Desert to Israel? And why should a tiny little virus that afflicted a man in Wuhan, China have overturned our world? If only the Israelites had listened Moshe instead of to the ten spies, this whole long journey of wandering could have been avoided. And if only we had acted sooner and listened to the scientists/epidemiologists who told us to wear masks and stay home, we could have avoided so many months of lockdown, economic uncertainty, etc.

The wilderness experience was a harsh one. There was not always enough water. The people were worried about whether they would have food. They doubted their leaders, and even spoke Lashon Hara about them. And through it all, people were dying. Corona, too, has been a terrible plague for all of humanity. The term quarantine comes from the Italian for “forty days,” which is reminiscent of the forty years of wandering in the desert. But quarantine is the least of it. One hundred thousand people have died of Corona in the US. We have suffered from economic instability, and too many people do not know where their next meal will come from. We have doubted our leadership, etc.

But we must remember, as we do every year on Shavuot, that it was in the Midbar that the Torah was given. The Midbar, where very little grows and all is sparse, is a humble place. And yet as the Torah tells us, Mimidbar Matana — from the Midbar, the people went on to Matana. These are place names, but the Talmud (Nedarim 55a) interprets them midrashically to teach that if a person makes himself like a wilderness, Torah is given to him as a gift, as a Matana.

May we merit on this Shavuot to be receptive to the gift of the Torah, and may we merit throughout this entire period of Corona wilderness wandering — in spite of all the sickness and the loss and the fear– to nonetheless be receptive to the possibility of transcendent gifts.

The Bed Cake

It is hard to believe, but in the span of two months of Corona quarantine, my restless, flighty butterflies have metamorphosized into very hungry bookworms. Matan has finally begun to enjoy reading to himself in Hebrew, even though he will only agree to open a book if the alternative is to go to sleep – then once he starts reading, he won’t stop. Lately he’s been tearing through the complete works of Astrid Lindgren, and long after bedtime I will have to remind him to take his nose out of the story about Emil with his head in the soup pot, determined to lick every last drop.

My twins are also reading the Swedes. Though they could not even sound out words in Hebrew before starting first grade in September, they are now reading their first chapter books to themselves – a Swedish series called “My Happy Life” by Rose Lagercrantz which was recommended to me at my local independent bookstore. The series is delightful – the twins are passing them off one to another, and they each read chapters aloud to me from time to time, so I have gotten to know the two best friends Duni and Ella-Frieda nearly as well as they have, and my heart has broken and healed several times over alongside them. The twins, along with Matan, have also been reading aloud to their grandparents in English nearly every afternoon, which has been, by far, our best use of Zoom. 

Then there is four-year-old Shalvi, who has stopped napping, but who still needs her daily rest, which she takes every afternoon at 2pm on the toilet. “Imma, I have cocky,” she cries, and I know that’s my cue – not to take her to the bathroom, which she does herself, but to bring her a stack of five picture books she has not “read” in a while, and to place them on the stool (the bathroom stool, that is) so that she can flip through them as she hums aloud to herself like a broken kazoo for the next 45 minutes, until she calls me to check that her tushie is clean. (It rarely is. But she is calm and rested and ready to face the rest of the afternoon.)

Finally, Yitzvi at seven months is at last able to sit in a booster seat while we feed him; until just a week ago, we had to prop him up on the kitchen counter. This means that I now have a free hand to hold open a book of poetry and chant aloud to him while he eats. Thus far we have had mashed banana with Edward Lear (because surely bananas are the most nonsensical fruit), peaches with Wallace Stevens (albeit in Jerusalem, not Russia), and oatmeal with John Keats, in homage to Galway Kinnell, who is the first person I know to eat oatmeal with Keats:

I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that is better for your mental health
if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have
breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary
companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge,
as he called it with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime,
and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal should
not be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat
it with an imaginary companion, and that he himself had
enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John
Milton.
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as
wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something
from it….

And indeed, like the original fruit of the tree of knowledge, I have learned much from eating with my baby and the distinguished members of the Western canon. (It has always been my favorite question in the New York Times Book Review: If you could invite five people to a literary dinner party, who would they be? Well, now Yitzvi and I do it every morning.)

You’d think that now that all my kids are reading more, I’d at long last be able to start reading to myself when they’re awake, but alas, it rarely works that way. Yesterday afternoon I brought everyone’s books under the stroller when we went to the park, including my own – but I rarely managed more than two words of the new Shulamit Lapid novel between successive cries of “Imma, look! Look! Look Imma.” I had no choice but to comply, nodding in approbation at Liav’s yo-yoing, Tagel’s backflips, and Shalvi’s scooting, my finger marking my place so that I could continue to read on in two-word increments. An ant crawling across the page would have outpaced me, and I lamented the futility of the endeavor; but like the rabbinic decrees explained by the increasingly unlikely notion שמא יבנה בית המקדש, I kept my finger hopefully steadfast. I read an article this week in the New York Times about Zoom reading groups, in which hundreds of people log on at 6pm and read together in silence. It still seems like a distant fantasy; my children, for better or for worse, will not be muted.

