At Tara in this Fateful Hour (Berakhot 2a-5b)

The first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud begins, rather surprisingly, with an extended discussion of the architectonics of the night. The Mishnah opens with the question of how late one may recite the evening Shema prayer, but the lights remain dim as the rabbis go on to consider such questions as: How many military watches comprised a single night? Did the redemption from Egypt begin at dawn or in the dead of night? What did King David do from midnight until daybreak? Does twilight last longer than the blink of an eye? The sages pose answers to some of these questions, but I find myself left in the dark as I ponder: In a tractate on blessing and prayer, why begin with these extended nocturnal musings?

I was thinking about this question last night when my three-year-old daughter came into our room to report her most recent recurrent nightmare. “I had a dream about a bad guy who came into our house,” she told us. My husband is convinced that the bad guy in our house is her newborn brother, but needless to say we are not sharing that with her. Instead, we reassure her each time that her dream is not real – it is just a nightmare. Or perhaps not a night-mare but a night donkey, as per the rabbis’ explanation that the first watch of the night is the one in which a donkey brays. We tell our daughter that one of us will tuck her back into bed and sing her Shema again, and now I know why – the rabbis teach in the opening pages of Berakhot (5a) that the recitation of the bedtime Shema serves to ward off demons. And indeed, after our second recitation of the Shema, she usually sleeps soundly until dawn.

We sing Shema again to our daughter not just to ward off the demons, but also because prayer is a way of coping with fear. This is a lesson that has helped me as a mother. I try not to show my children my fear – I do not want to frighten them or add to their anxiety by exposing them to my own. And so whenever I feel too worried or anxious to be fully present for them, I instead break out in singing Esah Einai, a musical rendition of Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord…. He who watches over you will not slumber… The Lord will keep you from all harm.” My children know this is the song we sing when we need to daven for something important, and they willingly join in until the rise and fall of the melody soothes and comforts us all.

Perhaps the rabbis deliberately chose to begin the first tractate of the Talmud—which is about prayer and blessing—with a discussion of the night because certainly in the ancient world, the night was a time of tremendous fear and vulnerability. In the absence of natural lighting, it was unsafe to be out alone at night. And so it was at night, when people felt most fearful, that prayer felt most instinctive. Scientists speak of the “fight or flight” response, a physiological response to a perceived harmful event. But as the rabbis remind us, there’s another option – some of us, in such moments, naturally gravitate to prayer. We might think of it instead as the “fight or flight or recite” response – when we feel endangered we can counterattack or run away, but we can also speak to God.

The rabbis, who viewed prayer as an essential part of every Jew’s daily life, began their tractate on prayer by alluding to the night and to other moments of fear and vulnerability because it is at such moments that we are most inclined to pray. In an effort to make prayer seem natural, they began with those moments when prayer already felt that way: When we are alone at night, or when we are entering a crumbling ruin that might be haunted, or when we are lying very sick in our beds – all of which are scenarios considered in the opening pages of the tractate. Over the course of the tractate, they discuss various other impulses to pray – out of gratitude and longing and satiety, to give just a few examples. In these moments, it is harder to move ourselves toward a posture of prayer, because prayer feels far less urgent when we feel comfortable, safe, and content. By the time we get to the final chapter of the tractate, the rabbis teach that we have to thank God even when doing so feels counterintuitive and difficult – we are obligated to thank God for the bad just as we thank God for the good. And so the trajectory of the tractate begins with those moments when prayer feels most natural, where the impulse for prayer takes root, and then challenges us to reach a place in our spiritual lives where we are able to pray even when doing so feels most incongruous.

“Why begin with the evening Shema?” the rabbis of the Talmud ask about the opening Mishnah of the tractate. Why does the Talmud begin at night? Because when we feel alone and afraid and lost in the dark, we draw close to God. And once we learn to draw close to God out of fear, it becomes that much easier to draw close to God out of love. The dark times in our lives have the potential to bring us closest to God, and it is in our moments of fear and terror that we may offer our most eloquent expressions of devotion – a notion captured by a medieval Gaelic poem:

“At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the earth with its starkness:
All these I place,
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness!”

I first encountered this poem in Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, where it is recited by a star-gazing Charles Wallace who stands alone in the night trying to fight off the threat of nuclear war. His brother-in-law Calvin’s mother has taught him to recite this poem to ward off danger – placing “all Heaven with its power” between himself and the “powers of darkness.” The sages of the Talmud begin their tractate on prayer and blessing by invoking the powers of darkness in the hope that we, too, might learn to invoke the almighty help and grace of God by assuming the most fundamental of religious postures and accustoming our souls to prayer.

Toldot: Waiting at the Gate

Now that I am on maternity leave, I have been trying to come on time to pick up my children at school. I aim to get to the gate of school yard at least two or three minutes before the bell rings, so that by the time the kids come streaming out—my twins in their bright red school sweatshirts with heavy backpacks on their backs, my son in a light T-shirt oblivious to the weather and to the whereabouts of his schoolbooks—I am ready and waiting for them. I have noticed that there are several parents who congregate outside of the school gate every day to wait for their kids. Some even arrive a good ten to fifteen minutes early. And then there are the parents who show up breathless right as the bell rings, if not a few minutes later, scanning the schoolyard frantically for their kids who already ran off to play, having long-ago abandoned any expectation that a parent will be waiting to greet them.

I’m hoping not to be that kind of parent anymore. I want my children to hear the bell and have the confidence that their mother will be waiting at the gate, ready with a smile, if not also a snack. I want them to be able to count on me. In essence, I want them to enjoy the blessing that Isaac gives to both his sons, first to Jacob and then to Esau. In blessing his sons, Isaac invokes the dew: “May God give you of the dew of the heaven and the fat of the earth,” he tells Jacob, and then, in an echo of that blessing, he tells Esau, “See your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of the heaven above.” Rabbanit Penina Neuwirth explains that the blessing of dew is the blessing of reliability. Unlike the rain, which falls only in certain seasons and at unpredictable times of day, the dew appears every morning at dawn, regardless of the season. God tells the Jewish people in the Shema prayer that if they heed His will, the rain will fall upon them. Rain is conditional on our behavior. But dew is a daily unconditional guarantee.

