The Literary Canine

The porch of our apartment overlooks a dog park where the neighborhood dogs run around at all hours of the day, to my children’s delight. I’m not sure when they became so dog-crazed, though it surely began with Matan, who spends countless hours sitting on a bench inside the enclosed fence of the dog park watching the various dogs chase one another, petting any who come near and chatting with their owners. Now the other kids have begun joining him, and even Yitzvi, who still doesn’t say a word, will bark “hav hav” whenever he spies a cat or a dog or anything with four legs and fur. At dinner, when I finally manage to drag the kids home—sometimes I wish I had a long leash I could yank on to pull them up from the park directly into our third-story apartment—they are often too excited to eat, regaling us with stories about how Eva is being trained, and why it’s not safe for Patat and Joy to be in the park together, and how old Skye was when his owner first brought him home. I try to turn the conversation to matters of Torah or literature, but to no avail. The literary canon cannot compete with illiterate canines, and the best I can do is read to them books about dogs.

A few weeks ago, when I asked Liav to choose a new book to read together, I was surprised when she picked Henry and Beezus – another novel by the author of Beezus and Ramona which features many of the same characters. I had read the kids the entire Beezus and Ramona series during the first Corona lockdown, and I assumed that Liav just wanted more. But now I wonder if perhaps she was drawn to the book because of the dog on the back cover – the book is not just about Henry and Beezus and the neighborhood kids, but also about Henry’s dog Ribsy, who is responsible for most of their adventures. Liav, for as long as I can remember, has been petrified of dogs, but now that is changing. She is becoming a dog lover too, to our astonishment.

I used to think, back when Matan was two and the twins were just learning to walk, that I could tell my children’s personalities based on the way they greeted dogs. Every day, on our walk up the railway track park coming home from Gan, we would pass several. Tagel would bound forward and pet them. Liav would burst into tears if any dog came close, even a tiny puppy on a short leash. Matan would eye any passing dog circumspectly and reach for my hand, checking to see if the dog was friendly. In some ways they haven’t changed: Tagel is still exuberant, Liav remains terribly sensitive, Matan is just as guarded and methodical. But Liav is finally overcoming her fear of dogs, thanks to Matan, who takes her to the dog park at least once a day and insists that she sit by his side. He tells us he is “training” Liav to get over her fear, in the hope that we might then get a dog of our own. The truth is that we won’t get a dog regardless—Daniel and I are of one mind about that—but we’re happy for any activities the kids do together. And so Matan is training Liav to overcome her fear of dogs, and I’m training Liav to read more fluently in English, and he is as happy when she doesn’t cower as I am when she doesn’t give up in the middle of a paragraph about Henry and Ribsy and insist that I take over.

Ribsy is always getting Henry into trouble. He runs off with the meat the neighbors are preparing to grill on their barbecue. Then he steals all the newspapers and risks Henry’s chances of getting his own paper route. And then, when Henry ties him to a parking meter outside the supermarket, he lands Henry with a ticket from the police. Matan, who often comes in to curl up at my feet and listen when Liav reads aloud to me, assures me that when we get him a dog—it is always when and not if—we won’t need to worry about any of that, because he’s going to train it all by himself. “You know that to train a dog, you need to wake up very early to take it out for walks,” Daniel informs Matan, who generally rolls out of bed and staggers into the kitchen fifteen minutes before the school bell rings. Sure enough, the next morning, Matan set an alarm and was up by six to play with the dogs before school. On Purim morning, when one of the dog owners informed my kids that she’d be walking her dog at 5:30am, Matan managed to set an alarm and get himself out in time to join her – in costume. Not surprisingly, e dressed up as a dogwalker, dragging around Yitzvi’s stuffed talk on a leash he had made by looping together all our rubber bands.Matan would love to be a professional dog walker, but for now, he’s content taking out the neighbor’s dog every few days. I insisted on coming with him the first time, because I felt responsible for making sure everything went smoothly – what if the dog stole meat off a grill, or ran off with someone’s newspaper? But I didn’t stay for long. As soon as soon as I saw Matan confidently scoop up the poop and discard it neatly, I realized that he didn’t need me.

On Shabbat mornings, when we return from shul, we often find Matan dressed in nice clothes but out in the dog park. I’m glad he’s finally managing to get himself dressed for Shabbat—we used to come back and find him still in pajamas, reading in bed by the light streaming in through his window—but I wish he would come with us to shul. “You don’t have to spend the whole day at the dog park,” I tell him when he doesn’t even want to come home for lunch. “It’s bitul zman, don’t you think?” Bitul zman, wasted time, is a phrase I use often with my kids when I question the activities they choose. (Do the twins really need to spend two hours trading items in their Mishloach Manot packages of Purim candy? Bitul zman! Will I let them run off with the Ipad to watch an inane Youtube video? Bitul zman!”) I’d like instead to use the phrase Bitul Torah—implying that they are wasting valuable time that might be spent studying Torah—but my kids are not there yet, and I’m content with any number of other more wholesome alternatives. And yet Matan can’t imagine a better use of his time than getting to know the dogs. “Ima, go away, you’re being like Tock,” he dismisses me, reminding me of another favorite literary canine, the watchdog in The Phantom Tollbooth – a literal watch-dog with a head, four feet, a tail, and the body of a large ticking clock. Tock spends his days sniffing around to make sure that nobody wastes time, and in a way, Matan is right — that’s me. “Do you know how much time you’d have to spend caring for a dog?” I ask him, and when his eyes light up, I realize I need to try another line of argument.

“We don’t need a dog because we have Yitzvi,” I venture, trying to convince him that his little brother comes close enough. Need someone to take out for a walk? Yitzvi is always happy to toddle around the park holding on to someone’s hand. Need someone to get you out of bed early? Yitzvi’s generally ready to rear by 6am. Need someone to eat the leftovers? Yitzvi is generally content to eat the sandwich crusts and browned apple slices that the kids return from school in their lunch containers. Every evening I defrost four pitas so the kids can make themselves sandwiches in the morning. They slice off the tops so as to make an opening through which to fill the pocket with chumus or cheese or peanut butter or tuna. The four sliced-off tops are deposited on Yitzvi’s plastic yellow plate, and he gnaws at them while the other kids rush around packing their schoolbooks and brushing their teeth. Then he makes off with their toothbrushes and hides them in the most unexpected places – under the sink, in the washing machine, inside the chicken soup pot. He reminds me of Harry the Dirty Dog, who hides his brush so no one can wash or groom him. Yitzvi,too, hates baths and hates being groomed, though he was born with a full head of hair. He is hirsute and cuddly and he follows his siblings around adoringly. With him around, who needs a dog?

