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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.

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Introducing The Sabbath Bee by Wilhelmina Gottschalk!

You voted on which of our books I should introduce next, and the winner was:

🐝 THE SABBATH BEE 🐝 by Wilhelmina Gottschalk!

Heartwarming, thought-provoking, sometimes gender-bending prose poems about Shabbat 🥰 Because we all need some warmth for this new year!

These poems feature some sort of personification of Shabbat. The classic one, of course, is Shabbat the queen, Shabbat the bride… but this book very deliberately goes beyond that. As Gottschalk says in the foreword:

“There are times when Shabbat might be more like a visiting uncle than a queen. And for that matter, as a citizen of a representative democracy, how should I feel about royalty?”

Shabbat can be anything really.

“if Shabbat can be a queen, doesn’t it stand to reason that he can also be a grandparent? Or a blanket? Or to take an idea from the Kabbalist Shlomo Halevi, the ruins of a mighty city?”

(SHABBAT IS TOTALLY A BLANKET. I am CONVINCED)

Every week, Shabbat is different, so there are poems in the book for each week of the year, and then some more. As the author explains, sometimes you feel like “Oh, it’s Friday again!” 😍 And sometimes you feel like “Oh. It’s Friday. Again?” 😩

Some of the poems are very short, some are longer. Some are for special Shabbatot, like the ones falling on holidays, or Shabbat Shuvah, which is coming right up!!! (It’s between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)

Let’s start with a tiny one.

Just cuddle

Battered by the week, I lean into Shabbat. “Can we just cuddle tonight?”

We actually posted the Rosh Hashanah one recently on our parent publisher’s Twitter account, so you can head over there to read it – it’s a bit longer and titled “Beads”. (Very sensorily satisfying if you like that kind of thing!)

Some of the segments are very serious. Some are fun! Some are little stories that miiiiiiiiight sound familiar.

Let me share “The Muse-Shabbat Smackdown”!

Friday at 6:45, my muse knocks on the door.

Shabbat answers. “Oh, it’s you. What do *you* want?” she asks.

“Who is it?” I call.

My muse starts to answer, but Shabbat cuts her off. “No one! Just a salesperson!” She glares at my muse. “You can’t come in now. It’s *my* time.”

My muse raises her hands in confusion, diaphanous robes fluttering. “But, I just have this one really great idea-“

“Tough. Come back in twenty-five hours.”

“Can I just leave a message? A short little-“

Shabbat glares. “I don’t take dictation,” she says, slamming the door in my muse’s face.

I watch from the end of the hallway, slipping back into the kitchen before Shabbat turns around. When she glides back into the room and cups her body against my back, I pretend nothing happened.

Shabbat is a taste of paradise, but she can be jealous.

😫😝

I think that’s painfully relatable! Now let’s pick another one where Shabbat is more like… things. Or rather, processes? (to paraphrase William James, Shabbat is a process, not a thing 😆 ) I really enjoy these reconceptualizations –

Becomes easy

The first moment of Shabbat is when everything becomes easy.

Shabbat is the waterslide after waiting in line under the summer sun. Shabbat is the tiny change in calculation that makes X finally mark the spot. It is the moment when the 3-D picture resolves itself, when the pie dough reaches the right consistency. Shabbat is slippers after stilettos, a real hug after a week of quick pats on the back. When the curtains open and the first streams of Shabbat shine in, the middling details and distant humming vanish.

It all happens in the flare of a match, the last sliver of sunlight. You just have to know the magic words.

😌

But you know, Shabbat is actually drag. The next piece might convince you 😁 (All-ages! While we have certainly published some VERY adult content elsewhere, this is not it.)

The cover of night

Night falls, the darkness spreading over the sky as a shelter of peace. On Shabbat someone asks, “To what can the black sky be likened?”

One says – to the roof of a tent.

(But no, a tent protects from storms and poor weather, while the night sky often brings with it rain or hail.)

Says another – to a covering blanket. (But although Shabbat is a day of rest, surely most celebrants will be awake very late, enjoying its festive cheer.)

Is not the darkness of Shabbat like a wedding canopy? asks a third.

(Perhaps, but only two stand beneath a wedding canopy, while the whole world is shadowed by the dark.)

And finally a child speaks, saying, “The sky of Shabbat is like dress-up clothes, that let anyone underneath become a king or queen for just a little while.”

(SEE, I TOLD YOU)

And for the last piece today, I picked something a little mysterious… that resolves into something very familiar…

Reluctant Shabbat

Shabbat was hiding.

Somewhere in the house, I hoped. The windows were all closed, and anyway I hated the idea of him lost in the hard, unfriendly outside. I looked everywhere, pretending that I was just cleaning as I checked under the couch, behind the curtains, in drawers.

