My Lucky Break

The day I heard that I’d won a big literary prize, I was struggling to break in to the Yeshiva where I teach. I shouldn’t have had to break in. I have a key. I teach there every week. But somehow my key got misplaced, and no one was in the office,  and so there I was, trying to pick the lock while frantically texting my colleagues to see if anyone was in the area, with the envelope I’d been carrying now clenched between my teeth so that I could have both my hands free. At least in theory.

I needed to break into the Yeshiva for reasons that were highly unliterary and undignified, and part of me was relieved that none of my colleagues were around to witness the sorry state I was in. A week earlier I had broken my toe while running down the hallway of our apartment to pick up my crying toddler in the middle of Shabbat dinner; my feet were unshod, and my toe broke when I inadvertently crashed into one of the chairs my kids had been using to make a “choo-choo train.” I knew right away that it was broken, since I’d fractured that very same bone tripping over a Fisher Price garage two summers ago on Tisha b’Av while rushing out to hear Eicha – that Tisha b’av was filled with more lamentation than I’d expected. I knew what the pain felt like, and I knew there was nothing to be done except to stay off it – a tall order for a runner, not to mention for a mother who walks her kids everywhere.

I couldn’t really stay off the toe, and so it continued to swell. At night I complained to my husband, who told me (rightly so!) to either take care of myself or get over it. But Daniel felt sorry for me, and three days later, on my fortieth birthday, he took me shopping for a bicycle. We figured that since lying in bed was completely unrealistic, the best way to stay off my toe was to start cycling instead of walking. And indeed, for a few days, it was glorious. I was like the guy who has a midlife crisis and buys himself a sports car to feel young again — I cycled all over town, cruising down the hills like Deborah Levy on her e-bike (I recently finished and loved her memoir, The Cost of Living), and hoisting myself up the hills with my own petard. (I don’t really understand that phrase. But when I saw how my body made the wheels turn, I began referring to the bike as my petard. Later I learned that a petard is actually a dangerous explosive device. If only I’d been more cautious.)

Just a few days later, I was on my way to the library when I flew off my bike and landed in the street. “How did it happen?” Daniel later asked me, and I really had no idea. One moment I was cycling around a bend in the road, and the next moment I was supporting my entire body weight with the bend of my elbow. Fortunately the bike wasn’t damaged, and so I brushed off my knees, straightened my arm as best I could, and hopped back on the bike.

I sat in the library for the rest of the morning proofreading the book I’d just finished translating. It hurt to type, but I tried to ignore the pain. A few hours later, I reached into my backpack to pull out the Tupperware container with my lunch. (Yes, I eat in libraries. Yes, it’s against the rules. It’s been part of my Al Chet tefillah for two decades.) I felt a sharp pain in my arm. I realized I couldn’t bend it all the way to my shoulder, nor could I properly extend it. This wasn’t looking good. I took out my phone and texted Daniel: “Can you pick up the kids today? I think I need an x-ray.”

I sat in the health clinic for three hours waiting to see an orthopedist who could refer me for an x-ray. While I was waiting, I couldn’t stop thinking about a midrash on this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha, which tells of the spies sent to scout out the land of Israel. When ten of the spies came back with a negative report, “the whole community broke out into loud cries, and the people wept that night” (Bemidbar 14:1). The Talmud in Taanit (29a) relates that Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that this happened on the night of Tisha b’Av – it was one of the five calamities for which we fast. Rabbi Yohanan goes on to relate that God heard the Israelites’ weeping and responded to them sternly, “You are crying for nothing! I’m going to give you a real reason to cry, for generations to come!” And so Tisha b’Av became the day that both temples were destroyed, and the Bar Kochva revolt was suppressed, and Turnus Rufus plowed Jerusalem. (Often when the rabbis of the Talmud refer to Turnus Rufus, they follow his name with a curse that literally means, “may his bones be crushed.” I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone.)

The x-ray confirmed that my elbow was fractured and I needed a cast, but first I wanted a second opinion from an orthopedist friend I trust. I had a disk with my x-rays, but I don’t own a computer with a disk drive – and so I went back to the Yeshiva in the hope that the secretary might let me upload the CD on her computer. On my way there I received the news of the book prize. “The prize committee wants to invest in you as a writer – we look forward to your next book!” I looked down at my swollen purple elbow. Would I ever write again?

The building was locked. I stood there forlorn, locked out of the Yeshiva, and immediately thought of Hillel. Hillel, too, was locked out of the Yeshiva – not because he had misplaced his key, but because he didn’t have enough money to pay the entrance fee and so the guard refused to let him in. That day was a terrible snowstorm—the Talmud tells us that it was during the winter month of Tevet—and Hillel climbed up on the roof and listened to words of Torah through the skylight, where he nearly froze to death. He was saved the next morning by the rabbis teaching in the yeshiva, Shamaya and Avtalyon, who noticed that the light was not coming in through the skylight and went up to the roof to see what was amiss. “It is worth desecrating Shabbat for a man like this,” they said as they removed the snow, bathed him, and sat him down by the fire.

That story appears on Yoma 35 – I first encountered it in on December 13, 2013, at the start of my second daf yomi cycle. It was the tenth of Tevet—another fast day on the Jewish calendar—and we were all holed up at home due to a record-breaking snowstorm that made international headlines. At one point I left the house to throw away a bag of smelly diapers, and I slipped on the icy driveway and broke my arm. Fortunately I was too excited by the coincidence of the snowstorm and the story of Hillel on the roof to be distressed about my injury, at least initially. Over time, I have come to associate that story with broken bones — I dreamed about Hillel falling off the roof and Shmaya and Avtalyon rushing outside when they heard the thud. As I stood outside of the Yeshiva clutching the envelope with my x-ray disk, it felt all too apt.

It didn’t seem like I’d be able to get into the building. On the one hand, I wanted to feel sorry for myself; like the midrash, I felt like I’d cried for naught and now I was being saddled with a real reason for tears. But on the other hand—the good hand that I had not broken—I had just learned that I’d won a major literary prize. How sorry could I really feel for myself?