As parents, there is room for both the conditional rain and the unconditional dew. There are times when we must reward and punish our children, showering or withholding our bounty depending on their behavior. But then there are the aspects of parenting that are entirely unconditional. When a small child wakes up crying at night, he should know, regardless of how he behaved that day, that his mother will come to him. When a toddler falls off the monkey bars and scrapes her knee, she should know that even if she wasn’t listening when she was told to come home a few minutes earlier, her father will nonetheless bandage her cut and ice her bruise. And when my children coming running out of school at the end of the day, they should have full confidence that their mother will be waiting at the gate to greet them.

Alice Shalvi writes in her memoir that as a mother, she was rarely around for her children. That said, she quotes one of her children who tells her that when she was home, she was far more interesting than the parents who were always there. Alice Shalvi did great things for Israeli women and for the Jewish people when she wasn’t at home. But that’s not the kind of mother I want to be – at least not right now. I imagine that when Shalvi came home at the end of the day, she burst in like a rainstorm, regaling her family with her stories. I’d like to be more like the dew, patiently waiting on the grass for my children to come to me.

“They also serve who only stand and wait,” John Milton famously wrote in a sonnet about his inability to serve God in the same way after he lost his vision. I, too, am somewhat incapacitated with a new baby; I can’t run around as much as I used to do. But I look at the parents who show up every day before the bell and realize that this too is a form of holy devotion. If I can stand and wait for my children every day, perhaps I am, in my own way, showering them in blessing.

Brit Milah — Yitzchak Tzvi

(Translation of speeches given at Shira Chadasha, Jerusalem, Shabbat Parshat Noach)

Ilana’s speech:

Last Shabbat morning my daughter came into our bedroom and asked me to read her from the children’s parsha book we read together every Shabbat. It was still early in the morning – Daniel had left for Hashkama, my mother-in-law was awake with Matan, and the other two girls were still asleep. At that point I had been having contractions since 2am, and so I decided to stand leaning on the edge of the bed so that I would be in the right position the next time a wave of pain came on. “Imma, why do you keep stopping in the middle,” my daughter asked me, as we went through the story of the creation of the world, the creation of life, the creation of humanity. Just when we got God’s words to Chava – בעצב תלדי בנים – in pain you shall birth children– I found myself unable to get through another line, and thankfully it was at that moment that Daniel walked in from shul and I told him it was time to go to the hospital to birth our child.

We generally think of God’s words to Chava as a curse, but as I have come to appreciate, they are in a sense also a blessing. God tells Chava that birth is going to take time, it is going to involve a long period known as pregnancy, הריון, and that pregnancy is not always going to go smoothly – it is going to involve עצבון. Rashi says that עצבון is the pain of raising children, but this has never really seemed like a satisfactory explanation to me, because the word Itzavon precedes Herayon in the biblical verse. And so I think of Itzavon as the disappointments that precede pregnancy, a reminder that a successful pregnancy often comes after pain and loss. By the time a healthy child is please God born, the parents are likely to have internalized the notion that every stage of bringing new life into the world is as miraculous as מעשה בראשית. In this sense God’s words to Chava very much parallel God’s words to Adam, who was told that he would have to eat bread by the sweat of his brow. Unlike in Eden, where food was readily available to be eaten right off the trees – according to one midrash, the fruit of Etz Hadaat was wheat – after the fall, mankind would have to work hard for his sustenance. Inevitably crops would fail, or be struck by blight, and a successful harvest – like a healthy baby – was something to be appreciated and valued.

I did not know if we would be blessed with another child, if our family would grow to seven. In Judaism the number seven has tremendous significance—from the seven days of creation to the seven words in the first verse of the Torah to the holiness of the seventh day and the seventh Shemitta year and the end of the seventh cycle at Yovel, as well as the seven branches of the Menora, the sheva brachot, the seven species of the land of Israel. Seven seemed to me like the perfect number, but as it seemed increasingly unlikely, I tried to remind myself of how blessed we already were. When I found out I was pregnant with this child at age 40, I immediately thought of Sarah Imeinu laughing in wonder and incredulity at the news that she and Avraham would have a child at their advanced age. Their son, Yitzchak, was the anticipated but unexpected bracha – they had held out the hope of they would have a child even as it seemed increasingly unlikely, even as they remained somewhat embarrassed about what others would think should their dream come true – כל השומע יצחק לי. But as we read on Rosh Hashanah and as we will read again in just two weeks, God remembered Sarah and Yitzchak was born, the laughter of incredulity became the laughter of joy, and what seemed wondrous became wonderful.

“Expand the space of your tents,” we read in the Haftarah this morning (Isaiah 54:4). We feel so blessed that our family has expanded – which brings me to Yitzchak’s middle name, Tzvi. The Talmud in Masechet Gittin compares Eretz Yisrael to a deer – just as the skin of a deer expands as its flesh expands, so too, the land of Israel expands when it is settled by more and more inhabitants. All too often it feels to Daniel and me like our hands and our hearts are full – how could we possibly handle another child, more responsibility, more Aruchot Eser to prepare every evening? Daniel’s father, for whom we have named our son, used to remind us that there was always more room at the table – and all the more so when we merit to set our table and raise our family in ארץ צבי. Miraculously, like the skin of a deer and like the land of Eretz Yisrael, our hearts have all expanded, and we are so thrilled to welcome this child into our family and into the world. May we all merit to experience the miracle of creation, the fruits of anticipation, the wonder and the wonderfulness of עשייה ובריאה. We pray that our son Yitchak Tzvi will continue to remind us that the laughter of our incredulity can become the laughter of our joy, and there is always more room for our hearts to grow. שבת שלום.

