In Frankenstein’s Monster’s Suitcase

We are traveling to America for a month-long visit to our parents, whom we haven’t seen in nearly two years on account of the pandemic. Daniel was insistent that we pack lightly. We wanted to take the bus to the train to the airport, and so we could only carry as many suitcases as we had kids to push them. But that meant a limit on books. I would have to choose selectively.

Once most of our clothes were packed, I examined our suitcases to see how much space remained. I stuffed a pile of paperback Hebrew historical novels for the kids–in case they strike and refuse to read in English–in between between balls of socks and my daughters’ assorted bathing suit tops and bottoms that I hope matched closely enough. But then I noticed that half the suitcase was taken up by Yitzvi’s soft blue furry blanket. It’s thick and warm, but he sleeps with it year-round, regardless of the weather. At night he tells us he is tired by tugging out the blanket from in between the wooden bars of his crib, folding it onto the floor into a bundle, and laying down on top like Harry the Dirty Dog curled atop his mattress. But the blanket is thick and bulky and I know we’re tight on space. Why does it make it into the suitcase when so much else does not?

I held up the blanket to Daniel, raising my eyebrows questioningly. “We really need this?” I asked him.

“So that Yitzvi will have something familiar with him, even though he’ll be sleeping in so many strange places – on the airplane. In the airport. In my mom’s house. In your parents’ house. This way, wherever he goes, he’ll have his blanket.”

I understood Daniel’s point. Yitzvi has never been attached to a doll or a stuffed animal – his security blanket is quite literally a blanket. There was no sense, now two days before our trip, in trying to help him grow attached to something that would take up less luggage space. But I was pretty sure I had a better idea.

Yitzvi has three books that we read almost every night before bed. I proposed to Daniel that we pack those instead. “This way, he’ll have something familiar, something that reminds him of home.” Daniel raised his eyebrows quizzically. “Don’t you think my mom has Good Night Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Bringing those books to America is like, well, carrying coals to Newcastle.”

“Bringing straw to Ofarim, you mean.” I’m convinced every language has a version of that phrase. The medieval commentator Rashi (Menachot 85a) contends that when Moshe demonstrated various signs and wonders to Pharaoh in an attempt to convince him that he was sent by God, Pharaoh responded dismissively, telling Moshe that bringing magic to Egypt was like bringing straw to Ofarim. Egypt was famous for its magic; it didn’t need foreign imports. Ofarim was apparently as famous for its straw as Newcastle was for its coal.

“Anyway, it’s not like that,” I insisted. “I mean, we could find these books in America, but we couldn’t find our copies.” I held up Goodnight Moon, with the missing spine and the waterlogged pages. This is actually the second copy we’ve owned – we had one for the first three kids, but at some point it split in half, and in spite of several attempts to cover the spine in masking tape and re-bind the first and second parts, the book continued to split, and inevitably I’d be rushing to get Shalvi into bed, unable to locate one of the halves, until finally I bought a new copy. We’ve kept the broken copy too, as a back-up, just in case we can’t locate its replacement. The rabbis of the Talmud teach that after Moshe shattered the first set of the Ten Commandments, they were placed in the ark alongside the new set. So many of our memories are bound up in our brokenness, like the stories with which we caption each of our bruises and scars.

Daniel consented to let me take Goodnight Moon, along with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and a Hebrew classic children’s book entitled A Tale of Five Balloons, by Miriam Roth. As I placed them in the suitcase, I was reminded of my favorite part of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, famous as a novel about a nineteenth-century scientist—the titular character—who creates a hideous monster and then flees from his creation. The monster leaves the laboratory and makes a home for himself in an abandoned structure in the wilderness. There he teaches himself to read using a satchel of books he stumbles upon. The books teach the monster not just how to read, but how to read the world: how to understand human emotions, and the human mind, and the complexity of the world he has been created into. Shelley—being a writer’s writer—tells us which books they are, and it’s clear she has selected them deliberately, with great care. They constitute her sense of a complete education, or the most complete education one could get from three works of literature alone.

Frankenstein’s monster reads Paradise Lost, the Sorrows of Young Werther, and Plutarch’s Lives. They are not books I could ever read to Yitzvi, not for at least another fifteen years, and I doubt I ever will. But in a sense each book I packed for Yitzvi has its equivalent in one of the books stumbled upon by Frankenstein’s Monster – they are, in a sense, the board book version.

Goodnight Moon is a Paradise Lost of sorts, an affecting poetic description of a fallen world. Unlike Milton, Margaret Wise Brown is not retelling the story of the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their subsequent fall from grace. Hers is a repetitive bedtime story of a rabbit falling asleep in a large furnished bedroom with a window looking out to the starry sky. But when refracted through the Talmudic imagination, Goodnight Moon becomes a version of Paradise Lost. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) teaches that when Adam saw that the days were growing shorter with the approach of the world’s first winter, he grew terribly frightened: “Perhaps because I sinned, the world is growing dark all around me, and will return to a state of chaos and disorder?” Adam, never having experienced winter, assumed that the whole world was an extension of himself and was being punished on his account. It was a sort of pathetic fallacy, a literary term for the attribution of human qualities to things found in nature that are not in fact human. With each shorter day, time seemed to be closing in on him, as if the newly-created world were soon to cease. Was the onset of darkness a sign that the world was coming to an end?

For a baby, every nightfall is a paradise lost. It marks the end of a wondrous Edenic daytime spent playing with abandon, delighting in one new discovery after another, and frolicking in an illuminated world. When night falls, the child is placed in a room, sometimes even all alone by himself; even if the little old lady whispering hush is in her rocking chair, she will not be there all night; she vanishes on the book’s final darkened page. The window is illuminated by moonlight and twinkling stars, but after the child takes its leave from all the items that are so delightful in daytime—the kittens and mittens, the toyhouse and mouse, the bears and the chairs—the lamp ceases to cast its glow. The baby falling asleep at night, like Adam in the antediluvian world, has not seen enough sunsets to understand that this just the way of the world, and that darkness will inevitably be followed by dawn. No wonder babies wail at night – how terrifying to fall asleep when it seems the world is drawing to a dark and frightful close.

Yitzvi can identify nearly every item in Goodnight Moon, though unlike Frankenstein’s monster, his three books are unlikely to teach him to read. He points to the comb and the brush, and even to nobody, and the mush. The only objects he confuses are the moon and the red balloon, which don’t look all that different – both are round, and they’re about the same size. The balloon is like a moon closer to home, still high above but accessible with the tug of a string. In spite of the disappointments of nightfall—the lost paradise of sunlight and daytime—at least the balloon in Goodnight Moon never pops. The same cannot be said for the other balloon book I read him every night.