No luck. Next I tried to lure him with the smell of pie just out of the oven, fresh bread from the bakery. Nothing.

I lit candles hoping to attract him like a moth. I sang his favorite songs.

Finally, I gave up. I collapsed on the sofa and watched the candles burn until the room went dark.

…And sometime in the middle of the night I woke up with a crick in my neck and the warm, fuzzy feeling of Shabbat curled up warm against my stomach. I shifted to a more comfortable position and fell back asleep.

Thank you for reading – I hope these poems brought a bit of Shabbat cheer and warmth into your weekday!

👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝

You can buy the book directly from us:

Or you can order from Bookshop.org (associate link) to support local bookstores.

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Some thoughts about grief

So we’re at the point where the National Review and the New York Times are attacking Joe Biden for how he grieves.

I suppose it’s only fair to criticize president for being too human; after all, we criticized his predecessor for being too inhuman.

If one does want to engage seriously with the world of parental grief, three of our authors are in that very sad category of bereaved parents, for which Hebrew has a more redolent word, שכול.

B. J. Yudelson’s memoir, “With an Outstretched Arm,” encompasses the arc of her life, from growing up very Reform in the South to being a grandmother and a member of an Orthodox congregation in the snowy north.

 

The dramatic center of that arc was the Friday night where her 13-year-old daughter was struck and killed by a drunk driver while walking home from shul at an NCSY Shabbaton on February 6, 1981.

(Note that the @nytimes got both Ruth’s last name and age wrong.)
 
Our favorite review: “Buy this book NOW, curl up on your couch with a box of tissues and this book. I have not been so moved and so deeply touched by a book in a long time. BJ’s illustrative storytelling pulled me into her story, her experiences, her struggles and victories.”
 

Cover of Reaching for ComfortReaching for Comfort” opens several years after Sherri Mandell’s son Koby was murdered.

She had already written an award-winning memoir, “The Blessing of a Broken Heart.”
 
But her heart was still broken, because that’s the curse of being a bereaved patent.

So she embarked on a path of trying to help others. She studied to be a hospital pastoral counselor. That was a new field in Israel, where hospital clergy was there to certify kashrut, not minister to emotional needs of patients.

“Sherri Mandell has done it again with this deeply personal and profoundly moving book about caring and compassion under the most trying of conditions. Reaching for Comfort will inspire readers with its compelling prose, riveting narrative, and uplifting spirituality.”

That’s from historian, novelist, ambassador, and New Jersey native, Michael Oren.

“A poignant, deeply human look at the author’s attempt to deal with her own unspeakable pain by opening her heart to the pain of others.” That’s from an Amazon review.

(To return briefly to the political realm, which launched this thread: It’s worth highlighting the contrast between this who would “deal with [their] own unspeakable pain by opening her heart to the pain of others” and those deal with their pain by inflicting pain on others.)

Parenting on a Prayer was already finished and in the editorial pipeline when Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah’s 19-year-old son Josef died, nine months after a brain cancer diagnosis.

The book looks to the siddur to find 18 principles for parenting, combining explanations of prayers with anecdotes from Amy’s years as a mother of three.
 

“Every page of this inspiring work is filled with lessons to live by.”
— Rabbi Naomi Levy

Obviously, the book takes on added poignancy under the cloud of Josef’s death, described in the book’s dedication and afterward. And since all parenting takes place under the shadow of the potential of this infinite grief, that works. #MashiachNow

Jay Michaelson wrote The Gate of Tears in response to the grief he felt at the death of his mother.

I’ve always wondered what B. J. Yudelson would have thought about Gate of Tears. For the first several years of Ben Yehuda Press, she proofread every book. But by the time The Gate of Tears was ready for proofing, she was too ill from the cancer that would take her life.
 

But I don’t have to wonder about what she would say about people criticizing Biden for he handles his grief. Or about the people at the @nytimes that decided this was a story.

(Originally tweeted by @BenYehudaPress on September 5, 2021.
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This week’s Torah portion: Nitzavim

It’s that time of the week! Welcome to our post on the weekly Torah portion.

This time around:

🌳 NITZAVIM 🌳

Trees will be happening. Talking trees. Delightful trees. Get to know the Talmudic proof by flying tree! (We would like to take this time to reassure you that hurricanes and other extreme weather events are not involved.)

A photo of a tree and a red bench by the seaside, Crete, Greece. Image by Marc Ryckaert.

This parsha includes a very famous section about how the Torah is not in the heavens, and not beyond the seas either…

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.

It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?””

“Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut 30:11)

(Sea provided above ⬆️ )

So for our first Torah tidbit of the day, I picked something that involves this quote!

It’s from our book AN ANGEL CALLED TRUTH AND OTHER TALES FROM THE TORAH by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon & Emma Parlons –

It has short, illustrated parsha stories for all ages!

