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Parsha Post: VAYEIRA

This week’s Torah portion brings much controversy and family drama!

Vayeira, in which Abraham attempts to sacrifice Isaac, our authors threaten their fathers with a knife and feel crushed in the synagogue. Hagar, however, gets to see G-d.

As usual, we provide you three handpicked tidbits from books we published, to enrich your weekly Torah portion experience… …or feel like you are not the only one about to run screaming from the synagogue.

The Binding of Isaac, Church of Narga Selassie, Dek Island, Lake Tana, Ethiopia. Photo by A. Davey

Also, we are glad to showcase this week not only one, but two bilingual poets who write both in English and in Hebrew! (We are going to share the English.)

We’re going to start with the poems, because they are more tension-filled, and then the discussion of Hagar speaking to G-d will bring a bit of an emotional resolution.

(OR NOT)

(I MEAN)

(FAMILY STRIFE INCOMING)

The first poem is by Herbert J. Levine, from his English/Hebrew poetry collection An Added Soul: Poems for a New Old Religion. This book explores through poetry how one can relate to Judaism while still having a non-theist perspective. This is a longstanding enterprise of Herb Levine’s – there are two volumes so far that we published, and they can even be bought in a bundle:

From Generation to Generation by Herbert J. Levine

How can I forget
that my son threatened me with a shovel,
swore he had been falsely accused over money
his sister had stolen?

How could my father forget
that I once raised a knife
to his face when he stood behind me
showing me how to carve the Thanksgiving turkey?

After the ram was slaughtered,
how could Abraham forget
the devouring knife that Isaac seized
and held against his trembling throat?

The second poem is about Sarah – to have something to match a poem about Abraham (I feel there’s always more about Abraham, though that’s changing!). Technically it is set on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, but there is no earlier or later in the Torah 😉

It is also a poem about going to synagogue and feeling that it is DIFFICULT. Which is a legitimate feeling to have! But often underdiscussed too. I think this Torah portion especially provides material to struggle with / feel uncomfortable about.

It’s from NOKADDISH: Prayers in the Void by Hanoch Guy-Kaner. (This book is in English, but he also writes in Hebrew.)

“[A] startlingly honest exploration of what it means to be a person living with the Absence and Presence of God.”

Wings by Hanoch Guy-Kaner

Let us magnify his holiness,
lovingkindness and compassion.
How lovely his tents are.
Beloved Sarah is under the divine wings.
Let her be bound in the garland of lives.
How fortunate is Sarah,
Born on the first day of Passover
Died on the second day of Rosh Hashanah,
When the gates of heaven are wide open as on Yom Kippur.
Angels chant soft hymns,
Ascending and descending ladders of light.

Mourners bathe in compassion, memory,
winter’s soft light coming through
stained glass windows.

The more Rabbi Linda piles up thanks to god,
recites his compassion and kindness,
The harder I am smothered by wings,
Crushed by the closing gate.

I just really like this – beauty, compassion, repentance, and the poet goes I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE. (Relatable content.)

And now for Hagar – This short excerpt is going to be from Torah Journeys by Rabbi Shefa Gold, a book that explores the spiritual challenges of every weekly Torah portion (+ gives exercises to focus on them). It shows the journey to the Promised Land in the Torah as a journey you take within yourself (so you don’t have to physically go anywhere!) and how the events of the Torah illustrate personal spiritual growth.

The name Hagar means “the stranger.” She represents the stranger in our midst. When we cast Hagar out into the wilderness, her offspring becomes our enemy. When the stranger is banished, our opportunity for seeing God is squandered. The ability to see God passes instead to the stranger, to Hagar. “At the moment of deepest despair, God opened her eyes.” She is blessed with a vision of God who appears at the living waters of life.

In receiving the blessing of Vayera, we are both the one who banishes the stranger, and the stranger herself. In finding the compassion to welcome the guest, to open our heart to the one who is different, the best tool we have is our memory of being the stranger ourselves.

I skip ahead a bit, because the next part is going to be especially interesting – and it’ll also show the power of midrash as fix-it fic 😉

Much later in the story, Abraham takes another wife named Keturah, which means “spice.” The midrash says that this new wife is Hagar, returning, the-stranger-welcomed-home. She is transformed from a bitter, desperate stranger into a source of sweet fragrance.

Welcoming Hagar back into our hearts bestows on us the blessing of seeing God once more.

By the way, we have a whole book that explores midrash as fix-it fic, and we suspect it predates the term “fix-it fic”. It’s from 1977! The new & updated reprint edition of Tales of Tikkun – New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World:

It retells classic Bible & Talmudic stories, and it also has a (different) story about Hagar & Sarah. (I feel this story just makes people feel “that CAN’T be it, right? RIGHT?”) That story is long, so I chose not to include it here, but you can get the book.

Which classic Bible stories would you fix? This Torah portion has more than one tempting stories, I feel. But we can always go beyond that… (C’mon, Avraham! C’mon, Sarah!!! C’mon, THE ENTIRE CITY OF SODOM!!)

Thank you for following along, and make sure to check out our entire series of Torah portions!

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Parsha post: Lech Lecha

Our discussion of this week’s Torah portion will include ….

  • How to space a Torah scroll
  • How to listen to your kid
  • How to fight demons with a sword?!