On the other hand—because a mother of twins always needs a third hand—I was also somewhat panicked. Yes, the prize was a great honor and could theoretically allow me so much more time to write. But even if my arm healed and I were able to write again, what was I going to write about? The judges had made it clear that this was a prize to further my continued contributions to Jewish literature. Um, what contributions? I spent most of my days translating, teaching, and taking care of my kids. I never feel like a writer unless I’m writing, and I wasn’t writing anything of late. Now I was being given a very generous monetary prize to write – I felt like I had no excuse.

The story of Hillel comes up in tractate Yoma in the context of a Talmudic conversation about unsatisfactory excuses for neglecting to study Torah. If a person comes before the heavenly court at the end of his life and claims that he was too poor to allow for time to study, he will be told, “Could you possibly have been poorer than Hillel?” This is followed by the story of Hillel, who could not even find two coins to pay the guard at the entrance to the beit midrash. Being rich is also no excuse – such an individual will be asked, “Could you possibly have been richer than Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom,” who inherited a thousand villages and a thousand ships from his father, yet spent his life wandering from yeshiva to yeshiva with only a sac of flour on his back. For a long time I had said that I couldn’t write another book because “I’m not a writer, and anyway, I much prefer translating to writing.” Now it seems I had no excuse. Was that why I’d broken my bones? And was that why I was frustrated that I wasn’t managing to break in to the Yeshiva?

Ultimately I succeeded in uploading my x-rays in the office of the literary agency where I work. These days I spend most of my life walking—alas, no longer biking—from the literary agency to the yeshiva to my kids’ schools, and as I often lament, there’s never enough time to sit in front of the computer and write. But I’ve learned that crying in vain is never a good idea, and besides, thanks to Hillel and Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom, I really have no excuse. So tonight I’m taking my laptop up to the roof to write. It’s the middle of summer, so I don’t expect any snow. But maybe something will descend from the heavens nonetheless.

International Women’s Talmud Day

When I first started studying Talmud regularly, I attended an otherwise all-male class taught by a rabbi in a local synagogue in Jerusalem. I sat in the back corner of the room, but the walls of the classroom were transparent and I was conscious that everyone walking in or out of the main building of the synagogue could see me sitting there, as if I were one of the guys. Though the other men in the class often engaged the rabbi in conversation, asking questions about the Talmudic page he was teaching or raising objections, I never opened my mouth. The only women’s voices heard in that class emerged from the Talmudic page itself, and they were hardly sympathetic: A woman who screams hysterically that a prominent religious leader has stolen her Sukkah; a Roman matron who tries to seduce a righteous but tempted rabbi; a rabbi’s wife who kicks one of her husband’s students to rebuke him for whispering in the study hall instead of reading the text aloud. But these voices were few and far between, because the Talmudic conversation was primarily dominated by male rabbis debating the finer points of Jewish law: Can a Jew store wine in a vessel previously used by non-Jews? How far is it permissible to walk on Shabbat? Who could bring the Paschal sacrifice to the Temple, and who could not?

Though I remained silent in class, I found my own way to add my voice to these conversations. Hunched over my volume of Talmud in the back corner of the classroom, I scribbled fast and furiously in the margins. When I didn’t understand something the rabbi said, I merely copied it down verbatim so that I would be able to think about it later, on my own time. When something amused or surprised me in the text—a rabbi who was nicknamed “Toothy,” or rabbi’s sons and daughters who race each other to the Temple altar (the girls win!)—I jotted down exclamation points in the margins and underlined phrases I wanted to remember. Later, at home in the evenings, I would review my marginal notes and write limericks and sonnets about those Talmudic passages I’d particularly enjoyed, in the hope of committing them to memory. I did not share my poems with the men in the class, but they saw me scribbling, and they used to tease me that I should not take notes in pencil. “Looked what came of Rashi’s marginal notes,” they said to me. “Maybe someday someone will want to publish yours. You should write in pen so it doesn’t fade!”

In the end I published my notes, or some version of those notes, in my memoir If All the Seas Were Ink. My memoir recounts my life journey over the seven-and-a-half year period of daf yomi, an international program to study one page of Talmud a day. Since the book was published in September, I have lectured widely about my experience of Talmud study and I have been flooded by emails from daf yomi learners worldwide. Many of them are women, and I am beginning to appreciate just how many women have begun studying Talmud, adding their voices to the Talmudic conversation and finding their own creative ways to engage with the text. Now, on my second cycle of daf yomi, I no longer feel like I’m part of an all-boys’ club, and my own study has been enriched by the insights and contributions of all those women, worldwide, who are on the same page.

On my previous cycle of daf yomi, if I could not attend the daf yomi class, I would listen to a podcast taught by a rabbi from Yeshiva University who spoke in heavily Yiddish-accented English. He referred to people as “men” and frequently relied on euphemisms to gloss over the Talmud’s more colorful passages: “If a man goes off and has marital relations with a prostitute…” I knew that marital relations was his term for sex, but in this context I could only laugh. At the time, I did not know of any women who taught daf yomi, though I subsequently learned there was a morning class at Matan, a local women’s yeshiva; I wish I’d known of it then. As I studied each page, I followed along in the commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, which I enjoyed because it brought the historical world of the Talmudic sages to life – Rav Steinsaltz’s marginal notes included biographical information about the various rabbis and glosses on the material culture of the rabbinic world. All of these teachers illuminated the Talmudic text for me, and I’m not even sure that I was conscious of the fact that all my teachers were men.

Now, halfway into my second cycle of daf yomi, I am learning from an array of women scholars. Every morning I listen to a podcast by Michelle Farber (, who teaches a daf yomi class to women in Raanana, Israel. Farber’s knowledge of Talmud is vast and encyclopedic, and she approaches the text with a deep literary sensitivity. When she illustrates scenarios from the Talmud, she invokes the names of the women in the class: “If Shoshana’s ox falls into Dana’s pit…” In the margins of the Talmud, Rashi illustrates Talmudic scenarios similarly, except that he invokes the names of Jacob’s sons: “If Reuven’s ox falls into Shiimon’s pit…” It is refreshing to imagine women as actors in the Talmudic drama, as well as to hear the women in the class occasionally chiming in with questions and comments. To supplement by daf yomi learning, I have often referenced the Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, which is planned as the first systematic and comprehensive feminist analysis of the entire Babylonian Talmud. The series—still a work in progress—is the brainchild of Israeli-born historian and Talmudist Tal Ilan, and the various volumes are authored by distinguished professors of Talmud worldwide, all of them women. When in search of lighter reading, I’ve enjoyed various historical novels featuring Talmudic heroines by Maggie Anton (in English) and Ruhama Weiss (in Hebrew), as well as the creative fictional reimagining of rabbinic stories by Ruth Calderon. And when I have just a few moments, I glance at the remarkable website of Jacqueline Nicholls (, who creates a drawing to illustrate some aspect of each page of Talmud she studies.

