Chag sameach! Today we’ve reached Day 3 of Chanukah, and our light-themed holiday highlights from books we published. Make sure to take a look at previous instalments and also peruse our holiday buy 2, get 3 sale!
Today we picked something Kabbalistic – a chapter from Rabbi DovBer Pinson’s Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom: Awakening Through Kabbalah. This book goes through introductory Kabbalistic concepts in a gate by gate format, and also explains how each concept relates to our everyday lives and interpersonal relations. These days people talk a lot about boundaries, but how do boundaries relate to the endless light? We can find out…
Gate 2: Ohr Ein Sof – The Endless Light
There is no way to relate to Essence, for we are of Essence. There is nothing outside of Essence, nor any division within it. Relationship suggests duality; essence is singularity. What begins with essence ends with essence, and there are no-things in between to obstruct that singularity.
Yet – and this is the supreme mystery – we are relational beings. Our brains are built to project definitions and distinctions, to compartmentalize and contextualize, and to relate to apparent separations as if they actually exist. Binary oppositions dominate our perception in our daily practices. This is like bening awake, yet day-dreaming that we are asleep.
Our brains are hard-wired to break life into projects. Our consciousness is an instrument created to negotiate a three-dimensional universe, which encompasses definitions. Without the ability to make distinctions, the mind has a hard time grasping what we call reality. Because of this, we feel separated from our Essential Source. The yearning to awaken to our Source is the fuel behind everything we do.
The kabbalistic ladder of metaphors, worlds, gates, and practices is the path to our gradual awakening to our true state: Unity.
The highest gate, the ultimate metaphor for Reality, is ein sof, ‘No End’ – Infinity. The ohr ein sof – Light of Infinity – metaphorically shines within Essence like a beginningless, endless light within the orb of a boundless sun.
Within the orb of the ohr ein sof there is no shadow, color, or limitation. There is nothing to bind the infinite light. In ein sof anything with even the semblance of a sof, an ‘end’, is ein, ‘not.’ Ein means ayin – absolutely no-thing. In Hebrew ayin and ein are spelled the same.
In personal terms: When we are fully engaged in expressing our endless selves, there is no room for a relationship with others. Relationships can only exist with boundaries. Without boundaries, our light would pour forth, leaving no room for anyone else.
To enter the gate of ein sof is to become One with the Infinite Divine Light. All we need do is stay true to what we subconsciously already know: I am no-thing. I am not an independent, separate I and the ein sof is within Everything.
Thank you for reading! Tomorrow we’re going to share something from a radically different Jewish movement…
Chag sameach! To celebrate the festival of lights, every day we are posting an excerpt from one of our books with the theme of light. There will be poetry, prose, nonfiction from multiple Jewish movements, Kabbalah, and more. Please see the previous entries:
Today we are going to feature a segment from R.B. Lemberg’s upcoming poetry memoir Everything Thaws. This book discusses the author’s childhood in the Soviet Union, migration, climate change (the title is very literal), and Jewishness. There is also an ice dragon!
This part is about the northern lights, and as such quite fitting for the occasion – even though it deals with difficult topics like violent antisemitism.
The excerpt is from Chapter 1 (not directly from the beginning):
When I came back to Ukraine after a year in Vorkuta I drew the northern lights to show my classmates. I drew myself dragging a little sleigh, head up to the vast shimmering road in the sky. It was my road that showed me the way when I was six – white, wide, stretching across the black winter sky in complete silence, under the immovable permanence of the cold.
“You’re lying,” my classmates yelled, and later the whole class trapped me in the school attic and beat me, screaming that I was a Jew who believed in G-d (remember, these were Soviet times and believing in G-d was forbidden) and that I was lying about the northern lights I saw in Vorkuta.
They had never seen the Northern lights, but they knew what a Jew looked like.
A Jew looks like me. A Jew looks like this person with too much curly hair and an eating disorder and too many academic degrees and too much change, less than a model immigrant from too many places to too many places, never believing that I will be heard because people have trouble believing that things exist that they have never seen.