A Tale of Five Balloons by Miriam Roth is arguably one of the most famous Israeli children’s books of all time. The five balloons—green, yellow, purple, blue, red—are the only color illustrations in the otherwise black-and-white pages. When the book opens, Ruti’s mother brings a present – five balloons, one for each delighted child. But joy is followed by a series of disappointments. Uri runs and jumps with his green balloon until it suddenly falls on a thornbush and is punctured. Ron’s yellow balloon is blown up so large that it pops. Sigalit’s balloon is torn apart by a cat’s claws. Ruti hugs her blue balloon so tightly that it rips and pops. “Don’t be sad,” each child is told in sing-song Hebrew rhyme. “That’s the fate of all balloons.” And yet each child is crushed by the loss. Uri places his head in his hands, Ron clings to his father’s legs for comfort, Sigalit leans down sorrowfully to pick up the broken pieces, Ruti peers upwards with lips pursed in grief and lamentation. This may be the fate of all balloons, but it doesn’t make it easier when it’s your balloon that pops.

A Tale of Five Balloons teaches that disappointment is an inevitable part of life, and that love carries with it the risk of loss. This is also the lesson of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s eighteenth-century German classic about a passionate young man devastated by his unrequited love for Charlotte, who is engaged to another man. Werther cannot keep away from Charlotte and every encounter with the woman forbidden to him further deflates him, until ultimately he writes a note saying that he is going away on a journey, and takes his own life in desperation.

Instead of popping like all the others, the fifth balloon in Miriam Roth’s children’s book, the red one, goes on a journey. A strong wind suddenly blows it up, up to the clouds, as all the children watch and wave goodbye. For the first time, they are able to take their leave from one of the balloon, whose departure is less sudden than all the others. Loss is often deeply painful, and yet sometimes it is easier when we have the chance to say goodbye. The children do not relinquish the last balloon on their own terms, and yet this loss feels less like something that happens to them, and more like something they can take part in – analogous, perhaps, to young Werther’s decision to take his own life after he is unable to cope with all the disappointments that have befallen him.

“That’s the fate of all balloons,” the refrain in Miriam Roth’s balloon tale, is also the universal human refrain – we are all born, and at some point we all die. That’s the fate of all humanity, as dictated by God in the garden of Eden. Werther’s sorrows, like the punctured balloons, are all corollaries of a lost paradise.

In this sense, perhaps, the third book that Frankenstein’s monster reads to learn about the world is the opposite of the other two. Plutarch’s Lives is a series of biographies of famous Greek and Roman men, showcasing their virtues and their capacity for transformation. It is less a book about death than about how various great individuals embraced life at particular moments in history. I don’t read Yitzvi any biographies, but he does hear the story of a life transformed each time I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar – in which the little egg laying on the leaf eats more and more every day until he simply can’t eat anymore, and he builds himself a cocoon, from which he emerges transformed. Eating is an affirmation of life, and eating to grow larger and stronger is in large part the job of a baby or small child. “You have to eat so you can grow big and strong and do great things,” we tell Yitzvi. We want him to know that if he embraces life he will be able to transform himself, like a caterpillar turned into a butterfly, or a laboratory experiment turned into a sentient being.

Shelley writes that Frankenstein’s monster discovers the three books in a leathern portmanteau, which is essentially a large suitcase. I pack Yitzvi’s three books at the very top of our suitcase, so we can retrieve them as soon as we land in the evening and I try—in spite of the jet lag—to get him to bed. I hope that with each subsequent rereading, he internalizes their messages: Inevitably night falls, but it’s not the end of the world. All life is marked by disappointment. But if we embrace the time and opportunities we have been given, our lives can be as majestic and dazzling as the multi-colored butterfly whose wings span the final two pages. I hope that Yitzvi will learn these lessons from more sophisticated works of literature someday—from Milton, or Goethe, or Plutarch, perhaps. For the time being, though, I’m content to populate his imagination with colorful balloons, an egg on a leaf, and quiet old lady whose wisdom reverberates beneath the whisper of her hush.

Devarim: Not Just a Second Torah

With this week’s parashah we begin Sefer Devarim, the final book of the Torah and the one referred to by the Talmudic rabbis as Mishneh Torah – a second Torah (see, for instance, Berakhot 21b, based on Deut 17:18). The Tosafot explain that the book of Devarim is referred to as such because “it reviews and repeats what came previously” (Tosafot on Gittin 2a). Most of the book consists of Moshe’s summation of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the Israelites’ desert wanderings. And yet as our parashah demonstrates, Sefer Devarim is more of an interpretation than a repetition, raising questions about the extent to which all memory is selective, all repetition is commentary, and, as William Faulkner famously put it, “the past is never truly past.”

Moshe begins his final address to the people by reviewing several episodes from the previous three books of the Bible, including the appointment of magistrates to help Moshe judge the people, the sending of spies to scout out the land of Canaan, and the journey through the lands belonging to the Moabites and Amorites. In each case, Moshe offers a slightly different take on these events than the one found earlier in the Torah. For instance, while in the book of Numbers it is God who tells Moshe to send out spies, here in Deuteronomy, Moshe states that it was the Israelites who had the idea to send out spies, implying that the people were to blame for the crisis of confidence that followed the spies’ return. Here as elsewhere, Moshe refracts the events of the past through the lens of his own perspective, commenting and critiquing rather than just repeating and reviewing. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that in introducing Moshe’s address, the Torah explicitly describes it as commentary rather than repetition: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound (ba’er) this teaching” (1:5). Moshe is not merely chronicling all that came before, but “expounding” a teaching, interpreting the past so as to glean lessons and insights from it.

Invoking this verse, the Talmud in Sotah (35b) teaches that Moshe reviewed the Torah by inscribing its words on stones in the land of Moab so as to teach them to the people – sort of like writing on a giant blackboard for all the people to see and learn. The midrashic rabbis explain that Moshe told the people that he was near death, and so this was their chance to make sure they had learned the entire Torah. Anyone who had not mastered a particular verse, he told them, should come forward so that he might repeat that verse for them. To the extent that Moshe repeated the Torah in his final address, it was a repetition tailored to the specific needs of each individual, filling in the gaps in his or her memory. As these sources suggest, Moshe’s goal was not merely to repeat what had come before, but to ensure that the people had internalized the Torah’s lessons.

The rabbinic understanding of Sefer Devarim as Moshe’s attempt to teach and comment on Torah is also evident from the way the midrash reads the opening verses of the parashah. In the Sifrei, an early midrash from the first couple of centuries of the Common Era, the rabbis note the abundance of place names invoked in introducing Moshe’s address: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, through the wilderness in the Aravah near Suf, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazerot, and Di Zahav” (1:1-2). They explain that the Torah mentions all these places because Moshe, in his address, was rebuking the people for their behavior in each location: “In the desert” they sinned by complaining to Moshe that they wished they had returned to Egypt; “in the Aravah” they whored with Moabite women; “near Suf” they rebelled at the Red Sea; “between Paran and Tophel” they complained about the manna, etc. According to this understanding, Moshe, in reviewing the Israelites’ itinerary, was also critiquing the people for their behavior, suggesting that what seems to be a mere litany was in fact laced with commentary and critique.