Daniel’s speech:

Our son Yitzchak Tzvi is named for his grandfather, Yitzchak Tzvi ben Yaakov v’Leah, Dr. Charles Feldman, may his memory be for a blessing. My father was an incredible person – an only child who grew up at the heart of a large, warm extended family in Elizabeth, New Jersey in a Jewish community his grandparents had founded. It was in this environment that my father learned to treat all people favorably and kindly. My father was a true Renaissance man: He was a devoted and dedicated doctor, a scholar who engaged in groundbreaking research in the fields of asthma and public health, a communal leader in his town of Teaneck, NJ, an advisor, study partner, and friend to many great rabbis, and above all, a beloved family man who always put his wife and children first. As a doctor who ministered to children suffering from asthma, my father was an old-fashioned physician in the best sense of the term: an important figure in the lives of his patients and their parents, who trusted him and sought his advice on various topics, not just medical. As a communal leader he was active in synagogues and Jewish educational institutions, including serving terms as president of Hovevei Tora and the Frisch High School. As his immediate family we were the beneficiaries of his kindness and pleasantness. He loved and treasured his wife, my mother Rella Feldman, may she live long, and he always had a smile and a kind word for his five children and ever-expanding circle of grandchildren. We have missed him deeply in the eight years since his passing.

Our Yitzchak Tzvi is the third grandchild to carry his grandfather’s name, following Charles Harold Feldman and Charles Shalom Hecht – and the threefold cord is not easily severed. But our Yitzchak Tzvi is the first of my father’s descendants to bear his name in the land of Israel. Given that our son merited to grow up in the promised land, we chose my father’s Hebrew name, which reflects the great blessing of having descendants who carry their forebear’s name. With the birth of our Yitzchak Tzvi, our dreams have come true – the dream of another boy, a fifth child and a little brother for Matan, Liav, Tagel and Shalvi, another Israeli grandchild for our wonderful parents, and a tenth Israeli grandchild for my mother, completing the minyan on this side of the ocean. Yitzchak Tzvi is a crown jewel for our family. This is the boy we prayed for but never expected. Our forefather Yitzchak was the first baby who entered into the covenant of Abraham, and the story of his birth is a reminder that every birth is miraculous. Likewise, each of Ilana’s births is wondrous and awe-inspiring. These are the foundational moments in our family’s life, where Ilana stands at the center. [Followed by Ilana’s speech]

Sitting in Shul with Kids

There is a custom that one should not speak between the Shofar blasts sounded on Rosh Hashanah at the conclusion of the Torah service and those sounded at the end of Musaf. It is a tradition that dates back at least to the tenth century and is quoted throughout medieval halakhic responsa. The rabbis explain that since a major purpose of sounding the shofar is to focus our minds on our prayers, we are supposed to remain in a state of heightened concentration throughout the full duration of the shofar blasts. I have known about this custom for a long time, but this year, for the first time since becoming a mother, I was able to observe it.

Ever since my children were born, I have been trying to train them to sit quietly in shul. I was blessed with easy births, and so I was able to bring each of my babies with me to shul the first Shabbat after they were born. In infancy each baby nestled in a carrier, feeling the rise and fall of my chest as my voice burst forth in song and prayer. When they got older I began bringing one child up to the Bimah with me each time I read from the Torah; they stood on a chair at my side and peered over my shoulder as I tracked the words with a silver Yad. Sometimes I worried that the child at my side would distract or interrupt my concentration, but then I would think of the verse from Parshat Nitzavim, ki karov elecha hadavar meod (“for this thing is very close to you”), and I would hope that I was teaching them what it means for Torah to feel close and accessible.

My oldest is now eight and my youngest is three, and I am constantly on the lookout for ways to keep them occupied in shul. I bring them books with interesting pictures so that they want to flip through the pages again and again, such as Peter Spier’s People and Karla Kuskin’s The Philharmonic Gets Dressed. I pack games that are compact, easy to clean up, and can be played silently on the floor, such as Double, Plus Plus and—created exclusively for this purpose — Magnetic Shul. And then I have my stash of snacks that can be chewed silently and consumed slowly without making too many crumbs; some of them are, admittedly, less nutritious than others. My children know that candy is off limits except in shul – last week my daughter pleaded with me to buy her sour sticks, and I gave in on the condition that we save them to be eaten only in synagogue. Each Shabbat morning they get one lollipop (two if they stay for Shacharit and Musaf!), and as they know well, the rule is that the lollipop must be entirely consumed in the sanctuary. It reminds me of the laws surrounding Maaser Sheni, the tithed produce that had to be eaten only in Jerusalem; the walls of Jerusalem had to “absorb” the tithe, and once they did, the produce could not exit the city. My children know that if they leave to go to the bathroom or play with friends, they have to deposit their lollipop with me. I make sure to keep the wrappers handy just in case.

I am aware that it all sounds a bit crazy and over-zealous. Why am I so intent on keeping my kids in shul with me, especially if they are not even paying attention to the prayer service? Why not just take them to the children’s service for a half hour and then let them run around outside, as most of my friends opt to do? What is to be gained by having my children sit at my feet for a couple of hours every Shabbat morning, sucking on lollipops and flipping through picture books?

I harbor no illusions. My kids are not learning to pray by sitting in shul. Even if I bring an illustrated kids’ prayer book, they rarely open it, preferring the other distractions in my bag of tricks. But I hope that with time, after weeks and weeks of sitting at my feet for the several hours of Shabbat morning davening, they will begin to absorb the rhythms of the service. “Malachim!” I whisper to them when they try to talk to me during the Kedusha, the prayer where we stand with our feet pressed together in imitation of the angels and mimic the call-and-response among the celestial beings as they seek out God’s presence. My children know that it is forbidden to talk during this “Angels” prayer, and sometimes they even press their feet together and rise up on their tiptoes and bow to the left and right alongside me, as if they too might transcend their sticky-candy-eating embodiment and rise to the level of angels. “Torah!” I tell them quietly at the end of the Torah reading, when the open, sacred parchment scroll is lifted high for congregation to see. Sometimes my children look up from their game, or come with me to kiss the Torah as it is paraded down the aisles. “Kohanim!” I murmur when the priests walk to the front of the sanctuary and stand beneath their tallitot to bless the congregation. Although it is forbidden to look at the priests as they recite their blessing, I am grateful for anything that catches my children’s eyes, and I don’t have the heart to tell them to avert their glance.