As usual, we pick three interesting and informative tidbits from books we published, to explore the Torah portion this way. Yes, demon-fighting really will be included… But first, spacing a Torah scroll. While we do publish science fiction, this is not in the sense of “ejecting into space”. But rather, how to space the lines of text in the scroll…

We learn about this from TORAH & COMPANY by Judith Z. Abrams. This book matches some Mishna & Gemara to each Torah portion, so that the Mishna and the Gemara will provide some company and the Torah portion won’t be so sad all by itself.

For this week’s Torah portion, one of the Gemara bits picked by Abrams is from the BT Bava Batra 163a. This explains how you should space Hebrew text (not just in the Torah, but also in contracts and the like).

How much space should be between two lines of writing? Rav Yitzhak ben Elazar said: As much, for example, as is required for the writing of lech l’cha (Genesis 12:1 and Genesis 22:2) one above the other.

BT Bava Batra 163a

(There are also further opinions in the Gemara, but the alternate solutions don’t have to do with the weekly portion.)

Abrams explains:

The Gemara here is discussing how much space must be left between lines of text in a document. Note the illustration:

Of all the Hebrew letters, lamed extends the furthest upward and the letter chaf sofit extends the furthest downward. Therefore, scribes are directed to leave enough room to accommodate the possibility of lech l’cha appearing on two lines, one directly above the other.

What do you make of the symbolism that lech l’cha extends in the furthest directions up and down? Can you find any significance in the fact that the words appear identical in the Torah?

Next up, we have a tiny but thought-provoking poem for you, from the upcoming THIRD volume of poetic midrash by Abe Mezrich! You can find the first two books here.

Listening
by Abe Mezrich

God names Yishmael, Abraham’s son,
for the act of hearing a cry.

Then God names Abraham Father to All.

To father a world, first you must father listening.
______
Genesis 16:1 – 17:5

I just really like this – and also it makes one think, how did that work out for Abraham and Yishmael? (Not so well?) What this implies about our own childrearing is an exercise that’s left to the reader.

Now we get to the demon-fighting part (yes, I know you were waiting) (We are here to provide you high-quality demon-fighting content)

This next section is from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s THE JEWISH BOOK OF DAYS. Which has something for each day of the Jewish calendar that relates to that day. It was also a finalist for the Jewish Book Award, and you might see why…

This time around, I picked something from the upcoming week. Cheshvan 11 (check it out in your calendar!) is the anniversary of two famous Biblical figures passing.

(I could call it a yahrtzeit, but that might be SLIGHTLY anachronistic, given that this was before Yiddish was invented…)

Some of you probably know about Rachel’s anniversary, but do you know that this is also Methuselah’s anniversary? Yes, the guy who lived for 969 years. Rabbi Hammer found you a lesser-known midrash about his prowess with a sword.

This is from the Midrash Avkir, which only survives in fragments. (Seeing some of the fragments, the universe probably couldn’t withstand it existing as a whole, I would say.)

Let’s see how Rabbi Hammer summarizes it:

One Jewish legend about Methuselah is that he was the first to learn how to fight demons. By fasting for three days while standing in a river, Methuselah obtains the power to write God’s name on his sword. He then uses the sword to smite the demons who afflict humankind. The eldest demon, Agrimus, comes to Methuselah and asks him to desist killing the demons; in return, Agrimus gives Methuselah the name of every demon. Using the names, Methuselah banishes the demons to the far recesses of the ocean (Midrash Avkir).

The darkening autumn is a time of reflection and, for some, of depression or regret. Yet when we learn the names of our demons, they no longer have power over us. It is interesting that Methuselah uses a body of water as a place to send the demons. Water, a symbol of the unconscious, represents the place we must go at this time of year to discover ourselves.

We wish all of our readers a good occasion to go and discover ourselves, like Avraham went (lech lecha – go to yourself). Hopefully not in the company of demons!

If you liked this, you can check out our other parashah posts too.

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“Loving God Through Life and Death: An Embodied Theology of Loss” by Aviva Richman

Today in #TorahInATimeOfPlague we take a look at chapter 3,

“Loving God Through Life and Death: An Embodied Theology of Loss” by Aviva Richman.

Torah in a Time of Plague, deposited on a pillow with animal print sequins.

This is a short but intense chapter that also includes discussions of pregnancy loss. (I usually don’t add content notices for pandemic & death because these are kind of assumed by the title of the book itself – but here I felt that this particular topic related to death might be unexpected, so I’m mentioning it.)

Aviva Richman talks about imitating God. The Bible says to walk in God’s ways, but what does this mean? We can’t really do a lot of things that an almighty deity might do, like end a pandemic, for instance.

One traditional interpretation is that we imitate God by acts of chesed (lovingkindness).

This goes back to the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael around 1700 years ago.

“Abba Shaul says: I will be like God. Just as God is merciful and gracious, so you should be merciful and gracious.”

Because it is late at night here in Kansas, I will mention that the question does arise… should we imitate God’s anger too?! Richman says that the traditional sources do not even consider this possibility. E.g., the Talmud lists God’s caring acts as ones we should imitate.

Of course this is helpful in a pandemic. We care for each other and imitate God this way. (Sounds great by me!) But is that the only way we can imitate God, Richman asks. God is described as giving life and death. Ok, we can imitate the giving life part, but what about death?