The very first words Moshe speaks to the people in our parashah—the words with which he opens his final address—also indicate that Moshe was offering an account of the past that reflected his own preoccupations. We might have expected him to start at the very beginning, with the inauguration of his own prophetic career at the burning bush, or with the story of the flight from Egypt. But instead, Moshe seems to start in media res: “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb saying: ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country” (1:7). Moshe begins his address by quoting God’s charge to the people to depart from Sinai, suggesting that this was a key moment in Moshe’s understanding of the events of the past. Perhaps for Moshe, the departure from Sinai represented the first time the people had to learn to take Torah with them. Having just received the Torah at Sinai, the people who traveled away from the mountain had to find a way to carry Torah inside of themselves and ensure that it became a part of them once the fiery experience of revelation was over. This is also the challenge that Moshe faces when he expounds on the Torah in Sefer Devarim: How can he review and teach Torah in a way that the people will remember it and will carry it around with them always?

As Moshe understood, when we interpret Torah from our perspective and through the lens of our experience, we ensure that it remains relevant and vital. When Moshe “expounds” on Torah in the book of Deuteronomy, he is not merely reviewing the past; he is also showing us how the past continues to shape us. As we learn from Moshe’s final address, the way we remember our history and the way we retell our stories determines the people we are today, and the people we will become.

Fainting is Romantic. Washing Dishes is Not.

In our reading of Anne of Green Gables, we keep encountering the word “romantic,” and each time the girls ask me to clarify what exactly it means. The only time we had come across the word before was in our reading of Sunrise, Sunset, a beautiful picture book adaptation of the song from Fiddler on the Roof which Daniel and I received as a baby gift when Matan was born. The text of the book is comprised of the words of the song, accompanied by illustrations of Tevye’s oldest daughter Tzeitel and the little boy, Motel, who starts out as her playmate and becomes first her lover, then her husband, and then the father of their beaming little baby. But there is one two-page spread that has no words. I know I ought to pause there and just let the kids take in the magnificent field of sunflowers where Tzeitel and Motel dance together in the joy of their blossoming young love, but instead each time I sigh and say, “So romantic.”

Back when I read this book to the twins, they were too young to realize that these pages actually don’t have any words, and that I was making them up. Back then, “romantic” was one of the many English words we encountered in literature that they didn’t understand, and they never bothered to ask me what it meant. But one time when we received the gift of a bouquet of sunflowers from a visiting houseguest, the girls were reminded of “Sunrise, Sunset” and pronounced that the flowers were “so romantic.” Our guest—a former student of Daniel’s who needed a place to stay overnight for a local celebration—was understandably puzzled. What had Daniel told the kids about faculty-student relations?

By now the girls know that “romantic” is not about sunflowers—or not necessarily about sunflowers, perhaps I should say—but they can’t figure out what exactly it means. Anne tells Marilla she wants to be called Cordelia because it’s such a more romantic name; Anne, she insists, is terribly unromantic. “Is Liav a romantic name?” my daughter asks me. For a moment I try to imagine Liav standing in a field of sunflowers with a young man holding her arms and gazing into her eyes lovingly, whispering, “Oh, Liav.” Falling in love and experiencing the joy of requited love while still young is one of the life’s greatest blessings, regardless of what ultimately comes of the relationship; I fervently pray that it happens for all my children. But Liav is eight years old, which is not what I mean by young. Is Liav a romantic name? Someday it might be, I hope.

“My life is a graveyard of buried hopes,” Anne tells Marilla when she realizes that she may not be allowed to stay at Green Gables after all. When Marilla objects to Anne’s description, Anne tells her that it’s the most romantic way she can think of to comfort herself. “Oh, so romantic means sad,” Tagel tells me. “Like when you’re really disappointed, that’s romantic. Is that right?” Liav tries to connect it to what we read the previous day. “So Anne is a sad name? Really?”

I appeal to Daniel, who is teaching a class on the British Romantics this semester. He tells me that that romantic “with a small r” means guided by sense rather than sensibility. Anne is romantic because she’s governed by her feelings and passions, unlike Marilla, who is primarily guided by reason and practicality. That makes sense, so to speak, and it accords with the dichotomy between Anne and Marilla throughout the book, but I’m not sure it’s something I can explain to Liav and Tagel, who are still years off from reading Sense and Sensibility, let alone the British Romantics. Besides, I’m forever telling them to think before they act, and not to lash out at their younger sister just because they’re frustrated. “Don’t let your emotions get the better of you,” I tell them. But how does that accord with Anne’s valorization of romanticism? Do we all become less romantic as we age? I don’t think I want to know the answer.

When Anne is in the depths of despair because Marilla has told her she can’t go to the school picnic, Anne declares she can’t eat dinner; as she tells Marilla, boiled pork and greens are so unromantic. No sooner do I finish the sentence than I rush to ward off the inevitable. “No,” I pre-empt the girls. “Unromantic does not mean it’s not kosher. I mean, yes, boiled pork is not kosher, that’s true. But it’s also a boring, ordinary food, and Anne wants to eat something unusual when her feelings are so….deep.” I tell them. I explain that’s also why she insists she can’t wash the dishes when she’s so excited about the prospect of a reunion with her best friend Diana; washing the dishes is so unromantic, as she tells Marilla. I try to explain to the girls that romantic is the opposite of the ordinary and the everyday; it’s about something special, idealized, and infused with great feeling.

The next day Daniel wakes up early to exercise on our porch, and then he heads straight to minyan, without drinking. He comes home and tells me he fainted during the silent Amidah prayer, and the other men revived him with a drink of water. “Anne says fainting is very romantic,” Liav informs us all knowingly, and it’s true; Anne tells Marilla that she wishes she could faint because it would be awfully romantic. (Later when she falls off the ridgepole and actually faints from the pain, she changes her mind.) Maybe the girls think that Daniel fainted because he was so overcome by powerful emotion when he was davening. In any case, they seem far less concerned than I am, which is not a bad thing.

I wonder whether the girls understand the connection between romance and love. Anne tells Marilla that Lover’s Lane—which is what she calls the Birch Path—is such a romantic name, and she declares that her classmate Ruby Gillis’ sister’s marriage proposal is insufficiently romantic. But Anne herself does not fall in love until the third book, when she receives marriage proposals from the right man, then the wrong man, and then the right man once again. I don’t plan to read that book to my girls for a while. When I read them All-of-a-Kind-Family two years ago, back when they were six, we stopped before the final book about Ella, because I decided they were too young to appreciate the romance between Ella and Jules. I feel the same way about the later books in the Anne series. We will read them. There will be romance in my girls’ future. But not yet.

