Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5778/2017: The Missing Pieces

There are a few things missing from the Torah portion we read today, the Akedah, the story of the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, but two stand out to my mind in particular, both coming to our attention during the one exchange of words that takes place between the two main characters. This happens in verses 7 and 8. Isaac, who knows the least of all what is going on, though it is clear he assumes they have gone into the wilderness to sacrifice an animal, notices that his father is carrying wood and also transporting fire to set it alight. Or at least those are the only things that he mentions to his father he has noticed. What is interesting is that the narrative of the text has told us that Abraham is carrying three things–the wood, the fire, and the knife–but Isaac only echoes two of these three. Does he not see the knife? Does Abraham have it concealed, hidden away in the folds of his robe? If so, why should he hide it? Isaac clearly knows that they are on the way to slaughter an animal, so why shouldn’t he see the knife? Maybe it is some impulse on Abraham’s part to conceal it even if this isn’t necessary, out of terror or guilt, or some less nameable emotion, just as he conceals the ultimate purpose of their journey, as he understands it. Or maybe Isaac does see it, and some similar unconscious impulse or intuition imbues it for him with a kind of terrible and overwhelming shine, such that he can’t bring himself to name it. But whereas this absence is an unnamed presence, the other one is a named absence. “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?’ he asks his father. We might wonder at his tone. Is it innocence or dawning awareness? And what about his father’s answer? “God will provide the lamb,” he says, as the two walk on together. Is this an obfuscation, whether palliative or anesthetic? Or is it possibly an expression of faith, or hope, that there is perhaps a better resolution to the tension between them then the one he can foresee? All of this mystery is quite fitting for a story whose enduring relevance lies in the fact that it is full of holes.

The characterization of the Akedah in this way, as a story remarkable for what it lacks, is borrowed from Erich Auerbach, the mid-20th century German-Jewish literary scholar, and particularly from the famous first chapter of his classic work “Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature”, published in 1946 and composed while the author was living in Istanbul as a refugee from the Nazis. This chapter, which is frequently read as a stand-alone essay, is called “Odysseus’s Scar,” and it analyzes what Auerbach considered the key distinctions between the ancient Greek Homeric method of narration–as found in the Iliad and the Odyssey–and the Biblical style, typified by the Akedah. The difference boiled down to what Auerbach described as “lacunae”, or “lacuna” in the singular, meaning literally a small cavity or pit, or a discontinuity in anatomical structure, or, more to the point, a blank space; a missing part. Some of the effectiveness of Auerbach’s analysis comes through in the symbolic power of the details on which he hangs the contrast, on the one hand a gaping, empty space, and on the other a scar, a wound that has healed itself over and left a mark, but no essential interruption in the continuity of the skin or tissue. The scar in question, on the body of the wandering Odysseus, is what makes him known to his old nurse when he returns home, even though he is disguised to everyone else. “Here is the scar,” writes Auerbach, “and Homer’s feeling will simply not permit him to see it appear out of the darkness of an unilluminated past.” Instead, as Auerbach reminds the reader, it is described, physically and historically, in a delightful abundance of detail, which is the salient characteristic of the Homeric approach. “Never is there a form left fragmentary,” he says. “The Homeric style knows only a foreground, only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present.”

The lacuna-ridden biblical style stands in striking contrast, exhibiting, in Auerbach’s words, “the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity.” Paradoxically, because less is said of them, the biblical characters, of whom so much must be intuited or interpreted, seem much more real. Taking his own stab at character study, Auerbach describes Abraham’s “soul [as] torn between desperate rebellion and hopeful expectation; his silent obedience is multilayered, has background,” and adds, “such a problematic psychological situation as this is impossible for any of the Homeric heroes, whose destiny is clearly defined and who wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives.” (Vayashkem Odysseus baboker.) This is also what differentiates legend from history. “Homer,” says Auerbach, “remains within the legendary” a genre that “is generally quickly recognizable by its composition…It runs far too smoothly.” But history, as a literary genre, makes itself known to us by its inability to offer, for once and all, a singular and objective version of what happened, and its missing or contradictory details provoke from the telling the ambiguous and irresolute texture of real life. “To write history is so difficult,” Auerbach adds,” that most historians are forced to make concession to the technique of legend.”

Auerbach’s theory appeals to me, not the least because it provides me with additional terminology to try to articulate the manner in which I have approached this story throughout my adult life. As long as I can recall, I have been pushing away what I received as the standard contemporary reception of the Akedah, which was characterized by an almost priggish moral revulsion, expressed in a series of questions of the “what kind of a god would ask this?” and “what kind of a man would do this?” variety. This reading, of course, is based in a reasonable understanding of what happens in the story: a man of unswerving faith demonstrates his heroism through a readiness to offer to his god, unflinchingly, even his beloved son. But, borrowing Auerbach’s terms, couldn’t we say that’s a rather legendary reading of the story, as if Abraham were a Homeric character, fellow to Achilles and Agamemnon, rather than father to Ishmael and Isaac? As Auerbach makes clear, the Akedah is not about a scar, but rather an open wound, and the mythic material of the divine voice and the promise, for me at least, have always seemed to float above the complex realism of its laconic texture, as if these supernatural details were the concession to legend that Auerbach says the historian often makes to simplify her work. How much harder would it be without them to invoke the texture of a parent-child relationship, played against the backdrop of real life, and pulsing with the appearance and the disappearance of the knife and the lamb!

This conception of the story has led me, over the course of my adulthood so far, to expound two distinct pieces of “Akedah Torah.” I claim neither one as the original intent of the text–why should that stop me?–though I do believe that both are plausible constructions, built out of its indefinite substance and in keeping with its mood and tenor. The first of these came to me when I was in my early twenties. I can still remember thinking it through while loafing off at the office job I held after graduating college, though I didn’t actually deliver it in any form till I was in my later-twenties. It occurred to me through an association of the Akedah with a movie I saw as a kid that made an enormous impression on me, John Boorman’s “The Emerald Forrest”, in particular the sequence in which the white boy being raised by an Amazonian tribe goes through a fire-ant ceremony, a ritual death, so that he can become a man. I started thinking of this binding of Isaac as just such a ritual death, with the added complication that his father must also play a role in the ritual, because it is the father’s shadow, and not the boy’s innate immaturity, that is preventing growth. So God instructs Abraham to raise the knife, metonymy of the force of drive and personality that he wields over his son, and then to put it down and unbind the young man. I thought of this as young man’s Torah at its best, and I proceeded to tell it in one version or another throughout the superannuated adolescence of my thirties, the last time being my first years at the JCA, till I became a father myself, at which point my perspective embedded itself more deeply in Abraham. With the gift of a baby boy in my arms, and a pervasive foreboding about his fate on this tumultuous planet, and, I’ll be a little more frank, an odd sense of guilt that I had consented to have him knowing in full detail the implications of climate change, I began to tell the story of a father who walks a dark and brooding road with his son, a bit more Cormac McCarthy than John Boorman, hoping against hope for the lamb he has told his son they will find.

But personal events this year have given a new twist to my reading. One morning this winter, I picked up a voicemail from my younger brother (named Isaac, by the way) informing me that our father had suffered a heart attack. To my good fortune, I didn’t get this message till the prognosis had already been established as very good, but the episode shook us all up, especially, I’d imagine, my father and his husband, who have since reevaluated certain expectations of their lives and accelerated along the trajectory of retirement and relocation. Soon after, my mother began experiencing episodes of cardiac arrhythmia, a racing heart rate, and had to be hospitalized a few times before an ablation set her body right. We later pieced together the coincidence that she had been admitted to Mass General on the same day that my father was having his first follow-up there with the cardiologist. She, too, has continued to improve, but I could still say, thinking selfishly for a moment, that two parents developing heart conditions in a single year marks a turning in the life of a man in his mid-forties. I found myself bringing all of this new experience to bear on my reading of the Akedah, and realizing that what it meant was that I wasn’t done playing Isaac; that what I might begin to envision was a scenario in which a middle-aged Isaac realized he would, in a way, be carrying Abraham down the same road to the mountain they had walked years ago, that time they had hoped for the lamb without speaking of the knife.

Auerbach takes his analysis a step further, suggesting that another significant distinction between the Bible and Homer is that only the former claims it is telling the one true story, an insistence he describes as “tyrannical” in the obligations it places upon the reader. Not only because of its empty space must this tale be continually reinterpreted, but because it is a sacred story that must travel with us through time and be reinhabited from subsequent perspectives. Though I don’t know the extent to which his own Jewish sensibility had been etiolated through assimilation, it should be quite clear to us that Auerbach is describing the process of Midrash, of reading our way into an ambiguous story that we are compelled to revisit. But I want to suggest that the real text here is not so much the Torah as life itself, and that the narrative, slippery and undefined in a way that allows for the portrayal of the reality of change and progression in human identity and relationships, is only a means to an end; a way of measuring ourselves as we move through time and it moves through us, with regard to strength and weakness, youth and age, responsibility and decline, carrying the burden and being, in this sense, the burden that is carried; how one one man in his time plays many parts, and Abraham becomes Isaac and Isaac becomes the Abraham to the Isaac that was Abraham. How it is a story made history, made true, by its lacunae, full of things we don’t know how to name, or pretend not to see, or try to say, or forget, and partaking of the egoistic self-assertion that proves the test of love–the knife–and the lamb: the hope for peace and reconciliation, for the sharing of a common ceremony that may arise, in the end, out of the realization that both parents and children are a part of the same imperfection, and nobody is a legend because everything is full of holes.

And I started to imagine this new Isaac–my double, my brother–watching his sons grow and remarking on how a man as overwhelming as his father could only be carried in the third generation by splitting his personality between twins, one for his vigor and the other for his cunning, and noticing that his eyes aren’t what they used to be, and the taste for game burgeoning in his mouth, and remembering that time he took me into the wild and held the knife over my head and then put it down. I can still remember what it looked like, flapping from his belt as he walked and glinting in the sun, the long one he always used for slaughtering the sheep, and the sun was shining, and I can remember that it seemed too strange, and I had this feeling that I couldn’t even name, and then what happened. Why did he do it? What did it mean for him? Where did we go from there? And I was wondering where the lamb was, so I asked him, and he told me some story about it. A lie. No, he didn’t lie. He said it was a missing piece.

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Rosh Hashanah Day One 5778/2017: Moses and Polytheism

My son, Efraim, seldom strikes me as more Jewish than when he says the following words: “I don’t want to go to Hebrew School.” This past Sunday, I took him for his first day. He was in the once-a-month, parent-child program last year, but now he’s expected to go every week, with neither Elise nor I there to console him. It was a bit of a dance to get him to stay. My goal had been to drop him off quickly, then abscond to my office to work on this sermon. But he clung to me when I presented him in the small sanctuary for opening prayers. I sat down with him on the floor, and tried to call his attention to the kids in the room that he already knew. I cajoled him. I tried to leverage his allowance–five quarters a week–as incentive. But he was reluctant to let go of me. Finally, with his teacher calling the children to attention, I promised Efraim I would check on him later, if only he would follow the group down to their classroom. This did the trick. Of his own volition, he handed me the stuffy he had brought with him, for safekeeping. It was a “hippopotabat”, as he kept telling the teacher, who thought it was a dragon. Then he took his place, first in line and the smallest of them all, and went downstairs, and I realized that I had an introduction to the topic I want to talk with you about today.

But first, let’s take a little journey back in time.

It’s common to explain Rosh Hashanah to little children by playing up its identity as “the birthday of the world.” You can make cards, even sing happy birthday. This seems more age-appropriate than intimidating them with the story of God inscribing and sealing our fates for the coming year. Who doesn’t love a birthday party? But where does this notion that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world even come from? Certainly not from the Torah, in which this day isn’t even described as a new years celebration. The Mishnah calls it new years, but one among a handful, with its implications relating mostly to tax assessment. Though at the culmination of the musaf prayer today, we will intone the phrase hayom harat olam–“today the world stands at its birth”–this sentiment is immediately subsumed into the “judgement and repentance” motif, as if the only implication of being invited to the world’s birthday party is that you better be good, for goodness sake. While we understand it as the ending and the beginning of a cycle, there seems to be a link, buried deeply within its historical memory, between this holiday and the very order of creation, whose significance we have largely forgotten.

But don’t worry, I think I found it, and in a very old place. While in the exercise of comparative religion we are more used to examining ourselves alongside our Abrahamic brethren–Christians and Muslims–we should recall that the roots of our tradition, our rituals and our myths, reach all the way back to the ancient Near East. Therefore, if we want to understand ourselves better, it might be worthwhile to make an examination in the light of our Assyrian and Babylonian cousins.

New years festivals were a dominant feature of Mesopotamian religion, and their connection to creation stories was abundantly clear. We know the most about a Babylonian holiday called Akitu. Its name was a Sumerian word meaning barley, and it could be held at one of two points in the rhythm of the cultivation of this quickest of the grains; either when it was sowed in the fall, before the rains came, or, more commonly, in the spring, around the time of Passover, when it was harvested. But cosmic matters were emphasized over and above the agricultural, and it was in this vein that the multi-day celebration was understood to mark the beginning of the world, at least as the Babylonians knew it. To invoke the meaning of the season, they recited the Enuma Elish, the great creation myth that originated in the Bronze Age, and was recovered in fragmentary form on clay tablets in Mosul, Iraq, site of the ancient city of Nineveh, by a 19th century British archeologist.

This remarkable story describes the emergence of the ordered world out of the body of a slain goddess, the result of a battle that broke out between generational factions of a pantheon of deities. This is how it begins–I hope you will pardon my rusty Paleo-Babylonian–“Enuma elish la na-bu-u sha-ma-mu.”