A few nights ago, after the dog park had emptied, the kids had eaten dinner, and Yitzvi was asleep in his crib, I started reading the older kids from my childhood copy of Bridge to Terebithia, a story about a lonely twelve-year-old boy named Jess who feels adrift in the world – until a new girl named Leslie moves in to the farm next door and they build an imaginary kingdom together. Last night I read the Christmas chapter, in which Jess struggles to think of an idea of a gift for Leslie. He is riding the bus home from school one day when a sign out the window catches his eye, and he asks the driver to stop and let him off. “Free Puppies,” said the sign, and so Jess brings Leslie the furry gift of Prince Terrien, heir to Terebithia. “Free puppies?” Matan exclaimed when I got to that part. “People really give away free puppies? That’s what I need. Who gives away free puppies in Jerusalem? Then you and Abba can’t say no!” The book has very few black-and-white illustrations, but one of them is of Prince Terrien when he is still just a puppy. I pass around the book for all the kids to take a look, and Matan really seems to be salivating as he pores over the floppy ears, the pleading eyes. “Here’s a puppy you can look at for free whenever you want,” I say, pointing to the illustration. I fold over the corner of the page so he can find it easily – I don’t like damaging my cherished books, but this seems like a page to dogear.

A Stately Pleasure Dome (Vayakhel-Pekudei)

The two parshiyot we read this week, Vayakhel and Pekudei, describe the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, in accordance with the specifications that appeared in Terumah and Tetzaveh. Indeed, much of the language of this week’s parshiyot repeats the language of those earlier parshiyot, suggesting that the building of the Mishkan was merely the mechanical, mindless execution of God’s plan, without any room for human initiative. But the Talmud and midrash tell a very different story about the vision and creativity involved in building a dwelling place for God.

A simple reading of the biblical text suggests that God communicated a blueprint for building the Mishkan to Moshe, who imparted it to the artisans, who built in exact accordance with these specifications. But the rabbis did not imagine the process so smoothly. The Talmud (Menachot 29b) relates that the ark, table, and Menorah descended from heaven in fiery form for Moshe to replicate. Moshe turned to God in bewilderment: “How am I supposed to make like those?” (Bemidbar Rabbah 12:10). God responded that he is supposed to use wood and gold to recreate the structures shown to him in a fiery vision: “See and follow the patterns for them that are being shown to you on the mountain” (Exodus 25:40). This midrash suggests that when Moshe went up on Mount Sinai, he was given a vision of a Platonic ideal of the Temple vessels which he then had to translate into earthly materials.

The act of translating vision into reality was not easy for Moshe. The midrash (Tanchuma Vayikra 11:8) plays on the term used in the Torah to describe the fashioning of the Menorah from gold – it had to be mikshah, made of hammered work. The word mikshah comes from the same root as kashah, which means hardness and difficulty. The Menorah posed a particular challenge to Moshe, perhaps because of the elaborate cups, calyxes, and petals adorning its branches. As the midrash relates, God therefore engraved the Menorah upon Moshe’s hand when Moshe was up on Sinai. Moshe was instructed to descend the mountain and then copy the image God had engraved on his hand so as to fashion the Menorah. Only after receiving an in-person tutorial from God on the mountain was Moshe able to come down and fashion the Menorah.

According to this understanding, the challenge of building the Mishkan was the challenge of taking a heavenly vision and transforming it into human terms. This is a challenge familiar to many artists who are afforded a moment of inspiration in which they glimpse a vision which they must then translate into the materials at their disposal – whether it is paint or stone or music or language. The British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge dramatizes this artistic challenge in his poem “Kublah Khan.” Coleridge explains in a preface that he wrote the poem one night after he fell asleep reading about Xanadu, the palace of the Mongol ruler Kublah Khan. He woke with a poetic vision of the palace, which he set about writing down, but he was interrupted by a knock at the door and the vision fled. The poem depicts the glory of Xanadu while also capturing the poet’s despair at his inability to recreate that “stately pleasure dome” in words, including the damsel who appeared in his vision of the palace:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry “Beware, beware!”

The poet longed to revive the symphony he heard and recreate the vision of the palace he saw in his dream, so that he might make domes and caves out of the airy immateriality of language. Devastatingly, the vision fled before he could take down notes on the palm of his hand, and the poem remained, as Coleridge termed it “a fragment.” His Mishkan was never built.

As Coleridge knew, much of the frustration of the artistic life is the frustration of trying to translate vision into reality and inevitably falling short. But this is also the challenge of the religious life. Our tradition imparts to us spiritual ideals that we have to incorporate into the messy reality of life on earth. Like the instructions for building the Mishkan, the Torah may be read as an instruction manual for building an ideal society: Care for the stranger. Respect the elderly. Do not covet. But when it comes to implementing those ideals in our legislation and in our lives, it is often far from simple.

And yet somewhat miraculously, as the Torah reports at the end of Pekudei, the Mishkan was completed according to plan: “Just as the Lord commanded Moshe, so the Israelites did all the work” (39:42). The cloud covers the Tent of Meeting and God’s presence fills the Tabernacle – with its golden Menorah and its braided chains of corded work and its embroidered screens of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all exactly as God ordained. The building of the Mishkan reminds us that when we are able to translate heavenly visions into human terms, we do not just craft works of magnificent beauty – we also create a space that points to God’s presence in our midst.