Since my Israeli-born children converse in the same language that we pray, the liturgy is more accessible to them than it ever was to me as a child. My three-year-old recently told me that Ein Keloheinu is her favorite prayer. It soon became apparent that she mistook the line “Mi K’Eloheinu”—who is like our God—for a reference to her friend in preschool and told me excitedly, “I have a Mika in my Gan!” (The irony is not lost on me.) Two of my girls, Tagel and Shalva, know to listen for their names at certain points in the service – whenever Tagel’s name appears in a haftarah reading, I make sure she listens up and takes pride in her cameo appearance. We were recently sitting next to my friend Efrat and her daughter Tehilla, a name that appears throughout the liturgy. When both our daughters’ names were mentioned in the span of a few verses of the haftarah for Nitzavim, I looked over at Efrat and whispered, “I guess this is a lot more exciting for us than it is for you.”

I don’t know if my kids will eventually consider the synagogue a home. When they are old enough to make their own decisions, will they choose to spend their Shabbat mornings praying as part of a congregation? I recognize that these matters are largely beyond my control. Even so, I hope that my husband and I will succeed in raising children who make their Jewish decisions from a place of deep familiarity with our traditions. I hope they will come to know the rhythm of the prayer service even if they ultimately march to the beat of a different drummer. Like the Talmudic story about the heretic Elisha ben Abuya, whose feet still counted out the distance that one may walk on Shabbat even after he had thrown off the yoke of the commandments, I hope that my children will always be able to name the weekly Torah portion even if they don’t go to synagogue to hear it.

Most of all, I hope my children will have learned from sitting beside their parents in shul how important prayer is to both of us. I suppose that’s why I care so deeply about my kids sitting in shul, even if my son is tearing through a mystery novel and my daughters are busy devouring sweets. One of my most powerful childhood memories is of watching my father wrap tefillin at a hotel in Disney World. He was a congregational rabbi for forty years and attended a daily minyan, where his presence was expected. When we were on vacation, no one demanded that he pray. And yet he prayed even in Disney World, which taught me that prayer was not merely part of his job description, but a duty of the heart. When my kids ask for a drink of water in the middle of the silent Amidah prayer and I hold up a finger sternly for them to wait, I am trying to impart the same message.

On Rosh Hashanah I had to hold up that finger many times. I managed to sit quietly in shul throughout all the Shofar blasts not because I banished my children from the sanctuary but because they sat there alongside me for much of the service, nibbling on rice cakes and brushing their dolls’ hair. My son, who attended an earlier (5:30am!) service with my husband Daniel, sat beside him reading a novel; when their service ended, he came to retrieve his sisters, so that they could go home with their father. For the last hour and a half, I sat in shul alone. I relished the quiet, but each time the Shofar was sounded, I thought of how its blasts resembled the inarticulate prayers of those who cannot access language – whether because their depths of emotion are too great for words, or because they, like my children, have simply not yet learned how to pray. Maybe by next Rosh Hashanah my son will open the prayer book and follow along, and maybe my daughters will not need quite so many lollipops. The shofar is supposed to sound like a wail or a sob, but this past Rosh Hashanah, it sounded to me like the voice of hope.

Counting Sheep on Rosh Hashanah

When I had trouble falling asleep as a child, my parents would tell me to count sheep. It didn’t work very well; I generally gave up on counting well before sleep overtook me. Now, as a parent of young children, I don’t have trouble falling asleep– I conk out the moment my head hits the pillow, before the first sheep can rear its wooly head. But sometimes when I sit at my desk in the daytime struggling to write, the cursor flashing on the blank screen as I fight off despair, I try counting sheep, hoping that if I stay there a little longer, something will come.

With the high holidays approaching, we think of God as a counter of sheep. The U’netaneh Tokef (“Let us speak of the awesomeness”), the medieval liturgical poem recited at the climax of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, describes the entire people of Israel passing before God like sheep:

As a shepherd herds his flock,
Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,
So do You cause to pass, count, and record,
Visiting the souls of all living,
Decreeing the length of their days,
Inscribing their judgment.

The image is resonant of the Biblical commandment of Maaser, whereby every Jew is obligated to give one tenth of his produce to God. The ninth chapter of the Mishnah in Bekhorot describes the procedure for tithing animals. Each year after the first of Elul, just before the high holiday season, the shepherd must bring his animals into a shed with a small opening so that only one can go out at a time. He passes his staff over each sheep as it exits the shed, counting them one by one. When he gets to the tenth, he marks it with red chalk and says, “Behold, this is the tenth.” The counting is an essential part of the tithing process; the Mishnah stipulates that if the shepherd merely takes out ten lambs from a flock of one hundred, the tithe is invalid. Each and every sheep must pass under the shepherd’s rod, just as each and every person passes before God during the Days of Awe.

By comparing human beings to sheep, the U’netaneh Tokef emphasizes both our commonality and our individuality. Each of us is part of a flock, and in that sense we are as indistinguishable from one another as sheep. But if we really were all identical, why would God examine us one by one? The fact that each of us must pass before God means that each of us receives our own divine judgment. In the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (1:2), where this image first appears, the rabbis teach, “On Rosh Hashanah, all the inhabitants of the world pass before God like B’nei Maron, as it is written, ‘He Who creates all their hearts as one, Who understands all their deeds’ (Psalms 33:15). God creates all of humanity, but each person is evaluated individually.

Yet we are not just docile sheep in God’s eyes. The Babylonian rabbis understood the Mishnah’s phrase “Bnei Maron” as referring to a flock of sheep, but for rabbis in the Land of Israel, the phrase was understood as a geographical reference to Beit Maron, a steep mountain where someone standing at the summit could observe all those ascending (Rosh Hashanah 18b). These images suggest that although we are ultimately at God’s mercy, we are also individuals with the agency to engage in the difficult uphill work of preparing ourselves spiritually to appear before God at the climax of the Jewish calendar.