When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being…

As the story advances, the emerging divinities form cohorts and war with each other, with Tiamat, in particular, the goddess of oceanic disorder, threatening the well-being of many of the others. So they anoint as their champion a young upstart, Marduk, and he battles Tiamat and her minions on their behalf. Killing her, he fashions the world from her body:

He split her like a shellfish into two parts:
Half of her he set up as the ceiling of the sky,
He pulled down the bar and posted guards.
He ordered them not to allow her waters to escape.
…He determined the year by assigning the zones:
He set up three constellations for each of the twelve months.

In so doing, Marduk becomes, if not the creator god himself, then the champion of civilization; the bringer of order, making predictable human life possible through the vanquishing of watery chaos.

The text is even more gripping and violent than these selected passages are able to convey. It’s also important to remember that the Enuma Elish, at least in this version, was not a stand-alone literary work but ceremonial scripture, much like our own Torah readings, read to establish the mythic context for the celebration of Akitu, because, in the words of one commentator, “each New Year shared something with the beginning of time, when the world was created and the cycle of the seasons started.” Creation, in this sense, is the very text of the new year, and it follows from this that the nature of the creation described informs the social, spiritual, and emotional burden of the new years celebration.

Archeologists and historians, through some art of divination that has so far escaped me, have purported to describe for us the progression of the Akitu festival. Its first days were somber, with the populace given over to a contemplation of the uncertainties of the future, brought into sharp relief by the changing of the year–perhaps reciting their own version of unetanah tokef: who shall live, and who shall die? Enuma Elish was chanted, and meanwhile a version of the great myth played out in the form of a pageant, in which it was imagined that Marduk had been kidnapped and imprisoned in a sacred mountain. Once again, his cohort battled with the forces of Tiamat for his release, and when this was achieved it was understood as a reaffirmation of the primal victory of order over chaos. At the same time, a parallel drama played out on the political level. The king of Nineveh, who ruled by divine right of Marduk and was his avatar, was stripped of crown and scepter, and removed from his throne. Then, unless scholars are grossly misreading the original Sumero-Akkadian script, he was slapped hard across the face, a number of times, by the high priest. It was considered an auspicious sign if this brought him to tears. Then, as Marduk’s order was reestablished, the vanished king was restored to his seat and a sacred marriage was effected between him and the personification of the fertility goddess Innana, after which all was once again right with the world.

And you thought it was exciting to sit in shul all morning then go home and eat honey cake!

I think we can deduce from this material that the fundamental connection between the new year and the story of creation–the nexus that gives us the notion of the birthday of the world–has to do with the interplay between a need for order and an intimation of chaos; the effort of human beings to construct a dependable basis for existence, and the anxiety created when this aspiration is threatened by the less than dependable forces of nature and fate. Once a year, this dilemma would be brought into focus through a ritual that called attention to the god credited with establishing and insuring the cosmic order against an ever-lapping turmoil; a ceremony to allay our fears through a kind of controlled release, even a little bit playful, in which powerful beings were removed from their necessary places–allowing for a measured taste of chaos–only to be restored promptly and convincingly, just as grains of barley must be scattered in order to sprout.

You may have already picked up on the similarities between the Enuma Elish and our own creation story out of Genesis. In both tales, the world is made of some preexisting material, rather than ex nihilo, out of nothing. We read in Genesis, viha’aretz hayta tohu vavohu–and the planet, such as it was, was void and without form, as if the storyteller is trying to convey the same primeval chaos while deliberately refraining from personifying it. But the phrase continues, v’khosekh al piney tihom, commonly rendered as “and there was darkness over the face of the abyss,” though my iconoclastic middle-school Bible teacher, of blessed memory, taught us to hear in the Hebrew word tihom a resonance of Tiamat and the tumult of the watery deep, v’ruakh elohim mirakhefet al pinei hamayim, and the divine spirit somehow troubling the ocean. Then a masterful God asserts order over the wild and unformed, bringing light out of darkness, separating the waters and drawing out dry land, and establishing the calendrical regularity of the heavenly bodies–just as Marduk does in the Enuma Elish–everything in its right place. Of course, there are differences, all emanating out of the theological shift from polytheism to a cosmos governed by a lone god, the most significant being that in the Bible’s understanding, humanity does not subsist perilously amidst the thunderous warring of the gods, but at the mercy of a God who has complete control. This point might be emphasized through a comparison of the flood myths that exist both in the Bible and the Babylonian tradition. Both cultures understand that an order established through the holding back of raging waters can be undone, but whereas the Babylonians chalk it up to another round of internecine strife in the pantheon, the Biblical writer attributes it to human failing. This also explains why on their new years day, the Babylonians rehearsed creation, and celebrated the reestablishment of the god who was their champion, whereas we are given over to repentance and atonement, seeking to win the favor of the God holding all the cards.

I’ll admit that my own heart is hung somewhere between these two stories. From the Bible, we learn the power of our own agency. If we want the water held at bay then–aleynu–it is up to us, to do right by God, by the planet, by our fellow human beings. But, apart from the delight my imagination takes in immersing itself in the vivid details of its rituals and myths, I sometimes wonder if the polytheistic conception doesn’t strike a little closer to a naturalistic truth, speaking more directly to the relentlessness of human vulnerability in the midst of clashing forces, and the fact that we will not always be saved, even if we do the right thing. At the same time, I recognize that Akitu was the ritual of an imperial capital, and that its completion might have imbued the powers-that-be with the same smug certainty as any monotheistic devotee who believes he has gotten God on his side, to say nothing of the feminist critique I am sure has already been launched post facto against the celebration of a patriarchal order established upon a brutalized female body. So I find myself trying to split the difference, endeavoring, in the absence of any certainty, to uncover in this birthday of the world a story and a symbol that will ground my spirit, while orienting it toward the equivocal reality it must face. It is at this moment I recall that the Torah’s genius lies in the fact that most of it takes place in a wilderness.

The Torah tells its own version of the story of a vanished king, and a god entrapped on a mountain. In Exodus, after transmitting the ten commandments, Moses reclimbs Mount Sinai to commune with God, telling the people he will be back in forty days. But when he tarries, the people grow fearful, feeling in the pit of their stomachs the real version of the anxiety the inhabitants of Nineveh pantomimed on their festival. What they feel is the mortal gape of chaos, the undoing of their own fledgling sense of order against the backdrop of the oceanic heat and sand of the desert. What they try to do is fill it, as you might feed an addiction, with an object or a substance, a golden calf, a vulgar presence jammed into their need, around which they run riot, surrendering the capacity to cogitate the reality of their circumstance. Moses returns and the matter is attended to. But when he goes back up to God, disheartened, he enacts within a singular human frame the drama that has just played out on a national scale. “I want to see you,” he says to God. “I want you to come down off this mountain. I want the presence. I want the certainty.” And God responds with what is perhaps the truest statement ascribed to him in the entire Bible: that’s not how it works. Then they resume their interrupted conversation, which, coincidentally, was about how to make sacred objects out of gold. There were to be two cherubim, angelic figurines, facing each other with their wings outspread, set like a throne on the cover of the ark of the covenant in the inner recess of an exquisitely ordered, collapsable and portable, linen tent, known as the mishkan, the dwelling place, and sheltering between their wings the most sacred icon of this new spirituality, which was: nothing. An empty space. An absence. Like a hole cut through the middle of the calf, or the seat of a king who has not returned, or the expectation of a god who never leaves the mountain all the way. Instead of false certainty, or an eternal promise of order, it was a pregnant emptiness, a focal point to keep the mind open to revelation, an absence to make the heart grow, a way of facing up to the daily task of wandering in a wilderness without any assurance that all is well; a piece of chaos enshrined in the heart of order. Moses brought this vision down to the people and they assembled it with mature skill and dignified enthusiasm, and when they were through, the Midrash tells us, they checked to see what day it was. It was the first of Nissan, which, by biblical reckoning, made it the first day of the year.

Hayom harat olam. Today is the world’s birthday party. Today is the day we assert that there is order in the world, and strive to feel a sense of stability on which to base the journey of our lives. But if there were ever a time in human history to assume that, with the ceremony complete, the year to come was assured, it is most certainly not ours. Instead, we seek, if not in the presence of the king or the god then in the ritual itself and in ourselves, the container, the open embrace, the two cherubim that face each other and provide some kind of endurable vacancy through which we can accept the task of aligning ourselves now toward the indefinite and the uncertain; like a child, putting down his golden calf, his particolored hippopotabat, and letting go his father’s hand to enter the unknown.

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Judy Davis’s D’var Torah for Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot

Judy Davis
D’var 2016
(Ki Tissa, Sh’mot Exodus 33:12-34:26 (D’vorim/Deuteronomy 16:13-17)

Hope in the Desert

Good Shabbos, everyone.
This is the third time I’m speaking on this special parashat for Succoth. The first time I did it, for my 60th birthday. The second time, for my 70th, and this time for my 72nd. (I no longer take 10 years for granted.) For me, the first marked the first sukkah we’d built (which I’d promised myself I would do if/when we had grandchildren to enjoy it). The second marked the first tallis I’d made, which I was somehow old enough to be ready for. ( Remember that book “When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple.”?) This d’var is for my gratitude for having lived through this past year of cancer. My gratitude for my family at home, and my gratitude for my family in this community, the community who walked with us through the desert.

This year, I want to do three things. I want to talk about hope–Moses’s and mine. I want to share a very personal story, and at the end, I want to get back to Sukkot.
Today, we read from two scrolls. In the second, we read in Deuteronomy where we are told to live in booths for seven days and to celebrate the occasion. In the first, we read from the book of Exodus, parsha Ki Tissa.
Here, we enter the story just after the episode of the golden calf and we end with the second set of tablets. These are the tablets which include the commandment regarding the three pilgrimage festivals– of which Succoth is the last.

What has just happened is extraordinarily intense. Moses had just come down from the mountain, saw what the people had done, and in a fury, smashed the tablets he’d just gotten from God. Then he confronts Aaron, burns the golden idol, dissolves its powder in water and forces the people to drink it. Then finally, he has 3,000 people murdered for their transgression. What a moment.

Torah scholar Everett Fox describes the fierce emotions enacted in this scene as “the real world of human frailty—doubt, anger, panic, pleading, courage.”
I can relate.
Where we begin, Moses is working to convince God to continue leading the Israelites himself, no matter how “hard necked” these people are—rather than (as God had threatened) send an angel or messenger in his stead. God agrees to Moses’ request. And then Moses has the chutzpah to voice another request, a most incredible request. He asks God to show him His face. (Har’reni na et K’vodecha). This amazingly intimate request has been called the parsha’s “center of gravity.”

The last time I did this, I focused on God’s answer—of course, it was “No”.
No one gets to see God’s face and live.

Instead, God told Moses to stand next to Him on the rock and that when He (God) was about to pass by (and put Moses in danger), he would place him in the “cleft of the rock” and screen him with His hand until He had passed. God’s hand! “You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen”.
Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg, called what Moses would see
“the aftermath” of God’s presence.”
There is so much to say about this response, and its extraordinarily physical vocabulary, but not this time.
This time I want to marvel at the fact that Moses not only had the chutzpah to ask for such a blessing, but how he had the hope that God would possibly bless him in this way. After all that Moses had been through with these impossible people, how did he keep having hope?

So here’s where my story about hope begins. All my life, I cried easily. “There she goes again, pishing and gishing.” But as soon as the ovarian cancer was diagnosed, I stopped crying. Not deliberately, but, no tears. No cleansing sobs.
I’d get farklempt when a doctor or nurse would say something surprisingly kind to me, but no real crying.
After months of this, friends were beginning to ask what was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I letting my emotions out? Why wasn’t I crying?
“You need a therapist, Judy”.

Finally, it was a few days before a day when I was scheduled for five appointments at Mass General, the last of which would be chemotherapy if the first four determined I was healthy enough to get the poison.

I was now scared enough to call a therapist, the only one I felt would be able to put me back together again if I started crying and couldn’t stop. She was a nationally known trauma expert from whom I had taken supervision many years ago. I knew her to be brilliant, effective and very kind.
I wasn’t sure she would remember me, or if she would agree to see me as a client rather than as a supervisee. But I took the chance and told her my story. Not only did she agree, she volunteered to come to my house the next day because I was too sick to get to her.

Immediately, I felt safe as she sat on the stool in front of me. “So what do you want to cry about?” she asked, softly. I had no answer, and I had no tears. I couldn’t make them happen. “I’m so sorry, Kay, I brought you here for nothing. I can’t cry. There’s nothing there.”

“Oh not for nothing, “ she said, peering at me very carefully. “What I see is how smart your body is.” A smart body? She had my attention.

Then she explained: “When we are living with intense trauma, the cognitive part of our brains tamp down and the parasympathetic part (the part that controls our breathing our heart beat, our pulse, etc) that part takes over. Your crying or not crying is not in your control. What I see is that your body is not letting you cry. It’s not letting you dissipate your energy with tears. It’s saving your energy to fight the cancer”. I was already sitting up straighter.
So I wasn’t crazy. I was smart.

“So tell me what you’re afraid of in Boston,” she went on.

I’m afraid I’ll get there in the morning and they’ll discover another exotic disease (like the babesiosis that came from the contaminated blood).
I’m afraid they won’t find a new disease, but my blood counts won’t be strong enough for the chemo.
I’m afraid I’ll be able to have the chemo, but it will hurt terribly (like the time I had it and was allergic to something in the prep),
or that the chemo would go well, but they won’t let me go home that day ( they never seemed to let me out the same day I came in)
or they’ll let me out, but I won’t have the energy to celebrate the last night of Hanukah with my grandchildren.

“Ok,” she said. “Now tell me all those fears in the form of hope.”

In the form of hope?? I had no idea what she was talking about.
Yes, like, I hope that I will get there and they won’t find a new exotic disease, I hope that, etc.

Slowly, with great effort, I recited my catalogue of fears in this foreign form of hope. By the time I got to the part about Hanukah, I felt completely different. What an intervention!

It was more than a simple reframe.
Something about the words were making something in my physiological nervous system different.
I understand this theoretically and clinically,
but it still sounds so simple minded: by the time she’d left my house,
I was actually looking forward to the next day.