Charlotte’s Web

On Shabbat afternoon I was home alone with Tagel and Yitzvi, and the house felt unusually quiet. Yitzvi was tired so I took him into his room to put him to sleep. Usually he nurses before napping at home, but when I put him on the breast, he wasn’t interested. He reached for his pacifier instead, and although he protested for a few moments after I lay him down—kicking his legs, thrashing his head from side to side—he soon fell into a deep slumber and I crept out of the room on tiptoe. I went to check on Tagel. These days she always insists on reading with the door closed, and she gets annoyed at anyone who enters her room and then leaves without shutting the door – especially her roommate and twin sister, who couldn’t care less. I knocked on her door. It felt strange; usually the kids’ doors are left open. We shut them only at night, and open them when we hear them crying or calling for us. But I wanted to respect her privacy. “Tagel, you OK?” I asked her. “I’m reading,” she told me, glancing up at the doorway where I stood with my own book in my arms. “Can you go out?”
“Maybe I’ll read in your room?” I offered. Daniel was out with the three other kids in the park, and I couldn’t quite imagine that no one needed me.
“OK Ima, fine, but can you close the door?” she asked, not without a trace of annoyance.
I dutifully got up, shut the door, and then perched on the rug between her bed and her sister’s bed to read my book, still somewhat incredulous that I was actually going to have time to read on Shabbat afternoon. “Do you want me to read with you?” I asked her. She shook her head without even looking up from the book. “But you can stay here and I’ll ask you if I have any questions,” she told me. She’s just started reading Charlotte’s Web to herself. I had initially offered to read it to her, but this lasted for half a chapter. When she asked me to keep going, I was busy, and Tagel—being Tagel—didn’t complain, but simply continued on her own. “Fern loved Wilbur more than anything,” the second chapter began. “Wait, Ima – Fern is the girl who is my age? And Wilbur is the pig?”
“That’s right,” I told her, and she kept on. “What does it mean, ‘adoring’?” she asked, looking up at me a few moments later.
“When you adore someone, you love them very much. You adore Yitzvi.” Tagel smiled and went back to reading about how Fern cared for the baby pig, warming bottles of milk for him and pushing him around in her doll carriage.
I went back to my book. I was up to the chapter in Dori Pinto’s Moon when Sharly, who is seven, pretends he doesn’t know how to read yet so that his mother will keep reading aloud to him from their gold-embossed edition of Don Quixote, translated by Bialik. “Read on,” Sharly urges his mother, and I felt like he was encouraging me as well. But I wasn’t really reading. I was thinking about Charlotte, whom Tagel had not even met yet, and trying to imagine what it was like to read the story for the first time, without knowing what would become of the girl and the pig and the spider.
“Ima, it’s so sad, they are going to get rid of Wilbur even though Fern loves him.”
“Really?” I asked. I didn’t think she was already up to that part.
“Yes,” she told me. “Fern’s father says that it is time. He said that Fern had fun raising her baby pig, but he is not a baby any longer – he’s getting too big. So they’re going to sell him. Poor Fern.”
I looked over her shoulder at the end of the second chapter. “It’s OK,” I reassured her. “Her father says he’s going to sell Wilbur to her Uncle Homer, who lives down the road. That means she can visit whenever she wants and sit by the side of the barn and watch him.”
“Yeah,” she said, “but it’s not the same. He’s her baby. Pig baby, I mean.”
I looked over at Tagel. I was watching her from about the same distance that Fern, perched on an old milking stool in the sheepfold, would watch Wilbur in his pen. Just two weeks ago, on their birthday, we had asked Tagel and Liav to each make a list of their birthday wishes, and Tagel had written – “I hope my baby will always stay a baby.” Tagel really does adore Yitzvi – she comes with me every day to pick him up from Gan, greets him with effusive hugs, sings him “The Yitzvi Bitsy Spider,” and entertains him in the afternoons with endless games of “peek-a-boo” and “I’m-gonna-get-you,” as Yitzvi squeals in delight. But now Yitzvi has started having his first tantrums – he’ll throw himself on the ground and thrash wildly when we force his arms into the sleeves of a sweater or tell him that he can’t press all the buttons in the elevator. He is getting older, and he can’t always be calmed with a hug or a pacifier or milk. Lately he’s not all that interested in milk anymore – instead he wants to sit at the table with the rest of us, in the same chairs we sit in, spooning yogurt into his mouth and refusing to let me wipe up the milky whiteness that drops onto his chin, his shirt, his seat. I know what food I place in front of him, but sometimes I look away and I’m not sure what he ate and what he dropped – did he finish that slice of apple I really ought to have peeled and cut smaller? I don’t see it in the fold of his bib or on the floor, but I can’t be sure.
I know which books I take out of the library and buy for Tagel, but I don’t always know what she reads and how much she absorbs. Does she have any idea what Fern’s uncle plans to do with Wilbur? Will she be able to handle the sad ending? Maybe I should make sure to read the last chapter with her – but with three children reading to themselves in all corners of the house, I can’t really make sure of that anymore. My readers, like my baby, are weaning themselves. From the milking stool I watch them, adoringly.

Eat It or Wear It

Yitzvi is officially no longer a baby, but a toddler. He waddles around the house with his unsteady gait, moving his legs without bending his knees and falling every few steps before lifting himself right back up. He refuses to stay in one place, preferring to toddle from room to room such that every few moments I have to ask myself, “Wait, where is Yitzvi?” And then I find him crouched in front of the washing machine watching the laundry spin, or sucking on one of his sister’s toothbrushes while trying to get down from the bathroom stool, or picking the raisins one by one out of a plastic container that we inadvertently left on the lowest shelf of the pantry. When he realizes that I’ve spotted him, he will gleefully belt out, “Dad-DEE, Dad-DEE,” which bears no relation to Daniel but is simply his preferred combination of sounds. This is all fine, though. The only real cause for alarm is when he goes into Matan’s room – not just because Matan will be furious, but also because, thanks to Matan’s networking skills, an actual alarm is likely to go off, sending a notification to his computer.

Matan is the only person in our house who has his own room, and with good reason. He has an extensive collection of electronic devices, most of them long-ago outdated, all of which have a specific place that is known only to him. He has also set up an elaborate system of cameras which track all motion in his room, such that even if Yitzvi merely opens the door a crack, Matan will receive a notification. But usually Yitzvi does much worse. He’ll enter Matan’s room, rattle his night table so that his water bottle falls to the floor like a loosened coconut, tug his blanket down from his bed, and pull his bookmark mischievously out from his book. “Yitzvi!” Matan will shout as soon as he discovers the damage. And then Yitzvi’s grin will freeze on his face for a moment before his lips turn down, his eyes scrunch up, and he bursts into tears of fright.

And so perhaps it is not surprisingly that Matan identified so much with Peter Hatcher, the hero of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. He and I read the book together in bed over the course of the last few weeks, alternating pages – he read all the shorter pages where a new chapter starts or stops, while I read the longer ones. Matan, who learned to read in Hebrew long before he learned to sound out words in English, remains disturbed by the unphonetic nature of English orthography, and insists on using his own original pronunciations for various proper nouns. “Peter” is pita, like the bread. “Fudge,” in Matan’s rendering, sounds like “Fudaja.” But there’s no question about the identity of these characters in Matan’s imagination: He is Peter, and Yitzvi is Fudge. He is the nine-year-old responsible fourth grader; Yitzvi is his toddler brother who is always getting into scrapes. Never mind the three sisters in between Matan and Yitzvi; now that he has a brother, Matan can finally appreciate this novel, which I remember fondly from my own childhood and have wanted to read with him from the moment Yitzvi was born. With each chapter we complete, Matan compares their antics and quotes Fudge’s more memorable lines.

“Eat it or wear it!” Fudge’s father shouts exasperatingly at Fudge, an extremely picky eater. He refuses stew, milkshakes (even when his grandmother promises him a surprise at the bottom of the cup), and the lamp chops his mother made especially for him. At dinner he hides under the kitchen table and barks like a dog, and his mother is so desperate for him to eat that she gives him food under the table, which he eats between barks. Finally, when Fudge refuses even cereal—the one food he’d always enjoyed—his father decides he has had enough. “Fudge, you will eat that cereal or you will wear it!” he pronounces angrily. When Fudge remains firm in his refusal, he carries Fudge and his cereal into the bathroom, places Fudge in the tub, and dumps the entire contents of the bowl onto his head, to Peter’s—and Matan’s—amusement.