Now, this doesn’t mean we should literally mete out death, that would be terrible. It means that we should accept and acknowledge death, learn to hold it within us as we hold life.

One traditional concept that relates to this is that the Talmud also calls the uterus a grave (kever in Hebrew).

Pregnancy loss was different in the ancient era than it is now.

“[B]efore the advent of ultrasounds, people would not automatically know that a pregnancy had been lost, and they could have carried a lost pregnancy for many months before miscarriage or stillbirth.”

This can still happen today in certain specific circumstances, and it happened to the author, who relates her experience – which I will not summarize here, but it can be read in the book.

“When we are overwhelmed by loss, rather than bury it out of sight, we can be challenged and comforted to know that part of what it means to actualize our divine potential, our tzelem Elohim, is to participate in the divine work of holding death alongside the life that remains.”

Whew. I felt that this chapter was very deliberately less abstract and more embodied than the preceding ones, but I could immediately relate them to each other and the concepts of plague and disasters.

There is also a discussion of how it relates to theodicy that I skipped, because there was plenty about theodicy the last time around. Just illustrating that it all ties together 🙂

Thank you for following along! Next time we get to David Zvi Kalman discussing “The Natural Disaster Theology Dilemma”. (What is that?! …You’ll see)

It will include a discussion of gay sex. And on that cliffhanger we stop for today…

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Theodicy and the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune by Gordon Tucker

Now that the holidays are for the most part over, we get back to the theology of the plague! We continue our chapter-by-chapter readthrough of Torah In A Time Of Plague edited by Erin Leib Smokler – today it’s…

“Theodicy and the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune” by Gordon Tucker.

Do you know when G-d last speaks in the Tanach? We’ll find out shortly 🙂

Torah in a Time of Plague, deposited on a pillow with animal print sequins.

First we begin with a discussion of theodicy; i.e., theologians defending G-d. If he’s so good, why do bad things happen (LIKE A PLAGUE)?

A perennial question, and Tucker points out it implies an aversion to randomness and contingency. Surely G-d knows about all these bad things and has ordained them in some way.

One problem of theodicy is that it imposes our interpretations on G-d, and its aim is to make us feel better.

He quotes Edward Greenstein on the Book of Job that Job’s friends are like this… and it doesn’t work out for them:

“Note the ire that facile theodicies provoke in God (“I’m incensed at your friends” as the New JPS renders it).”

Job’s honesty based on his personal observations, and not his adherence to tradition, goes over much better. Tucker points out that there are several alternative ways traditional Jewish writers tried to get out of this difficulty.

  1. Everything comes from G-d’s will, but this will can’t be predicted
  2. G-d can ordain things and then let them proceed:

“[T]here is an assertion of contingency that God has ordained, but though having ordained it, God can neither override nor control it.”

(Now I see I hyphenated G-d but Tucker doesn’t; I just do it by reflex. Oh well, I’ll leave it this way. It has been ordained!)

And the third option Tucker presents is even more radical:

“the third text will present the most pervasive contingency of all, one that is built into the world, entirely independent of God’s will.”

So let’s see the first option.

There is an absolutely fascinating bit in BT Berakhot 7a –

“a tradition from Rabbi Yosi that Moses made three requests of God, and all were granted. The third of these was to be informed of God’s method for meting out prosperity and suffering.”

BUT WHAT WAS THIS METHOD, I MUST KNOW, you may ask (I certainly did). So did the Talmudic sages.

Well. They couldn’t figure it out. Rabbi Meir finally said that two requests were granted but this third one wasn’t! We can’t really understand the divine will.

“As Job, the book and the character, puts it (Job 9:12): “Who can say to God, What are You doing?””

Well, there we have the first option. (BUT REALLY, G-D, WHAT ARE YOU DOING)

The second option “comes from a medieval work by the older contemporary of Maimonides, Abraham ibn Daud.” He wrote a book called The Exalted Faith (Ha-Emunah ha-Ramah). Side note: He originally wrote it in Arabic, but only the Hebrew translation survives to this day (and has been translated to other languages like English).

He argues that G-d has ordained things to follow probabilities, not the specific outcomes. As he had it, “one ought not recoil from the idea that God knows only the possibilities.”

And the third option involves the Angel of Death.

There is a story in BT Chagiga 4b-5a where Rav Beivai bar Abaye (who had other occult dalliances as well, not discussed here) had a falling out with the Angel of Death. The angel got the wrong person by accident! Now, Rav Beivai bar Abaye complains at the angel in good Jewish fashion. (“Have you permission?”) The angel complains back. Etc.

The interesting part is that G-d is nowhere in the equation. Tucker quotes David Kraemer’s commentary on this:

““Have you permission?” is a broad question, and the angel’s response makes it clear that he feels he has the overall right to take lives prematurely. If there is any limitation on this power, it is not spelled out.”

Tucker likes this third option the most – but does it have textual support? He proceeds with a lengthy close reading of the ending of the Book of Job to show that it does. Which part I will NOT summarize, because my goal is to get you to read the book. 😀 (The Book of Job or Torah in a Time of Plague? Obviously both! ) BTW, the Book of Job – infamously ambiguously phrased in Hebrew – just got a new English translation and Tucker definitely made me want to pick that up too.)