By the end of that next day, all of my hopes had come true.
I told this story at the Hanukah dinner table, and my 10 year old grandson, Izzy, in the car going home, told his parents,
“Bubbie makes magic. She said what she wanted and she made it happen.” Magic. Some kind of magic.

As a child of Eastern European immigrants, hope was not a word I heard often in my house. Fear was the word we knew best. God forbid, keyn eynhore, the outdoors are dangerous, poo, poo, poo. Endless things to be afraid of.
I’ve been resisting this cocktail of shtetl reality, superstition, and Bubba meises, all my life.

Now when I hear a thought in my head, or the beginning of a spoken sentence that begins with “I’m afraid that…” I try to catch myself and change it to, “I hope that… “ And even if the fear is still there underneath, the different words, the reminder of this session with Kay, makes a difference.
And every time I would tell the story to the person who was visiting me (and many of you were on that stool in front of my sofa) I could see them taking in my story and making it their own. They were thinking about their own fears and internally changing the word to hope.
It was so great. I could see it on their faces. I was doing therapy.

Two weeks later, I was in the infusion room at Mass General. From behind the curtain to my left, I heard a young woman crying as she spoke to her mother. “Oh Mom, I can’t remember a thing. I have chemo brain”. “Chemo brain!” I shouted out. “I know all about that!” The curtain was pulled aside immediately. They wanted to talk as much as I did. The young woman was a beautiful 47 year old lawyer who had a lump in her breast. The doctors were trying to shrink it with chemo so that they could operate. Her mother said she’d been crying day and night since the diagnosis.

I looked at them directly. And in my most therapeutic, trance-inducing voice, I asked, “Would you mind if I told you a story?” “Yes, please do!” (in unison).
And so I told them my story. And as with all those I’d told before, I could see them taking it in and making meaning for themselves.
By then we had each finished our respective bags of chemo, got off our beds and all four of us, the lawyer, her mother, Allen and me, all stood together between the beds and hugged. When we were ready to leave and say goodbye, the mother forgot my name, and instead of Judy, she called me “Hope.”
I didn’t correct her.

The next day when I told a friend about this experience, she asked if I had a middle name. I didn’t. “Why don’t you take Hope as your middle name?
I thought about it for one minute and said, yes, but I’ll take it in Hebrew: Tikvah. Yehudit Tikvah bat Yoseph v’ Chiekah.

And that’s how I knew myself at my grandson’s bar mitzvah this past June.
OK, now back at the desert, and the holiday of Sukkoth.
I’ve talked about this before, but I’m repeating it because it always brings me up so short. With all of the holidays we celebrate, and all of the milestones we mark, there is no holiday or ceremony commemorating our entering the land of milk and honey. Although it would make such a great story: First we escaped Egypt (that’s Pesach), then we were given the laws by which to live (that’s Shavuoth), and then we arrived safely (that would be Succoth). But no—then we kept on wandering. That’s Succoth!
Succoth is about the journey, not the arrival.
And not only is it about wandering and not arriving, but it is the only one of the holidays the Torah commands us to celebrate with simcha, with joy.

In fact, one of the names for this holiday is “Z’man simchateynu,” the Season of our rejoicing.” What is this? We don’t get to where we’re going and we’re commanded to be happy about it?

Michael Strassfeld, a popular Jewish commentator, calls Succoth the “to be continued story.” Should we conclude, he asks, “that Succcoth marks the fact that dreams don’t come true?” He answers with a qualified yes. If it were the “happily ever after story,” he says, we would be faced with the impossible question of why we’re still living in such an imperfect world, why there is still so much pain and suffering if in fact, we’d arrived in the Promised Land.

Succoth is about the fact that the story goes on—the story of the Jewish people and the story of each one of us. As trite as it sounds, we’re all wandering. The only question, of course, is how we make the journey. Where do we fall on the continuum between being constantly terrified on the one end, and totally oblivious on the other?
Strassfeld says that it’s not the future goal that sustains us in face of hardships, but the act and challenge of living in the moment.
As the commandment reminds us take pleasure in the moment.
Travel with joy. with HOPE.
Sukkot, he says, is the explanation of how to live after the exodus and after Sinai, how to live when we are no longer experiencing miracles, or hearing God’s voice directly.

At the risk of sounding grandious, I feel that I did experience “a miracle”.
The miracle of modern medicine, and the miracle of ancient community.

Between the doctors, my family, and so many of you in this community, I was with Moses in the cleft of that rock. And I am filled with gratitude.

This was going to be the end of my talk. As they say, “I’ve stood between you and lunch long enough”. But please, one more minute.

In his second day Rosh Hashanah d’var, Rabbi Weiner talked about the two cardinal modes of relating to God: love and fear. And he talked about two different types of fear: fear of the heavens, i.e., fear of the grandeur of God, contrasted with the second type of fear—fear of sin, fear of punishment for having done wrong. This fear, he said, is denigrated by many (including Maimonides). They call it an immature religious outlook.
He went on to muse about what he thought was our contemporary antipathy to the very notion of fear. My ears perked up. He was talking to me.

Rabbi Weiner’s talk was very erudite and very dense. I hope he’ll forgive me for mangling it, but what it made me think about was the dichotomy I had set up between my mother’s fears and my struggle with hope. It is clearly a false dichotomy.
Rabbi Weiner, quoting Milton Steinberg (the author of both “Basic Judaism,” and the novel “As a Driven Leaf,” ) told us that “No one who sees reality as it is…bitter as well as sweet, violent as well as gentle, frightening as well as comforting, will question for a moment that God is as fittingly an object of dread as of love.
Steinberg seems to be suggesting, Rabbi Weiner went on, that fear has a place in religious practice. He was talking about what might be called, “sacred fear.

So whether I think (like my mother) of taking on a new name in order to “fool the angel of death,” (I’d actually forgotten all about that one)
or I think of taking on a new name like Jacob who came through battle wounded but hopeful (and with a new name),

I am grateful for my new, more nuanced thinking about my mother–her fears AND her love. Yes, she was afraid of sinning against God, AND she loved Judaism. And somehow, that combination contributed to not only my having a community like this one, but to her grandchildren and great grandchildren having communities like this as well.
Thank you, and Shabbat Shalom

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YK Day 5777/2016: On Responsibility

4. On Responsibility

I wasn’t always a rabbi. I used to be a child, and when I was a kid, the High Holiday services I went to were very long. We did the whole book, and took pride in that fact. It was like having a yearly holiday in which the ritual was to read the entirety of Ulysses. A lot of it just washed over me in a big mass of liturgy, though we had a wonderful hazzan who brought the passion of the service to life in a way that has stuck with me to this day. But there were moments that I noticed, even then, more than others, particularly the part that sounded to my young ears like an inscrutable recitation of numbers: achat, achat v’achat, achat ushtayim, achat v’shalosh, and so on. I would guess that I perked up at this time because one of the earlier things I would have learned in Day School was to count in Hebrew, so I could recognize that something was being counted, albeit in an unusual way: one, one and one, one and two, one and three. And so forth, all the way though one and seven. Imagine my surprise when I learned, eventually, that what was being counted here were the drops of blood being splattered by the High Priest from the goat he had just slaughtered as he sprinkled them from his fingertips on to the appurtenances of the sacred precinct.

These lines come from a section of the musaf service for Yom Kippur, which we have the opportunity to encounter later today, called “Seder HaAvodah”, or, in English, “The Service of the High Priest.” There is a primitive virtual reality quality to this part of the liturgy. It hearkens back to the earliest days of Jewish mysticism, when, in the wake of the destruction of the second Temple, spiritual journeys would be taken by entering into a trance state while a guide narrated the experience of passing through a heavenly Temple that was even more grand and holy than the one that had been lost to Roman destruction. I can’t promise any mystical journeys in the musaf today, though I’m sure our hazzan will do beautifully, but the principle is the same. We will narrate the experience of the High Priest as he prepares for and then performs the ancient, cultic sacrificial rituals of Yom Kippur–the way it used to be done when the Temple was standing in Jerusalem. It is a more ornate version of the original desert ceremony in the mishkan, which God instructed Aaron and his sons to perform, as we read in today’s Torah reading from Leviticus.

There are a few details of this service that I want to call our attention to today, and invite us to consider. I think they might provide us with some insight, as we try to get our minds around the subject of atonement, and wrestle with the time-honored question that the caterpillar first addressed to Alice: who are you? which, really, is not a very easy question to answer.

As we learned from the Torah reading, Yom Kippur originally played a crucial role in the yearly ritual cycle of the sacrificial cult. It was the day on which the High Priest entered the most sacred part of the the mishkan, or, later, the Temple, an area known as the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies. To do so, he underwent a very painstaking series of preparatory activities, understanding that what he was about to do was a matter of life and death. As part of this preparation, he made three distinct sacrificial offerings of atonement, the first for himself and his family, the second for himself and his fellow priests, and the third for himself and all of the Israelite nation, to which he belonged. Then he went inside, on behalf of this nation that he represented, to purify this sacred place that was held in common by the entire society, and, in fact, represented what they valued most highly as a people.

It was understood that over the course of the year this sacred place became overlaid with a kind of spiritual plaque, called tumah, which accreted there because of the sins and misdeed of the people, against God, against the land, and against each other. If this plaque went unchecked, it could lead to disastrous consequences for all of these relationships, resulting ultimately in the dissolution of the community through destruction and exile. What the High Priest did every year at Yom Kippur was enter into the Holy of Holies and, essentially, scape away all of the plaque that he could, like a sacerdotal dental hygienist. Only in this way could the people be assured of another year of life and thriving–which is why we are told, in the later stories related about this day from the Temple period–that they were very happy to see him come out alive, and Yom Kippur would culminate in celebrations of ecstatic joy.

Although, since the destruction of the second Temple and the transitioning of Jewish spirituality from animal sacrifice to verbal prayer, there is no longer an actual service of the High Priest, tradition teaches that none of this has simply vanished into thin air. Instead, not only do we read about it in our prayer book, but we are meant to see it as the template of our own individual experiences of atonement. In this sense, on this day, each of is the High Priest, entering into the Holy of Holies to effect a purification that enables life to flourish. So stop thinking about the High Priest as someone else–he is you. He is the avatar of your subjectivity. What the Torah says about what he is responsible for has something very important to suggest to us about what it is we are responsible for, and, in fact, who “we” really are. And the most important point to draw from this is the recognition that nothing that he did was simply for himself as an individual. Every ritual of atonement–the preparatory offerings as well as the scraping of the sacred plaque–was done in the context of a relationship of responsibility, whether to family, or caste, or people. This should make us think.

I’ll try to clarify the point by telling you how it occurred to me. Actually, it came in two different guises.

The first has to do with being Jewish. Though, in keeping with the tenor of our times, we may tend to think of religion as a personal matter of individual spirituality, Judaism has always meant more than a private confession or practice. Instead, it has represented a global and historical experience of community and peoplehood. It has meant partaking in an identity that transcends the individual lifespan in time and space, and claiming ownership of, and responsibility for, that broader sense of self. You may think I’m going to harangue you about paying membership dues to the synagogue, but actually I thought I’d say a few words about a less fraught topic: the State of Israel.

It has been said, and even demonstrated, that the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel has entered a new era of tenuousness, especially when we consider the progressive or unaffiliated segment of American Judaism. The existence of Israel reaches back into a Jewish past of collective existence and experience–a sense of shared destiny–that has drastically diminished since it was founded just after the Holocaust, leaving the endeavor high and dry, or at least reliant on some very virulent and religiously-infused forms of nationalism for its most salient motivating force. There have been years of bad action by successive governments in prolonging a brutal occupation, but there has also been an unending campaign of vicious and traumatic attacks perpetrated against Israeli civilians, beyond what we can understand from our position of relative comfort, and a global culture prone to double-standards and, at the very least, tinged with anti-Jewish sentiment. The result is a reality that leaves many of us, by turns, feeling queasy, disgusted, fearful, alienated, ashamed, angry, and despairing, and has conditioned what I think is the most prevalent response among those with the luxury to do so–a shrug of the shoulders and a walking away.

Talk about a once sacred project– like the holy of holies in the mishkan–that has become overlaid with a virulent plaque! I wish I knew a simple method to scrape it off. I don’t, but all I can say is that nothing is served by forsaking our collective priestly duty to seek atonement, to purify, as best we can, the terms of our shared identity. I hope you will pay attention to, and participate in, the programming we have upcoming later in the fall–a visit from Rabbi Donniel Hartman and a follow-up community conversation–as we search together for a way forward.

I mentioned there was another way in which I was thinking about this point–that our responsibility for atonement, like that of the High Priest, lies less in the individual realm than in our relationships and the identities and sacred trusts we hold in common. I could certainly mention climate change and ecological catastrophe, once again, but I assume you know about these problems and know, to some extent, what needs to be done, so I thought I’d spend my time today on something not unrelated, but a little more cheerful: American politics.

To say “I am Jewish” is not merely a statement of individual predilection, but an affirmation of connection to others. The same is true with the phrase, “I am an American.” Think about that for a second–think about the phrase itself: “I am an American”. What do you think and feel when mouthing those words? Do you say it comfortably, or with reservation? I don’t think I am the only one, over the past year, who has felt that to be an American in these times is to perceive an almost unbearable sense of vulgarity, corruption, division and pollution emanating from our American Holy of Holiness–the civic public sphere that, because it is so determinant of our well-being, we should hold as sacred as anything we know.

I’m not going to point fingers here, though I will encourage you, as the saying goes, to vote, and vote your conscience, and, maybe, if you know some millennials, have a real heart-to-heart with them. But this problem won’t go away in November. Whoever wins next month, we are going to find ourselves in a situation where approximately half the nation consider the president to be a liar and a miscreant unworthy of their loyalty, and the other half to be fools, dupes, and traitors. And so, right or wrong, we are faced with a tremendous crisis of collective identity, another coating of pestilence on our national altar.