I’m going to put here images of the pages so that you can see the illustration too 🌳 but I’ll also type up the text below…

(yes, a FLYING TREE is coming!)

This Tree Shall Prove I’m Right

A verse from this week’s reading, which states that the Torah is not in the heavens, appears at the heart of one of the most famous arguments in rabbinic literature. The argument is between Rabbi Eliezer, who claims that a particular kind of oven doesn’t need to be demolished, while the rest of the rabbis think that it does.

If you’re wondering if this is a typical topic for the Talmud, yes it is…

Rabbi Eliezer proves his point time and time again, but the rabbis simply don’t accept his arguments. This is our retelling of that Talmudic passage.

“If you still won’t listen to me,” Rabbi Eliezer said, pointing in the direction of a carob tree, “then this carob shall prove I am right.” The rabbis shook their heads in resignation. That Rabbi Eliezer – you could almost hear their scorn – how does he think a tree is supposed to prove anything?

The sidebar helpfully tells us:

The carob, or Ceratonia siliqua, is native to the Mediterranean region. Some people say carob fruit tastes like chocolate. But who do they think they are kidding?

So, back to the story, how does the carob prove Rabbi Eliezer is right? Oops!

Then the tree uprooted itself from the earth and flew through the air. Rabbi Eliezer nodded quietly to himself. Surely – he thought – he would have their attention now. But no. Oh no. These rabbis were not about to accept proof-by-flying-tree.

Rabbi Eliezer tried again. “If I am right, let this stream of water prove it.” The water began to flow upstream, but the rabbis were not accepting proof-by-backwards-flowing-stream.

Rabbi Eliezer tried a third time.

And now, in unison, let us say NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, Rabbi Eliezer, NOoooooo~

“If I am right, let the walls of this study hall prove it.”

It’s going to be JUST FINE…

…right?

And the walls of the study hall started to lean in and fall.

At that moment, Rabbi Joshua stood up and told the walls, “When rabbis argue, who are you, walls, to get involved?” Out of respect for Rabbi Joshua, the walls stopped falling inwards but, out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, they didn’t right themselves either.

Very Jewish solution, but I guess they were the walls of the study hall after all….

Rabbi Eliezer summoned the powers of heaven. Looking upwards, he called on God to settle the debate. A voice came from the heavens. “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right.”

Rabbi Joshua rose again, “The Torah itself says that the law IS NOT IN THE HEAVENS. It was given to us!”

And – to this day – the walls still stand and lean. Neither siding with Rabbi Eliezer nor with Rabbi Joshua.

And we should note a very important detail, namely that G-d did not kill Rabbi Joshua for the ALL CAPS either… Though that might only be because Hebrew has no capital letters 😉 But to be honest, G-d has a high tolerance for people yelling at Them.

We also have some discussion questions to go along with the story:

Rabbi Eliezer was in the minority, so should he have sided with the majority? When have you agreed with a majority, even though you thought that position was wrong? When should you agree with the majority?

Rabbi Eliezer attempts to prove his point with miracles. Do you think Rabbi Joshua was right to refuse to accept miraculous proofs? If so, why?

Is it good to be the odd one out? Why? Do you tend to stand alone or with the crowd?

The story ends here, but I should add that it actually goes on even further in the Talmud. Wikipedia has a summary, with some interpretations too! But now we’re going to segue to our next tidbit, which also includes trees.

(I have to say it’s easier to do this with trees than with cats. The Torah doesn’t include very many cats. For that, you’ll need our Jewish Cat Calendar.)

This one I’ve picked from THE JEWISH BOOK OF DAYS: A Companion for All Seasons by Jill Hammer. (Incidentally, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award!) It has something for each day of the Jewish calendar – and for some mysterious (or not so mysterious) reason, for this Shabbat, it includes a fascinating midrashic quote about trees.

It is from the midrash collection Genesis Rabbah (or Bereishit Rabbah) and it’s a commentary on the very beginning of Genesis, where all manner of plants and trees are created. You probably already know this one from Genesis, but do you know the midrash that goes with it? Genesis Rabbah tells you………

*dramatic suspense*

R”All trees speak with one another. All trees speak with other creatures. All trees were created for the delight of other creatures.” (13:2)

You heard it here first! I mean, this was written ~1500 years ago, but still.

So let’s see what Rabbi Hammer says about this quote and why she picked it for this day:

Those of us who are raised around trees are used to a certain whispering in the leaves. For those of us who grow up where trees dry out in the autumn, the leaves’ rustlings grow particularly intense at this time of the year. In the imagination of one midrash, the trees actually are speaking, to one another and to us.

On the third day of Creation, the Divine creates plants and trees. A midrash in Genesis Rabbah focuses not on the things trees do for us by giving fruit, wood, sap and medicines but on their companionship. The aliveness of trees feels like friendship to us. We celebrate the plants that are our companions on earth.