Yitzvi, too, loves cereal. He used to have oatmeal with goat milk yogurt every morning while the other kids ate corn flakes and sweetened cheerios; then one day I let him finish someone else’s bowl of cereal. That was the end of the oatmeal. The only problem, though, is that he refuses to be spoon fed, and when it comes to directing the spoon to his mouth, he does not have very good aim. Most of the milky cereal usually ends up in his lap or in his hair, and when he is finished, he will toss the bowl to the ground even if it’s not yet empty. At that point, I lower him to the ground and begin sponging the counter – only to discover that he is kneeling on the floor, picking up soggy cornflakes to nibble on as if he, too, thinks he’s the family dog. At this point the cereal is not just in his lap but under the soles of his feet, smeared across his face, and stuck to his hair as well. At dinner, we have a repeat performance – by the end of the meal, Yitzvi looks like he has couscous dandruff. “Eat it or wear it,” Matan quotes gleefully.

Not only does Fudge refuse to eat with the family, but he also puts all sorts of objects in his mouth that he is not supposed to ingest. He eats two flowers from his mother’s silver flower bowl. He grabs a rose off his own birthday cake and gobbles it down even before it is cut. And worst of all, he sneaks into Peter’s room when Peter is at school—in spite of the chain latch that Peter’s father affixed after Fudge scribbled all over Peter’s homework—and eats Peter’s beloved pet turtle, swallowing it whole in one gulp. Matan does not have a pet turtle, but his network of wires and cameras is just as dear to him, and he would love a chain latch on his door so that Yitzvi can’t get in. So far Yitzvi can’t open doors, so we’re pretty safe – as long as we all remember to keep Matan’s door closed. Otherwise, we find Yitzvi emptying the electronics box in Matan’s cubby, wrapped in a Walkman, a talkman, several sets of broken headphones, and various cables with colored tips that Yitzvi seems to mistake for licorice. I try to swoop in before Matan discovers the damage – I’m more concerned about Matan’s wrath than about Yitzvi’s welfare.

And yet like Peter, Matan can actually be surprisingly helpful with Yitzvi. Sometimes at night, when Daniel and I despair of getting him to bed, Matan offers to take over. He stands beside the crib rubbing Yitzvi’s back with endless patience. For him bedtime is so much less fraught, and Yitzvi senses his calmness and drifts off into a peaceful slumber. When the last lockdown restriction finally eased a bit and we could at last take Yitzvi shopping for shoes, Matan seems to have taken inspiration from Peter, who managed to bring Fudge back from the brink of a temper tantrum in the shoe sore when Fudge refused to buy the saddle shoes his mother wanted. Matan, who dutifully waited outside with the stroller because Corona restrictions allowed only two people in the shoe store at a time, tried to cheer Yitzvi on when I brought him out to the sidewalk to squeeze his tiny foot into his first shoe, his whole body writhing in protest. “I know what you’re thinking, Yitzvi. What are these heavy weights they are putting around my feet? But don’t worry, you’ll see, shoes are cool,” Matan encouraged him. And then Matan gave me advice too: “Just put them on his feet while he’s sleeping. When he wakes up, he’ll forget there was ever a time when he didn’t wear shoes.” We’ll have to see if it works.

When we finished Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, we moved on to the sequel, Superfudge, in which Peter and Fudge’s parents announce that they have news: They are expecting a new baby and the family will be moving from New York City to Princeton for a year. Peter is none too happy– he worries that his new sibling with be as difficult as Fudge, and he can’t bear the thought of starting a new school and having to make all new friends. The day after we read that chapter, I picked up Matan at school, eager to share with him that we had finally received Yitzvi’s passport in the mail – Matan, who checks our mail every day, had been eagerly anticipating it. “I have news,” I said to Matan outside the schoolyard gate. “What?” said Matan. “You’re having a baby? We’re moving to Princeton?” I laughed. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “No more babies, and we’re not going anywhere – though finally we all have passports now.” Matan smiled excitedly. “That’s great!” he told me. “As soon as Corona is over, I can take Yitzvi on a trip to America.” I guess I looked skeptical. “It’s OK,” he assured me, “I’ll put a security camera on him so he doesn’t get lost. You just have to promise that no one goes into my room while we’re away.” I’d have to discuss it with Daniel, but we might just take him up on it.

Mishpatim: Torah on an Endless Loop

Our parsha features the famous phrase na’aseh v’nishma, in which the Israelites commit first to do and then to listen to everything that God commands them on Mount Sinai. Although the rabbis praise the Israelites for their unconditional obedience, the Talmud also contains several voices that criticize the Jewish people for their impulsiveness. After all, what is the meaning of pledging to comply when you don’t yet know what is expected of you? A close reading of this rabbinic discussion suggests that perhaps “we will do and we will listen” is not about blind obedience, but about acting in a way that enables us to hear God’s word.

The Talmudic rabbis discuss the Israelites’ response to the revelation at Sinai in tractate Shabbat (88a). Rabbi Elazar regards the Israelites’ willingness to act before listening as angelic behavior, arguing that it is a characteristic of the ministering angels to do God’s will and only then to hearken to God’s voice. Unlike human beings, who may question or even challenge authority, the angels act as if programmed to do God’s bidding. But Rabbi Simlai raises doubts about whether this angelic behavior was really so pure and praiseworthy. He states that in the moment when the Israelites spoke na’aseh before nishma, six hundred thousand ministering angels came and tied two crowns to every member of the Jewish people, one corresponding to na’aseh and one corresponding to nishma. Then when the people sinned very soon afterward with the Golden Calf—while still standing at Sinai, awaiting Moshe’s descent down the mountain—thousands of other angels descended and removed those crowns. The Israelites may have pledged their blind obedience, but then they tripped over the very first stumbling block placed in their path, violating the first two commandments just moments after they had been inscribed on the divinely chiseled tablets.

Was it really so wise for the Israelites to agree to keep the Torah even before hearing what God had to say to them? Often when the Talmudic rabbis wish to give voice to opinions that seem too heretical to utter themselves, they place them in the mouths of others – heretics, Roman matrons or foreign kings. The Talmud goes on to relate that a certain heretic once saw that the sage, Rava, was immersed in the study of Jewish law. Presumably the matter he was studying was very difficult, because he was sitting on his hands and squeezing them together so hard that his fingers were spurting blood. Was it just a complicated passage to understand? Or was it the prospect of fulfilling what he was learning – “doing” and not just “listening”—that made Rava seem paralyzed, unable to move his hands freely? We do not know. But the Talmud relates that upon seeing Rava in such a state, the heretic said, “You impulsive nation, who preceded your ears with your mouths! You are still so impulsive!” It is not always easy to live a life of Torah and mitzvot, and sometimes it really does seem like the effort is so draining that it might have been wise first to negotiate with God over the nature of our commitment.