I think our tendency may be, and I know my tendency is, to assume that the impurity arises because of the actions and opinions of people, parties and movements, that I find abhorrent, and my major point of concern is in fact the implementation of partisan policies that I consider to be a matter of life and death. By all means, we should fight for what we know to be right. But at the same time, we must reserve some headspace for another approach, based in a teaching from Pirkei Avot, the tractate of the Mishna often called in English “Ethics of the Fathers”, which says that when there is a dispute you are to consider both parties guilty, and when it is resolved you are to consider both parties innocent. This is a tall order, and the only practical step I can think of to try and realize it is to take some time this year to step outside your enclave, and consider America from another perspective, at least for a few minutes, because, as strange as it may seem, we share this American identity even with people that we hate, and there is no way forward that does not involve at least a minimal effort to take that paradox into account.

I’ve worn myself out talking about currents events, which is not my strong suit, so I want to go back to the interpretation of texts and symbols, where I feel more at home. There are a few traditional terms in Judaism to describe the individual’s obligation to the collective, one of the more prominent being the phrase ahavat Yisrael. Literally, it means “the love of Israel”, and in its narrowest sense it refers to a religious, ethnic or national love that we are meant to feel for our fellow Jews, though there are some sources who suggest that ahavat yisrael is merely a training ground for ahavat habriyut, the love of all creatures. But I want to read the phrase another way this morning. Remember that Yisrael, Israel, wasn’t always an abstract collective identity, whether a confederation of tribes or a modern nation state, but was originally the name of an individual. It was what Jacob was called, as we learn in the book of Genesis, after he spent the night wrestling with a mysterious “other”, a being who was never clearly defined but instead came to represent some entity beyond himself–whether God or his brother–with whom he had a crucial relationship. He wrestled with this being all night, never certain where he ended and it began, and feeling the pain and challenge of being called out of his narrow sense of self, and into the bond of obligation toward some greater identity. It was not for winning this struggle, but rather for engaging it, that he was given a name that came to bridge the gap between the one and the many, the solitary person and the people. So let’s say that the term ahavat yisrael, this form of love demonstrated by the man who was called Israel, refers to the yearning inherent in the tumultuous struggle to break out of the saferoom of the circumscribed spirit, and into meaningful and holy identification with others.

In this sense, Yom Kippur is not merely a day of self-analysis but self-expansion. Just as the High Priest was meant to perform rituals that emphasized his relationships–himself and his family, himself and his peers, himself and his nation–so we might use this time not to just to contemplate ourselves, but ourselves in the aspect of our larger names: I. I and my family. I and my community I and my people. I and my country. I and my world. Achat. Achat v’achat…One. One and one. One and two. One and three. One and four. One and five. One and six. One and seven. Because what we really learn from the service of the High Priest is that there is no such thing as individual atonement on Yom Kippur. The origin of the holiday lies in the purification of something that is meant to be shared and toward which we all have an existential relationship of responsibility; something that we all must hold together if we all don’t want to fall apart.

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Kol Nidre 5777/2016: On Purity

3. On Purity

This is a tale of the Kotsker Rebbe, may his memory be a blessing.

In a little Jewish town, in a ramshackle hut by the river, there lived a poor watercarrier. Every day but Shabbes he would trudge between the well and the houses, wearing a cap and his soiled caftan, with two balanced buckets tied by rope to the wooden pole across his shoulders. His hands were bruised and swollen, and he waddled from side-to-side, even when he wasn’t carrying water.

This hard labor was his lot in life. He had never been to heder, and he couldn’t read or write. But he was very pious. He had a great love for the Holy One, Blessed be He, and a burning desire to speak the passion of his soul through prayer. He knew that Hebrew was the language of prayer, but didn’t know any Hebrew, except a single word that he had heard spoken one day when passing the house of study, which had lodged in his memory. That word was tamei. He didn’t know what it meant, but only that it was a Hebrew word, and it was a great treasure to him.

Early in the morning, every day before starting to work, he would davven by the river, repeating his precious word over and over again–tamei, tamei, tamei–until his spirit began to rise. Then he would sing it, and shout it, consumed by the fire of his prayer, all on this one word–tamei! tamei! tamei! tamei!–while the blood rushing to the surface of his skin made his face red and hot.

This behavior did nothing to improve his status in the town. The children would run after him in the street, shouting: tamei! And the scholars, watching him pass, would nod to each other and chuckle: tamei, indeed.

Once, on one of his journeys, the rebbe of Kotsk, peace be upon him, happened to stay overnight in this village, at the home of one of his disciples. In the morning, seeking a minute of peace, he went down to the river, on the outskirts of town, where he found the watercarrier in the midst of his prayers. He looked on as the watercarrier shouted, and leapt into the air, crying: tamei! tamei! tamei! The Kotsker observed this strange sight for a while, a poor, disheveled man in the throes of his spiritual passion, bellowing in joyful song at the top of his lungs: tamei! tamei! tamei!

The rebbe was deeply moved. This was a holy being. He admired the prayer of the watercarrier. But he was troubled by it, all the same, because, you see, the rebbe knew what tamei meant.

When the watercarrier paused, the rebbe approached him.

“What are you doing, my friend?” he asked.

It took a moment for the watercarrier to come out of his transport, but when he took note of the distinguished rebbe, in his fine shtreimel and kapote, he became very attentive.

“I’m davvening,” said the watercarrier. “I’m praying. I’m praying, and then I will carry water to the town.”

“That’s very good,” said the rebbe. “God hears all prayers that are offered with a pure heart. But there’s just one thing. The word you are chanting, tamei, do you know what it means?”

“No,” said the watercarrier.

“It means ‘impure’,” said the rebbe. “Dirty. Unclean. It is an impure word. It is better for a pure heart to pray with a pure word. Let me teach you one. Tahor. It means pure. Pray with the word tahor, a pure word befitting your pure heart.”

The watercarrier was very grateful.

“Tahor,” he said. “Yes, rabbi. I will pray tahor. Thank you, rabbi. Thank you. Tahor. Tahor. Tahor.”


Here’s another story. If it seems unrelated at first, just hear me out.

I was digging through the dumpster at Boyden and Perron, one morning this past spring, and the phone in my pocket was vibrating. I use cardboard as mulch on my farm, and there was a good haul that day from a recent shipment of Toro lawnmowers. In fact, there was so much that I was late for work, which I thought explained the buzzing of my phone. The alarm had first gone off forty minutes earlier, to alert me it was time to leave the house. Ever since, it had been snoozing for five minutes and then picking up again. I intended that this pattern would goad me through the morning, and in this it had been only moderately successful.

But during a lull in the vibration, it occurred to me that the interval had shortened, from five minutes to one. Setting down the lid of the dumpster, I pulled the phone from my pocket and scanned the display. Elise, my wife, had been trying to reach me, calling and then hanging up without leaving a message, only to call right back again. I remember gazing into a puddle of rainwater as I called her back, thinking: my plans are about to change. Nobody calls like that unless there’s news. I was right.

Efraim burst into tears when he saw me. He had been holding them in for a while. The teacher said he had been very brave. He was lying on a little cot by the door, in a shaft of sunlight coming through the window. The rest of the playroom was dark–hushed for naptime–though a few of his little friends amused themselves in a corner. His lip had swollen into a sneer. A bubble of blood trickled down from the deep cut he had torn with his own tooth. The gap where the skin was severed held the strangeness of the body gone wrong, like the dangling of a broken limb. The teachers were still jittery. He had bled a lot, all over the bathroom floor. He melted into my shoulder when I lifted him up. There was blood on his clothing, and when he hugged me a few drops landed on my collar. He saw this, and said, “you have blood on you,” and this made him cry again.

At Urgent Care, while Efraim sipped water through a straw, the doctor inflated a blue latex glove and, by tying it off and adding a few lines and dots with a sharpie, transformed it into an elephant. But he said the stitches were beyond his ability, and suggested we go to a specialist. The cut, at the corner of my son’s mouth, extended just above the flesh of the lip, crossing, by a fraction, what I learned that day is quite poetically called “the vermillion border.” If the suturing didn’t line up just right there would be an evident scar, marking a pure young face for the rest of its life with the legacy of a one second slip on the tile floor of a preschool bathroom.

Day turned to night, and my car, with the load of cardboard still stacked in the trunk, was now parked in one of the lots at Baystate. On a surgical bed in our little nook of the pediatric ER, beside the monitors and the television screen where he had watched an adventure of Winnie the Pooh, Elise cradled Efraim in her arms like a junior version of a pieta–the wounded son draped across his mother’s lap. He was waking from a ketamine trance–a facet of the treatment that had disturbed us far more than the accident itself. He was listless, and his open eyes glistened with pooling tears. A few efficient stitches had sewn him up. They would dissolve within a week, leaving him virtually unblemished. It was a very good job–if you look at him, you won’t notice a thing. It’s only when I pull back his lip, to help with toothbrushing, that I see the little tag of displaced skin.


I wasn’t done with the other story. There’s more to it.

After the rebbe of Kotsk had given the watercarrier a new word–tahor, pure, instead of tamei, impure–he went back up the hill to the house of his disciple, where the hasidim gathered in a minyan to daven shacharit, the dawn prayer. Later that day, the rebbe left town.

But something happened. The next morning, as usual, the watercarrier woke up early and left his shack to pray by the river. But when he opened his mouth, no words came out. He simply could not remember the word that the rebbe had taught him, and when he cast his mind back for the old word it wasn’t there either. He tried as hard as he could, but all he could stammer out was a mash of syllables–tamor, tahei–and he knew these weren’t right, because his soul would not rise on them. He was very upset.

“The rabbi has made me unhappy,” he said. “The rabbi has taken away my word.”

And he set off to find the rebbe.


It’s a great story, and it came to me in an unusual way. When I lived in Dublin, a friend gave me a box of Yiddish books he found in his father’s attic. They were nothing to write home about, except for this one little gem–a slender volume on dry and yellowing pages with a cracked binding. These were Kotsker mayses–tales of the Kotsker Rebbe, which I read till the book fell apart. This one was the second of the collection, and it enthralled me, because I had not expected such subversion from a seemingly pious text. The ending is the best part, but we need to talk about a few more things before we get there.

According to Torah, tumah (impurity) and tahara (purity) are fluctuating states, which regulate our access to God. God is holy and the source of all that is holy in the world, but the world is subject to corruption. We bear decay in the fabric of our being. It is what differentiates us from God. God is perfect and unchanging, but we are born, give birth, and die. Our bodies are predisposed to infirmity and accident, illness and infection, and given to the natural flux of menstruation and emission. When we are touched by these things, we are deemed alienated from God. In such a state, we are barred from entrance to the holy places, even ostracized, like the watercarrier, from community and banished to the extremities of the camp. In one striking passage, which the Kotsker, being a great scholar of Torah, must have known intimately, the impure are instructed to cry out–tamei! tamei! tamei!–so that nobody will draw near and be infected by what is really as much a spiritual as a physical contagion.

But the impure may be purified by undergoing rituals of cleansing under the supervision of religious authorities, the most common being immersion in the waters of the mikveh. Yom Kippur is also a rite of purification. It blends the language of tumah and taharah with the categories of sin and repentance, following the lead of a passage from the prophet Isaiah. “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’” Sin creates impurity–like the blood of a wound that seeps through gauze. But this day comes to turn the red to white again. Those who cried tamei are taught to say tahor, and we are reconciled with the holiness of a perfect God.

At least, this is a traditional understanding of how it works. I have my doubts, and so, I think, did the Kotsker rebbe.

I cherish the innocence of my son’s beautiful face. I was anxious to have his wound healed in a way that would leave him unblemished, and so we travelled from one hospital to another that day, and gave his body its first taste of anesthetic. I have no regrets about this, and am grateful for the skill and compassion of his doctors, and the wonders of modern medicine. Still, I recognize that there is really no perfection, no purity, even in the subtlest of healing. It’s not just the little tag of skin that makes this clear to me. Efraim was sitting beside me as I wrote this. He asked me what I was doing, and when I told him, he furrowed his brow in thought, and then, remembering his own fear and pain, asked me, “why was I so sad?” Though his face is unscarred, the wound is now part of the texture of his being, because, like all of us, except for God, he is made of blood and change.

So when we atone and strive for holiness it should not be against the false measure of an illusory perfection; not to fulfill the nostalgic yearning for return to a pristine world that existed before wound and pollution, illness, alienation, and death; and not with prayers that are chastened and smothered in white, but with the reality of ourselves, pulsating to incandescence in jagged vermillion.


The rebbe stayed overnight at an inn, and continued his journey the next day on foot. The road brought him through a dense forest, and then, coming out the other side, he found himself on the shore of a lake. As he was a rebbe, and a miracle worker, it was simple enough for him to take the clean handkerchief out of his pocket, lay it down upon the water, and ride it like a raft. It was just as he had reached the middle of the lake that the watercarrier came bursting out of the woods. He saw the rebbe, riding on the windblown waves, and without giving it another thought flung down his own tattered kerchief and set off upon it, paddling furiously with his strong arms to overtake the rebbe, and crying out to him.

The rebbe heard a noise and turned around to see the watercarrier coming after him, as miraculous in his conveyance as he was. And he heard what the man was shouting.

“Rabbi!” yelled the watercarrier. “You have taken my word from me. Give me back my word!”

It was then that the rebbe realized his mistake.

“My friend,” he cried, and his voice carried over the water, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was wrong. Your word is tamei! Tamei! Pray tamei! Tamei! Tamei!”

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RH Day Two 5777/2016: On Fear

2. On Fear

I begin with my standard Akedah disclaimer. I know that the story we read this morning, on the face of it, is disturbing, and even obscene. When we take stock of our world today, and consider who they are who identify themselves by a willingness to perform inhuman acts, often at the expense of the innocent, in the name of their religion–actions with clear kinship to a father who will consent to kill his son when asked to do so by his god–I hope we will conclude that such people are not worthy of our respect or emulation. Yet, unlike some other passages of Torah–the genocidal ones, for example–which, I confess, I wish I had the power to cut out of our sacred book, I have no hesitation in continuing to read and comment upon this one, especially at a time of year when we are meant to penetrate to the deeper levels of our psyche, and address whatever imbalances of character we may find there.