Some plants will grow all winter. Some plants have died down to a bulb, yet they will come to life again in spring. Some seeds have been torn away by the wind to distant places. At the new year, we may feel like any one of these plants. In that sense as well, the plants are our companions, showing us the way to renew ourselves.

And for our last tidbit I chose one of Rachel Barenblat’s Elul poems from Open My Lips: Prayers and Poems.

This one has a LOT of High Holiday poems (and prayers!) so I’ve been quoting from it a fair amount…

Rocking chair (for Elul)

The exalted throne on high
   is a gliding rocker.
      God watches us with kind eyes

rejoicing when we figure out
   how to fit two pieces together
      and create something new

looking on us with compassion
   when we struggle for balance
      and thirst for what we can’t name.

The sages of the Talmud knew
   more than the wobbly calf wants to suck
      the mother yearns to give milk

God is the same way
   overflowing with blessings, and yet
      we turn our faces away and wail.

When will we learn?
   God’s lap is always open
      all we have to do is return.

Thank you for following along, and stay tuned for multiple surprises coming up and a lot of new things during the holiday season. When we are not away, we will be here with double the intensity 😀 G-d willing, but this is the plan.

In the meanwhile, you can browse our previous parashah threads on Twitter – with a lot of fun stuff (and some weird, and some terrifying…).

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Strange Fire excerpt!

Strange Fire edited by T.S. Mendola is our unorthodox anthology reflecting on our COVID-conscious present! Preorders are open and the book is coming soon.

Strange Fire has four sections: Anger, Death, Sex and Faith. For today, we chose to share a few paragraphs from an essay in the Sex section,  “The Whores’ Covenant” by RG! Please note that the below content is meant for adults 18+.

Strange Fire cover

*

We shoot for two hours. I am efficient and professional; we never need longer. Afterward I peel off the now-damp velveteen choker and plush false lashes. I put on my street clothes, my Star of David, and a mask in muted florals a friend made for me. I pay my photographer, tip as generously as I am able, reassure him that I don’t need the shots immediately, family comes first, it’s fine, text me, let me know how your brother’s doing, and slip into the alley behind his studio. I mop the makeup from my temple, damp from the softbox lights, and check the bus schedule for the next transfer home. This shoot will sell well, I think, my ass looks perkier since I’ve lost some weight and stockings are always popular with my regular clients. I sit at the bus stop, redolent of piss and dirty, ashen summer heat, and mentally extrapolate the budget for the projected earnings; what goes to charity, what goes to debts, what goes to little extras like skincare, a new duvet set, more lingerie, a gift for a relative’s birthday. I finger my necklace, lackluster from years of anxious rubbing, like a worry stone, and say minhah before the bus comes. It is nearly dusk. I am late in my daily prayers, but it cannot be helped. I trudge onto the bus with my overstuffed duffle, earbuds in, podcast on. My thumbs dictate a quick promotion for the evening crowds as I heave myself into a seat, “FLASHSALE: five erotic, high-res photos for $15, tonight til midnight, DM for details.” I add a kiss emoji and a coy but suggestive glamour shot. I spellcheck, debate which promotional shot to use, add my time zone, and post. I turn on my notifications and try to relax into the rigid, inhospitable plastic of the bus seat.

I have done this work for a decade now, in various iterations. An amateur burlesque performer, awkwardly and excitedly accepting meager, grubby tips from audiences; a trained dominatrix, wiping my crops with alcohol; and now, a professional sexter and peddler of nudes. A college-educated smut purveyor. Unwed. Devorah in a g-string. I pray thrice daily, often more; I do not eat pork or shellfish; I volunteer at the local foodbank; I attend Shabbat service regularly. I fast, I bake pies and casseroles for families sitting shiva. I take God’s law seriously, then I take my clothes off and pose with lace, clamps, and crops.

The untold story of this labor, throughout the centuries, in brothels and nightclubs, on Backpage and OnlyFans, is the labor of the soul that comes with confessing desire to a stranger, of witnessing their confession, of admitting to and meeting those needs that we’ve been told all our lives are at best problematic or at worst outright sinful. My clients, past and present, aren’t looking for mere titillation: they can get that anywhere. What they seek is the intimacy of witnessing someone’s desire, in full bloom, unabashed. To be invited, for a fee, into the world of that desire. Being isolated in your own yearning amplifies the associated sensations of perversion and lonesomeness. My goods and services provide a private viewing of another’s desire, of their mating display, and a kind, unselfconscious voice to reassure them that they are not alone in their needs.

*

If you’re interested in more, make sure to get yourself a copy! We’ve also posted an amount of short snippets at our Twitter account, and we plan on posting other longer excerpts as well.