Yitzvi Runs Away

Yitzvi, at age two, is increasingly light on his feet. He enjoys running around the house and hiding in closets and under tables, waiting for us to discover him and then squealing in visible delight when we do. “Where’s Yitzvi?” I’ll ask the twins while we are in the kitchen making pizza, spreading tomato sauce over the dough. The girls will shrug their shoulders, and I’ll run down the hall and discover him “cleaning” the toilet, one hand in the bowl and the other wielding a dripping toilet brush. “Oh Yitzvi,” I’ll sigh, my exasperation tinged with obvious amusement as I lift him up to wash and soap his hands. “What are we going to do with you?”

Usually at bedtime he will sit on Shalvi’s bed flipping through board books while I read Shalvi a story or two, but last night he had no interest in sitting still. I let him run off, assuming he would join Daniel, who was cleaning up dinner.
That night Shalvi wanted to read Alfie Runs Away, the story of a little boy about Shalvi’s age—five, maybe six—who informs his mother that he is going to run away after she tells him that she is giving away his favorite red shoes, which he has outgrown. His mother is wise enough to know not to stop him. She is wiser, for sure, than the mother of the Runaway Bunny, who follows her charge to streams and trees and hidden gardens. Instead of chasing him, or telling him not to run away—which would of course only encourage him further—she advises him to take the proper provisions: a water bottle in case he gets thirsty, a flashlight with extra batteries in case it gets dark, peanut butter and crackers in case he gets hungry, and a bag to carry it all. He also takes his stuffed Buddy Bear after his mother warns him that the bear might miss him, and three books, including one about a toad and a frog.

“Ima, we have that book,” Shalvi interrupts me. We squint to try to make out the picture of the book that Alfie stuffs in his back. Is it indeed a book from the same Frog and Toad series we love? I decide it must be, if only because we relish these moments of intertextual allusion, when we discover one beloved book hiding in the pages of another. It’s like discovering a familiar friend in an unexpected place, like the time we ran into one of Shalvi’s preschool classmates at the zoo. Who would have thought we’d stumble upon Frog and Toad in Alfie Runs Away?

Just before Alfie heads out the door, his unwieldy sac on his back, his mother offers to put a hug in the bag as well. Alfie tells her she is being silly, but he doesn’t resist. He steps onto the back porch, goes down the stairs, and decides his back is getting too heavy, so he camps out in the backyard with Buddy Bear. They stay there for a while, reading stories as the sun sinks lower in the sky.

Alfie never gets any further than the back yard. When he starts to get lonely, he looks for his mother’s hug in the bag, but of course it’s not there. Just then his mother—once again with her impeccable intuition—comes out to give Alfie a real hug and escort him home. And so the back yard functions as a safe space where Alfie can play at running away without any of the dangers that really doing so might entail. There are no streets to cross. There are no strangers to encounter. There is no getting lost. I am tempted to ask Shalvi if she’s ever wanted to run away, but I realize I don’t have to. The book can function, for Shalvi, like Alfie’s back yard – it is a safe space where she can imagine running away without actually having to do so. So I don’t ask, but I’m relieved when she tells me anyway that if she ever ran away, she would make sure to come home for dinner. “Thank goodness,” I tell her, taking my cues from Alfie’s mother. “If you ran away for longer than that, I would miss you too much.”

In the end of the book Alfie decides to put his old shoes on Buddy Bear, since they’ll never grow too small for the stuffed animal. Ironically once Alfie agrees to get new shoes, he’ll be able to run even faster and even further, and perhaps it was his ambivalence about that prospect that in part motivated his running away in the first place. The midrash on the book of Genesis teaches that after Joseph’s brothers threw Joseph into a pit, they sold him to Ishmaelite traders for the price of a pair of shoes, and I’ve always wondered if this was a testament to their own desire to walk away from the crime. Alfie wishes to walk away from his mother, but in order to do so, he’s going to need to agree to give up his old shoes and get new ones.

When Shalvi and I finish the story, I tell her it’s time to read to Yitzvi – except that Yitzvi is nowhere to be found. “Daniel, I’m coming to get Yitzvi,” I call down the hall, but alas, no.
“YItzvi’s with you, isn’t he?” Daniel calls back a bit louder than necessary, since I’m now in the kitchen next to him, and I can see that Yitzvi is nowhere in sight. “Did we lose Yitzvi?” I ask. The kids rally to the task, searching for him in all the likeliest places, but alas, no Yitzvi. I know there is no point in calling out his name, because that will only encourage him to play along. And sure enough, moments later, we discover a grinning Yitzvi perched on a chair on our porch wearing only a diaper and sandals. Who knew he could open the porch door all on his own? He has a pacifier in his mouth and two in his hand; with the other hand he’s strapping and unstrapping the Velcro on his sandals, as if contemplating how far they might take him someday. “Oh Yitzvi,” I sigh once again, and carry him off to bed. Next time I’ll be sure to read Alfie Runs Away to Yitzvi, too.

Why Should We Be Excluded? (Pinchas)

Our parashah introduces the five daughters of Tzlofchad, who petition Moshe to be allowed to inherit a portion in the land of Israel after their father died leaving no male heir. Moshe takes their case before God, who rules that “the plea of Tzlofchad’s daughters is indeed just” (Numbers 27:7), and they should receive a hereditary portion of land among their father’s clan. While the valor and eloquence these daughters demonstrate in the biblical text is laudable in its own right, the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash shower them in praise, offering them as a timeless example of what it means to speak out against injustice and stand up for ourselves.

The Talmud in Bava Batra, in the context of the laws of inheritance, declares that “the daughters of Tzlofchad are wise, they are interpreters of verses, and they are righteous” (Bava Batra 119b). The rabbis then proceed to demonstrate how the daughters displayed each of these virtues. First, they were wise in that they presented their case before Moshe at an auspicious time. They waited until Moshe, who was in the midst of teaching Torah to the people, came to the laws of levirate marriage, in which a man dies leaving no son to inherit him and his brother marries his widow to perpetuate the name of the deceased. It was then that they interjected, making their case about perpetuating their late father’s name. The daughters knew that to effect change, it is important to wait for the right moment to come forth and speak up; getting the timing wrong may mean losing the chance of being heard. And so they patiently waited until Moshe was most likely to be receptive to their plea. The daughters’ patience is also evident from the Talmud’s discussion of their righteousness, which the rabbis attribute to their willingness to wait to get married until they found suitable partners. According to the Talmud, none of the five daughters married before age forty, at which point they were blessed with many children; here, too, they recognized the value of waiting until the time was right.