A study of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, has much to contribute to this process, but we first need to step away from the literal layer of the story, and read it abstractly. Once we set aside the notion that it is only a tale of ritual child abuse (though, again, sometimes we must read it without setting this notion aside, or risk ignoring the horrible reality of such abuse) it has something to offer us as a spiritual parable. The text itself gives us the wiggle room we need. VahaElohim nisa et Avraham, it begins. “And God tested Abraham.” This little word, “nisa” accomplishes quite a lot. For one thing, it invites us to inhabit the story from God’s perspective, rather than Abraham’s–knowing more, from the start, about the parameters of the ordeal than has been shared with Abraham. We are, in fact, liberated from the terror of Abraham’s point of view. He must journey forward without knowing, as we and God do, that it is a test. Though we may not know the full extent of God’s intention for this test–will the slaughter actually have to take place for Abraham to pass?–we are aware that the burden of the event is not so much the act of sacrifice as the reaction of elements within Abraham’s psyche as he responds to the circumstance. The Akedah is, first and foremost, a nisayon–an arena of spiritual challenge.

We can gain insight into the nature of a nisayon by comparing this one to another. Abraham, after all, is not the only patriarch to sustain an ambiguous encounter with God. Jacob, too, goes through an ordeal of violence, his night of wrestling with the mysterious ish–a being who may have been God, or an angel, or his brother, or himself–from which he emerges wounded, undefeated, and with a new name, one that is emblematic of the meaning of the event and his success in meeting its challenge. He will no longer be known as Jacob, the heal grabbing sneak, but Yisrael, the divine wrestler–his essential trickster nature having attained to the status of spiritual virtue.

What we can learn from this example is that the successful endurance of a nisayon results in a victory that is encoded in a new name. The same holds true for the Akedah, though Abraham’s renaming is not quite as obvious. When he succeeds, when he accomplishes whatever it is that God had hoped he would accomplish, he is given a title, rather than a personal name. It is a kind of honorific of spiritual nobility that is meant to be worn as a badge of honor, signifying the capacity he has proven through his deed. “Now I know,” God announces, when all is said and done, “that you are a yirei elohim.”

The operative word here is yirah. Yirei elohim, means someone who has yirah for God, but yirah is too complicated a term to translate quickly. It is often given in English as “fear”, and is related to the word norah, meaning awesome (in the old fashioned sense), the same word we find in the term yamim nora’im, the High Holidays, or the Days of Awe. Tradition teaches it is one of the two cardinal modes of relating to God, the other being ahava, or love. Ahava and yirah. Love and fear. If God is the creator and master of all things, we might serve God out of a great sense of love, out of desire to do God’s bidding because of how good it makes us feel, and, on a mystical level, be subsumed by this love till it is magnified within our emotions into a state of great spiritual bliss. Or we might recognize God’s awesomeness as most salient–manifesting in scopes of space and time so vast relative to our own frames and spans that even a dim awareness of this magnitude fills us with an intense terror of the incomprehensible contours, or countourlessness, of what is real.

Tradition actually differentiates between two types of yirah: yirat elohim, Abraham’s honorific, also known as yirat shamayim, and yirat khet; the first term “fear of God” or “fear of heaven”, contrasted with the second, “fear of sin”. “Fear of heaven” is the type of yirah that I have already alluded to–a reverence for the grandeur of God, something along the lines of what we might feel at the ocean, or the Grand Canyon, or when viewing images from a deep space telescope, a kind of last-chapters-of-Job amazed surrender to the unfathomable. It is described as an overarching religious sensibility that transcends the performance of any one specific mitzvah, but informs the entirety of a pious person’s orientation toward the divine. Yirat khet, the fear of sin, by contrast, is a relatively limited sensibility, and is, in fact, denigrated by some traditional commentators, including Maimonides, as an immature religious outlook. Simply put, “fear of sin” is an attitude of service based in a fear of what will happen if we disobey the master–a fear of punishment.

Though these earlier commentators cast suspicion on yirat khet, they recognized its utility. It was a rule for children that could be outgrown when the spirit attained to higher understanding, and became an informed and loving servant. But these commentators had no similar qualms about yirat shamayim which they considered praiseworthy, to say the least. By contrast, I think there is particular antipathy in our time to the notion of fear, in any form, as a mode of spiritual service, especially within the world of liberal religiosity. Militant atheists, for their part, are incensed by the phantom of a tyrant God who demands our fearful, and easily manipulated, obedience (when they are not busy portraying God as an infantile narcissist demanding our servile love.) But even for many people who participate in religion, there is something unseemly in the concept of yirah, or at least unpalatable, or maybe just inscrutable. Indicative of this aversion is the tendency to translate yirah, softly, as “awareness”, or even “mindfulness.” I have been guilty of this, myself.

Maybe this distaste arises because we don’t take any religious doctrine seriously enough to inspire fear, or because in our selective approach to tradition we only see value in those parts of it that are warm and fuzzy. If you tend to doubt that religion is a matter of fulfilling the demands of an actual God, but suspect instead it is a hit-or-miss creation of human imagination and culture, then you might find yourself combing through the remnants of that culture for the “good bits.” These tend to be the parts that make us feel an emotional or physical positivity (Yoga and meditation, for example, or musical Friday night services), which we separate from those other aspects that we perceive as negative, whether because we consider them untrue or objectionable, or because they place obligations upon us we would just as soon not fulfill, or because they enshroud us in a worldview that feels dark and depressing.

Rabbi Milton Steinberg, an early 20th century Conservative luminary, erstwhile devotee of Mordechai Kaplan, and author of the renowned philosophical novel “As a Driven Leaf”, had some choice words to say about this modern, selective tendency, in his excellent primer “Basic Judaism.” “There are in all communions some individuals who are made unhappy by any reference to the fear of God,” he wrote. “They are sentimentalists, wishful thinkers, or cowards–persons either ignorant of the nature of things, or too timid to face them.” “No one who sees reality as it is,” he went on, “bitter as well as sweet, violent as well as gentle, frightening as well as comforting, will question for a moment that God is as fittingly an object of dread as of love.” (P65)

Steinberg, who was a modernist with an evident sympathy for traditionalism, argues here that anyone who takes account of the world as it is cannot help but acknowledge that fear, or “dread” as he puts it, is a natural response to a great deal of it. The sentimentalist is someone who uses religion as just another mechanism of denying the reality of the fearful. This is a form of cowardice, a kind of make believe that wears a smiley face and saves terror for the wee hours of the night, smothering it in a sphere of private consciousness, judging it to be an unacceptable emotion, something that must be concealed for the sake of social and personal hygiene. The sentimentalist, in fact, responds to the reality of life by creating an effigy of a God who is only loving, and is only related to through loving, sufficing with a candy god and foreswearing any religious language that might enable us to speak productively of the darkness. Steinberg seems to be suggesting that fear has a place in religious practice–that we should see it as something to be affirmed, rather than escaped or elided. It is a spiritual power in it’s own right, and so we might then translate yirah as sacred fear.

But what is the use of “sacred fear”? How do we take the step from feeling fear to enshrining fear as a spiritual value? Let’s look back to the Akedah, and see what Abraham, the prince of yirat shamayim, has to offer by way of answer to this question. Remember, we are reading the Akedah on an abstract level today, setting aside the notion that it is a horrible thing a father and a god inflict on a child, and seeing it as a nisayon, a spiritual testing or refining, by God, of a particularly ennobled human psyche. We do this, actually, by not counting Isaac as a character in the story–if he is as real as Abraham, then the story is indeed horrendous, because great harm is being done by one subjective human being to another. But, in the scheme of a nisayon, Isaac is not real, but rather a symbol in Abraham’s mind, just as we all, I think, turn the reality of the people in our lives into totems in our imagination–seeing them by what they mean to us rather than who they are. Let’s imagine that the Akedah is not realism, but a surrealistic trance state, such as Abraham actually did experience earlier in Genesis, when he fell into a tardemah–a kind of dark sleep–and God gave him a vision of his descendants as slaves in Egypt. Let’s imagine that Abraham has taken some peyote, or ayahuasca, or Manischewitz, and has descended into a tardemah, where the symbol of his son has appeared to him, and a voice has told him to sacrifice it. What does he come to learn in his vision? How does he emerge from it imbued with yirah–the power of sacred fear?

The voice speaks to Abraham, saying, “take the son that you love and sacrifice him”, reminding us that, perhaps more than anything else, what Isaac symbolizes to Abraham is ahava, the service of love, both on the natural level–as a father loves his son–and the supernatural, on which this son represents the reward of his loving and faithful service to God. In this vision, then, Abraham is asked to confront a terrible question, a question at the root of a great mass of fear: what will you do when you lose what you love? a question that filters down into his feverish dreamtime as a command to offer this symbol as a sacrifice. Abraham encounters a moment in which the fundamental bedrock of his life, the relationship with his child, is thrown into confusion by a new and frightening awareness of just how unfathomable and incomprehensible life really is, and how unoriented it is toward the fulfillment of his wishes. And, as he puts one foot in front of the other on the way toward his mystic mountain, he must wrestle with another question: can you bless a fate that you can neither change nor love? In the end, thank god, unlike many of us, he gets to keep the thing he loves, and, in fact, God never really wanted him to lose it in the first place. It was just a test, a proving of metal. But in the meantime, he has been forced by his nisayon to envision a spirituality in which love is not all that there is; to see that there are vast stretches of experience that are incommensurate with our hopes, and to respond, if he is to endure, with this capacity to bless with something other than ahava, to bless, in Steinberg’s terms, the incontrovertibly “bitter, violent, and frightening”; to bless his fear–to make of it a sacred fear–to become a yirei elohim.

I’m not the first, by a long shot, to read this story in abstraction. The tradition is at least as old as the Kabbalah, in which Abraham and Isaac each represent distinct sefirot, spiritual potentialities or divine qualities. Abraham is hesed, lovingkindness, a fitting association with the man who had a tent that was open on all four sides to receive visitors. Isaac is gevurah, restriction and judgment, the counterpart of hesed and a divine emanation intrinsically linked to yirah. The Akedah is understood to be the moment at which hesed met its match in gevurah, or , to shift to the terms we have been working with, the outflowing of sacred love encountered the wall of sacred fear. This reading is ultimately optimistic. Just as, in the end, Abraham and Isaac walked away from the mountain together, so we are to understand that ahava should always claim the upper hand in this match, if ever so slightly. If Isaac had not lived, fear would be the governing force. But, in the end, they are not in competition. Each of them has a place in helping us to craft a spiritual personality that will enable us to offer our blessings as we walk through this world. It is understood to be a matter of balance. If we feel too much fear, we are in need of love. But we should not strain our love by pretending it can redeem all things, and, especially on the Yamim Nora’im, , the days of yirah, we should entertain the possibility that even the darkness must be blessed.

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RH Day One 5777/2016: On Laughter

On Laughter

This year, in the droughty Pioneer Valley, it has been a little easier than usual to imagine what Israel looks like at Rosh Hashanah. In the Middle East, climate change notwithstanding, the seasons are divided simply between wet and dry, and the onset of rain is expected just after the High Holidays. In ancient times, the late grains would be standing ready for harvest, and the water stocks in wells and cisterns running low, making for a moment of great hope and trepidation.

This is a sensible time to mark the new year, the advent of a dramatic change in the weather, bringing one cycle of labor to a close and initiating another. This placement also explains why our Jewish new year has a somber quality, far removed from the champagne and ball-dropping of the secular one. Even in ancient times, the rainy season could be inconsistent, and out of this natural fluctuation our ancestors derived a theology linking the success of the rains to their own moral righteousness. We find it clearly expressed in the passage of Deuteronomy that follows the Shema in our prayerbook. “If you earnestly heed the commandments that I give you,” says God, “then I will favor your land with rain at the proper season.” Here is the root of the existential ferment we still associate with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It began in the anxiety with which the ancient Israelites greeted the rain, believing it would bring them blessing only if their hearts were right with God.

The connection between Rosh Hashanah and its Torah readings is a little less obvious. Next week we will review God’s instructions to Aaron, the High Priest, regarding the performance of the first Yom Kippur. But Rosh Hashanah is, more or less, a post-Biblical holiday. The scant material that exists in Torah regarding the first of Tishrei, though it does suggest we blow the shofar, makes no reference to the birthday of the world, or a day of judgment. We chant this passage as our maftir, today and tomorrow, but the main readings for both days are drawn from farther afield. They are stories from Genesis, about the first family of Judaism, a “complicated family system” if there ever was one–Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. In particular, we recount a series of events that attended the birth of Isaac, and his adolescence.

One plausible commentary suggests it is fitting to read a birth story at the start of a new year, particular one that represents cultural renewal. Abraham initiated a covenant with God. With the birth of his son he passed this legacy on to the next generation–just as one year follows the next–in the very first instance of Jewish continuity.

But I want to share another interpretation with you today, by proposing a connection between these stories and the angst-ridden opening of the rainy season. It’s really more of an analogy than a direct connection. Like the time of year, these tales also hinge on the descent of a revitalizing power onto a parched landscape, and invite us to consider what kind of purification we must undergo in order to experience its bounty. Only, here, it isn’t rain. It’s laughter.