To entice you about this, here are two nuggets.

  1. The ending of the book of Job is the last moment of the Tanach where G-d speaks. After this, it’s all done! G-d doesn’t speak anymore. So it is probably quiiiite important… (Tucker argues that it is)
  1. This quote I really like:

“What makes this understanding of God particularly apt as we ponder the ineluctable randomness in the world is that randomness is precisely the mechanism by which evolution proceeds and, in this vision, by which the divine reveals itself.”

Whew! Randomness is awesome. Allow me to quote another famous Jewish expert on this question:

“Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin.”

John von Neumann

If this was interesting / entertaining / terrifying, you can get the book!

Also on (affiliate links):

Also make sure to check out our posts about previous chapters as well!

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Parasha post for Simchat Torah: V’Zot HaBrachah

Prepare for the holiday with us!

Moses dies, but where is he buried? We offer a startling possibility… There are also poems, because what would Simchat Torah be like without poems?

Crowns of Torah scrolls, by shlomi kakon, CC BY

As usual, we offer three different selections from our books that follow the parasha cycle. The first one is an excerpt from Torah Journeys by Rabbi Shefa Gold – this book offers a blessing & a challenge for each portion, and a practice to go with them.

These discussions are several large-size pages long, so we’re only highlighting some choice portions from this week’s chapter (p. 221-226).

Moses dies in this Torah portion. Yet it is an unusual death in multiple ways. Unlike other religious leaders, we don’t have access to his gravesite so that we could go there to pray. Why is that important? Rabbi Gold explains…

The death of Moses represents the ultimate and most profound spiritual challenge that God gives to each of us. The vast body of literature, poetry, and midrash that describe the death-scene and burial of Moses stand in contrast to the actuality of the stark and spare text in Deuteronomy that says he died (by the mouth of God) was buried, and that no one knows where his grave is.

The fact that Moses’ gravesite is unknown, poses a major challenge in the development of Judaism. Religions tend to develop as the glorification of some great man. “He was so great and we are nothing. Let us worship him, or pray at his grave, or receive the merit of his goodness.

We’d note in parentheses that Jews tend to do this too, if not worshipping leaders, but definitely receiving the merit of their goodness. The pilgrimage to Uman, the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is a famous example.

However, Rabbi Gold notes:

But here the message becomes, “Don’t look to Moses… it is not really about him… the Torah is about you.”

A bit later, Rabbi Gold talks about one of her own spiritual experiences that relate to this portion …and that turned out unexpectedly:

Once during a meditative journey I asked, “Show me where Moses is buried”. I was told, “It’s not out there. Moses is buried within you.” […] The moment I found stillness, a flower opened up inside my heart.

How can we incorporate Moses’ death, or our own, into our spiritual practice? As Rabbi Gold points out, this was discussed even in the Talmud…

Rabbi Eliezer, one of our great sages, taught his disciples, “Turn (repent) one day prior to your death.” And his students said to him, “Master, how can anyone know what day is one day prior to their death?” His response to them was, “Therefore, turn today, because tomorrow you may die.”

BT Shabbat 153a

How can we incorporate this awareness into our lives? Here is a contemplative exercise

[I]magine that you are lying on your death-bed, surrounded by everyone you have ever known. Your heart is filled with memories of the life you have led. What do you regret? What are you proud of? What seeds have you planted? What are your priorities “one day prior to your death?” Now, turn towards the faces that witness you – family, friends, bosses, employees, co-workers, enemies, neighbors, strangers. Perhaps the meaning and fullness of your life can only be expressed through the blessing that you impart to them.

Rabbi Gold notes that this portion is not just about Moses’ death, but also about the blessings he provides to the tribes! What blessings could we offer to the people we know? And could we accept blessings from other people dear to us?

And because we are SOMEwhat contrarian here at Ben Yehuda Press, we’d also like to ask you to consider receiving a blessing from your enemies.

What would that be like? Can you think of a time when that happened?

There is a famous example of just that in the Bible, discussed by one of our authors, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, on her blog. Very timely, also because next up we’re going to share one of her Simchat Torah poems…

Mobius by Rachel Barenblat

For Simchat Torah

I want to write the Torah
on a mobius strip of parchment

so that the very last lines
(never again will there arise,

arpeggio of signs and wonders
stout strength and subtle teaching)

would lead seamlessly to
the beginning of heavens

and earth, the waters
all wild and waste, and God

hovering over the face of creation
like a mother bird.

This is the strong sinew
that stitches our years together:

that we never have to bear
the heartbreak of the story ending

each year the words are the same
but something in us is different

on a mobius strip of parchment
I want to write the Torah

I love how the first and last stanzas tie together – if you wanted, you could write out the poem on a Mobius strip.

You can get Rabbi Barenblat’s collection Open My Lips from us –

We also have another book from her, Texts to the Holy

And now, another poem, this one from we who desire: poems and Torah riffs by Sue Swartz – this book also follows the weekly cycle, so now is a good time to pick it up and start anew!

(infinite in all directions)
by Sue Swartz


This is the book of face to face.
In it, curved throat of god brought close.

In it, nothing remains itself very long.