As the daughters of Tzlofchad knew, successfully effecting change is not just about auspicious timing, but also about arming oneself with knowledge so as to make an informed case. The rabbis in Bava Batra, in explaining how the daughters were “interpreters of verses,” relate that they were sufficiently well-versed in the laws of inheritance that they could say to Moshe, “If our father had a son, we would not have spoken up.” They knew the law, and they knew how to make a reasoned argument invoking the language of the law. And they knew that if the law seemed unjust, then it ought to be questioned and reconsidered. According to an early midrash, the daughters, upon first learning the laws of inheritance, took counsel with one another, saying,

God’s compassion is not like that of flesh and blood. Flesh and blood creatures have greater compassion for males than for female. But the One Who spoke the world into being is not like that, rather, His mercy extends to all, to the males and the females, as it is said, ‘The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is upon His works’” (Psalms 145:9) (Sifrei Bemidbar 133).

Tzlofchad’s daughters recognized that while human beings living at particular historical moments may be guided by the prejudices of their era, the eternal God extends compassion to all creatures regardless of gender. This source, from the early centuries of the common era, seems almost anachronistic in its feminism. And while it is perhaps anachronistic, too, for the daughters to quote from the book of Psalms, this midrash further underscores their learnedness, as well as their faith that God’s law must be just.

The daughters of Tzlofchad also succeeded because they knew to root themselves in tradition. They were not the first to appeal to Moshe because they felt excluded by the law; earlier in the book of Numbers, a group of individuals who were impure and hence unable to offer the Pesach sacrifice approached Moshe to ask, “Why should we be excluded (nigra) from presenting the Lord’s offering at its time with the rest of the Israelites?” (Numbers 9:7). Here, too, Moshe appealed to God, resulting in the institution of Pesach Sheni one month later as a way of including those who could not bring the Pesach sacrifice in the month of Nisan. The daughters of Tzlofchad use the same term (yigara, 27:4) to ask why their father’s name should be excluded from his clan, perhaps as a way for these learned women to remind Moshe that there already existed a precedent for amending the law.

The daughters’ respect for tradition is evident, too, from their frequent invocation of their father’s name in petitioning Moshe. Their request is not about them, but about their veneration of their father, whom they reference repeatedly: “Our father died in the wilderness… Let not our father’s name be excluded from his clan… Give us a holding among the kinsman of our father (27:3-4). The midrash (Numbers Rabbah 21:10) states that the Torah’s account of their petition follows immediately on the heels of the Torah’s mention of the death of the generation of the spies at the end of chapter 26 to underscore the contrast between the men who did not want to enter the land and gain possession of it, and the women who demanded a portion in it. And so Tzlofchad’s daughters approached Moshe out of respect for tradition, respect for their father, and a deep love for the land of Israel.

The daughters of Tzlofchad, who appealed to Moshe out of concern for their father’s legacy, left an indelible legacy themselves. The Talmud (Bava Batra 119a) teaches that the portion of the Torah concerning the laws of inheritance was supposed to be written by Moshe, but on account of their appeal, the daughters merited to write this portion instead. They thus had a hand not just in shaping the Torah’s legislation, but also in recording that legislation in the Torah, where their names—Machla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza—are perpetuated. May we be guided by their example in our own efforts to ensure that those who might otherwise be excluded succeed in finding a place and a voice in our tradition.

Flawed Prophets (Balak)

In commenting on one of the final verses in the Torah—“never has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe” (Deuteronomy 34:10)—the midrash raises a surprising challenge from our parashah. While it is true that there has never been another Jewish prophet as great as Moshe, there has in fact been a gentile prophet who rivals him, and that is Balaam, who is summoned by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites during the final years of their desert wanderings (Bemidbar Rabbah 14). What was it that made Balaam so great, and why does the midrash regard him as Moshe’s counterpart? And what can a comparison between these two prophets teach us about what it means to serve as a conduit of the divine voice?

Although celebrated as great prophets, both Moshe and Balaam were imperfect individuals. Each lacked the confidence that they would be successful in their missions: Moshe told God at the burning bush that he was “not a man of words” and had “uncircumcised lips” (4:10) and was therefore reluctant to be a spokesperson for God. And Balaam, who initially resists King Balak’s entreaties to come curse the Israelites, warns the king that he is limited in what he can say: “I can utter only the word that God puts in my mouth” (22:38). As Avivah Zornberg points out in her book Bewilderments, both prophets suffer from speech impediments of sorts – they do not feel they have full command of their powers of speech, and therefore they question their ability to fulfill the mission with which they are charged.

Both prophets, too, suffer from an inability to control their anger. Moshe grows furious at the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf and shatters the first set of tablets; he then grows angry at the people when they complain about the lack of water at Marah, and strikes the rock rather than speaking to it. He also lashes out at the people: “Listen up you rebels, shall we get water from you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10). Balaam, too, resorts to violence when his ass, which he is riding en route to curse the Israelites, suddenly halts and pushes him against the wall; the Torah relates that “Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick” (22:27). Balaam, who cannot see the angel intercepting the path, lashes out at his ass verbally as well, telling his animal, “If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you” (22:28). Perhaps it is not unrelated to their speech impediments that both men speak harshly in moments of anger, and resort to violence when words do not seem to suffice.

God recognizes each prophet’s shortcomings, and as a result, neither man merits dying the way he desired. Moshe is not allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land, and is buried “in the valley of the land of Moab, near Bet Peor” (Deuteronomy 34:6) in the same country whose king summoned Balaam, and near the very hill of Peor where Balak brought Balaam to curse the Israelites. And Balaam, who declares in his prophecy, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like theirs” (Numbers 23:10), does not in fact come to a righteous end; the Talmud in Sanhedrin (90a) lists him among those who have no share in the world to come. Balaam is denied entry into the world to come just as Moshe is denied entry into the Promised Land; each leader is punished by being deprived of the ultimate fate he so fervently desires.

Although neither God, nor the Torah, nor the Talmudic rabbis gloss over their flaws, it is clear that both Moshe and Balaam have unique abilities to connect with God and intuit the divine will. Moshe alone was able to talk to God directly, as God asserts: “When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to in a vision, I speak to him in a dream. Not so My servant Moshe…With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles” (Numbers 12:6-7). The Talmud (Yevamot 49b) explains that while all other prophets observed their prophecies through an obscured looking glass, Moshe’s prophecy was transmitted with total clarity– he directly perceived the divine will, undistorted by any ulterior motives which might twist the way he transmitted God’s word. Perhaps his insecurities furnished him with the humility to overlook his own personal needs and desires in favor of serving God’s people.

Balaam, on the other hand, was very much affected by his own motives and desires, so much so that he was unable to accept God’s injunction that he should not to go with Balak to curse the Israelites. And yet Balaam had another unique talent that distinguished his prophetic career – he knew how to intuit the exact moment of God’s wrath, and thus manipulate God’s anger. According to the Talmud (Berakhot 7a), God is angry for only a fraction of a second every day, and Balaam—like a lightning rod perfectly positioned to absorb the shock—knew how to calculate that moment and harness God’s wrath against others. Balaam knew how to manage God’s anger, even if he could not manage his own. Indeed, perhaps it was because of Balaam’s own struggles that he knew how to intuit and manipulate the moment of God’s wrath. He was so extraordinarily intimate with God’s anger that he knew what Balak refused to accept, namely that a prophet cannot curse anyone God deems worthy of blessing: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, and how can I doom who God has not doomed?” (Numbers 23:8).