I feel fortunate that my Talmud study has been deepened by so many of these voices, and that I am part of a global community of learners that includes men and women alike. The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot that there are three crowns: The crown of kingship, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. Maimonides, drawing on a source from the Talmud in Kidushin, comments that the crown of kingship belongs to the kings and the crown of priesthood belongs to the priests, but the crown of Torah is available to everyone: “The crown of Torah lies there, and anyone who wishes may come and take it.” The texts of our tradition are the crown jewels of the Jewish people, and they are accessible to men and women alike. May we merit to adorn ourselves with Torah, and may the Torah we study enrich our lives.

(published in The Forward:



Preparing for Pesach

Around this time of year, it often feels like everyone I meet can be divided into two categories: Those who are making Pesach, and those who aren’t. Wherever I go the first question I am asked—the first question everyone in my neighborhood of Jerusalem seems to be asking—is “what are you doing for Pesach?” I respond somewhat sheepishly. “We’re going to my sister-in-law’s this year, as we do every year. I confess I’ve never made Pesach before.” My interlocutor will either share in my sense of relief, or else look at my jealously and say, “You’re so lucky. I’m going crazy. I have sixteen guests coming for the Seder, and my parents are staying with us for ten days…” This is followed by a detailed account of just how much of the house has already been cleaned, and what still remains, and how it all is going to have to get done, somehow. I listen patiently. I feel it’s the least I can do. After all, I’m not the one shopping and cooking and scrubbing for days on end. And yet this year, on this holiday when so much of the preparation falls to others, I am trying to figure out how I, too, can find my own way to prepare for Passover and make it my own.

The Haggadah records a famous Talmudic debate between two third-century Babylonian sages about how to interpret the Mishnah’s rule that in telling the story of the exodus, one must “begin with shame, and end with praise.” According to Shmuel, this means recalling that “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord God brought us out,” otherwise known as Avadim Hayinu. According to Rav, it means saying that “originally our ancestors worshipped idols, but god brought us close to them.” That is, for Shmuel the shame is our physical enslavement, and the miracle of Passover is our physical redemption. For Rav, the shame is our idolatrous past, and the miracle is our spiritual redemption in becoming God’s people. This debate between Rav and Shmuel reminds me that there have always been multiple ways of relating to Passover. There is the physical narrative—the narrative of those who are scrubbing out their cupboards and buying multiple sacks of potatoes and cooking pots of chicken soup—and then there is the spiritual narrative, which involves thinking through the themes of the holiday and coming to terms with what it means to be free to serve God.

On some level we would all do best to prepare spiritually for Pesach—to read the new haggadot published that year, to study the midrashim about the exodus from Egypt, to review the laws of how to prepare the home, regardless of whether we are the ones engaged in the preparations. But the weeks before Pesach are far more hectic for those who will be hosting, and so it’s understandable that some of us are more focused on the physical plane, that is, on the level of Shmuel’s narrative. The rest of us, who are fortunate that someone else is making our lives easier, can focus instead on our spiritual preparation, on the level of Rav’s narrative, in the hope that we can enrich the Seder that others are making with our insights. And so I try, each year that I am not making Passover, to read through a new commentary on the Haggadah, to listen to a few shiurim online, to think of creative new ways to share the Passover story with my children.

The haggadah does not privilege Rav or Shmuel’s narratives, but includes elements of both: We eat bitter herbs to remember how the Egyptians embittered our lives and recline to celebrate our freedom from servitude, but we also sing psalms of praise to God and open the door for Elijah the prophet who will herald our spiritual redemption. Passover is about both, and many of us need both the physical and the spiritual dimensions: My father, the bulk of whose preparations involve reading every Haggadah published since the previous Passover, would not feel it was Passover if he didn’t slice the horseradish. For others, the physical and spiritual elements are not so easy to disentangle: There is a spiritual dimension to preparing to open our home to others, and the hard physical labor feels deeply fulfilling.

And then there is the difference that stage of life can make. I am reminded of times in my life when time-bound commandments seemed impossible to fulfill—when I was home with newborns, or chasing after three kids still in diapers. A deep immersion in physicality—breastmilk, diaper rashes, heavy eyelids after sleepless nights—prevented me from having the kind of open dialogue with God through prayer and study to which I had grown accustomed in my single years. But my kids are getting older—at least just a bit older—and I find myself able to think more abstractly again, and to shift some of my focus from the physical to the spiritual planes. I have come to appreciate that the question of which level of experience is in the foreground will shift over time, and is meant to shift over time, and that is all right. Though we may alternate between the narrative of Rav and the narrative of Shmuel, we hope that the stories we tell will move us toward a place where we can praise God and appreciate life’s blessings, whatever form they may take.



Oaths in a Season of New Year’s Resolutions

My neighbor recently asked me if I’d start running with her early in the mornings. “I see that you also like to run,” she told me, “Can I join you? I’m determined to get in shape in 2018. It’s my new year’s resolution – I’m going to starting running four mornings a week.” My neighbor is an evangelical Christian from Texas, and she takes her Gregorian new year very seriously. I can’t remember that last time I made a new year’s resolution – I tend to think about self-improvement primarily in Elul, and rarely in late December. But I’ve been learning Masechet Shevuot, which is all about oaths, and with the start of 2018 I find myself thinking about everything I am tempted to take upon myself or to swear off, and how I might go about doing so.