Though we’ve produced many celebrated comedians, and have a rich trove of indigenous humor, Jewish lore is actually ambivalent on the subject of laughter. For example, Rabbi Yochanan, an early Talmudic sage, gave this teaching in the name of his colleague, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. “It is forbidden,” he said, “that a person’s mouth be filled with laughter in this world.” For a prooftext, he cited a phrase from Psalm 126, otherwise known as the first paragraph of birkat hamazon, the grace after meals: az yimalei skhok pinu. “Then will our mouths be full of laughter.” The words are in the future tense: then, and not now. They are followed by a verse that envisions the messianic restoration of the exiled Jews: “Then will they say among the nations: the Lord has done great things with these.” Only after this deliverance, says the rabbi, may we fill our mouths with laughter. In the meantime, in an unredeemed world, laughter should be greeted with suspicion. The point is reinforced by a selection of anecdotes, which describe the efforts of sages to disrupt wedding feasts when they grew too merry. One smashes his goblet against the ground, in a prefiguration of the custom of breaking the glass. Another is asked to sing to the company. He gets up on his chair and begins to wail, “Woe are we who are all doomed to die!”

The teaching is of its time, coming in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of Judea, when anyone not already miserable was encouraged to be so out of solidarity. But it invites us to look more broadly, and question the very place of frivolity in this imperfect world. Life, it reminds us, is serious. Too much laughter may dull us to the noble contemplation of our fate, or our responsibility to alleviate suffering. It may even diminish our capacity to bear hardship. We should also recognize that laughter itself partakes of the world’s imperfection. We are taught in halakha, Jewish law, to avoid telling stories about others, even if they are true, because we cannot control the repercussions of the truth. Similarly, it is possible for even an innocent laugh to create suffering.

But the Talmud is big enough to contain other perspectives. God Himself is portrayed in these pages as persisting in a state of prolonged melancholy after destroying the Temple and exiling the Jews. But in one charming passage He is said to reserve an hour of every day to be mitsakhek, to laugh and play, with Leviathan, the beloved divine pet. Elsewhere, praise, along with a special place in Olam HaBa, the world to come, is given to jesters, whose mirth raises the spirits of the downtrodden. They are holy fools who provide, not trivial distraction, but the sweetness that makes life palatable. To put it another way: if an unredeemed world in no place for laughter, then laughter itself offers the taste of redemption.


Abraham, in Torah, is the father of laughter, or, at least, there is no mention of it before him, as if it were a latent potentiality, a kind of tickling, flavored breath, lying undiscovered until his time. His primal laugh arrives like the cloudburst that alleviates a drought. God’s promise of a child to Abraham and Sarah had gone unrealized. At Sarah’s encouragement, he had fathered Ishmael by Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, and then both he and Sarah had grown old. Then, one day, God tells Abraham that this promise has been remembered, and Abraham finds the news very amusing. “Will a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old,” he giggles, “and his wife ninety?” Then he falls to the ground, convulsed by laughter.

In the texture of Torah, overlapping variations of the same story, perhaps originating in competing oral traditions, often appear side-by-side, and there is another version of this one, in which it is Sarah, not Abraham, who laughs at the annunciation. Three mysterious strangers come shimmering out of the desert. As they dine with Abraham, on a meal she has helped to prepare, Sarah eavesdrops on their conversation from a hiding place at the doorway of the tent. She hears them speak of the fulfillment of God’s promise, and she also finds it funny. Only, she doesn’t laugh out loud. Vatitskahk Sarra bikirbah, we read. And Sarah laughed inwardly. She laughed within herself. The stern lines of her face betrayed no sign of amusement, at least nothing more than the faintest Mona Lisa smile. Her rendition of the joke, too, is more intimate, with a risque focus on the mechanics of conception. “Am I to have pleasure now,” she wonders, “with my husband being so old?” But God, who is the only character in the story capable of perceiving this subterranean response, overhears her, and asks, “Why did she laugh?” Sarah is mortified to be caught in such a private thought. “I didn’t laugh,” she says, “Oh, but you did,” says God.

Traditional commentators try to parse out the difference between one laugh and another. Abraham, they tell us, though royally amused, laughs in good faith, delighted by the realization of a promise he always assumed would be fulfilled. But Sarah’s secret laughter is tinged with incredulity. Tentative excitement, maybe even the stirring of erotic pleasure, is overlaid with suspicion and acerbic wit, leading God to chastise her for lack of faith. This is a callous reading, betraying patriarchal bias. It fails to take into account how a reaction might be conditioned by gender and status, or how truly embarrassing it might have been for her to be a superannuated new mother, or how resentful she felt at being played as a pawn in her husband’s destiny. But there is some truth in it. Sarah is unable to respond to this fall of rain after a dry season with the full-throated guffaw of her husband. She seems warped by circumstances–long years of disappointment and envy at the happiness of others–into a predisposition to perceive bursts of gaiety as jokes told at her expense. She is unable to tell God why she laughs, but instead blasphemes against the arousal of her own joy, and the vague fluttering in her lungs transforms to splinters that lodge in her breast. She names the child Yitskhak, “he will laugh” explaining the choice with reference to fear of mockery, rather than gladness. “God has made a laughingstock of me,” she says. “Everyone who hears of this will laugh at me.”

This wound of spirit leads to further tragedy. Isaac has been weaned and is already a child, wandering the encampment on his own two feet, when, one day, we are told, Sarah observes Ishmael, the son of Hagar, mitsakhek–laughing or playing–the same form of the verb, actually, that is used to describe God sporting with Leviathan. The commentary makes a typical effort to denigrate characters outside the Jewish nuclear family, telling us that Ishmael was doing something wrong, engaged in some form of play that was cruel or untoward, though there is no evidence of this in Torah, only the verb itself. But Sarah is enraged, and demands that Abraham banish Ishmael and Hagar. We would say now that something has “triggered” her. In the language of her complaint, she protests that she doesn’t want Ishmael to inherit ahead of her own son. But this concern might easily have occurred to her before, and only seems billowed up now by its emotional content. No, there is something about Ishmael’s laughter itself that makes Sarah mad, and ungenerous, maybe that it is brazen, open-mouthed, and unrepentant, or because God does not call him on it, or because, in her brokenness, she assumes that he is laughing at her, that he is, himself, a joke at her expense. Whatever the reason, Ishmael and his mother are sent into the wilderness, where they would have died but for divine intervention. It is in this way, in an unredeemed world, that innocent laughter brings suffering.


We should wonder where Isaac was when this happened. I imagine that he was there, a timid little boy overawed by his older brother, by the intoxicating danger of the games Ishmael liked to play, and by the world of fun revealed in his raucous laughter. But then, suddenly, his mother is very angry, and then his brother is gone. Isaac grows up alone, the only child of elderly parents. His father loves him, but doesn’t laugh any more, a serious man, devoted to his mission, and bearing the weight of the grave decisions he has made. His mother’s love is fierce, tangible, and silent. When he returns from the harrowing trip with his father, the midrash tells us, it is to discover that she is dead. He becomes a wanderer, known for his solitary, twilight walks in the open field. A careful study of the Torah’s geography reveals that he has a penchant to tend, by some unconscious impulse, toward destinations where he might catch sight of his brother. When a wife is brought for him, we are told that he loves her, but it is described as a love that alleviates sadness, rather than bringing joy. And, all the while, the name is hanging over him like a prophecy. Yitskhak. He will laugh. But when will he laugh? And how?

This story begins in an actual drought. The rains fail, the pasture withers, and a famine ensues, driving Isaac west toward the sea, to live among the Philistines. Borrowing a page from his father’s playbook, he passes off his beautiful wife as his sister, presuming his hosts will respect the sanctity of kinship more than marriage. They live like this for some time, unmolested, in a rainless land, bearing the considerable strain of secrecy for the sake of their survival. But one day, Avimelekh, the king, looking out of his window, beholds a vision that changes his perspective. Vihinei yitskhak mitsakhek et Rivka ishto. Isaac was mitsakhek–laughing, playing–with his wife Rebecca, revealing himself, not just to the Philistine king but to us, to be something other than we thought: a creature of desire and delight, a holy fool in a vale of tears, knowing there is no reason for laughter, and that nothing is redeemed without it.


Pablo Neruda called laughter “the language of the soul.” (I learned this from an episode of “The Simpsons.”) Perhaps he was referring to its spontaneity, its capacity to impose itself upon us despite our pretensions, to be reflexive and visceral in response to a tickle or a joke, or the promptings of thought and memory. If it could speak, it might say, “I didn’t expect that,” and only the greatest actors, in art and life, can force it convincingly. It is a pleasure, whether secret or shared, but it can be cruel, too, and bitter, though I like to think, in wishful naivety, that these are perversions of its nature. Sometimes, late at night, I hear my little son break out laughing in his sleep, and in the morning we try to piece together the silly details of his dream, while I worry about his future.

But it is not quite the same thing as rain, even though a soul that cannot laugh is like a desert. It will not make the crops grow, and you can go a lifetime without cracking a smile, so long as you have water. But it is only magical thinking that allows us to believe that prayers will bring rain, whereas laughter is a true barometer of the spirit. How we laugh, like Abraham or Sarah, Isaac or Ishmael, or God and His Leviathan, will tell us who we are, what we long for, how we have been wounded, even what sins we are guilty of; and how we fail to laugh will tell us just as much.

Rosh Hashanah, our new years day, is somber. It asks us to reserve our bacchanalia for December–to step away from an overly amused society and remind ourselves that life is real, and deadly serious. But its aim is laughter. We stand against the backdrop of a land at the acme of its drought, and atone for the contortions that have made us incapable, if not unworthy, of joy. Then we hope to merit the downpour of a holy foolishness, without which life is irredeemable.

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Richard Cohen’s d’var Torah from 1/2/16: “Hatan Damim”

Shabbat shalom and happy New Year. What I’ll be talking about is the enigmatic episode in parshat Shemot of Hatan Damim, the “Bridegroom of Blood,” which appears at Exodus 4:24-26. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to warn you, there’s a lot of blood, not to mention, a couple of serpents, in this davar! The roadmap is as follows: I’ll first put Hatan Damim in the context of the Exodus story, then talk a little bit about some of the traditional interpretations of the episode before weighing in with my own thoughts.

We’re just beginning parshat Shemot where the focus shifts to the Israelite enslavement in Egypt and to Moses, who’s appointed by God to lead the Israelites. Moses is living life in the slow lane as a shepherd in Midian where he fled after killing an Egyptian taskmaster. At the “burning bush”, God appears to Moses for the first time, and commands him to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to free the Israelites. The Hatan Damim episode takes place on Moses’s journey with his wife, Zipporah, and his sons, Gershom and Eliezer, from Midian to Egypt, where he is to meet up with his brother Aaron.

The episode is short:

“At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me.’ And when He let him alone, she added, ‘a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

What could be clearer?

Hatan Damim has been described by one commentator as “arguably the single most bizarre and baffling passage in all the Hebrew Bible.” I would argue that that’s not a negative. This kind of difficult passage challenges us to actively engage with the Torah – laasok b’divrei Torah. How interesting would Torah be, and would it even be read after thousands of years, if everything were simple and obvious? There are no right or wrong interpretations of Hatan Damim. The mitzvah is in the act of engaging with the text.

Hatan Damim falls into the genre of biblical stories told in a shorthand manner because the stories were once well known, and it was therefore unnecessary for the narrator to fill in the details. But for us readers in the 21st century, when the passage says that “God encountered him and sought to kill him”, we might well ask who is “him”? Is it Moses, Gershom or Eliezer? What is the sin that invokes this harsh punishment? How do we understand God “seeking” to kill him? When it says that Zipporah cut off her son’s foreskin, which son is it? How does she know that she should perform a circumcision in response to God’s threat to kill someone? When she touches someone’s legs (probably a euphemism for genitals) with the foreskin, whose genitals are they? When she says “you are a bridegroom of blood to me”, who is she addressing, Moses, Gershom or Eliezer?

Furthermore, what does “hatan damim”, “bridegroom of blood,” even mean? And when it says “He let him alone,” who is God leaving alone? Is Hatan Damim just a weird digression, or does it thematically fit in with the Exodus story? Questions, questions.
Needless to say, over the ages many commentators and scholars have tackled Hatan Damim: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nachmonides, Rashbam and many more. Most of the classic commentators believe that Moses was the one God sought to kill because he delayed in the circumcision of Eliezer, his younger son. When you’re on a mission from God, you can’t procrastinate. According to Rav Jose, Moses was right to leave Midian immediately and not to endanger Eliezer by circumcising him before setting out on the journey. But once Moses arrived at the encampment, he was close enough to Egypt that further travel would not pose a risk. So Moses should have circumcised Eliezer immediately after arriving at the encampment. His sin was to unnecessarily delay the circumcision while he busied himself with making arrangements for the lodging. To incur a death penalty for such a trivial delay seems excessive, to say the least, especially since Torah does not prescribe any death penalty for delay in circumcision.

And how did Zipporah know that delay in circumcision was the problem? According to Talmud, there were 2 angels at the encampment that turned into serpents. They swallowed Moses from the head down to the privates, disgorged him, and then swallowed him from his legs up to his privates and again disgorged him. This was a subtle message to Zipporah that circumcision was the issue. This was confirmed when God withdrew following the circumcision.

Rashi explains that after Zipporah cuts off Eliezer’s foreskin, she threw it at Moses’s feet, and said to Eliezer, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me.” By that she meant that Eliezer almost caused her bridegroom, Moses, to be killed.

Other commentators disagree that it was Eliezer, the younger son, that Zipporah circumcised and that it was Moses that God sought to kill. Immediately preceding Hatan Damim, God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh: “Israel is my first born son. I have said to you, ‘Let my son go, that he may worship me.’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.” Just as Pharaoh’s first born son deserves death because of Pharaoh’s refusal to allow God’s first born son, Israel, to worship God, so Moses’s first-born son, Gershom, deserves to die because of Moses failure to circumcise him, since circumcision would allow Gershom to serve God and enter into the b’rit, the covenant with God. Symmetry requires that Gershom, as first born, be the one circumcised and the one that God seeks to kill. And if Moses has failed to allow his own son to serve God, how qualified is he to deliver the message to Pharaoh that Pharaoh must permit the Israelites to serve God?