But perhaps Rava was not distressed by the challenge of Torah study, but rather so deeply immersed in it that the heretic’s critique did not seem to matter. We might read the Israelites’ response at Sinai not as an unconditional commitment to accept God’s laws, but rather as a description of what will happen as a consequence of living in accordance with them. Na’aseh v’nishma is less about chronology than about causation: It is not “we will do and then we will listen,” but rather “we will do so that we might listen.” The more we live in accordance with God’s Torah, the more receptive we will be to God’s will, and the less distracted we will be by competing voices. By keeping Shabbat, we allow for the stillness that enables us to hear God’s voice. By honoring our parents, we learn to submit ourselves to a higher authority. By caring for the disempowered – the widow, orphan, and stranger, as our parsha demands of us – we internalize what it means to be created in the image of God. Our actions bring us to a deeper understanding of God’s Torah and enable us to listen more deeply.

At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God instructs Moshe to write down the words of the Torah and teach them to the people of Israel: “Put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be my witness.” (31:19). Words of Torah ought to be like the song we can never get out of our head – the one that runs on an endless loop until we know all the lyrics by heart and find ourselves singing them unawares. This happens to those who chant regularly from the Torah, but it also happens to anyone who is deeply committed to making the words of Torah a part of themselves. It resonates inside us with every breath we take.

Yitro: Goosebumps

Our parsha begins with a surprising change of scene. Following the dramatic showdown at the Red Sea and the exultant triumph against Amalek at Rephidim, the Torah now zooms in on Moshe’s intimate reunion with his father-in-law, Yitro, who shows up with his wife Tziporah and two children. When we last encountered Yitro, Moshe was taking his leave following the burning bush episode, in response to God’s command to return to Egypt. Now he joins Moshe in the wilderness and offers sacrifices to God. Why does Yitro appear at this point in the narrative, between the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah? What is his role at this crucial point in the history of the Jewish people, in that brief window between redemption and revelation?

The Talmudic rabbis disagree about what Yitro heard that motivated him to leave Midian and come join the Israelites in the desert. Was it the story of the Exodus? Or the story of the revelation at Sinai, which according to some rabbis, who hold that the Torah is not written in chronological order, had in fact already happened? Rabbi Eliezer argues the former, and indeed, this seems to be the straightforward reading: The first verse of our parsha states, “Yitro priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt” (18:1). And yet this answer, too, is not quite as straightforward as it might seem, because if Yitro heard all about the Exodus, why did Moshe then have to tell him about it? As the Torah goes on to relate, “Moshe then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them” (18:8). Why did Moshe have to repeat what Yitro had already heard?

Perhaps the point is not what Yitro heard, but rather what Moshe recounted. Even if Yitro already knew about the Exodus, the story needed to be told. As God told Moshe on the very day they went forth from Egypt, “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt’” (13:8). Twice a day Jews must recite the Shema, which identifies God as the One who took the Israelites out of Egypt, as do the Ten Commandments. The Passover Haggadah teaches that “the more one tells about the Exodus of Egypt, behold this is praiseworthy.” This is a story that we are commanded to tell and to retell. And yet in order to tell the story, there needs to be someone to listen. That is why Yitro comes on the scene.

Yitro appears in the Torah between the Exodus and the revelation because he is the ideal audience. He is sympathetic to the Israelites – his daughter, after all, is married to their new leader – but he was not with them in Egypt and he did not experience the Exodus first-hand. Like all of us alive today, he was not an eyewitness, and so he relies on the stories. He hears about what he did not see with his own eyes. His arrival is the occasion for the first retelling of the narrative we are commanded to tell and retell for all subsequent generations.

Yitro’s reaction serves as an important model for all of us, who struggle each year to view ourselves as if we have gone out of Egypt – as if it is all happening to us for the first time. Yitro has a genuine religious response, and he speaks words that no Jew had spoken before that point: “Baruch Hashem!” (18:10). He also rejoices—“vayichad Yitro”—a term which the Talmudic sages interpret in two ways (Sanhedrin 94a). According to Rav, Yitro passed a sword over his body, implying that he circumcised himself and converted. According to Shmuel, the news gave him goosebumps. Either way, Yitro has a physical reaction to the news – it gets underneath his skin. This is all the more remarkable if we assume that Yitro had already heard about the Exodus, and was hearing it all for the second time.

Yitro’s visceral response to the Exodus makes sense when we consider that he is a religious figure – he is a Midianite priest. He is sensitive to the spiritual dimension of experience, and perhaps he prompts Moshe to frame the Exodus in these terms. When Moshe shares the Exodus story with his father-in-law the priest, it becomes not just a story of political liberation, but also one of divine redemption. Perhaps this is why we are commanded to reference the story of the Exodus as part of our daily prayers – we recite the Shema to remember that the Exodus from Egypt was not just a historical event, but a foundational moment in our covenantal relationship with God. And so it is not just Yitro’s reaction that is a model for us, but also Moshe’ recounting. Moshe’ encounter with Yitro teaches us that sometimes we need to step back to reflect and recount to others so as to become sensitive to the spiritual dimension – to those moments in life when we, too, might get goosebumps.

Luna Park

We all want a way out of this third lockdown, which is now in its third week. I can’t seem to concentrate on much, but last Shabbat I tried to get lost in a short novel that had been on my shelf for a while. I’m not sure what inspired me to pick me up, but I always think there is a divinity that shapes what we read when. One of the longest scenes in the book takes place on Tu Bishvat, which we celebrated this week, and the novel was on the cover of the Haaretz Magazine. The time was ripe for me to read that novel, I realized when I was more than halfway in.

It is so hard to read at home. No matter where and when I try to sit down, it is only a matter of moments before someone wants “mayim with bubbles” or an argument breaks out about the Playstix pyramid the kids are constructing in honor of the parsha, or someone accidentally enters the bedroom where the baby is sleeping and wakes him up. This time it was the mid-nap wake-up, which always infuriates me. I tried not to lose my cool. I put him in the stroller and announced that I was going out for a walk – alone.

Alone with the baby, of course, but he doesn’t count. Like most strollers, ours faces forwards, so that I don’t look into my child’s face when we’re strolling. I’ve convinced myself that this gives me license to completely ignore him for the entire duration of the ride, so long as he doesn’t express discontent. He generally seems happy looking around at the changing scenery, and while we walk, I read. The stroller acts like a walker, stabilizing me, and I make sure to look up at the end of every paragraph to make sure there are no stumbling blocks in our way. On that particular Shabbat afternoon, following the rude awakening, I prepared to leave the house with the new novel I’d just started, eager to push the baby for as long as possible and to make headway in the book. But Tagel had other ideas.