A comparison of Moshe and Balaam suggests that perhaps it is not in spite of their flaws that each man is regarded as a great prophet, but rather on account of their flaws. God chooses to communicate through Moshe and Balaam not because they are perfect, but because each has a unique ability to convey God’s word. Moshe, in spite of uncircumcised lips, furnishes the people with the teachings they will need in order to create a society aligned with God’s will in the land God has promised. And Balaam, in spite of his lack of control of his own speech, delivers a blessing so eloquent that it becomes a part of the daily liturgy: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob” (Numbers 24:5). Their example reminds us that to channel God’s word, we need not rid ourself of our imperfections, but learn how to harness them to our advantage. Our struggles to speak can teach us to hear the words of others more clearly. Our difficulty overcoming our anger can ultimately make us more empathic. No one is perfect, but if we succeed in finding a calling which draws on both our strengths and our weaknesses, we may find that accepting our humanness affords us, like the prophets, the possibility of transformation.

The Song that Wells Up from Inside (Hukat)

Parashat Hukat is about the death of a generation and its leaders. Miriam and Aaron die, and Moshe is informed by God that he, too, will die before entering the promised land. Moreover, the Midrash relates that by the time the Israelites arrive at the wilderness of Zin at the beginning of the parashah, the entire generation that was fated to die in the wilderness has been replaced. And yet the new generation does not seem all that different. As soon as they find themselves without water, they complain to Moshe: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place” (20:4), they wail, even though it was in fact their parents’ generation who had been slaves in Egypt. Their complaints sound strikingly similar to those of their forbears, who cried out to Moshe when they found themselves without water following the splitting of the sea, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 16:3). What was the purpose of waiting for the generation of slaves to die out? Has anything changed? Is this new generation any more prepared to enter the promised land?

Towards the end of our parashah we find a hint that perhaps the Israelites have begun to mature at long last. The Torah, in chronicling the people’s wilderness wanderings, relates that they came to a place called Be’er, meaning a well of water. The issue of water has been very fraught for the Israelites, who first cried out in panic to Moshe when the waters of the Red Sea loomed before them and the Egyptians were giving chase; they then proceeded to complain each time they found themselves without sufficient water in the wilderness, as we have seen. And yet this time something has changed. When they arrive at Be’er and God gives them water, the Israelites break out in song: “Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well, sing to it, the well which the chieftans dug, which the nobles of the people started, with maces and with their own staffs” (21:17-18). Upon receiving water, they do not just drink it, feed their animals, and move on; rather, they burst out in a song of gratitude.

Moreover, the content of the song at Be’er suggests that the Israelites may have played an active role in procuring this water. They sing about how the well was dug by chieftains and started by nobles, perhaps suggesting that this time, instead of immediately turning to Moshe to complain about the lack of water, the people may have instead taken out their own maces and staffs and begun digging. They then celebrate the well they have dug, indicating that this generation was ready and able to provide for itself—unlike their ancestors, former slaves who expected God and their leaders to cater to their every need. A generation that will dig its own wells is certainly more suited to conquer a new land and begin building a new society.

The Israelites’ song at Be’er, introduced by the words “Az Yashir,” is all the more striking when considered in light of the earlier songs it echoes. These same words were used to introduce the Song of the Sea, which the Israelites sang immediately following the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea. In the Talmud (Sotah 30b), Rabbi Akiva makes it clear that the Song of the Sea was Moshe’s initiative: “How did they sing this song? Like a man who recites Hallel, and the congregation listening merely recites after him the chapter headings. Moshe said ‘I will sing unto the Lord,’ and the people said after him, ‘I will sing unto the Lord.’” Rashi says the man in this analogy is someone who chants for the congregation so that they might repeat and thus fulfill their obligation, since they are unable to sing on their own. Another sage, Rabbi Nehemiah, draws the analogy to a schoolteacher who leads the Shema by reciting each blessing one by one for the congregation to repeat. According to both sages, the Song of the Sea was recited responsively, with the people merely repeating the words sung first by their leader Moshe. In contrast, the song at Be’er was sung by Israel alone, of their own initiative.

The song at Be’er does not echo just the Song of the Sea led by Moshe, but also a subsequent song led by Miriam. Following Moshe’s song, Miriam takes a timbrel and leads the women in song, exhorting them to “Sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:21). Unlike Moshe, who leads the people in responsive chanting, Miriam urges the women to sing on their own. Rabbi Benjamin Lau, in his book Etnachta (Yediot, 2009, untranslated), suggests that perhaps Miriam is training the people to be more independent – they need not merely echo the lines sung by Moshe, but can take their timbrels and sing of their own initiative. If so, then the song at Be’er—which appears towards the end of our parashah, after Miriam’s death—may reflect that the people have finally internalized Miriam’s message. With Aaron and Miriam no longer among them, and with Moshe soon to die, the people realize that they can no longer wait for their leaders to initiate the singing. It has to well up from inside them.

The two words that appear in the Torah immediately following the song at Be’er are “and from Midbar, Matana” (17:18). The Midbar is the Torah’s word for the wilderness, and Matana means gift. Is the Torah merely telling us that the Israelites journeyed from a place called Midbar to a place called Matana? Perhaps. Or perhaps the Israelites, who sing at Be’er of their own initiative, have finally learned to accept that even the wilderness can yield unexpected gifts. The Talmud (Eruvin 54a) teaches that “Matana” is a reference to the Torah, the gift given in the wilderness. As this new generation continues its journey through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, Torah will prove to be a gift that allows the people to find—and to sing—their own song.

The Sotah and the Spies (Shelach Lecha)

Our parashah contains an account of the spies sent by Moshe to scout out the land of Israel before the Israelites enter to conquer it. Instead of simply reporting on the land, the spies issue a referendum on whether the Israelites will succeed in their conquest – a matter that was never really subject to question, since God had already promised repeatedly that He would lead the people to the land of milk and honey and drive out its inhabitants. The Talmudic rabbis read the incident with the spies as a story about trust and doubt, offering us insight into what it means to navigate the world with faith and confidence in spite of our fears.

The Talmud offers an extended exegetical analysis of the episode with the spies in tractate Sotah, which deals with the laws governing a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery. The immediate context of this discussion is the Mishnah’s statement that certain texts may be recited in any language, whereas others—like the oath that the priest requires the Sotah to take—must be recited only in Hebrew. Likewise, the blessings and curses that the Israelites are to proclaim after they enter and conquer the land of Israel must be recited in Hebrew. This mention of the conquest of the land leads the rabbis to a discussion of those who doubted whether the land could be conquered at all, namely the ten spies. However, the placement of this Talmudic discussion of the spies in tractate Sotah may also reflect a deeper thematic connection between the Sotah and the spies, both of whom are beset by problems of doubt.