For traditional scholars, a major lesson of Hatan Damim is the importance of circumcision. In Genesis, circumcision is the sign of the covenant that God makes with Abraham and his descendants. Any male not circumcised is cut off from his people. And Hatan Damim reinforces this message: however great Moses’s merit and righteousness may have been, they did not protect him when he delayed circumcising his son. Several scholars see the purpose of Hatan Damim to be an object lesson to Moses. “Moses, you’ve personally experienced the mortal danger of delaying the circumcising (that is, redeeming) of your son. Because now, you’re entrusted with the redemption of the Israelites. Heaven forbid you should delay or fail in this infinitely more important venture.

But circumcision, according to other commentators, plays a deeper role in Hatan Damim.

A principle in Torah is that all creation, especially the firstborn of people or livestock belongs to God, and that human use is forbidden until redemption takes place. The redemption can take the form of a sacrifice, a ritual that acknowledges God’s ownership. So, circumcision is like a miniature sacrifice, and the shedding of blood in a circumcision acts to redeem the child. On a national scale this takes the form of the redemption of the Jewish people in the Exodus. Parshat Bo makes clear that a male cannot participate in the Passover sacrifice unless he is circumcised. When God kills the first born of the Egyptians in the 10th and final plague, God instructs the Israelites to protect themselves by daubing the blood of the Paschal sacrifice on the lintels and doorposts of their homes. God says: “When I see the blood, I will pass over you…and not smite you.” The same word for daubing (vataga) is used in Hatan Damim when Zipporah touches someone’s legs with the bloody foreskin of her son. In both cases, the protective quality of the ritual comes from the blood being visible. So Hatan Damim links the themes of redemption on an individual level, specifically, redemption of the male child through circumcision, and the redemption of God’s firstborn, the Israelite nation, from slavery.

There are many more interesting takes on Hatan Damim, but I’d like to now offer my own and answer a few of the many questions I raised earlier.

First, what is the meaning of the words “hatan damim”? As Nahum Sarna has noted: “Hatan damim may be a linguistic fossil…the meaning of which has been lost.” No other references to “hatan damim” have been found in ancient writings. But we can make an informed guess. Zipporah, as a Midianite, would have spoken Akkadian, and in that language “hatan” meant “circumcise” or “protect.” In several ancient Semitic societies, including Egypt and Midian, circumcision usually took place at puberty or shortly before marriage. This explains the connection between the word “hatan” and marriage. Now of course, in Hebrew, hatan refers to bridegroom or son-in-law. Given the connection I discussed before between circumcision and redemption and circumcision and the covenant with God, there is a deep overlay of meaning to the word hatan. The usual translation of Zipporah’s lines in the Hatan Damim episode, is: “You are a bridegroom of blood to me…..a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” A better translation might be “you are my protection of blood” and by virtue of shedding blood in this circumcision, I have protected you (meaning whichever son was circumcised and Moses).

I’d like to offer an alternative translation of the beginning of Hatan Damim. Instead of: “the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him”, I believe the subject should be Moses. In other words, “he [being Moses] encountered the Lord and sought to kill himself [being Moses].” It makes no sense that God, having appointed Moses to the most important mission in Torah, now wants to kill him, whether for a slight delay in circumcising his son or otherwise. Just a few verses before, God assures Moses that he can safely “go back to Egypt, for the men who sought to kill you are dead.” And now God seeks to whack his emissary? It makes less sense to say that God sought to kill an innocent child because he had not been timely circumcised. Moreover, based on the standard translation, this would be the only time in Torah that God sought to kill anyone. When God wants to do something, it’s done. In the words of that great philosopher, Yoda, “There is no try.”

I see this episode as comparable to that of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at night before crossing the Jabbok River to meet his brother Esau. I believe that Jacob was not literally wrestling with anything other than his own guilt, his own sense of identity and spiritual connection with God. Similarly, before meeting with his brother, Aaron, Moses has a night encounter with God, with the divine within himself. Like Jacob, he must overcome his fear of what lies ahead. To say that Moses has a lot to process would be an understatement. For one thing, he’s likely experiencing an overwhelming identity crisis. He knows he’s a Hebrew, but he was raised and educated as an Egyptian noble, immersed in the culture of Egypt. He then flees to Midian. As the son-in-law of Jethro he’s again in a prestigious position where he’s immersed in Midianite society. He’s got the most tenuous of connections with the Hebrews. Now God is appointing him the agent of the Israelites’ redemption. He’s being asked to abandon his Egyptian and Midianite identities and return to his very shallow Hebrew roots. He’s being asked to make the leap from shepherd to leader. Any personal transformation, any transition is stressful. But what Moses is facing is off the charts.

But allow me to supplement that stress level. Because for many years Moses has been harboring a secret that he must now reveal. Moses first appears to Jethro and his family as an Egyptian noble. I believe there is no chance that Moses told either Zipporah or Jethro about his real identity—an escaped felon of Hebrew slave lineage. Jethro, as priest of Midian, would never have agreed to such a down and out son-in-law. Having married into the family based on a lie, over time it would have become harder and harder, to the point of impossibility, for Moses to come clean about his identity. In fact, when he asks leave of Jethro to return to Egypt, he says “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring.” Moses is very cagey; he doesn’t outright lie, nor does he reveal the identity of his kinsmen.

But now, they’re on the way to meet Aaron, and Moses has no choice but to disclose who he is. Can you imagine Moses having to tell Zipporah: “Uh, dear, I’ve been meaning to tell you something for the last 15 years, I’m not exactly who you think I am. I’m not actually a prince of Egypt. I’m a Hebrew accused of murder, and my family are all Hebrew slaves in Egypt.” Having to break this to Zipporah is like a 10,000 lb weight on Moses’s shoulders. This overwhelming dread, combined with Moses’s identity crisis and role crisis creates an unbearable burden. The Torah scholar, Pamela Tamarkin Reis, believes that Moses was pushed to a suicidal state—that Moses “sought to kill himself.” At the least, Moses is psychologically and physically paralyzed. It is Zipporah who must take the decisive action to circumcise her son. Moses is clearly in no condition at this moment to assume a leadership or any other role. To use a technical term, Moses is “toast.”

Hatan Damim is Moses’s “dark night of the soul”. It is like a classic “rite of passage” so common in literature. The hero must undergo a dangerous and challenging experience before undertaking the mission. Like Jacob at the Jabbok River, Moses must encounter God. If he is to undertake the redemption of the Israelites, he must first confront who he really is. The issue of identity is a crucial one in parshat Shemot. At the burning bush, Moses asks God to reveal his identity, and now Moses has to ask himself that same question. He must seek integration, to simultaneously hold the disparate and conflicting elements of his past.

Not only must Moses encounter the divine within himself, but he must seek to kill part of himself. He must abandon the Egyptian and the Midianite within himself in favor of the Hebrew. He must kill certain paralyzing mindsets, his feelings of fear and inadequacy that were so evident at the burning bush, before he can confront Pharaoh. He must kill the indecisive, untrusting side of himself if he hopes to be reborn as a leader, capable of pulling off the exodus miracle.

As my friend, Daniel Berlin, notes, psycho-spiritually, what is happening externally to Moses mirrors what is happening internally. The circumcision performed by Zipporah represents the cutting away of barriers between the divine and human, and establishing the most intimate possible connection with God. Perhaps it also represents Moses’s newfound connection with his people, the Israelites, their history and their destiny. And not only a connection with his people, but a connection with himself, with his own newfound identity as a Hebrew, as a leader, as an agent of God. When Zipporah circumcises her son, it represents a symbolic or vicarious circumcising of Moses.

Therefore, I believe that it was Moses’s genitals that she touched with the bloody foreskin to represent that circumcision. So Moses is now both connected with God by virtue of entering into this covenant, and a hatan in the sense of being protected by this ritual of blood. The external circumcision mirrors the inner connection and integration that Moses achieves through his night encounter with the divine at the encampment. What is clear is that Moses emerges from this encounter a changed man. Moses has come to grips with his identity and embraced his appointed role. When he meets Aaron in Egypt, Moses is focused and ready to roll.

So, may we, like Moses not be afraid to encounter the divine; to gain from that encounter a wholeness, an integration, a connection with God; and to make whatever transformation or transition, however painful, we need to make that will enable us to pursue and hopefully accomplish our life’s mission. And may we do so with the same focus and commitment as Moses.

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Kol Nidre Sermon: “The Whiskey Story”

The early mornings have become our time, though we approach them differently, each according to his station.  I usually wake just before dawn, to the sound of the roosters.  My mind is preoccupied with the need to arrange itself delicately around the barbs of painful thoughts, and a fitful yearning for more sleep.  But soon I hear him, in the next room.  He wakes, and instantly begins to speak, daybreak just an opportunity to resume the conversation he has begun with himself, and with the world.

I give him a few minutes, and then pull off the covers and go in to him.  I wish him a good morning, tie open the curtains and turn out the nightlight.  Then I lift him out of the crib and we pay a quick visit to the potty.  After that, it’s back to my bedroom, where I try to coax him to cuddle with me, though this is a hard sell.  He’d rather that I read him a book, or, even better, tell a story.

His favorites are mash-ups involving stuffed animal friends and characters from books and television, all brought together under his careful emotional editorializing.  Like the time when Sherman and Mr. Peabody (who are often ciphers for the two of us), Humpty-Dumpty and Chaim the Clown, took the Wayback machine to Treasure Island and met Long John Silver, who, it turned out, was a very nice pirate and liked to bake his friends special cakes on their birthdays.

But often the legend that he calls for is something rich and strange—a story he wants to hear again about me, before I was his father.  It might have come to mind because of the way we are lying so close together, intimately enough for my face to be an arena for the casual play of his fingers.

“Abba,” he says to me, “tell me the whiskey story.”

Though I have plenty of tales about what we call “yucky juice” at our place, having lived in Ireland, he means something else—a story I’ve told him many times before about the two scars on my lower lip.

I tell it to him again.

“This happened when abba was a boy,” I say, “but older than you are now.  I was with Boomba and Grandpa Steve.”  As I say this, I wonder if it puzzles him to hear the names of my parents linked, because he’s used to connecting them with other partners.  “It was Rosh Hashanah, and we were at our friends’ house for lunch.”  Now I think about how long it’s been since I’ve seen these friends, and that one of them, the one I loved most, is dead.  “They had a little dog.  He was a little light-brown Terrier, a cranky little dog. Do you remember what his name was?”

“Whiskey,” he says.

“That’s right,” I say.  “It was a dog named Whiskey.  Not the friendliest of dogs in any circumstance, and this time he was even crankier than usual, because he’d just had some kind of operation, and he was wearing a special white collar so he wouldn’t bite himself.  It was like this.”  I demonstrate the collar by holding out my open palms at angles beside my ears.

“Well,” I continue, “to tell you the truth, bud, abba wasn’t exactly being nice to Whiskey.  I wasn’t doing anything really mean, but just kind of playing around with him, and I don’t think he liked it.  I would pretend I had something in my hand and then make a fake throw and Whiskey would go running and try to look for it.  But it wasn’t really anything at all, just a fake thing I was pretending to hold in my hand.

“Between this and the collar he must have gotten into an even worse mood than usual, a really bad mood.  Well, anyhow.  It got time for us to leave, and we all got up from the table and starting walking toward the door, and I thought I would just bend down to pet Whiskey, to say goodbye.  And you know what Whiskey did?”

“What did he did?” he asks me.

I know that he knows, because I’ve told him before.  The first time I hesitated just a little bit, but, in the end, he seemed more fascinated than upset.

“You know what he did, buddy,” I tell him.  “He jumped right up and bit me.  He bit me right here and here on my lip.  He split my lip open.  Look, you can still see the scars.”

As he peers at my face, a fanciful image comes to mind, a metaphor for this conversation that we’re having.  He’s like a shepherd boy, grazing his flock on the ruins of an ancient battlefield.  It’s a mysterious landscape, and he doesn’t realize that the hills are really the slumped remains of fortifications, or that the grass is so green because it’s been watered with the blood of soldiers.  But the place is haunted by a ghost that knows the past, knows the history of its pockmarks and mutilations, and, sensing the boy’s innate curiosity, begins to move its mouth in the underbrush.  It is my voice, speaking to him, whispering old secrets of spear points and the rearing of horses.

“And there I was,” I tell him, “standing right there in the middle of the room, in front of everybody, with my lip split wide open and bleeding.  And everyone was saying, ‘What happened?  What happened?’  And I heard somebody, I don’t remember who it was, maybe Grandpa Steve or Uncle Isaac or Jay, say, ‘Whiskey bit Ben!’”

But there’s always a danger that the ghost will not be gentle.  Sometimes an old wound is still alive and pulsing.  Some old ground only speaks its truth to children through the explosion of a forgotten mine.

There’s another scar on my head that he can name without being prompted.  It’s a lot more obvious.  Out of nowhere, he will turn to me sometimes and announce, as if it is a fresh discovery: “Abba, you are a bald!”  He may have figured this out on his own through simple comparison, noting that of all the residents of our house, I was the only one that didn’t have any hair.  I taught him a different word for it, too, which he’s learned to speak perfectly, with his preternatural diction.  In another of our recurring conversations, when he phrases his insight in the form of the question, “Abba, why are you a bald?” and I respond, “Why am I a bald?” he can answer himself in a proud singsong: “Alopecia.”

At these moments, I have to come to terms with the fact that this beautiful little boy of mine, with his long eyelashes, is speaking a phrase I have been cringing from since I was six years old: you are bald.  All these years later there is still the faintest tinge of vulnerability, the legacy of taunts and pity, and beyond either of these the basic raw exposure of incontrovertible difference.  Somewhere deep in my brain battle-hardened neurons are firing.  Are we there again, they ask?  Is it time to raise the defenses?  To strike back with the old munitions: the hostility, the humor, the indifference?  And I must remind them: no, this is my son.  He wants a story from me like he wants me to feed him when he is hungry, and it’s on me to usher him with tenderness into the mystery of myself.

“What happened?” he asks me.