First and foremost, I think about sleep. Far too many nights a week I stay up long past midnight reading or working (or pretending to work, since it’s hard to concentrate at that hour) – even though I know that I’ll have to be up early with my children. I have tried to set alarms to encourage myself to go to bed, but somehow it never seems to work. I relish the late hours, when time stretches ahead of me endlessly; I feel much more creative when I know I have no deadline, and can write or think for as long as the spirit moves me. But everyone needs sleep, as Matthew Walker has just reminded us in his compelling new book about the effects of poor sleep habits on our health, happiness, and longevity. Even the rabbis knew how important sleep was; they note in masechet Shevuot (25a) that if a person takes an oath that he won’t sleep for three days, we give him lashes and make him go to sleep immediately, since this is clearly a vain oath that can never be fulfilled. Nearly every morning when my kids climb into my bed before 6am, I essentially take an oath to go to bed earlier that night. And then inevitably when I am still at my computer at midnight, I violate that oath. So perhaps the time has come to take my oaths more seriously.

Then there are the oaths that affect others as well. The rabbis note in masechet Shevuot (25a) that oaths that affect other people are taken just as seriously as oaths that affect only oneself. And so if a person says, “I swear I will give a pledge to my neighbor,” this oath is as binding as if he says, “I swear I will throw a rock into the ocean” – even though the former is dependent on his neighbor as well as on himself. Perhaps the rabbis are trying to remind us that even though some oaths may seem to be more dependent on others, in fact all our actions affect other people directly or indirectly. I may think that in staying up late, I am merely making myself more tired, and so I can just suffer the consequences of my decisions. But in it is not just I who suffer when I stay up late: I have less energy to spend time with my kids in the morning, and I am more irritable with them in the evenings when it is time for them to go to bed, and my work suffers, and I am less present and receptive to my husband and friends. When I have slept well and eaten well and I am at ease, my household is calm and my kids are happier. Perhaps this is why the rabbis teach in Nedarim—the tractate of the Talmud that deals with vows—that a husband is authorized to annul any vows that his wife makes that cause her self-affliction. When a wife is suffering, inevitably her whole family suffers as well. It’s not fair to snap at my kids because I’m too tired to be patient with them; I need to get more rest so that my husband and children can have the quality time with me that they deserve.

The rabbis speak often in Nedarim about vows and that deny another person benefit. “Any benefit that my wife might derive from me is forbidden to me like a sacrifice,” a man might swear, thereby denying his wife food and sex and financial support. But as I have come to realize, deriving benefit from others is not something we can necessarily swear off. All of my actions affect those around me, and the way I treat myself affects the way I treat those I love. All too often I am tempted to dismiss self-care as an unnecessary indulgence; I can stay up too late, or skip breakfast, or get by without that cup of coffee I am craving. But when I take care of myself, I am taking care of others. When I benefit myself, I am benefiting others. And so yes, I may start running with my neighbor, because running makes me feel healthy and fit and it’s more fun to run with someone else. But it’s complicated. I’m not taking any oaths about how regularly I’ll run, and I’m making any commitments to myself or to her. When my kids climb into our bed before dawn to snuggle, I don’t want to jump out of bed because I promised my neighbor I’d meet her at dawn. I want to fall back to sleep with my daughter in my arms, and my other daughter hanging on to my back, deriving benefit from the warmth of their little bodies and knowing that they are deriving benefit from  me too.


The Book of Names

I spent much of my childhood dreaming up names for my future children. On Shabbat afternoons I would sit on the floor perusing our heavy World Book Dictionary in search of beautiful words. Afflicted with an overly poetic sensibility, I didn’t care much for the meanings of these words – I privileged sound over sense, which is how I came up with names like “Parsimonious Avarice the Evanescent.” I loved the seductive mellifluousness of the soft s’s, and didn’t mind that the name I had chosen for my firstborn in fact meant “Stingy Greed the Fleeting.” Her siblings would be known as Chevrolet Charlotta, Chaperon Cliché, and Azalea Rendezvous, names that were surely influenced by my reading of Anne of Green Gables. If Anne could rename herself Cordelia and refer to Barry’s Pond as “The Lake of Shining Waters,” then surely I, too, could martial the English lexicon in service of my own phonetic aesthetic.

Now, twenty years later, I am perplexed to find myself at a loss for a name for the child currently kicking around in my belly. Instead of reading the World Book, I sit in shul and pause at every other word in the siddur, wondering if it could be my child’s name. “L’hodot l’hallel l’shabeach l’faer” – Hodaya? Hallel? Shevach? Pe’er? Occasionally I also look in the parsha, though not this week, lest my child be afflicted with a name like Se’et or Sapachat or Baheret. I think about the names of my friends’ children, and the grandparents we might want to name after, and the names of the literary characters I love. But thus far, I have not had any brainstorms.

Perhaps this focus on names is an attempt to intellectualize my pregnancy, which has been the most intense experience of embodiment I could possibly imagine. If I concentrate on the name of the baby, I can take a break from thinking about the extra thirty pounds weighing me down and preventing me from leaping out of bed in the morning. I might actually delude myself into thinking that I can go for a morning jog, forgetting the intense pressure on my pelvis and the soreness in my upper thighs each time I try to take a long stride. I might even succeed in distracting myself from the terrifying awareness that the head of my baby needs to be able to fit through my own body and make its way into the world, a prospect that makes me tremble in fear of the pain that lies ahead.

The contrast between potential baby names and the pain of physical embodiment brings me to the beginning of Sefer Shmot, the book whose narrative we will recount next week at the Pesach seder. These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob. The book opens with the names of Jacob’s sons, who in turn had many more sons, in a process that surely involved great pain, since the midrash tells us that the Israelite women had six babies in their bellies at a time. The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased and reproduced and grew mightier very very much, and the land became filled with them. The language of the text, with its rapid succession of synonyms and its doubled “very very,” reproduces itself, replicating the embodied experience on the semantic plane. Suffering under their Egyptian taskmasters, the Israelites cry out (vayizaku), and shriek (va’yeanchu), and their moans (shavatam) and groans (naakatam) reach God’s ears in all their synonymous multiplicity.