This uphill climb is the work of striving to nurture the unique divine spark inside ourselves so that we may contribute to the world in a way that only we are able. For most of us this does not comes easily, and it often feels like a battle against competing impulses. No surprise, perhaps, that the Talmud also offers a militaristic interpretation of B’nei Maron as a reference to soldiers in King David’s army. Indeed, the term B’nei Maron comes from numeron, which is Greek for a legion or cohort. From this perspective, we are not vulnerable sheep but brave troops marching rank and file, trying to stay in line with the divine command.

Whether the image is sheep or soldiers, we file before God so that the Almighty can take note of each of us. This taking note is quite literal in the sense that the U’netaneh Tokef imagines God “recording” and “inscribing” our judgement. The next line connects God’s role as the counter of sheep with God’s role as a writer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die…

God spends Rosh Hashanah recording the fate of each of us, dictating who will live and who will die, and how those fated to die meet their end: Who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, and so on.

It seems that God counts sheep for the sake of writing. Only by counting each of us can God decide upon and record our fates. With the high holiday liturgy dominated by images of God as father and God as king, we may fail to note that being the Creator is also about being a writer, inscribing the fates of all human beings after considering them one by one.

But can we really think of God’s writing in the same terms as we think about human authorship? Rabbinic literature is no stranger to such analogies. “Were it not written, it would be impossible to say it,” the Talmud states on several occasions. This phrase is generally a prelude to a difficult theological concept which the rabbis try to root in a biblical verse. Since the concept has a basis in the written text, the rabbis argue, it has legitimacy no matter how brazen or outlandish it may seem. For instance, the rabbis in tractate Rosh Hashanah (17b) cite a biblical verse to prove that God wrapped God’s self in a prayer shawl and showed Moses the order of the prayer service. And so invoking this rabbinic phrase, I venture to make my own difficult theological claim, rooted in the imagery of the Unetaneh Tokef: The Creator is a writer, yes, but the writer is also a creator. The writer uses words to create worlds, just as God spoke the world into being during the six days when the world came into being. Creation through language is not a one-time event but the enterprise of all writers and poets throughout time.

The notion of the poet creating a world through language lies at the heart of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kublah Khan,” a poem about words and worlds and the struggle to write. In his preface, Coleridge explains that he wrote the poem one night after he fell asleep reading about Xanadu, the palace of the Mongol ruler Kublah Khan. He woke with a poetic vision of the palace, which he set about writing down, but he was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock and forgot the lines. The poem seeks to depict the glory of Xanadu while also capturing the poet’s despair at his inability to recreate that “stately pleasure dome” in words, including the damsel who appeared in his vision of the palace:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That 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!”

The poet wishes that he could revive the symphony he heard and recreate the vision of the palace he saw in his dream, so that he might make domes and caves out of the airy immateriality of language. He knows that words can have a dangerous world-creating power – the type of power that makes people cry out “Beware, beware!” But the vision fled and the words eluded him, so the poem remained merely, as Coleridge put it, “a fragment.”

Coleridge was devastated that he could not put his vision of the palace into language. He longed to recover the dream of the dome and the cave, but it proved as evanescent as a passing shadow, a vanishing cloud, a fleeting dream. Yet he captured that failure in language, and his own shortcoming became an inspiration for generations of writers. A century and a half later, the American poet Stevie Smith confessed in “Thoughts on the Person from Porlock” that she herself longs to be interrupted when writing:

I long for the Person from Porlock
To bring my thoughts to an end,
I am becoming impatient to see him
I think of him as a friend,

Often I look out of the window
Often I run to the gate
I think, He will come this evening,
I think it is rather late.

I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.

Often I’m also hungry to be interrupted so that I might do anything but write. I distract myself for hours—and sometimes even years—by translating and editing other people’s articles and books instead of writing my own. It is so much more satisfying and gratifying to help other people build their pleasure domes, and besides, my own poetic visions often seem hazy and fleeting amidst the sleep-deprived fog of parenting young children. I am convinced, like Coleridge, that I will be unable to revive them within me. But then each year, when Rosh Hashanah rolls around, I beat my breast for failing to nourish the divine spark within me.

Before Rosh Hashanah, God translates our actions into our destinies for the coming year. The way we act this year determines our fate in the coming year, and so when God writes us in the Book of Life, it is in some sense an act of translation. And it is an act of editing as well. On Yom Kippur God seals us in God’s book. The fate God decrees on Rosh Hashanah is re-considered during the Ten Days of Repentance. For ten days, God revisits and edits what God wrote on Rosh Hashanah before giving it the final seal on Yom Kippur. “Were it not written, it would be impossible to say it” – but it is written that we must be holy because God is holy, and the rabbis explain that God’s actions should be a model for our own. Even as a translator and editor – let alone as a counter of sheep – I am imitating the Creator.

According to the rabbis of the Talmud, the world was created on Rosh Hashanah. As we proclaim in the liturgy of the day, “today is the birthday of the world.” And so it seems appropriate that on Rosh Hashanah we think about what it means for us to be creators, and what prevents us from engaging in creative work. God knows what is in our hearts, but sometimes what is in our own heart eludes us, and it becomes all too easy to run away from the difficult work of identifying what we were uniquely meant to contribute to the world. May the one who creates and understands all hearts teach me to understand my own, so that I might begin again.

July Fourth: A Festival of Light

Daniel and I are often oblivious to American holidays. Inevitably we forget about Mother’s and Father’s Day until our siblings start sending messages to our parents and we realize that we ought to chime in; here in Israel we instead have Family Day, a Friday in the winter when parents are invited to the preschools to sit with their children on low chairs, painting and modelling clay or creating some other sort of visual representation of one’s family to hang on the refrigerator until it’s replaced by a Tu Bishvat tree with a toilet paper roll trunk. We generally forget about Halloween entirely, since our families don’t celebrate it, but some time in the middle of November we try to remember to ask our parents and siblings about their Thanksgiving plans. Some of our American-Israeli friends make turkey dinners for Thanksgiving, but we never have; there are enough Jewish holidays to cook for already, and I’m not voluntarily taking on more time in the kitchen.