Every time I open my mouth or flex my fingers to write I am putting a brave face upon the thawing permafrost.
I am not lying. I am just constantly changing languages, idioms, continents, genders, homes, and I am not even sure how to mourn from this vantage, let alone perform any other human activity let alone be a good anything: a good child, a good immigrant, a good parent, a good spouse, a good writer (only if I’m silent) (squeezing my lips shut so tightly) (clenching my fingers) (trying to fit) (always trying to fit) (remembering that where I’m from, a Jew cannot be good by definition, a Jew must become a person instead, become a Jewperson and then simply a good Soviet citizen but secretly a rootless cosmopolitan
who never speaks anything but the purest Russian who eats no herring or raw garlic under any circumstances before going out, because everybody knows that Jews stink of those two things.
This is the one permanent axis of my identity, that I am a Jew: that is a rootless cosmopolitan at home nowhere in no language, in no country, not even among other Jews, eating herring and garlic with a sense of deep satisfaction that comes with the hope that, living in the Midwest, nobody’s going to surreptitiously sniff me for that telltale stench of a Jew which cannot be spoken of in polite society, cannot be uprooted, cannot be forgotten or forgiven; only silenced.
Thank you for reading! Tomorrow we’ll follow with the Kabbalistic mysteries of light…
Every day of Chanukah we are going to post something for you to read! (G-d willing, but we’re working on it.) We begin with something from a book we are announcing just now (though if you follow our Twitter account, we hinted at it here and there…). You can also take advantage of our Chanukah sale!
Chapters follow many themes: from disability inclusion to the theme of light inspired by Dr. Prouser’s name Ora, from women’s issues to public theology and Bible scholarship, they all relate in some way to Dr. Prouser’s work and life.
The excerpt we chose is from Michael Kasper’s essay “Light and Peace in Our Daily Liturgical Declarations.” It connects light to peace, specifically peace in the home, and relates these concepts surprisingly also the birth of Moses!
Jewish wisdom has it that shalom bayit, peace in the home, is an idea so important that it deserves to be used as a Rorschach for how to live together in community. The Otzar haMidrashim—Midrash haGadol 42—helps to explicate rabbinic thinking about the relationship between peace and light.
. גדול השלום שלא התחיל הקב״ה לברוא דבר בעולמו אלא בדבר שהוא שלום ואיזה זה האור שנאמר ויאמר אלהים יהי אור. ומנין שהוא שלום שנאמר יוצר אור ובורא חושך עושה שלום (ישעיה מ״ה ז׳). מכאן אמרו חז״ל נר ביתו וקידוש היום נר ביתו עדיף משום שלום ביתו. פירוש האור נקרא שלום לפיכך מקדימין הנר שהוא אור ושלום ליין.
Great is peace that the Holy Blessed One did not begin to create anything in God’s world other than something that is peace—and what is this? The light, as it says, “And God said ‘let there be light.’” And from where do we know that [light] is peace? As it says, “forms light and creates darkness, makes peace” (Isaiah 45:7). From here our sages of blessed memory said, “[When one has a choice between] a lamp for their home and [wine for] sanctification of the day, the lamp for one’s home is preferable because of peace in their household.”
Our understanding is that light equals peace and, therefore, candles are more important than Kiddush wine. Our sages understood that the value of peace was so great, so primary to all that followed, that if one had to decide whether to buy candles to illumine the room or wine to sanctify the meal, the choice was decidedly in favor of light, for light which is shared brings peace to the home.
Other cultures understand the relationship between light and creation in similarly essential ways. In Spanish, to give birth is called dar a luz, to give to [the] light. The phrase is the same in Portuguese and only slightly different in Italian: dare al luce. All mean the same, to birth a child. All point us toward the inescapable idea that the fact of existence, the fact of humans roaming the planet, the fact of community, all these are shown to us by the magic of the sun. By the magic of light. By the magic of peace.