Of course, while the Israelite men are laboring to build Pitom and Ramsees, their wives are laboring to bring forth their multiple births, who emerge so quickly from the womb that the midwives Shifra and Puah do not even have time to look at the birthstool and evaluate the sex(tuplets). Their moans and groans of childbirth blend with the moans and groans of their husbands in the fields, until God can ignore them no longer. I have taken note of you, says God to Moses, invoking the same language (פקד) used to describe the impregnation of Sarah: And God took note of Sarah… And Sarah conceived and bore a son. God takes note of the Israelites, causing them to reproduce en masse; but at the same time, God hears their cries and delivers the people from the narrow birth canal of Egypt. Perhaps this is the rationale behind the very first commandment given after the exodus:

That very day the Lord freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop. The Lord spoke further to Moses, saying, “Consecrate to Me every first-born, man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is mine. And Moses said to the people: Remember this day, on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand.

God delivered His firstborn son Israel from the womb, and immediately afterwards, we are commanded to consecrate our firstborns to God. When we experience the convulsions of childbirth, which I’m told are as cataclysmic as the splitting of the sea, we must recognize the divine hand that guides each firstborn through the narrow womb never before stretched by a child. We must trust that our moans and groans and cries and shrieks are reaching up to the throne of the One who is responsible for the creation of all new life, the One who takes note and delivers, and the One whose name is the ultimate mystery: I will be what I will be. And so this is what I have decided to tell myself as I puzzle over lists of names in an attempt to stave off my panic about childbirth: I will trust in God, and, with God’s help, it will be what it will be.

בניית המשכן כעבודה יצירתית: פרשת ויקהל

האם בניית המשכן היתה עבודה יצירתית?
אנו מוצאים בתורה שכל פרטי בניית המשכן נמצאים פעמיים, בפרשות תרומה-תצוה כצויי מהאל למשה (“ועשית”), ובפרשת ויקהל פקודי כדווח על מה עשו (“ויעש”). כמעט כל הפרטים—המזבח, הכיור, המנורה, הכלים—זהים בין הצויי לבין הביצוע. ה’ מצוה למשה איך לבנות את המשכן עם כל פרטיה, ואז בצלאל—האומן הראשי בונה לפי ההוראות. אבל – האם אכן כך היה המעשה?

אני רוצה להסתכל איתכם על כמה מדרשים שמראים שעבודת המשכן לא היתה רק מלאכה, אלא גם אמנות יצירתית. המדרש מביא תמונה אחר של בניית המשכן, תמונה שמראה שהחזון—הנושא של השבתון שלנו—היה חלק עיקרי בבניית המשכן. נקרא את המדרשים ביחד וננסה להבין –האם בצלאל היה אומן, או פשוט בעל מקצוע? האם יש לנו מה ללמוד מבניית המשכן, לגבי חזון ויצירתיות?

במדבר רבה י”ב:י
רבי יהושע דסכנין, בשם רבי לוי אמר: בשעה שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה: עשו לי משכן היה לו להעמיד ארבע קונטיסים ולמתוח את המשכן עליהם, אלא מלמד שהראה הקב”ה למשה למעלן, אש אדומה, אש ירוקה, אש שחורה, אש לבנה.
אמר לו: כתבניתם אשר אתה מראה בהר.
רבי ברכיה בשם ר’ בצלה: למלך שהיה לו לבוש משובח עשוי במרגליטון.
אמר לבן ביתו: עשה לי כזה.
אמר לו: אדוני המלך, יכול אני לעשות כמותו?!
אמר לו: אני בכבודי ואתה בסממנך.
כך, אמר משה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: אלהי יכול אני לעשות כאלה?!
אמר לו: כתבנית אשר אני וגו’ בתכלת, ובארגמן, ובתולעת שני, ובשש.
אמר הקב”ה למשה: אם את עושה, מה שלמעלה למטה, אני מניח סנקליטון שלי של מעלה, וארד ואצמצם שכינתי ביניהם למטה.
למעלה, שרפים עומדים, אף למטה, עצי שטים עומדים.
העמד אין כתיב כא, ן אלא עומדים, כנתון באסטרטיא של מעלה. הה”ד (שם ו): שרפים עומדים ממעל לו מה למעלה כוכבים, אף למטה כוכבים.

מה מפריע לדרשן? כתוב בתורה, ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, וגם “וראה ועשה בתבניתם אשר אני מראה בהר.” מה בדיוק הראה ה’ למשה בהר? לא תבנית של המקדש שהוא היה צריך לזכור ולהעתיק, אלא חזון של אש בארבעה צבעים—דבר שבכלל לא קים בעולם שלנו! זה רק מגדיל את הבעיה – אם החומרים לא נמצאים בעולם, איך אפשר לבנות משכן מהם?

עבודת המשכן, אני רוצה לטעון, היתה עבודה של תרגום. משה היה צריך לתרגם את החזון שראה בהר סיני לעבודה של ממש בעולם שבו אנו חיים. משה לא אמור פשוט להעתיק דגם, אלא לתרגם את הדגם השמימי לורזיה ארצי. במקום שרפים עומדים, יהיה עצי שטים עומדים. אנו רואים את הקשר בין החזון לבין המימוש במדרש הבא:

תנחומא ויקרא י”א:ח’
וזה מעשה המנורה ( במד’ ח ד).
מלמד, שהראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא באצבע את המנורה, ואף על פי כן נתקשה בה הרבה משה לעשותו.
מה עשה הקדוש ברוך הוא?
חקקה על כף ידו של משה.
אמר לו: וראה ועשה בתבניתם (שמו’ כה מ), כשם שחקקתיה על כף ידך.
ואף על פי כן נתקשה בה משה ואמר: מקשה תיעשה המנורה (שם שם לא). כלומר, מה קשה לעשות.
אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: השלך את הזהב לאש והמנורה תיעשה מאליה, שנאמר: מקשה תיעשה המנורה.
כתיב תיעשה, מעצמה תיעשה.
מלמד, שנתקשה לו המנורה, והראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא באצבע, שנאמר: [ו]זה.

המדרש הזה משחק בקשר בין העין לבין האצבע. ה’ מראה למשה את המשכן, אבל “מקשה תעשה את המנורה” – מה קשה היה המנורה למשה, עם כל נביעה, כפתוריה, פרחיה,וששה הקנים. לכן ה’ חקק את המנורה על ידו של משה. זה לא רק שהלוחות היו כתובים באצבע אלוהים, אלא גם התבנית של בית אלוקים, היינו המשכן. ובכך משה יכול להביא את המשכן חקוק על ידו משמים—מקום החזון—אל הארץ—מקום המימוש.