“Ima, I’m coming,” she announced, already Velcro-ing her sneakers (because who buys Shabbat shoes in a pandemic) while I was still strapping the baby in. “No Tagel,” I told her firmly and I suppose a bit rudely. “It’s not that kind of walk. I’m reading,” I confessed, hoping that Daniel couldn’t hear. I didn’t want this time to count against me – we try to give each other a little bit of alone time on Shabbat, and there was no way was going to use up my precious minutes on this walk. (I am notorious for stealing minutes. “I’m just running to the bathroom,” I’ll announce, before disappearing with a book until I hear someone screaming.) But Tagel loves to get outside, and will take advantage of any opportunity, just as her twin will seize any opportunity for alone time with a parent. “Ima, it’s OK, you can read,” Tagel assured me. “But I’m still coming.”

I was skeptical. How would I push the stroller and read my book with Tagel walking alongside me? Surely she would want to chat with me about her latest friendship woes –her new best friend was acting cool and aloof, and she was not sure how to respond. This was not going to be the walk I had envisioned, and I was feeling sour about it already.

“Tagel, how will I read if you’re walking with me?” I asked, trying to discourage her with my own aloofness. It wasn’t really fair, and I knew it. A better mother than I would have seized the opportunity for alone time with my daughter. A better mother would have invited her to come along, offering her the opportunity to share whatever was on her mind. The Talmud teaches in tractate Eruvin (22a) that a person cannot learn Torah unless they act cruelly to the members of their household, citing the example of Rabbi Ada bar Matana who went off to study and left his wife with no food to feed their children; when she protested, he told her to feed them reeds from the marshes. I know that cruelty all too well. It’s the only way I manage to read or learn with the kids around.

My cruelty notwithstanding, Tagel surprised me. True to her word, she walked by my side and did not say a word. Her one request, which was only fair, was that I read aloud to her. I had barely started the novel I’d brought along, and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for a seven-year-old. At this point, I told myself, there was only one way to find out.

The novel begins with a temper tantrum in the middle of a street. The narrator—a young single mother—tries to console her five-year-old son, who is sprawled out on the crosswalk wailing. He wants a lollipop; she doesn’t have one. The cars in front and behind start honking impatiently. Desperate, she leans over and promises her son, “If you behave nicely, we’ll go to Luna Park tomorrow.” His older sister knows it will never happen, and tells her brother, “She’s just saying that.” And indeed, the next day, the mother tells her kids that the amusement park is under construction, even though they see right through her lie. Their mother cannot even afford her rent, and they are facing a very real threat of eviction. She is too depressed to work; it takes all her energy to get herself out of bed so as to send the kids off to school and receive them when they return. All she can give them, she feels, are her promises, even if they are vain.

Tagel is listening; she doesn’t say a word. But the next day she will tell me proudly that when Shalvi fell apart between waking up and eating breakfast—as she does all too often, you’d think by now we’d have learned that we need to drop everything else and feed her right away in the mornings—she knew what to say to get her sister off the bathroom floor, where she was lying with her feet kicking up against the closed door, her hair glued to her face with tears. “Ima, I told her that if she got dressed and ate breakfast, you would take her to Luna Park,” Tagel will boast, as if I had been reading her a parenting manual rather than a work of literary fiction. A shadow crosses my face; I am wondering if that book was appropriate for Tagel. “Don’t worry, Ima,” she assures me, noticing my wrinkled brow. “I”ll just tell her it’s under construction.”

When I think about the pages I read to Tagel, it seems the false promise of Luna Park is the least of it. The mother in the book believes that she is not a good parent. She avows that she was too young to have children, and never really wanted to become a mother at all. She knows that it is not acceptable to voice such sentiments—to rail against the holy grail of motherhood—and yet she shares it with us, her readers. Except that now her readers include Tagel, who is trying to wrap her mind around what it means to be a bad mother. I find myself starting to worry. Has the phrase “bad mother” ever occurred to Tagel before? Why am I introducing her to this notion?

I imagine what is going through Tagel’s mind. Perhaps a bad mother is one who sneaks out of the house in the early morning to try to go for a run before her kids wake up? Or maybe a bad mother is one who says there is no more chocolate left, and then consumes it stealthily after the children are asleep? Maybe, I imagine Tagel thinking, a bad mother is one who comes to pick up her kids at school five minutes late every single day – not because she has any good reason, but simply because she finds it agonizing to tear herself away from her computer? Or perhaps a bad mother is one who keeps typing, pretending she can’t hear the voice crying out, “Ima, please check my hair for soap, Ima, I’m waiting, did I get all the soap out?”

I hope she isn’t thinking anything of the sort. I don’t think the Luna Park narrator thinks that being a bad mother is all that bad. True, she makes all sorts of promises she can’t keep. She can barely get dressed in the morning, let alone see her children off to school. She has to resort to petty theft in order to afford glasses for her daughter. And yet even so, as she tells us, “Children love even a bad mother. What matters is that they have a mother.” Natalia Ginzburg wrote similarly in Serena Cruz or The Meaning of True Justice, an attack on the Italian magistrates who tried to separate a girl from her adopted family: “Families can be awful, repressive, obsessive, or cool and uncaring and distracted, or toxic, tainted and maggoty. Very often they are like that. But a child needs one all the same… Maybe he grows up unhappy in his family, he’s ashamed of it, hates it, but it’s an unhappiness memory can feed on. In the future he will go back in his mind to that thick and woody forest.” Children grow up to define themselves in relation to their mothers and their families. If they don’t have mothers, and they don’t have families, then they have no way to figure out who they are, and who they want to become.”

“Tomorrow we’ll take a walk and I won’t bring a book,” I promised Tagel when the baby started fidgeting – always the signal to turn around and head home. I felt like I was telling her I’d take her to Luna Park, but she just shrugged it off. “It’s fine,” she told me, “I like when you read to me while we walk. It’s interesting for me to hear grown-up books.” Perhaps someday she’ll be the kind of mother who reads aloud to her children all the time, or who makes a point of never letting herself get lost in a book when her children need her attention. Either way, the person she will become will be shaped by the person I am. I look forward to reading her next chapter.

Beshalach: Fight or Flight

Just before the sea split, the Israelites stood on the shore in abject terror. Behind them the Egyptian chariots gave chase, driven by vengeful horsemen who whipped their galloping horses as fiercely as they were known to beat their slaves. Before them the sea sparkled in the morning light, its calm surface concealing unknown terrors of the deep. In the midrash, the fleeing slaves are analogized to a dove pursued by an eagle that enters a cranny in the rock, only to find that a snake is nesting there (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:14). The Israelites could turn neither backwards nor forwards, and yet there were those who suggested both – at least according to the Talmud’s account, which offers insight into how a religious sensibility might come to our aid in moments of fight or flight.