None other than Rashi, 15 writing in the latter half of the eleventh century, makes a similar point about the goodness of light. Commenting on Exodus 2:2 he sees a connection between the words Jokhebed uses upon seeing her son, Moses, (ki tov hu—how goodly he is) and the Torah’s own commentary in Genesis 1:4 (ki tov—God saw that the light was good).
וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָא֖וֹר וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁך God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. Genesis 1:4
וַתַּ֥הַר הָאִשָּׁ֖ה וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַתֵּ֤רֶא אֹתוֹ֙ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֔וּא וַֽתִּצְפְּנֵ֖הוּ שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה יְרָחִֽים׃ The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how goodly he was, she hid him for three months. Exodus 2:2
In fleshing out this connection, Rashi cites Sotah 12a:
וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁנּוֹלַד מֹשֶׁה נִתְמַלֵּא הַבַּיִת כּוּלּוֹ אוֹר כְּתִיב הָכָא וַתֵּרֶא אוֹתוֹ כִּי טוֹב הוּא וּכְתִיב הָתָם וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאוֹר כִּי טוֹב The verse states, with regard to the birth of Moses, “And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and when she saw him that he was a goodly [ki tov] child, she hid him three months” (Exodus 2:2). And the Rabbis say: At the time when Moses was born, the entire house was filled with light (ora), as it is written here: “And when she saw him that he was a goodly [ki tov] child,” and it is written there: “And God saw the light, that it was good [ki tov]” (Genesis 1:4). Sotah 12a
Reading Rashi, we get a glimpse of the power this creation of light enjoys. God saw the light and called it good, Moses’ mother invokes the language of light to describe her son, and the rabbis posit an entire house, full of light, at the moment of Moses’ birth. Light, Or/Ora, is good!
Thank you for reading, and tomorrow we’ll offer you some Jewish poetry about light! Specifically, the Northern Lights…
We posted about our sales earlier, but we have some additional deals, and some of them have even taken us by surprise! Amazon has put some of our books on sale, including Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity edited by Rivka Cohen, Naima Hirsch, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah J. Ricklan, and Rebecca Zimilover – at a breathtaking 70% off! (This is an associate link, which means if you buy the book through it, we get some additional $ too.) We don’t know how long this deal will last, so make sure to check it out.
This book has been called the Orthodox Jewish Vagina Monologues, and it is one of the first volumes to openly discuss traditionally observant Jewish women’s sexuality, from a first-person perspective. Many contributors – some of them anonymous – share their experiences in poetry and prose.
We offer you a sample chapter here, focusing on the author’s difficulty in having penetrative sex with her husband. This is definitely 18+ content, but we really recommend it to our adult readers – even among secular people, there is little awareness of related health conditions.
Growing Pains by Anonymous
We were married for a month before we successfully had penetrative sex. Not for a lack of trying on our part, but because each attempt ended with me in tears, unable to understand why my body wasn’t working the way my kallah teacher had said it would.
That first time, I lay there as my husband managed to achieve full penetration—finally—and tried desperately to hold in the tears of pain. Every few moments, my new husband looked at me and said, “I’m going to stop. It’s hurting you.” And each time I replied, “Don’t. I’m fine. Please.”
I wasn’t fine at all, and the tears swimming in my eyes were all the proof he needed. He stopped.
I bled immediately afterwards, and I kept bleeding. After three weeks, I finally mustered up the courage to go to my gynecologist. She attributed the bleeding to my new birth control and the painful sex as “growing pains.” I tried to explain that my vagina seemed to shut down whenever we tried to have penetrative sex, and that I suspected it was more than “growing pains” but she, a frum woman herself, knew better and sent me on my way with a prescription that read: “Buy a water-based lubricant.”
And so we tried again. We had used lube the many times we tried, but maybe what my body needed was specifically “water-based.” I held on to that hope as I checked out at Duane Reade, bottle of KY Jelly in hand. I texted my husband and told him we had to try it out tonight. The doctor said it would work, that this was what my body needed to work. It had to work.