אבל עבודת המשכן היה לא רק עבודה של משה. עיקר העבודה נעשית על ידי העם, אנשים שנקראים “חכמת לב.” מי היו?

רמב”ן שמות ל”ה: כ”א
(כא): ויבאו כל איש אשר נשאו לבו –
על החכמים העושים במלאכה יאמר כן, כי לא מצינו על המתנדבים נשיאות לב, אבל יזכיר בהם נדיבות.
וטעם אשר נשאו לבו –
לקרבה אל המלאכה, כי לא היה בהם שלמד את המלאכות האלה ממלמד, או מי שאימן בהן ידיו כלל, אבל מצא בטבעו שידע לעשות כן, ויגבה לבו בדרכי ה’ לבא לפני משה לאמר לו אני אעשה כל אשר אדני דובר. וכבר הזכרתי זה בסדר האחר (לעיל לא ב). והנה אמר שבאו לפני משה כל אשר נשאו לבו לקרבה אל המלאכה, וכל אשר נדבה רוחו אותו הביאו התרומה. והנה משה אמר לכולם כי קרא ה’ בשם בצלאל ואהליאב (פסוק ל), ואחרי כן קרא להם משה ואל כל חכם לב (להלן לו ב): שיבואו לפניו ונתן להם הנדבה:

מה מפריע לרמב”ן? למה כתוב גם “נשאו לבו” וגם “נדבה רוחו”? מה ההבדל? כנראה אלו שנדבה רוחם היו אלו שתרמו למשכן. אבל אלו שנשאו לבו היו אלו שמצאו בלבם ובטבעם שידעו איך לבנות בית לה’. הם קבלו סוג של השראה ומצאו שהם יודעים איך לבנות משכן, למרות שלא היה בהן שלמד את המלאכות האלו.

ובראשם היה בצלאל. מי היה בצלאל ומאיפה הוא קיבל את הידע שלו?

רמב”ן שמות ל”א: ב’
(ב): ראה קראתי בשם בצלאל בן אורי בן חור –
אמר השם למשה ראה קראתי בשם, ומשה אמר לישראל ראו קרא ה’ בשם (להלן לה ל). והטעם, כי ישראל במצרים פרוכים בעבודת חומר ולבנים, לא למדו מלאכת כסף וזהב וחרושת אבנים טובות ולא ראו אותם כלל. והנה הוא פלא שימצא בהם אדם חכם גדול בכסף ובזהב ובחרושת אבן ועץ וחושב ורוקם ואורג, כי אף בלומדים לפני חכמים לא ימצא בקי בכל האומניות כלם, והיודעים ורגילים בהם בבא ידיהם תמיד בטיט ורפש לא יוכלו לעשות בהן אומנות דקה ויפה.
ועוד, שהוא חכם גדול בחכמה בתבונה ובדעת להבין סוד המשכן וכל כליו למה צוו ואל מה ירמוזו. ולכן אמר השם למשה שיראה הפלא הזה, וידע כי הוא מלא אותו רוח אלוהים לדעת כל אלה בעבור שיעשה המשכן, כי היה רצון מלפניו לעשות המשכן במדבר, ולכבודו בראו, כי הוא קורא הדורות מראש (ישעיה מא ד), כדרך בטרם אצרך בבטן ידעתיך ובטרם תצא מרחם הקדשתיך (ירמיה א ה). ובלשון הזה (לעיל טז כט): ראו כי ה’ נתן לכם השבת על כן הוא נותן לכם ביום השישי לחם יומיים:
ולרבותינו בזה מדרש (שמו”ר מ ב):
הראה אותו ספרו של אדם הראשון ואמר לו כל אחד התקנתיו מאותה שעה, ואף בצלאל מאותה שעה התקנתי אותו, שנאמר ראה קראתי בשם בצלאל.
והוא כענין שפירשתי.
ועוד אמרו (ברכות נה א):
יודע היה בצלאל לצרף אותיות שנבראו בהן שמים וארץ.
והעניין, כי המשכן ירמוז באלו והוא היודע ומבין סודו:

מי היה בצלאל? המדרש מזכיר לנו שבני ישראל היו עבדים במצרים – הם עבדו בפרך, בחומר ובלבינים. עבודה לשם פרעה היה ההפך של עבודת המשכן – היא היתה עבודה גסה, בלי מנוחה, בלי מטרה—כי אם היתה מטרה, למה פרעה היה לוקח מהם את חומרי הבנייה כדי שצטרכו לעבוד יותר?(לא תוסיפון לתת תבן לעם ללבון הלבנים כתמול שלשלום מם ילכו וקששו להם תבן – שמות ה: ז) אבל עבודת המקדש היא עבודה מעודנת עם חומרים עשירים ודקים כמו זהב וכסף. מאיפה יש לעבדי פרעה לכשעבר מסורות של עבודה בחומרים אלו?

בצלאל כנראה קבל את הכשרונות שלו מה’. ה’ מלא אותו רוח אלוהים, כמו שהוא מלא את אדם הראשון ברוח ה’: ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים. חלקו השני של מדרש זה מקשר אותנו לבריאת העולם – בצלאל ידע לצרף אותיות שנבראו בהן שמים וארץ. מאמר זה מופיע בתלמוד מסכת שבת נ”ה, בפרק ט, מיד לפני הסוגיה הארוכה על חלומות ופתרונם. למה מופיע דווקא פה? אולי בצלאל מופיע כהקדמה לדיונם של חז”ל על חלומות ופתרונם כי בצלאל היה מין פותר חלומות. הוא ראה חזון—היינו החלום—והבין איך לפרש אותו, היינו איך לממש אותו. הוא ידע לצרף אותיות שנבראו בהם שמים וארץ, ולכן הוא היה סוג של בורא עולם: הוא ברא את עולמו של המשכן. כמובן, היה לו תבנית, אבל גם לה’ היה תבנית כשהוא ברא את העולם: המדרש בבראשית רבה מתארת לנו שה’ הסתכל בתורה ובכך ידע איך לבנות את העולם. אי אפשר להתחיל פרויקט אומנותי בלי שום דגם או מודל. הדרשה שלי היום באה מדגם של שיעור ששמעתי באנגלית לפני שנים ממורי אביבה זורנברג, שאני מתרגמת בשבילכם וכמובן, תוך כדי, מוסיפה את היצירתיות שלי. ככה זה לדרוש בתורה, ככה זה לכתוב, וככה זה להיות יצירתי. אפילו הקב”ה היה צריך להיעזר בדגם כדי לברוא את העולם:

בראשית רבה א:א:
אמון – אומן. התורה אומרת אני הייתי כלי אומנתו של הקב”ה.
בנוהג שבעולם, מלך בשר ודם בונה פלטין אינו בונה אותה מדעת עצמו, אלא מדעת אומן. והאומן אינו בונה אותה מדעת עצמו, אלא דיפתראות ופינקסאות יש לו, לדעת היאך הוא עושה חדרים, היאך הוא עושה פשפשין.
כך היה הקדוש ברוך הוא, מביט בתורה ובורא את העולם.
והתורה אמרה: בראשית ברא אלהים ואין ראשית אלא תורה.
היאך מה דאת אמר (משלי ח) ה’ קנני ראשית דרכו:

אין בריאה ללא חזון שקודם לו. קודם כל צריכים לדמיין – אפילו אם באש שחורה ואדומה וירוקה ולבנה –את הפרוייקט, ורק אז אפשר להתחיל לממש אותו. כל סופר ומשורר צריך לעלות להר סיני בדמיון שלו ולראות את הדגם עשוי מאש לפני שהוא חוזר לשולחן כתיבה שלו ומתחיל לעבוד. ברור שהספר שהוא כותב לא יהיה גם עשוי מאש – הוא יהיה התרגום של החזון באש. אבל אם הסופר מצליח, עבודה הסופית תהיה משהו שיוכל להתיז ניצוצות בתוך הקורא, ולגרום אם לא ללהבי אש אז להתלהבות.

לפני שאני מסיימת אני רוצה לחזור לענין של השבת, שמוזכר במדרש האחרון שהבאתי, שמקשר בין “ראה קראתי בשם בצלאל” ל”ראו כי ה’ נתן לכם השבת.” מה הקשר בין בצלאל ועבודתו לבין השבת? פרשתנו מתחילה עם הצווי לשמור את השבת, ורק אז אנו עוברים לתיאור של בניית המשכן מה ענין שבת אצל משכן? בשבת אסור לבער אש. חז”ל למדו את כל ל”ט המלאכות שאסורות בשבת מעבודת המשכן – כל המלאכות שהיו חלק מבניית המשכן הם אסורות בשבת. אפשר להגיד שהשבת הוא ההפך של המשכן – בשבת אנו לא עוסקים במלאכה, ובניית המשכן כלל בו את כל המלאכות. אבל לדעתי זו תמונה יותר מדי פשוטה, כי גם החזון—גם העלייה להר—הוא חלק מהיצירה. למה פרשת ויקהל מתחילה עם מצוות שבת? כי התורה מבינה שהשבת היא לא רק המנוחה שמגיע לנו אחרי ששת ימי מלאכה, אלא גם המנוחה וההשראה שמאפשרת לנו להיות אומנים בשאר הימים. שבת היא אות בינינו לבין ה’ – לכן לא לובשים תפילין בשבת, כי שבת היא אות בפני עצמה. בשבת ה’ חוקק על ידינו—מקום לבוש תפילון–את הפרוייקטים שנעסוק בהם בשבוע הבא. שבת היא מעין עולם הבא – טעם של עולם אחר, כמו האש בארבע צבעי שאין לו קיום בעולם הארצי. בשבת יש לנו נשמה יתירה – כמו שה’ מלא את בצלאל ברוח אלוהים, ה’ גם ממלא אותנו ברוח ומראה לנו את החזון שהוא סוד אומנותינו. לכלנו יש נדבה ייחודי לתרום לעולם זה, ולכולנו יש את היכולת להיות מי שנשאו לבו לתרום לתיקון עולמינו. תפילתי היא שבשבתות כמו היום, נזכה לראות את החזון, ובימות השבוע, נשב כולנו ליד שולחן הכתיבה או מקום עבודה כל שהו, ונתחיל את מלאכת הקודש של מימוש החזון. שבת שלום.

To a Horse in Pharaoh’s Cavalry

In Shir HaShirim Rabbah, the classical rabbinic midrash on the Song of Songs, the rabbis ask a central question about this Biblical book: Heychan ne’emra? Where was it said? That is, in what historical moment was the Song of Songs originally composed and recited? What was the impulse for the Bible’s most romantic poem, and what was its original context?

As with most midrashic questions, the answer takes the form of a dispute among several rabbis. The first says that the Songs of Songs was originally recited at the splitting of the Red Sea; the second says that it was recited at Sinai; the third associates it with Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting; and the fourth says that Shir HaShirim was a poem recited in the Temple. The midrash does not privilege any one answer over the others, but as I see it, it is clear from its unfolding that the first rabbi, the one who associates Shir HaShirim with the Red Sea, has the most textual support for his claim. Throughout the vast corpus of Shir HaShirim Rabbah, the historical events most commonly discussed are the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea – that is, the events we commemorate on Pesach, the holiday of freedom. And so I cannot help but wonder: What is the connection between Shir HaShirim and the exodus from Egypt? Is it merely that the song describes the reawakening of spring, which is when we celebrate Pesach? Or, as I’d like to suggest, is the midrash moving beyond this seasonal coincidence to make a deeper and more timeless observation about the relationship between romantic love and freedom?

Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa, the sage who posits that the Song of Songs was originally recited at the sea, cites as proof for his claim a particular verse from the poem: “To a horse in Pharaoh’s cavalry have a likened you, my love” (1:9). After all, why would the midrash choose this particular metaphor for the beloved? It’s not the most obvious of compliments, and certainly not one that most women I know would want to receive: “Hey babe, turn around — your rump reminds me of Pharoah’s horse!” Bar Pappa is suggesting that this strange equestrian metaphor (reminiscent of the illustrations in the Babar books!) is an allusion to the original context in which the Song of Songs was composed, namely at the Red Sea.