“They had to take me to the hospital,” I tell him, “but I didn’t get to ride in an ambulance, I don’t think.  I don’t really remember how I got there, probably Grandpa Steve drove me there in his car.  I got to sit in a special room, the emergency room, because I had to wait a little while for the doctor.  But I got to watch television, and that was fun.  It was high up on the wall.  And I held something over my lip, like paper.  It’s called gauze, and it soaks up all the blood.  My lip felt really strange, covered up with that gauze, and I wondered what it looked like, but I never looked in the mirror so I don’t really know.  But I did take the gauze off, just once, because I wanted to feel the air on my lip, and I wondered if it was split all the way through.  But I covered it up again, because there were other people waiting in the same room, and I didn’t think they would want to see it.”

I wonder how much of this he comprehends.  He’s never been to an emergency room, and I must be using words that he doesn’t know yet.  How strange this must be for him.  And maybe it is just a little too gruesome, after all.  The scar on my face and the dog that bit me.  The complexity of a world that has history in addition to shape; that reverberates with memory and implication, blood, pain, and danger.  Encountering, in the malleability of his childhood, the inveterate scars of the adult personality.  But he listens thoughtfully, and I keep talking, noticing how with each retelling new details emerge, while others disappear, as this tale of mine inches toward a final, satisfying form.

I wonder, too, if he knows what differentiates the two types of stories he keeps wanting to hear, over and over again—the essential distinction between Long John Silver and this light -brown little Terrier.  Only one of them can’t be made nice through a simple flick of the imagination.  Only one of them still stirs the trace of a nervous reaction in the pulse and breath of his father.  He is still too young to be deliberately cruel—he simply has a thirst for stories, and as his awakening mind pushes its way forward, with more curiosity than tact, it unwittingly hauls up against the weakness of his storyteller.  And I forgive him, as I hope I will also do in the future when his cruelty becomes more deliberate.  But even more, I thank him, because when he stumbles on something painful in the landscape of my soul it is my opportunity to be tender from a place of hurt, which feels like a healing.

Because what can an old ghost possibly want except to tell its story and be known?

“And then the doctor came in,” I tell him.  “Do you remember what the doctor did?”

“What did he did?”

Ata vokhen kelayot v’lev, we say in the prayers of Yom Kippur.  You, oh God, probe our innermost being, our heart and our kidneys, the dark mysteries of the body, and in this awesome vision give us opportunity to repent and become something new.  But it’s really nothing so grand, this miraculous force.  It’s a stumbling innocent, a little shepherd boy in pajamas inviting us to retell the story of a wound.

“He took this special black thread, it looked like it was thin black plastic, or something, and he stitched me right up with a needle, like he was sewing.”  I pantomime a run of stiches across my lip, and then across his lip, as well.  “And when I went back to my new school that I had just started, with my black stiches and my story about how the dog bit me, they all thought I was really tough.  But really I wasn’t.  And then they came out.  And then I had a scar.  And here I am!

“And that’s the whiskey story, little man.”

He is quiet for a moment, and then he says, “Tell it again.”

“That’s enough for now,” I say, and I take him up in my arms.  “Let’s go and greet the day.”



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Rosh Hashanah Day One 5776/2015: The Honey Sermon

Of all the animals on my farm, only the bees cannot truly be called domesticated.  I don’t have to wear a protective suit when I milk the goats, or puff smoke at the chickens when I take eggs from the coop, but the bees are a different story.  They are resident wild creatures, and must be approached with a proper degree of respect and preparation.  Actually, when I first started beekeeping, I thought the garb–a white jacket with sleeves that Velcro-seal tightly at the wrist and a zippered hood with a mesh faceguard—would render me impervious, like a suit of armor.  It wouldn’t matter how gentle or subtle my technique, what kind of day it was, what mood they were in—I could pull out frames covered in clumped masses and brush them cavalierly aside, unconcerned by the obvious change in tone from buzz to scream.  And then, to my surprise…the sudden stick through my pant legs, through the double layer of cloth around my forearms, the barb and the throb of venom entering skin.

On a perfect day, I hop the fence into the goat pasture, where the three tall stacks of white boxes, the hives, are resting on piles of old wooden pallets.  I can see bees coming and going from the entry slots, flying out to forage on the goldenrod, the stand of buckwheat now flowering as a cover crop on the dugout potato beds, the last yellow cucumber flowers on the scraggly vines in the kitchen garden.  When I meet them out in the world they are indifferent to me.  I can even sit sometimes on an extra pallet beside the hives, unprotected, peering closely at the landing board as they return with hind legs caked in pollen.  But today I mean business.  My jacket is on, though I have not yet secured the zipper or tightened the wrist straps, or pulled on the rough canvas gloves, with sleeves that ride almost to the elbow, which lie in the cardboard box I carry, beside scraps of newspaper, a box of matches, and handfuls of dry straw.

The smoker billows like an incense offering.  Straw smothers the flames kindled at the bottom of the cylinder, and then receives their embers with each press of the bellows, sending gusts of thick white smoke through the spigot at the top.  It took several matches to light, in this breeze, and if I am out here long I will have to pause the operation and replenish the straw.  I hope it does not run out in some moment of need.  My hood is on now, and carefully zipped.  My skin is tingling with nervous anticipation.  Sometimes a slight brush of my ankle against a stalk of grass can make me jump though, in general, I have learned to breathe deeply and move slowly.

The box is heavy.  It must be almost full, which can mean over two and a half gallons that I will extract in the house after the last lingerers have been brushed away.  The frames are a human contrivance, even and rectangular, but often the bees will construct scurs of meandering comb, jutting away wildly from the line of the wood.  As I work one of these off it ruptures, smearing its contents against the flat end of my hive tool.  I pause in my work and raise it to eye level.  As the bees swirl around me, I stand contemplating the glistening amber of what, if I were to unzip my hood, remove a glove, and run a finger down the length of the metal, could be my first taste of autumn honey.


At his bar mitzvah this past summer, one of our young people spoke about how much he appreciated Judaism, because, he said, “every holiday is really just an excuse to eat food.”  He wasn’t wrong.  You’ve probably heard the old chestnut: all Jewish holidays can be explained with the formula, “They tried to kill us.  They failed.  Let’s eat.”  Even the big fast day coming up in about a week is bounded on either side by special meals.  Setting aside the prayers, ceremonies, and Torah readings, food itself is a cultural language, carrying something of the significance we seek to approach through our observances.

I consider some of our food practices to be strictly culinary, relating to dishes often served in conjunction with festivals, whether for reasons of seasonal availability, or familial and ethnic custom.  As a son of Ashkenaz, I think of brisket, tsimis, gefilte fish, chicken soup, though as a vegetarian Reconstructionist I’m learning to add quinoa and tofu to the list.  These are manifestations of folk tradition, kitchen Judaism, historically women’s Judaism, distinct from the dictates of mandated religious practice, though harmonious with them.

Another category, we might label sacramental foods—moments in our holiday cycle at which we are instructed to eat specific things as a mitzvah, a religious obligation.  Challah and Kiddush wine might fit the bill, but the real champion of this class is Passover, with its matzah, bitter herb, haroset, parsley, and salt water.  Halakha, Jewish law, tells us these are to be held on the palate, chewed, and swallowed not simply for savor, but so that a sacred essence, the journey from slavery to freedom, might penetrate our consciousness on a bodily level.  It’s kind of like communion, l’havdil, except we are not eating god—we’re tasting meaning.

Rosh Hashanah, in particular, introduces a third, intermediate category to the conversation, a blend of cuisine and sacrament, that I will call “auspicious food”—the notion that it might be mysteriously beneficial to eat certain things at this time.  The tradition is traced back to tractate Keritot of the Babylonian Talmud.  In the midst of a wide-ranging discussion of omens and portents, Rabbi Abbaye says to his associates: “Since you hold that signs are meaningful, here’s what I say to you.  Everyone should make it a habit to eat these things on Rosh Hashanah—squash, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates.”

Later commentators elaborate the meaning of Abbaye’s cryptic prescription.  He is making a series of puns, based on the names of these fruits and vegetables in Aramaic.  Squash is k’rah, which can also mean to call out or tear up.  As we prepare to eat it, we are instructed to proclaim, “Yehi ratzon, may it be your will, Oh God, that our merits be called out, and all harsh decrees against us torn up!”  Fenugreek, a savory annual indigenous to the Middle East, is rubia, which sounds like rov or lirbot—to increase.  “Yehi ratzon, may it be your will that our wealth and our merits increase!”  The remainder refer not to what we hope for ourselves, but rather what we wish upon others, particularly people we don’t like.  Leeks are karsi, linked to karet, cut off: may our enemies be cut off!  Beets are silka, like siluk or “removal”—may our adversaries be removed!  Dates, tamri, are connected to a word meaning consume or finish—yehi ratson, may it be your will that our enemies be finished!

After these details are explained, a basic problem still remains: what does Abbaye mean by all of this?  Is he having some light-hearted fun at the expense of more superstitious colleagues, or does he believe himself that the practices he describes have some efficacy, and if so of what kind?  Normative tradition teaches that only three things—repentance, prayer, and tzedaka—each of them intrinsic to what we might call moral or spiritual character, can influence the judgment of God, but here we are given the recipe for a kind of edible Plan B, a salad bar of sympathetic magic.

Before rushing to judgment, however, remember that we still do this ourselves, not necessarily with the original Talmudic inventory, but with the most popular of the later day auspicious food traditions that emerged in its wake.  We still feel that Rosh Hashanah is the right time to lift a special food to our lips and recite a yehi ratzon: May it be your will, Oh God, that you renew us for a year that is as good and as sweet as… honey.  The significant difference, however, is that the benefit we seek to derive from this act is not based on a quasi-mystical play of words, but a sensual experience. We are not casting a spell, but willing the sensation of honey on the tongue to transmit itself by association into a quality that will imbue our year, something that we call “sweetness.”


I find “sweet” to be a cloying word, overused and trite, especially in a society so ingenious in its creation of artificial sweeteners.  The Hebrew is matok, a sound that on its own exercises the throat and plays across the palate, unlike the English term, which remains at the gateway of the mouth on a narrow vowel.  We find it in the Bible in some evocative places, as a property of eros and revelation.  “I sat down under his shadow with great delight,” sings the poet of Shir HaShirim, “and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”  When God presents a message to the prophet Ezekiel, in the form of a scroll to be eaten, the prophet says, “Then I did eat it, and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.”

As we see in this verse, d’vash, honey, is often close to matok, sweet, in biblical phraseology, although the most famous deployment of the word d’vash in the Torah is probably misleading.  Scholars suggest that the expression eretz zavat chalav u’devash, “a land flowing with milk and honey”, is not actually referring to the product of bees but to a sweet paste made by pressing dates, analogous to olive oil; that is, a refined, agricultural substance.

The bible does know about bees, however, and when they make an appearance it is usually in a context that is decidedly unrefined, even bordering on savage.  “All the nations surrounded me,” the psalmist writes, “they surrounded me on every side.  They swarmed around me like bees.”  Samson, the wildman of the book of Judges slew a lion on his way to woo a woman, and when he came back along the same route, “he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion; and behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion.”  In the book of Samuel, the starving army of Saul is wandering the countryside, when they come to a woodland.  “The honey dropped,” we read, “and Jonathan [the son of Saul] put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand and dipped it in a honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes were enlightened.”

I question whether we really taste this mitikut, this primal sweetness—erotic, revelatory, dangerous, and raw, in the pale, ultra-pasteurized liquid squirted out of the nozzle-cap of a plastic bear.  While debates rage as to how healthy honey really is for us, there is no doubt that it is an ancient and remarkable fluid, a viscous cordial refined in the body of the bee itself from the effluvia of the living landscape—in the same abdomen that will rip itself apart to plant a poisoned barb in the skin of a thief.

Though now a poster child for our horrible tide of extinction, bees have been part of the human story since before time.  The Hazda, one of the last surviving hunter-gatherer cultures, still list honey as their favorite food, and it is mesmerizing to imagine our own primeval ancestors, their taste buds evolved to savor the rich sweetness of roasting fat, stumbling upon this unanticipated wonder, a humming labyrinth, a guarded wax palace sprouting in the cavities and crevices of the body of the world that, when cracked open, oozed with the nectar of the gods.


When I’m done, I place the smoker on the bricks of the front walkway, while it billows out the remainder of its contents.  A breeze carries the scent through the screen door, blending it with the musk of the hive box, now resting on the kitchen counter, and together they strike my nostrils with an aroma I associate with satisfaction.

I am preparing to extract.  The thin layer of capping wax must be shaved off both sides of each frame with a long, serrated knife, and then it will be placed in the basket of a centrifuge, and spun with a handcrank till the honey splatters out against the side walls and drips down to form a pool at the bottom.  Thick late season honey can take hours to pour through the filter, which removes the residue of wax and occasional dead bees, but the yield is an embarrassment of riches: an array of mason jars that gleam a deep gold when the light passes through them, and sticky fingers.

Sometimes a stray bee will follow me back from the hive, whining and thrusting in frustration, though this has never resulted in a sting.  A book I read suggested that, in the old days, the people of a particular village in Cypress knew to bar their windows for three days when the keepers went out to take honey.  The same author suggested it was a mistake to overly prize docility in bees; that we should learn to cope with their aggression because it was a life force that would enable them to survive in the world we had made.  She also said we shouldn’t be so glib with the word “sweet”, because real, raw honey had spice.  You would know its quality if it burned your throat a little going down, a venom of delight.


Soon we will take the little yellow apples from the tree out by the wood line, only a little bigger than crab apples, and slice them into quarters.  We will arrange them around the edges of the plate, and in the center will be the well, with its grooved wooden rod that will drizzle out our culinary sacrament.  Yehi ratzon, we will pray.  May it be your will, Oh God, at this auspicious time when I place upon my tongue what I would like to savor in the year to come, that I taste this honey and remember that your world is ancient, tenuous, wild, fiery, and sweet.





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