Like the Sotah, whose husband suspects but cannot be sure that his wife has betrayed him, the people suspect but cannot be sure that God will fail to deliver on the divine promise to bring them into the land. Already in last week’s parashah, they “took to complaining bitterly against the Lord” (11:1), insisting that the food was better in Egypt and that they never should have left. The people are in need of proof that they will be able to settle safely and securely in Canaan, which is why they must send out spies. God’s promise alone is not enough for them. Like the husband who feels he can’t trust in his wife’s fidelity anymore, the people—exhausted and worn down by their desert wanderings—feel they can no longer trust in God. And so the mission of the spies becomes a sort of trial-by-ordeal in which the people put God to the test, ostensibly spying out the land but really wrestling with their own doubt about the divine promise.

The Talmud makes it clear that the negative report of the ten spies was primarily about their lack of trust in God. The rabbis imagine Caleb trying to restore the people’s faith by reminding them of how much God’s chosen leader, Moshe, has done for them: “He took us out of Egypt, and split the sea for us, and fed us the manna. If he says to us, Build us ladders and climb to the heavens, should we not listen to him? We shall go up at once and possess it’” (Sotah 35b). Caleb thinks the people should trust in God and Moshe even if they were told to build ladders up to the heavens, let alone to conquer a land down here on earth. But the people have no use for imaginary ladders or for a God they cannot see, and they resolve to pelt Caleb and Joshua with stones. The Talmud offers a creative reading of the biblical text so that it is not these two spies, but rather God, who is the object of the people’s fury. The verse states, “But the congregation threatened to pelt them with stones, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting” (14:10). Rabbi Hiya bar Abba explains that the juxtaposition of the two halves of this verse—one about stoning, and one about God’s glory—serves to teach that “they took stones and hurled them upward.” Fearful and faithless, they futilely hurl stones at God.

Ultimately the people’s lack of faith becomes the source of their undoing. When they hear the negative report of the spies, they stay up all night weeping and wishing for their own deaths: “If only we might die in this wilderness!” (14:2). And indeed, that is what happens to them. The very next day, God tells Moshe that all of that generation—except Caleb and Joshua—shall die in the wilderness, exactly as they wished: “None of the men who have seen My Presence…and have disobeyed Me shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers” (14:23). The people who were convinced that they would never be able to conquer the land will indeed never be able to conquer it. The forty years of wandering is thus not a punishment, but a wish fulfillment.

Whether we are traveling through the biblical wilderness or the thickets of our own lives, it is difficult to move forward without faith. None of us can know with certainty what the future will hold. But if we are guided by our fears, we are more likely to be led headlong into those fears. As the Talmud’s treatment of the incident of the spies in tractate Sotah reminds us, spouses cannot keep tabs on each other at all times; a marriage must be built on trust. Likewise, our relationship with God, whom we cannot see and whose presence we can only intuit, must be also built on trust. If we believe that God is leading us to a land of milk and honey, we are more likely to find ourselves there. If we believe we will succeed in conquering our fears, it is far more likely that indeed we will. Optimism need not be born of foolishness, but of faith in the future – and in the God Who leads us there.

Behaalotcha: The Varieties of Religious Experience

In parashat Beha’alotcha Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moshe “on account of the Cushite woman he had married” (Numbers 12:1), a reference to Moshe’s wife Tziporah, who was described as a Cushite on account of her beauty (12:1). Rashi explains that Miriam had discovered that prior to the giving of the Torah, Moshe abstained from sexual relations with Tziporah, and she had relayed this information to Aaron. They objected to Moshe’s abstinence, insisting that God also spoke to them, and yet they did not have to separate from their spouses. Why are Miriam and Aaron so disturbed by Moshe’s behavior? A close look at this episode from our parashah offers insight into the nature of prophecy and the way we relate to those whose gifts and talents are different from our own.

God responds to Miriam and Aaron’s negative words about Moshe by pointing out that it is only with Moshe that God speaks face-to-face; with all other prophets, God speaks in a vision or a dream. This mention of the unique nature of Moshe’s experience of prophecy highlights a stark contrast between Moshe and each of his siblings. For Moshe, prophecy is an experience of solitary communion with God. When Moshe first encounters God, he is alone on a mountain shepherding a flock of sheep. And his ultimate revelatory experience—the one known simply as revelation—takes place when he ascends that same mountain on his own to be alone with God for forty days and forty nights, leaving the rest of the people below. When Moshe is with God, he is withdrawn from the rest of society – which may explain why he separates from his wife Tziporah before speaking face-to-face with God.

Miriam, too, has prophetic abilities, but her prophecy is not about withdrawal from society but about bringing people together. The Talmud (Megillah 14b) relates that before Moshe was born, Miriam prophesied, “My mother is destined to bear a son who will deliver the Jewish people to salvation.” The midrash (Exodus Rabbah 1:17) adds that when Pharaoh decreed that all Israelite baby boys be thrown into the Nile, Miriam’s father Amram “immediately separated from his wife, had no intercourse with her, even divorced her when she was three months pregnant.” Miriam, who foresaw that she was destined to have a sibling who would save the Jewish people, reprimanded her father for his behavior and exhorted him to return to his wife: “Your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh, for Pharaoh decreed the elimination of male children only, while you decree the elimination of male and female alike.” Amram heeded his daughter and reunited with his wife, and then Moshe was conceived. According to this midrash, Miriam’s very first prophecy was about bringing husband and wife together – which may explain why she was so troubled that Moshe separated from his wife in order to hear God’s word.

The next time we are told that Miriam is filled with divine inspiration is when she takes a timbrel and leads the women in singing and dancing at the Sea of Reeds. The song she leads is very similar to the first verse of the song led by Moshe, with one telling difference not entirely apparent in the English translation. Whereas Moshe’s song begins, “I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously” (15:1), Miriam’s version begins, “Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously” (15:21). Moshe speaks in the first person singular, whereas Miriam uses the plural form to invite the women to join with her. For Moshe, calling out to God is an individual experience, whereas Miriam exhorts the people to encounter God collectively.

When Miriam takes up her timbrel at the Sea of Reeds, she is identified as “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister” (15:20) – perhaps an indication that when it comes to prophecy, she is more like her brother Aaron than like her brother Moshe. Aaron, like Miriam, is a leader whose religious experiences take place among people, rather than removed from them. Although he is Moshe’s partner in liberating the Israelites from Egypt, he comes to this role from a very different place than his brother. Moshe grew up in Pharaoh’s palace and learned about the Israelites’ suffering only when he left home and went out into the world. He first became sympathetic to the plight of the slaves when he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew and, appalled by the injustice, struck down the Egyptian. Aaron, in contrast, grew up as a slave at the mercy of Pharaoh’s tyranny, and his people’s suffering was his own suffering as well. He is motivated to help lead the people out of Egypt not by an innate sense of justice or by a divine call from a bush aflame, but rather by the backbreaking labor that he and his kinsmen have had to endure. Aaron is a leader from among the people, unlike Moshe, who was never himself a slave. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that while Moshe goes up the mountain to commune with God at Sinai, Aaron leads the people in an ecstatic religious experience down below.