Our fingerprints are all over its pages,
our minds’ lathe spinning and spinning –

Dear reader, dear dizzied reader:
Enjoy the circumnavigation.

I will not lie. There are easier ways
to make a life. But this is your only one –

Do not disappear yourself from it.

*

& it was evening and it was morning,
a hundred hundred perfections arrayed
in all their fertile expanse –

all the lands we permit ourselves not to see,
pointed twig and the intention of –

so the instructions are in a foreign tongue
so the skies melt in our hands

let us praise the wild and waste,
the floating out there, tumbling down there
beyond

you said let there be and there was
we said let there be and there was

*

Like a pencil poised for calculation –

A key not yet turned in the twitchy ignition –

We end on this point, full of possibility and renewal. Thank you for following along, and let us welcome you for another cycle!

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For your Sukkot poetry needs…

Sukkot seems less popular among poets than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. But Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s Open My Lips: Poems and Prayers has quite comprehensive holiday coverage, also including work about Hoshanna Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Here is a poem about Hoshanna Rabbah, and we’re also saving something for our parsha series…

Hoshanna Rabbah Prayer

by Rachel Barenblat

My footsteps across
this patch of earth’s scalp
release the scent of thyme.

Even in the rain
the squirrels have been busy
denuding the corncobs.

The wind has dangled
my autumn garlands. I untangle
them one last time.

Every day the sukkah becomes
more of a sketch of itself.
The canvas walls dip

and drape, the cornstalks
wither, revealing more
of the variegated sky.

Today we ask: God, please save
this ark and all that it holds.
Today the penultimate taste

of honey on our bread.
Today we beat willow branches
until the leaves fall.

The end of this long walk
through fasts and feasts:
we’re footsore, hearts weary

from pumping emotion. We yearn
to burrow into the soil
and close our eyes. We won’t know

what’s been planted in us
until the sting of horseradish
pulls us forth into freedom.

If you enjoyed the poem, you can get the whole book!

You can also buy it from:

(Associate links)

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Introducing Rabbi Tamares and his unexpected adventures!

On Twitter we have been discussing rediscovered Jewish authors, and it’s time to bring those discussions to the blog as well – let’s find out about Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares and his work!

He was one of the early Zionists, got disillusioned and became an anti-Zionist, but he also disagreed with most of the other anti-Zionists…

Hopefully the above indicates that controversial content is going to follow. Really, he disagreed with almost everyone. In the process, he said some things that still read as eerily timely and present-day.

(He also liked trees)

He wrote several books of essays and sermons. Some of them pseudonymously, as “One of the Passionately Concerned Rabbis” – because of the political content of his work.

We also know quite a lot about his life and inspirations, because he composed a lengthy autobiographic essay, upon request from a lexicon (!) of Jewish literature – and this essay, while unpublished during his life, can be found in the
YIVO Institute Archives. It has also been translated into English, so you can read it – alongside a selection of his sermons and his political work.

We published a kind of best-of: A PASSIONATE PACIFIST: ESSENTIAL WRITINGS OF AARON SAMUEL TAMARES. Edited, translated and introduced by Everett Gendler, with contributions by Ri J. Turner (who translated the autobiographic essay) and Tzemah Yoreh.

So let’s see how he lived (among trees!) and thought and what he meant by pacifism. It’s going to be surprising!

He was born in 1869 “just outside the town of Maltsh” (today in Belarus) in a rural area. His great-grandfather was known as a tzadik and “the Maltsher Maggid”. Even as a child, he really liked nature – in his own words (he wrote his autobiography in the third person):

“Outdoors, he became so enchanted by a beautiful tree or a grassy hillock that he could not tear himself away.”

This went on to influence his life considerably, because he refused to live in a big city.

He had a formative experience as a child. He spent a lot of time studying Talmud in a neighbor’s courtyard while the neighbor did various tasks around the house. (He wasn’t a Jewish neighbor and there were few Jews in the village.) The neighbor’s son was a soldier in the Russo-Turkish War. One day, as Tamares was in the courtyard, news arrived that the son had fallen in battle. Tamares sat with the mother who was desperately weeping and mourning her son, and cried with her. At that point he decided that war was “the epitome of evil”. He also came to understand that not only Jews were oppressed in the world.

He grew up and at 19, went to study in Kovno. He determined he would “fight against slavery and evil”, which are both manifested in war. He thought about how to do this, and determined that he would fight war by educating people.

He also studied in Volozhin, where he first became exposed to secular ideas. He became a rabbi in 1893 in the village of Milejczyce (today in Poland), inheriting the job of his father-in-law. He didn’t make any effort to get this job and he was somewhat at a loss what to do as a rabbi. He gave sermons to the villagers, but soon determined that he’d need to write to reach a larger audience. So he started to write for the newspapers.

This also proved difficult. He wanted to write in Hebrew. He didn’t know how to do that… He had no training, never studied Hebrew formally, but he really wanted to get his ideas out, so he persevered.

He ended up studying these topics and also got more secular education. He wrote the autobiographic essay the lexicon requested in Yiddish, so he could clearly write in Yiddish too, but he wanted to write in Hebrew. (This is important – some people like to conflate Hebrew revival with Zionism, and he ended up writing anti-Zionist work in Hebrew.)