The one exception is July 4th, which coincides nearly every year with the annual Jersualem light festival, a series of art installations illuminating the walls, towers, gates, and other architectural features in the Old City in vivid color. Although we rarely go out together once the kids are asleep, each year we have tried to set aside one evening to get a babysitter and walk the cobblestone streets holding hands, enjoying the cool evening breeze and taking in the spectacle – video installations, three-dimensional projections on the building facades, and, for the first time this year, a giant illuminated disco ball flashing atop a giant crane.

We’d asked our Roman Catholic Indian babysitter to stay with the kids that evening. She lives in the Christian quarter and had been lamenting to us all week that her neighborhood had become even more of a tourist attraction than usual. She told us which sites—or which sites transformed into sights—we must be sure not to miss. But the other equally important guide was Daniel, who walks to the Jewish Quarter every shabbat morning at dawn to daven at the Kotel and knows all the shortcuts and all the loose rocks. As he led me by the hand up the twisty path to ascend Mt. Zion, he commented that the lighting at dusk is similar to the lighting at dawn; he was accustomed to the shades of gray. I thought of “The City in Gray,” Naomi Shemer’s song about Paris, which I grew up listening to on my parents record player. I always assumed the song was about Jerusalem, since it was in Hebrew; I’m not sure why the mention of the wharf didn’t give me pause:

If you want, I will show you
Show the city in gray
Come and let us go strolling
On the paving stones…
You’ll cover your head with a kerchief
When I give you my hand
And we descend to the wharf.

We didn’t see a wharf and we didn’t see or any fireworks, though I’m told there were some, but the illuminated walls all around us felt like a fitting July 4th festival of light nonetheless. We took one of our first “selfies”—I’m not a fan of the genre—while posing in front of Damascus gate illuminated with a dark-and-light geometrical pattern that recalled the Alhambra, before winding our way through Muslim and ultra-Orthodox families to head to the next attraction. We were surprised to bump into the Torah scholar whose daf yomi classes I listen to every morning; she was visiting Jerusalem with her family for the festival. The book of Proverbs compares Torah to light (23:6), and we exchanged a few words of Torah against a backdrop of columns of neon light. We were learning tractate Erchin, which I joked is the one tractate in the Talmud that deals explicitly with human values – the tractate is about individuals who vow to dedicate their own monetary worth, or the monetary worth of another person, to the Temple. The third chapter, which we were in the midst of, has a long excursus on the dangers associated with lashon hara—evil speech, or slander—with a discussion of the sin of the spies who spoke negatively about the land of Israel they had been sent to scout out. “Tonight the land of Israel—at least this corner of it—is beautiful,” I commented, feeling grateful that unlike the spies and their generation, we had been granted the privilege of making our home here.

Our walk back took us through Gei ben Hinnom, the valley of Hinnom, also known as Gehenna – the valley of hell, which was notorious in biblical times as site of child sacrifice. “Oh look, the food trucks are back this year,” Daniel commented. We’d noted already a few years ago that throughout the summer months some of the more famous restaurants in Jerusalem had set up food trucks in the valley to sell their food at discounted prices. Daniel had asked me earlier that week if I had heard anything about the food truck festival this summer. I’d joked that while our American counterparts were wondering about whether Trump would indeed go ahead with his plan to station tanks on the National Mall as a sign of America’s military prowess on July 4th, we in Jerusalem were wondering whether the city would bring the food trucks in the valley of hell. “I guess they’re both intended to achieve the same effect,” I joked with Daniel. “Americans are supposed to stroll across the National Mall and feel safe and protected by the military, and we’re supposed to walk through the valley of shadows and fear no harm.” I was quoted Psalm 23 in Hebrew, but Daniel responded in English, “I will fear no harm because thy sushi and burgers are with me,” he said, and the melding of old and new in his diction reminded me of the incongruity of children buying hot dogs in what was formerly a site where children were sacrificed to pagan gods.

We came home and checked our phones to find pictures of our siblings’ kids dressed in red, white and blue watching the fireworks and participating in a sand castle competition, and the latest news reports telling of rockets fired at Beer Sheva. Our kids, still blissfully asleep beneath their whirling ceiling fans, know nothing of July 4th and nothing of the political tension. We’ve never been in the States on July 4th, and Jerusalem, in recent years, has been a relatively safe place. Daniel and I agree that when the kids are a little older and can stay up later, we’ll take them to the light show and perhaps even make our way to the fireworks display. I doubt the flares of light will be red, white, and blue, but as long as there are no tanks in sight, it’ll be reason enough to celebrate.

Sending My X-Rays to God

For as long as I can remember, I have brought books to read in synagogue. Concentrating on prayer has never come easily. I struggle to find meaning in the recitation of the same words day after day, and so inevitably at some point in the prayer service I reach down sheepishly into my bag, pull out my novel, and nestle it inside my siddur as discreetly as possible. Sometimes I turn around to check who is sitting in the row behind—I would not want to set a bad example for young children sitting attentively in shul with their parents—but what troubles me most is not the people who might be observing me, but the words embroidered in gold on the ark covering that hangs before me: “Know before Whom You Stand.”

We come to synagogue to stand before God. Prayer is an opportunity to engage with the divine — to speak, or whisper, our hopes and fears, acknowledge our mistakes, express our regrets, reflect on what makes us feel grateful, and thank God for our blessings. It is also an opportunity to reach within ourselves and ask the deep and difficult questions that often get lost in the rush of the urgent, the immediate, the mundane. To focus on our prayers is to try and formulate answers to some of life’s fundamental questions: What do I regret about my behavior this morning, yesterday, this past year, this past decade? What are my dreams for this next stage of life? What are my unique talents, and how can I use them to contribute to others around me? How would I like to see the world transformed?