The Talmud further hones this contrast between Moshe and Aaron’s leadership in the beginning of tractate Sanhedrin (6b), which considers the question of whether absolute justice is possible in our imperfect world. The rabbis contrast Moshe and Aaron: Moshe strove for absolute justice and lived by the motto, “Let the law cut through the mountain,” insisting that the iron rule of law could break through the dirt and dust of this world; Aaron was devoted to the pursuit of peace and advocated instead for compromise, settlement, and accommodation. Moshe, whose innate sense of justice motivated him to kill an Egyptian taskmaster, believed that God’s justice must triumph at all cost. Aaron, who is described as “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all of God’s creatures and bringing them close to Torah” (Avot 1:12), was less focused on the triumph of divine law than on drawing people close together. Moshe was often enervated by his contact with the people and had little patience for their desert grumblings, whereas Aaron was a gifted mediator and a genuine “people person.”

Given that Miriam and Aaron’s religious leadership was all about drawing people close, it comes as no surprise that they are so disturbed when Moshe separates from his wife. His prophetic style is foreign to them, which is why God has to teach them about His unique relationship with His trusted servant and about the varieties of religious experience. In our world we need all kinds of divine servants – those who are motivated by a clear and absolute sense of justice, as well as those who can restore people’s faith in the future and bring them close to one another. As Moshe tells Joshua earlier in the parashah, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets” (11:29). If we can learn to appreciate everyone’s unique divine-given gifts, we might discover that indeed they are.

Naso: Grooming, Grieving, Grapes

Parashat Nasso introduces us to the nazir, a person who vows to take upon him or herself additional commitments so as to draw closer to God. A nazir vows not to drink wine or eat grapes, not to shave or get a haircut, and not to come into contact with the dead. An entire tractate of the Talmud is about the laws governing the nazir, which is surprising – why devote all this attention to a person engaged in self-denial within a tradition that is anything but ascetic? What are the rabbis trying to teach us about the nature of holiness, commitment, and our enjoyment of worldly pleasures?

In discussing the laws of the nazir, our parashah teaches that a nazir may not defile him/herself by a dead person, “even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister, should die” (6:7). That is, the vow taken by the nazir is so strict that even if one of the nazir’s closest relatives were to die, he or she is not permitted to come near the body or attend the burial. To do so would violate the terms of the vow, and the nazir would have to bring a sin offering and a burnt offering to the Temple and start out as a nazir all over again. This stringency is surprising because even the priests—who were not ordinarily permitted to come into contact with the dead—were permitted to defile themselves for the sake of their close relatives. The priests serve in the Temple and are devoted to holy matters year-round, whereas a nazir is just someone who decides to undergo a period of more intense religiosity. Why then are the laws governing the nazir even stricter than those governing the priests?

The Talmud considers the relationship between the nazir and the priesthood in the opening mishnah of the seventh chapter of the eponymous tractate (Nazir 47a), which is about the prohibition on coming into contact with the dead. They explain that while the nazir may not defile him or herself by contact with the dead even in the case of the death of a close relative, there is one case in which a nazir may attend to a dead body. This is the case of a met mitzvah, an individual who has passed away leaving no one to take care of his or her burial. That is, if a nazir stumbles upon the dead body of an unknown individual, that nazir is obligated to violate the terms of his or her vow so as to perform the burial. The rabbis rule that if a priest and a nazir both come upon a met mitzvah, it is in fact the nazir—and not the priest—who should care for the corpse. And yet this, too, is puzzling. Why may the nazir defile him or herself for the sake of an anonymous individual but not for his or her own family member? And why is the opposite true of the priest, who may defile himself for his own family member but not for the met mitzvah?

We can begin to answer these questions by considering the specific requirements of the nazir’s vow. For the duration of that vow, the nazir may not get a haircut or shave. The Torah states that the nazir has “the crown of God on his head” (6:7), presumably because his or her hair is grown long and consecrated to God. The midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 10:11) explains that most people are uncomfortable with long and unruly hair, but the nazir tolerates it as a sign of commitment to God. As such, a head of long, ungroomed hair becomes a sign of the nazir’s willingness to neglect his or her own physical appearance for the sake of a spiritual commitment. Similarly, the nazir’s vow to abstain from wine and grape products reflects a readiness to suppress his or her own appetites and desires for the sake of a higher end. And finally, the nazir does not even attend the funeral of close relatives, a sign that he or she has withdrawn from the world of human emotions. While the rest of the family is mourning at the graveside, the nazir remains off at a distance, fixated on his or her own holiness and relationship with God.

In neglecting his or her physical appearance, suppressing his or her appetites, and shutting down his or her emotions, the nazir becomes a sort of religious automaton, single-mindedly focused on the spiritual and unwilling to allow any intrusions by the messiness of the mundane. Grooming? Grape juice? Grieving? The nazir has no use for any of it. In this sense, the nazir is the opposite of the priest, who is very much preoccupied with human emotion and the messiness of real life. The priests spend their days among people – they tend to lepers, listen to confessions, and help individuals atone for sin. Their work is never anonymous, which is why they are unsuited to bury the met mitzvah. This is the perfect job for the nazir – it is a religious obligation that should be devoid of any emotional involvement because the identity of the met mitzvah is by definition unknown. Like a robot programmed for the task, the nazir is better able to go through the motions of purifying the body and ensuring that the burial proceeds in accordance with halakhah.

In comparing the nazir and the priests, the rabbis of the Mishnah (Nazir 7:1) note that whereas the priest is sanctified to God forever, the nazir assumes this status for a limited time only. If a person vows to be a nazir, then we assume by default that the commitment lasts thirty days, at which point the nazir is obligated to get a haircut and bring sacrifices to the Temple. One of those sacrifices is a sin offering, and in the Talmud (Nazir 19a), Rabbi Elazar HaKappar explains that the nazir sinned by abstaining from wine, since God wants people to enjoy the delights of this world. Perhaps the rabbis recognized that people cannot sustain that kind of single-minded spirituality forever, nor would we want them too. We are expected to experience the pleasure and pain of life, and not to neglect our bodies, suppress our appetites, or repress our emotions.

Self-denial remains, to this day, a tempting prospect for many. Some are drawn to monastic retreats; others are lured by juice fasts and restrictive diets. The nazir serves as a reminder not to take our asceticism too far. We are not meant to live above the world, but in it. At some point we have to come back from the monastery and sit down to break bread or raise a glass of wine with our closest family members, rejoining the very messy world of which we are fortunate to be a part.