When Zionism started to appear in the late 19th century as a movement, he was enthused at first. The Zionists called for justice, surely that has to be good, he thought.

“Unfortunately, he was not yet equipped to appraise the value of these antics” he wrote about himself. He described what he liked about Zionism:

  • The calls for freedom and justice.
  • The style of early Zionist writers, who were very eloquent.
  • The fact that “the old guard of Orthodoxy” was opposed to Zionism (YES, REALLY, that was a plus for him, as an Orthodox rabbi himself…!)

He felt that what we would now call the right wing of Orthodoxy was obsessed with finding sins in other people. He called them “God’s policemen”, because they were excessively policing people’s behavior. So if they were opposed to Zionism, that made him all the more interested.

He started to write a series of articles about Zionism, in which he enthused about it. This led to the Zionists inviting him to a large Zionist convention in Vilna. He went and had a very confusing experience.

First of all, everything was in Russian, even though many of the present (especially the rabbis) only spoke Yiddish. (Tamares did speak Russian too.) He thought, OK, probably the authorities only allowed this conference to go forward on the condition of it being in Russian… He was also surprised about the content of the discussion.

“They were honing their bureaucratization skills, preparing to lord it over their constituents in the future Zionist state…”

he wrote about this convention later. Then a policeman randomly showed up and everyone fled! Tamares was perplexed. The entire gathering had been illegal after all. But then why have it in Russian? Let alone with all the bureaucratic phrasing…

He went home. He was starting to have doubts about the Zionist enterprise, but decided to give it one more chance. He went to the Fourth Zionist Congress in London as a delegate. This was in the summer of 1900 and he found it more of the same:

“emptiness, bureaucracy and officiousness.”

He went home again. A Zionist group was already asking him to reprint his articles, and he mailed them a no. He said in his autobiography that he was “devastated”.

He wrote himself into a corner! He had loudly decried the Orthodox opposition to Zionism in his essays. Maybe those rabbis were right after all???? And now he’d gone ahead and alienated them. (Gevalt)

This is a great cliffhanger to stop on, and next time we can continue with Rabbi Tamares’ adventures with hardline Orthodoxy, entirely secular Socialism, and more… Also we’ll eventually, G-d willing, get to what he thought about nation-states.

We are further ahead on Twitter, so you can take a peek:

(You might start to suspect what views he developed about nation-states.)

In the meanwhile, if this is beginning to sound interesting, you can get the book:

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Parsha post! Shabbat chol hamoed Sukkot

A special Shabbat is coming up! Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot. We have some readings for you from our books – and if you feel like everything is such a mess at this point in the holidays, we have something for you too.

On this Shabbat, the Torah reading is something we also read at other times during the year – and the last Torah portion of the cycle will actually be read on Simchat Torah, a weekday. (Along with the new beginning of the cycle!) So now, all of a sudden we find ourselves back in Exodus, with Moses, and G-d giving rules about kashrut and all that.

To match the feeling of ‘can all those rules be enough for now?’ I picked a poem by Zackary Sholem Berger from his collection ALL THE HOLES LINE UP: Poems and Translations.

Ten Commandments are Not Enough by Zackary Sholem Berger

Six hundred thir
teen don’t even
saturate
the terrifying space
of choice.
We can always do
something else?
Help me, compromiser
keep my
inadequate choices
at bay
not whimpering on chains
not weeping in twilight
but crouching
for a morsel

(You can also follow him on Twitter at @DrZackaryBerger where he also talks about medicine and healthcare!)

Next up, I chose something from THE JEWISH BOOK OF DAYS by Jill Hammer! Rabbi Hammer talks about every day in the Jewish calendar, and this unusual Shabbat is no exception. While Sukkot is supposedly a partying holiday, on this Shabbat we read Ecclesiastes!

She explains:

On the Sabbath that falls during Sukkot, it is customary to read the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a mournful work about the futility of possessions, wisdom, and ambition in the face of death. Yet Ecclesiastes is also about the acceptance of time and the poignant beauty of the ephemeral. Enjoy life, the author of the book says, and do good deeds and know that your stay on earth will not last forever. This seems the right message for Sukkot. The harvest is itself the beginning of a journey into winter and an uncertain future.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is called Kohelet, “the gatherer.” A king in Jerusalem, he has reaped a harvest of wisdom, wealth, and love; and yet he cannot hold onto these gifts forever. He struggles with this reality and finally accepts it. On Sukkot, we too know that the harvest will soon be eaten. Our hearts are full only for a moment. Then we must be willing to move on. This is the wisdom of the heart: We are like the sea, always filling, yet never entirely full. On this day of Sukkot, we invite into our sukkah Moses and Miriam, redeemers who crossed the sea toward an unknown future.

(Look, here is Moses again!)

Rabbi Hammer also quotes an especially poignant bit from Ecclesiastes to match:

One generation goes,
another comes,
But the earth remains
the same forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets –
And glides back to where it rises.
Southward blowing,
Turning northward,
Ever turning blows the wind,
On its rounds the wind returns.
All streams flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is never full.
To the place [from] which they flow,
The streams flow back again.

Ecclesiastes 1:4-7

And she also quotes this midrashic bit about how Ecclesiastes Rabbah explains it:

All the streams flow into the sea – the wisdom of a person comes from the heart. But the sea is never full – but the heart can never be filled.

Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:4

Thus we have on this Shabbat a clash between thoughtfulness and PARTYING.
(We had something about the partying bit earlier!)

Before we move on, you can also get The Jewish Book of Days from us (we also have more of Jill Hammer’s work!) Super great time to buy now, at the beginning of the year! It’ll be a companion year-round.

Now. I’d say we also have a clash between all the holiday observances (including both the partying and the mournfulness), and being quite exhausted…! As I was looking through various books of ours, I opened THE SABBATH BEE at a page that described exactly how I felt.

This is a book of prose poems and tiny stories about Shabbat, by Wilhelmina Gottschalk – we wrote about it earlier, it’s really cute and heartwarming. This book has chapters for all the special Shabbat times too, including this Shabbat that falls on Sukkot. The chapter I chose, however, is not that chapter. (For that, you need to get the book..)

Did I say something about messiness? This’ll say something about messiness!

Macaroni necklace by Wilhelmina Gottschalk

It was a macaroni necklace day. A seat of your pants, I saw this thirty seconds ago in a shop window and it sorta reminded me of you, I can’t find my glasses – you mean the ones you’re wearing right now? – sort of a day.

I should probably be embarrassed. I made tea sandwiches for the queen of the week and left the crusts on. I nodded off in the corner and slept through the entire grand fanfare, trumpets and all.

But Shabbat didn’t say anything. In fact, I may have just dreamed it, but I’d swear she pulled her foot out of her diamond-studded heel at one point to show me the run in her stocking, one toe poking out, before she tucked her foot back in her shoe and let a boisterous gang of children lead her onto the dance floor.


You can also get this book from us:

Thank you for reading, and have a great Sukkot + Shabbat shalom!

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Sukkot for kids! From An Angel Called Truth

This is our all-ages special for Sukkot, an excerpt from An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales From the Torah by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons, illustrated by Pete Williamson. Enjoy, and chag sameach!


~ Lit ~


Succot is the most joyous festival in the Hebrew Bible. While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it was the occasion for a huge party, discussed in the ancient rabbinic text, the Mishnah. We’ve told our tale from the perspective of a young boy who was central to the celebrations.

I love Succot. Everyone dresses up and comes to Jerusalem, and there are mass processions with everyone holding their lulavimא‬ and etrogimב‬ . The trumpets are blown and at night there are these massive parties. The whole of Jerusalem is lit all through the night and we party and sing and I … I have the best job in the world.

Before Succot, we build these fire towers, all around the central courtyard of the Temple. Each tower has four golden cauldrons in the sky, full of fire. On the night after the first day of the Festival, four young priests are chosen for the honour of lighting these massive flames. This year, I’m one of them! I’m a fire-lighter. Did I mention, I love fire?

א‬. Tall palm leaves, bound together with three myrtle and two willow stems.
‫ב‬. Citrus fruits, not lemons, but similar.

As the stars come out, everyone heads to the Temple courtyard. The chant of thousands of people echoes around the city, ‘vesamachtah b’chagechah’ – ‘Be happy on your festival.’ This really is our time. The harvest is complete, all the food for the winter has been brought into the house and now it’s time to say thank you to God and to celebrate.

Over the heads of the people, ladders are passed down to centre of the crowd and balanced against the fire towers. As everyone chants, I get to be the one to climb up, with a fire-torch in one hand while holding on tightly with the other. It’s a long way down. I’m going to start the flames and the fire will burn so brightly, there won’t be a courtyard in the city that isn’t lit.

There’s a time to be serious and there’s a time to party. This is our time to party.

QUESTIONS:

Being religious is usually associated with being serious. Why? Why might partying also be a religious thing to do?

What might the problems of too much, or not enough partying, be? What might be the ‘wrong’ or the ‘right’ way to party?

The festival of Succot is held at the end of autumn, just before winter (in the Northern Hemisphere). Why might this time of year be a particularly good time to celebrate?

Sources:

Mishnah Succot 5 talks about the celebration side of Succot, called Simchat Beit HaShoevah – or the ‘Happiness of the Water-Pouring House’. The rabbis say, ‘Anyone who has not seen this happiness, has never seen happiness in all their life.’ It describes fire cauldrons on giant pillars and flames bright enough to light up the entire city (back in the days before electricity!). Two other fun details: the wicks for the flames of these oil-burning fires were made from the worn-out trousers of the priests (you don’t just throw stuff away, and especially not if it’s been used for sacred purposes), and the Talmud also records great feats of juggling and contortion – Abaye, Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel, Levi, Shmuel are all recorded in various places in the Talmud as juggling eight cups, and even eight flaming torches.

If you enjoyed the excerpt and shared it with your whole family, you can also get the book:

Enjoy the holiday and make sure to party!

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Parsha time! Ha’azinu

This week’s thread about the weekly portion will tell you how to fasten yourself to G-d. (Duct tape optional)

🌄 HA’AZINU 🌄

In which Moses sings a lengthy song and is then told about his impending death. (We warned you.) There’s also a big rock!

Bouldering, closeup of a hand in a crack. Picture by Arthur Hsu

Even though we’re just before Sukkot, a happy occasion, this parsha has a lot of rather grim commentary – because this is where G-d tells Moses that he’s going to die, and not be allowed into the Land.