I have tried various tricks to read with the kids underfoot. Sometimes I catch Daniel “still davening” behind a closed door, reading an article or dashing off an email to students long after he’s set aside his Siddur. I have similar dissimulations – I will stay with the baby for longer than necessary, as if he didn’t quite fall asleep until I finished the chapter. Recently I read to my older kids about how Ramona Quimby tried to trick Willa Jean, the annoying preschooler she is supposed to play with after school while Willa Jean’s grandmother minds them both. Ramona announced to Willa Jean that she couldn’t play with her—a task she loathed—because she had to complete her “Sustained Silent Reading,” hoping that the formality of the euphemism and the air of self-importance with which she made the declaration would serve to convince Willa Jean that she wasn’t simply reading the next chapter in her book. That trick wouldn’t work with my kids, but they do sometimes catch me waiting outside the front door of the apartment, tearing through the last few pages before I unlock the door and let myself in.

My kids’ great literary leap forward has also been accompanied by advances in writing. I just celebrated my first birthday with semi-literate children, and was delighted to receive a card that began, “To Ymo yor a grate mothor from the cids.” They added a line saying “fancyue Ymo for macen a kcece” – for a moment I thought I was being called fancy, but then I realized this was just their “thank you” for making a cake. Under the word “a” I could see there was a crossed-out “the,” and I asked my daughter about it. “First I wrote thank you for making THE cake, but then I realized you would know that the cake you made was for you, so I changed it to A cake.” I was impressed by her Talmudic הוה אמינא. Indeed, a few days earlier, they had asked me to bake them a plain, undecorated cake. “Do you mean a sheet cake?” I asked. My daughter looked puzzled. The cake they eventually presented me with had two marshmallows on one end. “These are the two pillows, yours and Abba’s.” I asked them why the cake needed pillows, and they told me, “because it’s a bed cake.”

Only this afternoon did I realize that the whole idea for this bed-sheet cake came from “Amelia Bedelia Bakes a Cake,” where the hapless but well-intentioned housekeeper wins a baking contest after a similar misunderstanding. As an Ymo I had underestimated my children, assuming they were merely being literal when in fact they were being literary. It was a literary allusion, but it had eluded me. With a lifetime of reading ahead of them, I hope it will be the first of many.

Amorite Pretzels (Shabbat 67a)

I’ve been reading the kids the Beezus and Ramona series since the start of Corona – my four-year-old confuses “Ramona” and “Corona” — and so Ramona and daf yomi have been two of my primary literary preoccupations of late. Yesterday we read about how Ramona’s parents made her and Beezus cook dinner after they complained, on the previous night, that tongue was disgusting and they wanted plain meat instead. “Tongue is cheaper and it’s nutritious,” their mother told them sternly – she had recently gotten a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office to cover the bills while Ramona’s father was back in school studying to be an art teacher. On the night of the slandered tongue (לשון הרע?), he was sketching his foot several times over in their living room as part of his homework, and Ramona was feeling embarrassed that she was a better artist. But cooking dinner was not something that she and Beezus could do better, at least they didn’t think they could, and it was with a fair amount of trepidation that they approached the refrigerator to plan their meal.

In the end the sisters prepared a successful dinner, though my kids were rather disgusted by their chicken thighs dipped in banana yogurt and seasoned with chili powder. Inspired by the story, my kids insisted that they wanted to make dinner for our family. I was told that I was allowed to help out, “but we’re really doing it ourselves,” they assured me.

“What do you want to make?” I asked somewhat skeptically.

“Pretzels!” my son announced, after he caught sight of the empty pretzel jar in our pantry. “We’re making pretzels for dinner.” The girls nodded in unison.

I tried to explain that pretzels weren’t exactly dinner, but the kids agreed to eat them with cottage cheese and chickpeas, which are their preferred sources of protein add-ons when I insist that their food lacks nutrition. We looked up a recipe for soft pretzels, made the dough together, and then I let the kids shape them into twisted pretzels knots before I dipped them in a pot of boiling baking soda, which is apparently how they brown. The pretzels went in the oven and everyone had a hearty—if not exactly healthy—dinner. I told myself that we often have homemade bread and cottage cheese for dinner, so this wasn’t all that different.