According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Y. Taanit 2:5), Moses was confronted by a cacophony of suggestions as to how to proceed in that decisive moment at the shore. The Israelites were divided into four factions: One suggested jumping into the sea in an act of mass suicide; one suggested returning to Egypt; one suggested going to battle against the Egyptians; and one suggested crying out to God. These four responses may be read as four ways of responding to adversity – surrender, submission, struggle, and spirituality. Moses, as we shall see, rejects them all.

Standing with his people on the shore, Moses said to them: “Fear not, stand by and see the salvation of God which He will show you today. For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever. God shall fight for you, and you shall be silent” (Exodus 14:13). The Talmud breaks down Moses’s response into a rejection of each of the four factions: To the desperate Israelites who wanted to jump into the sea, Moses assured them that salvation was imminent: “Fear not, stand by and see the deliverance of the Lord.” To those who advocated returning to Egypt, Moses insisted that Egypt was a thing of the past: “For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever.” To those who wanted to put up a fight, Moses assured them that this was not a time to take up arms: “God will fight for you.” To those who advocated prayer, Moses put his finger to his lips: “You shall be silent.” What, then, was the appropriate response?

Perhaps the answer can be found in God’s words to Moses just before the waters split: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them to go forwards” (Ex. 14:14). God did not want His people to look back toward Egypt, or up to the heavens, or down into the depths of despair – God wanted them to march forwards. The Talmud (Sotah 37a) celebrates the valiance of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was the first to do just that. According to the Talmud’s account, upon hearing God’s command, each tribe refused to be the first to step forwards. At that point, the leader of the tribe of Judah, Nachshon ben Aminadav, took matters into his own hands. He did not jump into the sea in surrender, but simply put one foot in front of the other. He pushed aside his fears like walls of water as if defying the sea to engulf him. At the same time, he entreated God to save him – the Talmud attributes to Nachshon the following verses from Psalms: “Save me, God; for the waters are come in even unto the soul. I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing…let not the water flood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up” (Psalms 69:2–3, 16). Nachshon prayed while simultaneously taking action. As such, his response was neither suicidal surrender nor spiritual stasis. It was not fight or flight, but faith and fortitude.

One small step for Nachshon turned out to be one great leap for the Israelites, who followed suit and were redeemed by God. The rest of the tribe of Judah, and then the rest of the Israelites, also walked into the water. Like Nachshon, they did not yet know of the miracle that awaited them. Unlike the ten plagues, which God had foretold, the Israelites had no way of knowing that the waters would split for them and then close in upon Pharaoh and his horsemen. They simply walked forwards, come what may. They, like Nachshon, may have also been calling out to God as they plunged into the waters. According to some commentators, the “Song of the Sea” recited by the Israelites—chapter 15 of the book of Exodus—was not a victory song but an expression of faith that God would deliver them. As Sforno puts it (on 15:19), “The Az Yashir occurred when Pharaoh’s horses went in with his chariots and horsemen into the sea, and God, the Blessed One, drowned them while the Children of Israel were still walking on the dry land in the midst of the sea. Before they came out, they began to sing.”

According to Sforno, the Israelites did not know that they would survive when they began singing. For all they knew, the waters that had begun to engulf the Egyptians would then creep up upon them. After all, they were used to a Pharaoh who was notorious for his changes of heart; why should their new Ruler be any different? And yet they believed in His steadfastness, at least enough to begin singing a song of thanksgiving even before there was anything concrete for which to be grateful. Perhaps it was in fact their very singing that brought about their deliverance, in the same way that God’s utterances created the world. The people sang that “He cast Pharaoh’s chariots and his army into the sea,” and lo and behold, God cast Pharaoh’s chariots and his army into the sea. And then they sang, “You made the wind blow; the sea covered them,” and lo and behold, the wind blew and the sea covered them. Their very expression of faith was what enabled God to stretch out His mighty hand and bring His people forth on dry land.

Wallace Stevens depicts a similar scenario in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” a poem about a woman who walks beside the sea and sings a song that creates the reality around her:
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang…
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.

The woman in the poem is the maker both of the song and of the world, just as the Israelites’ singing may have brought about (rather than merely recounted) the circumstances of their salvation. This is evident even visually in the Torah scroll, where the words of the song are printed in the shape of a brick wall, as per the words of the song: “And the water was for them a wall, to their right and to their left” (Exodus 14:22). According to this reading, the Israelites at the sea have already begun learning what it means to be liberated. They do not have to sink into despair, or return to servitude, or surrender all their agency and await God’s deliverance. To be free is to realize that we are the authors of our own story – we are the artificers of the world in which we sing. We hope against hope as a sign not of foolishness, but of faith and fortitude. It takes courage to walk forwards singing of a world of which we can only dream – but as we learn from Nachshon, it is a crucial first step.

Bo: The Midnight Harpist

The Israelites’ last night in Egypt was tense and dramatic. The Angel of Death was out and about and the Israelite slaves were in lockdown—commanded to remain inside their homes, secured behind doorposts smeared with amulets of blood and hyssop. Outside, the streets were haunted by the shrieks of dying men and beasts – “there was no house where there was not someone dead” (12:30). Even the dogs dared not whet their tongues with the Angel of Death so close at hand. Given the richness of the Torah’s description of this “night of vigil,” it seems surprising that when the rabbis discuss the eve of the Exodus, they are focused less on what happened and more on when it happened – and on why that timing matters.

The rabbis in the opening pages of tractate Berakhot (9a) discuss the timing of the Exodus to determine whether the Pesach sacrifice may be eaten only until midnight, or all the way until dawn. The answer hinges on whether the redemption happened in the middle of the night—when God struck down the Egyptian firstborns; or in the morning—when the Israelites went free. The Talmudic rabbis express surprise that when Moses warned Pharaoh of the tenth and final plague, he spoke in approximate terms, informing him that God would strike down the Egyptian firstborns “at about midnight” (11:4). They assume that Moses was merely relaying what God had told him, and yet God must have known exactly when He would send forth the Angel of Death. “Is there any doubt before God in heaven?” they ask. Surely God does not speak in approximations! They therefore conclude that God must have told Moses that He would strike down the firstborns at midnight, but Moses was not certain of the exact middle of the night; and thus it was Moses who introduced this language of approximation.