Granted, there are many people who make time on a weekly or even a daily basis to think about these questions. They write in a journal every morning, or meditate alone in their bedrooms, or attend a yoga class, or go off on silent retreats. But as a lover of language and as someone who has always felt deeply at home in Jewish tradition, I have set myself the challenge of trying, at least for a few hours each week, to set aside my novel, open my siddur, and draw out the connections between my own inner world—my hopes, fears, dreams, regrets—and the words of the liturgy. The siddur is the language of the human heart. The Kotzker Rebbe famously teaches that we are commanded in the Shema prayer that “these words shall be on your heart” because if we place them on our heart, then in those moments when our hearts open, the words will fall in. My heart is not always open to prayer, but when it is, these are some of the words that have fallen in.

I thank you, living and eternal King, for giving me back my soul in mercy. Great is your faithfulness….

The moment I emerge from sleep is generally one of anxiety. I feel the stresses of the day that lies ahead – the decisions that must be made, the tasks that must be completed, the people who are awaiting a response. I reach for my phone to see who wants my attention or needs something of me, but in that moment before the artificial light of the backlit screen casts its glow in our still-dark bedroom, I restrain myself. There is enough to take in already—the early-morning light, the warm blanket pulled up to my neck, the beep of the neighbor’s van backing out just a few feet from my bedroom window. Before inviting more, I want to turn back to those pre-sensory moments, when my eyes have not yet opened and the weight of the day has not yet descended on me. My soul shrinks from all that it has just remembered, from what poet Richard Wilbur describes as “the punctual rape of every blessed day.” I want to return to those untarnished moments when I can see the light only because I feel it dancing on my still-shut eyelids.

Wilbur imagines that the soul wakes up before the body and descends reluctantly to accept its physical form, like the air filling the blouses and bedsheets fluttering on a laundry line on a windy day. As Wilbur would have it, every day begins with the soul’s bitter disappointment at having to assume physical form once again. But the earliest Jewish prayers recited in the morning regard the restoration of the soul to the body as an occasion for gratitude and hope. And so I try to remember to utter these words before opening my eyes and before the anxiety sets in. Reciting these words serves to ward off the dread – there may be much that concerns and distresses me about the day that is dawning, but thank God I am alive to face that day. And thank God for having faith in me and deeming me deserving of yet another day.

Mornings in our home are never easy. There seems no point in setting an alarm, because one of the children will inevitably jump into our beds at the crack of dawn. My daughter Liav is generally the first to wake up –she comes into our room as soon as she sees the first rays of sunlight peeking under the bottom of her shade and snuggles under the covers with us. She knows that in our family, individual attention is hard to come by – especially since she is a twin and she shares her bedroom (and her bedtime routine) with her sister. So she has learned to steal the pre-dawn hours for herself.

Soon it is time to wake the other kids. I tread softly into their rooms and open the shades, flooding their room with light. I try not to speak a single “secular” word before singing to them the Modeh Ani prayer: “I thank you, living and eternal King…” I want my children to wake up in gratitude. Afterwards I can tell them to get dressed and make their beds and not to forget to brush their teeth. All that can wait. Better that their first image should be one of the soul descending into the body to allow another day of potential and possibility. Better that they, unlike me, should wake each day in hope and not in anxiety.

Modeh Ani is a relatively late addition to the Jewish liturgy – it is first found in prayer books from the sixteenth century. But it echoes many of the themes of Elohai Neshama, a prayer mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and included at the very beginning of the siddur:

My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure.
You formed it within me,
You breathed it in me,
and You guard it while it is within me.
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come.
As long as the soul is within me, I thank You
O Lord my God and God of my ancestors,
Master of all worlds
Lord of all souls.
Blessed are You O Lord,
Who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

David Abudraham, a fourteenth-century Sephardi commentator on the siddur, points out that each line in this prayer echoes a biblical verse. The opening lines, about God fashioning our souls, hearkens back to the sixth day of creation, when God created Adam and breathed the spirit of life in him. Every morning hearkens back to the creation of the world. We wake up and our souls are placed back inside us in much the same way that God first breathed life into Adam’s nostrils. “My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure” – as if every night God launders each soul and returns it clean and fresh. Abudraham connects the notion that “You formed it in me” to a verse from Zecharia (12:1): “The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person.” The Hebrew term used for “spirit” is ruach, which also means wind. The spirit fills the body much like the wind filling the clothing on Wilbur’s laundry line, and once animate again, the body can move and dance like the laundry in the breeze.

“One day You will take it from me,” we acknowledge in Elohei Neshama. Abudraham links this line to a verse from Ecclesiastes: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to God Who gave it.” We remind ourselves of our mortality immediately upon awakening because if our lives were not bounded—if we had all the time in the world—then we might be tempted to crawl back under the covers and do nothing at all. Like many parents, I am constrained by my children’s school hours, yet without that time pressure, I might never get anything done. It is the knowledge of how short the day is that propels us forward. We speak the words of Elohai Neshama to remind ourselves that we cannot know how many mornings we have left—we don’t know how many more times God will faithfully restore our souls to our bodies. But we have been granted this morning on this day in this life, and so let us arise and embrace it.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe
Who has not made me a heathen.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe
Who has not made me a slave.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe
Who has not made me a woman. (Women say: Who has made me according to His plan.) (Alternative version: Who has made me in His image.)

In the traditional liturgy the morning benedictions begin with three blessings of personal status in which we thank God for not making us who we are not – a heathen, a slave, and a woman. More progressive prayer books word these blessings in the positive form – thanking God for making us a Jew, a free person, and someone created in God’s image. But the shadow of their precursors enables us to appreciate the fates we have been spared.