Shir HaShirim Rabbah, an exegetical midrash which interprets each verse of the Song of Songs in order, eventually reaches this verse about Pharaoh’s horses, where it offers an interesting take on what exactly happened at the splitting of the sea:

Rabbi Eliezer said: [This is a parable to] a king’s daughter who was taken captive, and her father was about to redeem her, but she was gesturing to her captors and saying to them: I am yours, and I belong to you, and I will follow you. Her father said to her: What is this?! Do you think that I won’t be able to redeem you? Hush up, I hush you!

So too, at the time when Israel was encamped on the sea, “The Egyptians chased after them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea” (Exodus 14:9). And the Israelites were gesturing to the Egyptians out of fear and saying to them: We are yours, and we belong to you, and we will follow you. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to them: What is this?! Do you think I won’t be able to redeem you? Hush up, I hush you. As it is written, “The Lord will fight for you, and you will keep quiet” (Exodus 14:14).

Although the midrash does not bring a proof text, the basis for the claim that the Israelites were gesturing at the Egyptians comes from the Biblical verses between the two that are cited above: “As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses: Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the desert? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Exodus 14: 10-12). The midrash is clearly troubled by the lack of faith that these verses reflect. How could the Israelites speak of their desire to return to Egypt at this most critical historical moment? How dare they say, “It is better for us to serve the Egyptians!” What chutzpah! To resolve this difficulty, the midrash suggests that in fact the Israelites were not expressing a genuine desire to return to Egypt. Rather, they were ingratiating themselves to the Egyptians as a way of protecting themselves in the event that their deliverance were to fail. Just as the king’s daughter feels the need to ingratiate herself to her captors just in case her father does not manage to rescue her, so too did the Israelites feel compelled to curry the favor of the Egyptians just in case God did not manage to transport them safely across the sea.

This midrash exonerates the Israelites, but not entirely. On the one hand, the midrash suggests that they did not really want to return to slavery in Egypt. Nor did they have the chutzpah to complain to Moses that they’d rather serve the Egyptians than anticipate the fate that lay ahead of them. This much is true. But on the other hand, the Israelites did not exactly have perfect faith in God either. On the brink of the exodus, as they stood in that no-man’s-land between the dominion of King of Egypt and the dominion of the King of Kings, they felt the need to secure the good graces of the former in case the latter were not to deliver on His promise. And so they said to Pharoah, “We are yours, and we belong to you” – that is, we are still your slaves, and we still serve you. Too scared of the uncertainty that lay ahead of them, the Israelites held on to a bad relationship, unable to take the risk of opening themselves to what the future had in store.

Unfortunately, this is a predicament that I relate to all too well. How often have I held on to the wrong relationship, determined to remain in the good graces of one who was not right for me merely because I was too scared to move on? This has happened several times over, but the moment I remember as most painful and most searing happened, ironically, just days before Pesach. Like an apple among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. I was standing before an open refrigerator wearing an apron and cleaning out the shelves with a sponge, determined to remove every last trace of Chametz. There, on the top shelf, was a half-rotten apple. “This apple is not in a very good state,” I said to you. “I think I will dispose of it by eating it.” You looked at me with all the love drained from your face, and you said, “If you don’t think that you are good enough to deserve to eat a fresh apple, how am I supposed to respect you enough to love you?” Something about the way you spoke those words to me made me realize subconsciously that it was all over. But the realization was only subconscious. In my mind I held on, against all odds, insisting that I was yours, that I belonged to you, and that I would follow you. As I nearly did—

Two nights later was erev Shabbat; like this year, Shabbat fell out just before the start of Pesach. We sat down to dinner in a fully-kashered and clean home. The candles were flickering behind us, but suddenly I realized that something else was flickering too – no – not flickering, but burning. Burning, all around! The yard behind our apartment was swept up in flames that leapt higher and higher against our ground-floor windows. A forest fire! I gasped, shocked and immobilized. And then what happened? I remember, but it is not a story that I can bear to tell. In the Many Worlds interpretation of our lives, who is to say which account matters most? Certainly on Pesach, the emphasis is not on what actually happened, but on the retelling of the story. And so this is the story I retell myself each year: Seeing the flames, you reached for the phone to dial 101, and I jolted myself into motion and bolted out the door. I ran, and ran, and ran – as fast and as far as I could. I did not know where I was running to, or what I was running from. The Talmud discusses what a person is permitted to save from a burning building on Shabbat, but at that moment I had no thought of saving anything, not even myself. I think that part of me realized (or part of me realizes now) that unless I ran—unless I made my exodus during that fiery plague—I would never have the courage to leave again.

That year on Shabbat Chol HaMoed I chanted the Songs of Songs in shul with a heavy heart, choking back tears. Upon my bed at night, I sought the one I love. I sought, but found him not. I must rise and roam the town, through the streets and through the squares. I must seek the one I love. My Pesach was not a feast of freedom, but of bitter salt water tears. Later people would tell me that we were lucky to get out when we did, but at the time, I could only look back longingly: “It would have been better to be in the fleshpots of that relationship that to die in this desert of loneliness,” I thought during the empty nights.

To a horse in Pharaoh’s cavalry have I likened you, my love. In years to come I would joke about this metaphor with other boyfriends, other men. Unaware of the parable about the king’s daughter, I did not realize the gravity of what lay behind it. Now I do. Pesach, as contemporary rabbis like to say in their sermons, is about ridding ourselves of the Chametz inside of us. But as this parable teaches us, Pesach is also about learning to let go of the people in our lives who are not good for us, or whose hearts have already let us go. This is, of course, a very risky prospect. We do not always know that there is someone else waiting around the corner to deliver us, and perhaps there isn’t. Or perhaps he is waiting, but not in a bright pillar of flame but in the vague uncertainty of an amorphous cloud. We cannot know. The sea might split for us, or it might not. We might find someone else who is right for us—a prospect that is as difficult for God to arrange as the splitting of the sea—or we might not. But we cannot look back to what was before, and we cannot try to win the favor of someone who no longer loves us. We must remember what Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa tells us — that the greatest love poem in the Bible was recited at the Red Sea, in that moment of uncertainty and terror, as the Israelites fled from Egypt believing, even if not yet consciously, that the future was one of promise.