That night, while Daniel was cutting their nails after the bath, he showed them a video of the history of the pretzel. (Way back when, my kids never watched videos unless we were cutting their nails. Then they began begging us to cut their nails so they could watch videos. Now they don’t need excuses to request videos anymore, but the tradition of “clips” — YouTube clips and nail clipping — has continued.) In the video, Mr. Rogers went to a pretzel bakery where a young man tied an apron around his waist and taught him all about how pretzels were made. We were quite astonished to learn—at least according to Mr. Rogers’ source—that pretzels originated in Italy 1500 years ago as prizes given to Christian children for learning their prayers well; the term pretzel comes from “pretiola,” Italian for “little rewards.” The three empty spaces in the pretzel represent the three parts of the trinity, and the dough is folded over to resemble arms crossed in prayer.

I couldn’t believe it. We had been ingesting the catechism for years. The kids sensed my horror. “Does that mean we can’t eat pretzels in shul?” my daughter asked. “I’m not sure we can eat pretzels at all,” I responded, but my other daughter assured us that surely we could eat pretzel sticks and round pretzels, all of which are readily available from Osem. I found myself wondering. In this country where it is illegal to sell Hametz on Pesach and one would be hard-pressed to find non-kosher food in the supermarkets, how is it possible that pretzels–known by the equally sacred term beigele– are so popular?

This week in daf yomi, at the end of the sixth chapter of Masechet Shabbat (67a), we learned about various activities that are forbidden because they resemble the “ways of the Amorites,” one of the idolatrous nations whom the Israelites were supposed to distinguish themselves from upon arriving in the Land of Israel. The topic comes up because the Mishnah is discussing the laws of carrying on Shabbat, and specifically what items may and may not be carried outside on Shabbat. The Mishnah teaches that a nail from a crucifix may not be carried out on Shabbat because of the “ways of the Amorites” – since non-Jews use this item for healing purposes, Jews are not allowed to use it and therefore can’t carry it on Shabbat. The Talmud goes on to list various other medicinal remedies and auspicious practices prohibited because of the ways of the Amorites, including urinating in front of a pot to ensure that one’s food cooks properly and staying silent while boiling lentils so as not to disturb the legumes. In any case it seems clear to me that a pretzel twisted to resemble arms crossed in Christian prayer was not much better than a nail from a crucifix or these culinary superstitions, and I am now quite surprised that pretzels have a hechsher.

I wonder if in Amorite families, too, the children occasionally made dinner for their parents. And I secretly hope that my kids, following in the footsteps of Beezus and Ramona, will agree to cook for us again. I don’t mind if it’s an Amorite practice – just as long as they don’t pee on the kitchen floor.

Back to School

My children spent this past weekend preparing to return to school after nearly two months at home. As they tried on their masks and gloves and packed their bags with alcohol gel and sanitizing wipes, I followed along in the fifth and sixth chapters of tractate Shabbat, where the rabbis debate what various animals and people are permitted to take with them on the sabbath when they venture forth from the private domain into the public.

My kids, who have been learning at home, had all their schoolbooks and folders to bring back with them, and so their bags were far more weighed down than usual. They were, in that sense, like the camels in the Talmud saddled with a load too heavy for them, which is forbidden, since animals should not be burdened on the day of rest (51b). On their faces they are all wore scarves over their regular masks, as extra protection, like the Arabian Jewish women who go out on Shabbat with scarves over their faces (65a). My son, whose anxieties are only exacerbated by the present situation, insisted on wearing three levels of protection – a cloth mask, a napkin tied with rubber bands over his ears, and a plastic face shield with his name written in big block letters over thick masking tape because otherwise he is unidentifiable. Does he really need all this gear? I suppose for him it is sort of like the amulets discussed in the Mishnah, which are believed to protect their wearers from harm. The Mishnah teaches that a person may wear an amulet if its efficacy has been proven or if it was made by an expert. An amulet against epilepsy, the Talmud teaches, may be worn not just by one who has fallen, but also by one who worries that he will fall (61a). So far, thank God, none of us has fallen prey to this illness; we wear our masks as preventative measures and pray that we will be spared.

Although schools officially re-opened nationwide, not all of my kids’ friends went back. Several parents wrote in the class Whatsapp groups that they were too nervous about sending their kids, and wanted to first wait and see the repercussions of this change in policy. Daniel and I felt confident that our kids’ school was handling the situation responsibly and sensitively, and so we did not hesitate about returning them to school. Besides, the Talmud seems to frown upon those who hold themselves to special standards rather than adopting the policies to which the general public is expected to adhere. The Babylonian sage Shmuel was particularly strict with his daughters in terms of what sort of ribbons they were allowed to wear in their ears on Shabbat (65a). And the Mishnah relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s cow used to go out on Shabbat with a strap between its horns, even though the sages forbade such a practice, which leads to an extended Talmudic discussion about the importance of speaking up when those around you fail to adhere to the behavior expected of them (54b). In our present reality, when everyone is wearing different types of masks in different ways—some covering only their mouths, some covering their nose and mouths, some with the mask merely symbolically secured under their chins—it is hard not to judge everyone you see on the street, but the Talmud provides guidelines for how to speak up constructively to the people we see when we go out.