One morning when I was in a synagogue that follows the traditional liturgy, I heard the male prayer leader recite the words, “Who has not made me a woman.” At the time I was five months pregnant – I had just begun feeling the baby kick, and though I did not yet know that she would be a girl, I could swear that the fetus thrashed violently in response to hearing the words of that blessing. And I recoiled as well, not in disgust but in surprise. I realized for the first time that the prayer I ought to be saying every morning was not thanking God for making me according to His plan—which suggests a sort of second best—or even thanking God for making me in His image, a prayer that both men and women can recite together. Rather, I wanted to thank God for making me a woman.

So many of my most profound spiritual experiences would not have been possible if I had been born male. In carrying human life inside me and bringing children into the world, I have felt closest to God as creator. I’ve prayed with the most intention and fervor throughout my pregnancies, conscious of how much was beyond my control even as it is was taking place just millimeters beneath the surface of my skin. Especially in those early months, I could not know with any certainty from hour to hour if the baby inside me was healthy, or even still alive. In moments of doubt or concern, there was nothing to do but place my hand on my belly and plead with God. And then, on those most joyous days of my life, amidst the terror and elation of birthing my children, I felt so blessed to have this role as God’s partner in creation. The Talmud describes the terror and elation with which the high priest entered and exited the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, with the whole nation waiting outside in fear and trepidation. It is not an experience any woman will ever have, let alone a woman living in the modern era—but in giving birth, I feel I have been granted a glimpse of that sacred enclosure.

Had I been born in the era of Temple worship, presumably I would have a different attitude. After all, for much of human history, the vast majority of women experienced a clear social and political disadvantage. Think of Virginia Woolf at Oxbridge, who was sternly reminded that “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.” When reciting the morning benedictions, I think about not just how grateful I am to have been spared the fate of being someone I am not, but also about how fortunate I am to have been spared the fate of being born a woman in virtually any other era. I am blessed to be a Jewish woman in the twenty-first century, when the texts I love studying and the religious roles that infuse my life with meaning are freely accessible to both men and women. Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made me a Jew, and a free person, and a woman of our time.

A psalm of David… I will exalt You, Lord, for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me. Lord, my God, I cried to You for help and You healed me. Lord, You lifted my soul from the grave, You spared me from going down to the pit…. At night there is weeping, but in the morning there is joy… You have turned my sorrow into dancing. You have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may sing to You and not be silent. (Psalm 30)

This psalm transports me to one of the darkest and bleakest moments in my life, when I was deep in the pit. Recently divorced at age 26, my life had been completely derailed. I wasn’t sure where I should be living—on one side of the Atlantic, where I’d grown up, or on the other side, where I’d recently made my home—and I was in between jobs, trying to distract myself with freelance gigs while fretting about the future. Then one day I had coffee with a friend who looked me squarely in the eye and told me something that has stayed with me. It was a platitude, and I’m almost ashamed to admit what an impact it had on me, despite my scorn for self-help literature and my snobbish insistence that the best advice for how to live one’s life can be found in the novels of George Eliot. And yet there I was, profoundly shaken when my friend told me, quite simply, that the only constant in life is change.

My friend went on. Everything in life is in flux; our reality is never static and unchanging. And given how horrible I was feeling then, she said, chances were that with time I would feel better. She made me feel so much more hopeful. To be in the pit does not mean that we will forever be in the pit. If we are wearing sackcloth now—it was so hard, in those days, to even get dressed in the morning—there is always the hope, and possibility, that at some time in the future we will be clothed in joy. (I was glad, six years later, that I had saved my wedding dress.) And though every night I wept, perhaps at some point for me, as for the psalmist, the morning would bring joy.

The sentiments expressed by the psalmist are echoed in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate…

The speaker is in distress and cries out to God, cursing his sorrowful fate. By the end of the poem, though, the thought of his beloved and her “sweet love” brings him such joy that he avows that he would “scorn to change my state with kings.” Since that moment in the café with my friend, I have recited Psalm 30 thousands of times in my morning prayers. In moments of joy it has served as a humbling reminder that surely there are others whose distress I can help alleviate; and in moments of sadness, it has reminded me that this too shall pass.

Happy are those who dwell in Your House…
The Lord is close to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth. (Psalm 140-145)

I have a hard time making time for prayer. In the mornings I am always in a rush to start my day, and so generally I pray while walking to work. In the afternoons, when I am counting down the minutes until I have to pick up the kids, I am loath to interrupt my work to take a few minutes for minchah. And at night, by the time the kids are in bed, I collapse in exhaustion and cannot imagine standing up before God in prayer.

Every so often, though, I am reminded of why it is so important to pray regularly, even when it’s the last thing I want to do. When we pray regularly, we ensure that we have an open channel of communication with God. To invoke a modern metaphor, we might say that by engaging in daily prayer, we ensure that God is always at the top of our Contacts list, so that in moments of acute distress, when we need to cry out, we don’t have to start searching for God’s contact information. Nor do we have to start with a long and awkward preamble, the way we might if, say, we broke a bone and called a distant orthopedist friend: “Hi John, I know we haven’t been in touch in decades, but we went to college together, you know, I was friends with Steve and Linda…. Anyway, I’m calling because I think I have broken my arm, and I’m wondering if I could send you the x-ray.” When we speak to God on a regular basis, God knows who we are and we know how to talk to God, and so God will be close when we cry out in our brokenness.

Over time I have developed a deep appreciation for the transformative power of prayer, and yet even so, I continue to bring novels with me to synagogue. Sometimes I simply don’t want to confront my own inner demons and desires, and I’d rather lose myself in someone else’s fictional world. Other times I am tired of reciting the same words day after day—I don’t know what will happen on the next page of my novel, but in the siddur I don’t expect to find surprises. And then I’ll be sitting there absorbed in my book and hear the prayer leader recite a phrase that jumps out at me, catches hold of me, and perhaps even takes my breath away, and I return to the siddur with renewed determination to lose myself—and ultimately find myself—in its pages. I surrender to the inevitable moments of monotony with the faith that in the boredom comes the unbidden. I know that the siddur will never have the same appeal as a novel, but I hold out hope that by integrating the person I am into the liturgy each day, I can find my own way to make the ancient prayers and blessings feel just a bit more novel.