The notion that the ability to calculate time precisely is a hallmark of the Divine comes up in Mishnah Bekhorot 2:6, amidst a discussion of the mitzvah to consecrate every firstborn to God – a mitzvah that is taught in this week’s parsha, where God commands Moses, “Consecrate to Me every first-born, man and beast, the first issue of every womb” (13:1). The sages of the Mishnah consider the case of a sheep that gives birth to two males, with both heads emerging simultaneously. If the sheep has never before given birth, how do we determine which is the firstborn? In the Talmud (Bekhorot 17a) the majority of the sages argue that unlike God, human beings lack the capacity to discern between two acts that appear simultaneous, and thus both sheep must be given over to the priest. Only God can get the timing exactly right, at least according to the prevailing rabbinic opinion. Other dissenting rabbinic voices, however, insist that human beings are able to be just as discerning – which may explain why the rabbis are so surprised that Moses, the human being who came closest to the divine, lacked this capability.

Another reason the rabbis are so surprised that Moses spoke of the tenth plague in approximate terms is because even King David knew how to calculate the timing of midnight – at least according to Talmud Berakhot 3b. The rabbis quote from the book of Psalms, attributed to King David: “At midnight I rise to give thanks for your righteous laws” (Psalms 119:63). David woke up every night at exactly midnight to praise God. But how did David know exactly when midnight was, if even Moses didn’t know? They explain that David had an unusual sort of alarm clock: A harp hung over his bed, and every night at midnight, the northern wind would come and cause the harp to play of its own accord. David, upon hearing the music, would immediately arise from his bed and study Torah until the first rays of dawn. David’s lyre is reminiscent of the Aeolian harp, a wooden instrument played by the wind which served for the Romantic poets as a metaphor for poetic inspiration. Indeed, perhaps the poetry of the book of Psalms was inspired by the music of the wind.

The wind also played a key role in the redemption from Egypt. The Torah relates that the sea was split by means of a “strong east wind” (ruach kadim, Exodus 14:21). The Hebrew word for wind, ruach, is also used to refer to the divine spirit (ruach elokim, Genesis 1:2) and the human soul (ruach chaim, Genesis 7:22). And the English word “inspire” literally means to draw in breath – when Adam was “inspired” by God, he was transformed from inert earth into a human being with a divine spirit. This is not just a play on words. To be receptive to poetic inspiration is to be receptive to the divine – the wind that plays on the poet’s lyre is also the wind that heralds redemption.

Flannery O’Connor famously said that she used to sit down at her desk at the same time every morning because that was her way of holding “office hours” for her characters – she never knew whether they would drop in, but she wanted her characters to know how to find her. We can never be sure when inspiration will come; even Moses didn’t know exactly when the miracle was going to happen. But we can hang our lyres by our beds and keep our windows open – unable to discern the precise moment, but awaiting it nonetheless.

Vaera: Demons, Germs, and Magic Dust

The struggle between Moses and Pharaoh takes place on two fronts. First, there is the political campaign to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, bringing an end to hundreds of years of servitude. But then there is also the spiritual battle to convince Pharaoh and the Egyptians of God’s preeminence. Were the exodus a story of political liberation alone, there would have been no need for ten plagues or the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart – God could have simply struck the Egyptians with a devastating pandemic that would have killed them all off, leaving the Israelites to go free. The purpose of the ten plagues, as God explicitly tells Moses in this week’s parsha, is to “multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3) so that Pharaoh and all the Egyptians will learn to recognize the hand of God in the world. Surprisingly, one of the significant turning points in this spiritual battle is the plague of lice – it is these tiny critters that first begin to convince the Egyptians of God’s supremacy.

The plague of lice is the first divine sign that the Egyptians recognize as a miracle and not magic. Previously, when Aaron converted his rod into a snake, turned the Nile to blood and summoned the frogs, Pharaoh’s magicians were quick to replicate these special effects. But when Moses and Aaron make dust into lice, the Egyptians’ spells prove ineffectual. They turn to Pharaoh and pronounce, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:15)– a phrase that appears in only one other context in the Torah, to describe the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:18). For the Egyptians—albeit not for Pharaoh, whose heart God has hardened—the evidence of God’s hand in the world seems rock-solid and they are forced to admit defeat, at least on the spiritual front.

Why is it the plague of lice that stumps the Egyptian magicians? The Torah states that the lice were created from dust – God instructs Moses to tell Aaron, “Hold out your rod and strike the dust of the earth, and it shall turn to lice throughout Egypt” (Exodus 8:12). Adam, too, was created from the dust of the earth, suggesting perhaps that this plague was so effective because the ability to create life from dust is the province of God alone. The Talmud offers another answer, which appears amidst a discussion of magic and witchcraft. Rabbi Eliezer, in discussing the plague of lice, explains that “a demon cannot create an entity smaller than a barley grain” (Sanhedrin 67a). According to this understanding, the Egyptian magicians were using demons to perform their magical feats. But demons cannot create anything as small as lice, and thus the Egyptian magicians were unable to replicate the third plague and could only throw up their arms.

Demons may not be able to create anything tiny, but they themselves are miniscule – at least according to the Talmudic worldview. The rabbis in tractate Berakhot (6a) explain that demons cannot be seen by the naked eye – to see them, one must take the placenta of a black cat, burn it to ashes, and place it on one’s eyes. But Abba Binyamin cautions that if the eye were able to see them, no creature would be able to withstand their abundance and ubiquity. And Rav Huna adds that each individual has a thousand demons to his left and a thousand to his right at all times. In a sense, the demons of the Talmud are not unlike the germs of our modern scientific worldview – they are microscopic entities that we cannot see with the naked eye, but whose existence we nonetheless posit.

Just as we maintain that proper hygiene can mitigate the harmful effect of germs, the Talmudic rabbis believed that proper conduct could mitigate the harmful effect of demons and other magical forces. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67b) relates that a certain woman once tried to gather the dust from under Rabbi Hanina’s feet so as to cast a spell upon him. Rabbi Hanina told her to go ahead, insisting that he was not concerned because, as it says in the Torah, “there is no one besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35). The rabbis question whether there are indeed no other powers in the world. They resolve that magic is real, but it had no effect on Rabbi Hanina on account of his righteousness.

As the long arc of the history of science reminds us, belief in demons and germs—and belief in anything we cannot see—requires a leap of faith. I recall a cartoon that hung on the wall of my optometrist’s office when I was a bespectacled adolescent: “Dear God,” it said under a picture of a boy wearing a new pair of glasses, “Now that I have my glasses, I will finally be able to see you.” Indeed, perhaps the more pertinent question is not whether we can catch sight of demons, but whether we can recognize the hand of God. For the Egyptian magicians, this recognition followed the plague of lice, which makes sense: Lice are nearly invisible, and yet they cause so much distress that even the greatest skeptic would be convinced of their existence. For the rest of us, hopefully it will not take lice or any plague or pandemic to come to know God.

This past year has been a reminder that while viruses and germs are an inevitable part of our world, the decisions we make on the global, national, and individual levels can help curb their devastating impact. May we learn to act righteously and responsibly so that even when we cannot eradicate the harmful forces that threaten us, we can nonetheless ensure that we are doing our part to make the world a safer and healthier place.