For the past few weeks, we have been trained to stay away from one another and to keep within the confines of our homes. It is difficult, when venturing out for the first time, not to regard everyone we see as a potential threat. At the beginning of masechet Shabbat we read about Bar Yohai and his son, who emerged from their cave after twelve years in isolation and burned up everything they saw with their eyes, until a divine voice rebuked them with the words, “Have you come out to destroy my world?” Ultimately when we do go out, it should be to seek fellowship and act kindly toward those around us. My kids came home from school and could not tell me a thing they learned, but they were all so happy to be back with their beloved teachers and friends. Even at two meters away and with three masks over their faces, they were able to feel the embrace of their school community, and hopefully the loving embrace of their family as well. I kissed them each when they left the house and again when they returned, hoping that this amulet, at least, would work its magic.

Pesach 5780: The Bare Bones

On this Pesach, when I feel I have done the absolute minimum to get my home ready for the chag, I am reminded that at its barest bones, the Seder must consist of the mention of three things. And so in the less-than-eighteen minutes I have to sit at my computer, these are the three things I am thinking about this year:

Pesach: The Seder was designed by the sages in Yavneh who were no longer able to mark the fourteenth of Nisan as it had traditionally been observed: By eating the Korban Pesach, the Paschal lamb. The Torah teaches that the Paschal lamb had to be eaten in small groups, often just the family unit. The Talmud adds that the individual who slaughtered the lamb for his family had to do so with all his family members in mind – anyone whom he did not have in mind was not allowed to join the meal at the last minute. Today, when we are all being instructed to have our Seder at home with the people we are living with—and on our own if we are on our own—I am reminded that the original activity performed on the fourteenth of Nisan, on which the Seder is based, was also a household affair. And so while it is lonely to be so far from grandparents, parents, grown children, and grandchildren on this holiday, there is something very authentic about the Corona “microseders” that transport us back to the way in which this night was observed in Temple times.

Matzah: The Maggid begins with a description of the matzah: This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. All who are hungry, come eat. I am grateful that no one in my family will go hungry this Pesach, but I know that everyone has tasted of affliction and privation. My daughters miss their friends. My son wishes we had enough eggs to make omelets for breakfast. My husband would like time to work without the kids underfoot. I wish I could go out for a long run. All of us have experienced encroachments on our liberties that would have been unfathomable just a few months ago. As the Israelite slaves knew all too well, and as we were privileged to forget for so long, liberty is tenuous. This will not be the feast of freedom we pray for each year, and I have no doubt that the little we have done to prepare is not enough – I will say Dayenu with a heavy heart. It has not been enough. Our Chad Gadya seems stuck in a loop at that moment when the angel of death appears on the scene, setting off a nightmarish chain reaction that we once could have averted and now feel powerless to stop, as China became Italy became the United States. As the Torah relates of the plague of the firstborn, it seems like there is no home without a death – everyone has been affected by this pandemic. When will the Holy One Blessed Be He step in and slaughter the Angel of Death? And yet even as I ask this question and sit down to retell the exodus story, I can hear God’s response, echoing His response to Moses on the brink of the Red Sea: “Why are you crying out to me? Speak out to the Children of Israel and go forward!” Our destiny is in our hands, and if we all do our part, we may find a way to flatten the bread and flatten the curve and make our way forward.

Maror: We have tasted so much bitterness in the last few weeks that the bitter herbs seem superfluous. This pandemic has embittered our lives like slavery embittered the Israelites. We cannot be close to our communities and to many of the people we love. We cannot extend a strong arm and an outstretched hand to embrace our friends and family members who are lonely or sick and would like us at their side. This Pesach many of us will shed tears of longing and loneliness, and in places of the world where there is a total lockdown, the Seder night will be a true Leyl Shimurim, a night of vigil, with everyone scared to leave their homes because of the danger in the streets. Each day when we rise we are greeted by our screens which flash with the news of the latest death tolls. When will the bitter be made sweet again?

In every generation a person must see himself as if he has gone out of Egypt. We are still in the narrow straits, still constricted, with so many people in our world still gasping for breath. May the angel of death pass over us and those we love, and may this Passover be the harbinger of our redemption.

Inspired by the reflections of Daniel Feldman, Leon Wiener Dow, Joel Levy, Mishael Zion, and others.