A discussion of death follows, not all of it as peaceful as Moses’. As usual, we will pick 3 tidbits on the portion from books that we published. And we’ll begin with the one NOT about death. It involves fastening 🩹

The first piece is from Abe Mezrich’s collection of poetic midrash on the later books of the Torah, BETWEEN THE MOUNTAIN AND THE LAND LIES THE LESSON.

Hold the World Together

1.
The people of Babel fear they will scatter across the world.
They build a great tower from the valley where they live, up to Heaven.
This, they think, will hold them in place;
will hold them together.

But God disbands them.

Far later God relays a speech for Moses to share.
In it, God calls Heaven and Earth to witness His words–
*like storms upon the vegetation*.
To remain a people on the Land, God says, follow God.

2.
In Babel they thought earth and sky and each of us
are separate things.
It would take a structure to connect them
for us to stay together.
But God tells Moses: Heaven and Earth and the people
and our lives with God
— they are already part of one fabric:

a single fabric beneath the One God
Who rains from the sky to the grass.

3.
If you want to hold the world together,
do not invent a new structure to hold it up.
There is no need. It will not work.

Look to the fabric of God.
Fasten yourself to it.

The endnote specifies that this piece was based on Genesis 11 and Deuteronomy 31:16-32:2,44-47, the latter from our weekly portion.

For our next detail, we picked something from Torah & Company, a book by Judith Z. Abrams that finds a matching detail from the Mishnah and the Gemara for each weekly portion! (Demonstrate your erudition over Shabbat dinner!)

In his song, Moses offers a beautiful image of God as a rock:

“The Rock! His deeds are perfect; and all His ways are just.
A faithful God without sin: righteous and straightforward is He.” (32:4)

There is a longer story in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Avodah Zarah 17b, that features this quote.

(A warning that this will be grim.)

The Romans then brought up Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon and they said to him:

“Why have you occupied yourself with Torah which the emperor had forbidden under penalty of death?”

The rabbi said to them: “Thus the Lord my God commanded me.” At once they sentenced him to be burnt..

As he went out from the tribunal he accepted the righteousness of the Divine judgment. He quoted, “The Rock, His work is perfect; for all his ways are justice.”

They took hold of him, wrapped him in the Scroll of the Law, placed bundles of branches round him and set them on fire. Then they brought tufts of wool, which they had soaked in water, and placed them over his heart, so that he should die slowly.

( 😱 )

His daughter said to him: “Father, alas that I should see you in this state!”

He said to her: “If it were I alone that was being burnt it would have been a thing hard for me to bear. But now that I am burning together with the Scroll of the Law, He who will have regard for the Plight of the Torah will also have regard for my plight.”

His students said to him: “Rabbi, what do you see?”

He said to them: “The parchments are being burnt but the letters are flying free…”

The executioner said to him: “Rabbi, if I raise the flame and take away the tufts of wool from over your heart (so your death is quicker and less painful), will you assure me that I will enter into the life to come?”

The rabbi said to him: Yes.”

The executioner said to him: “Then swear unto me.”

He swore to him that he would enter the world to come. The executioner immediately raised the flame and removed the tufts of wool from over his heart, and his soul quickly departed.

The executioner then jumped and threw himself into the fire. And a heavenly voice went forth saying: “Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon and the executioner are destined for life in the world to come.”

When Rabbi heard it he wept and said: “There are those who acquire eternity in one hour, and then there are those who acquire eternity over many years!”

*

Whew! That’s a difficult story in more senses than one. For instance, why was Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon so certain he could make such an offer?

Judith Z. Abrams also has some discussion questions for us –

“Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon accepts his fate serenely. What does that image mean to you? How could you experience “the letters flying free” in your life? “Is there a qualitative difference between the eternal life acquired in an hour, or that acquired over the course of a lifetime? Which is easier? Is it fair to employ a “shortcut” in this matter?”

And the last one is also about death and mourning, but in a less abrupt manner

It is a poem from Maxine Silverman’s SHIVA MOON: Poems from a Year of Mourning, published by our Jewish Poetry Project imprint.

In this piece she talks about her father’s passing, and relates it to the passing of time in the Jewish calendar and the history of the Jewish people in the Torah…up till and including the passing of Moses and Aharon.

(We already talked about Aharon’s death here!)

What I Learned So Far

When Ellen says my poems these days seem one seamless Kaddish,
I hear she understands the six months
before my father died were raw keen k’riah.

How June’s visit home I see his death
forming in the air he breathes.

Why every evening I call him
until there’s nothing left to say,
until all that remains–the sheer
pleasure of his company.

Elul. He weakens before my eyes,
no shofar blast required.

Tishrei. We daven
repetitions to dwell in meaning: who shall live
and who shall die, who in the fullness of years

We cross into wilderness, a new year,
pillar of fire before us, the old, the weak, the infirm
to the rear, Amalek plucking them one death
at a time.

Reservations for December.
My father says, “Come right now.” and I do.

A way is made.
Gathered to his people,
a story old as time.

Thank you for following along, and we hope we managed to offer some things to think about. Before Sukkot and partying (we will have something about Sukkot and partying, too!)…

Also make sure not to miss our INTENSE discourse on the size of Nineveh in the Bible, earlier today.