It didn’t work. I sighed as I said to my husband, “Maybe I’m just nervous. Let’s try again tomorrow.” But the same thing happened the following night. By the third night, I was sobbing into my pillowcase, shaking with anger and sadness at my pathetic, broken body. I emailed my gynecologist and told her that the lube wasn’t working. She wrote back an hour later: “Try more lube!”
I made an appointment to see her the following week. Each night we continued to try, sometimes with success, but always with a pain that felt like my body was being torn apart.
And in a way, it was.
My kallah teacher, my friends, and the frum community that I trusted had led me to believe that my body would know “ just what to do” when the time came. I was promised that by “waiting until marriage,” I’d ensure that our sex life was far more meaningful and sacred than for those who had premarital sex. I was promised that any first-time pain would quickly vanish in the face of heightened joy and ecstasy with my new husband.
The reality of the situation, though, was much different than what I had been led to expect. I was a failure. Every single tear, every ounce of frustration, every whispered apology to my extraordinarily kind and patient husband was a manifestation of the ongoing damage to my spirit. My body failed me. It failed us. With each attempt, I began to believe that I was less of a woman, and certainly less of a wife than I wanted to be.
My return visit to the doctor yielded new information: “Your vagina is atrophied. Basically, it’s shriveled up like a raisin. We don’t usually see that in women until they hit menopause but it’s such an easy fix… I’ll give you an estrogen gel that’ll clear it right up.”
A weight was lifted off my shoulders—finally, an answer! And a cure. I dutifully picked up the yellow and pink boxed medication which cheerfully spoke of all the ways that menopause wouldn’t change my life. I inserted the medication night after night, carefully following their instructions to avoid any sexual contact while using the gel.
One week later, at my follow up appointment, my gynecologist told me that my vagina was stubborn and that I’d need another week’s worth of medicine. “Feel free to start trying again at the end of this round! If you’re feeling better, you don’t even need to come back. Oh, and if this doesn’t work, maybe you should consider going on Xanax or something to help you chill out.”
I was giddy with anticipation. Each night after I inserted the medicine, I counted down the days until we could resume trying. The last night of the medication, I cheerfully told my husband that the following day was the first day of the rest of our lives. He laughed, happy to see me optimistic.
The following night we tried again. I waited expectantly for my newly cured vagina to give way and let my husband enter me in the way he should have been able to on our wedding night.
“It feels like there’s a wall,” he said, using a description we’d both grown familiar with. It didn’t hurt quite as much, but penetration was near impossible. A few more half-hearted attempts and we gave up. I didn’t even cry. I was so deflated that I just crawled into bed and fell asleep.
My Orthodox friends never spoke about their sex lives, and I wasn’t comfortable asking their advice. But I am blessed with good friends who are not Orthodox, and when they asked how our sex life was six months after our wedding, I shrugged and said we didn’t really have one. I told them I was still having “first-time” pains, and it made it hard to have sex. I told them I figured it’d take a little while but eventually it would get better.
Shortly afterwards, they staged an intervention. “We know you don’t talk about this where you’re from, but this isn’t normal. Go to a new doctor. Find out what’s wrong, because something is wrong.”
I found a new gynecologist. At our first appointment, I sat in the chair and cried: “My last doctor told me that my vagina was atrophied but she gave me meds and they fixed the atrophy but my body still doesn’t work and it hurts so much and I hate myself and my body and I think I should just tell my husband to divorce me because he’s never gonna be able to have a regular life with me. Please can you tell me what’s wrong with me?”
She sat with me and talked me through a battery of exams, both internal and external. She told me that I had vaginismus and vulvodynia, and prescribed a topical painkiller and referred me to a pelvic floor physical therapist.
Armed with a diagnosis, I logged onto my computer and began the first of many Google searches. I learned that vaginismus made the muscles of my vagina contract involuntarily, making prolonged penetration impossible. I learned that vulvodynia was chronic pain around the vulva with no identifiable cause but which lasts for longer than three months. I learned that many thousands of women are misdiagnosed each year, while many more are told that there’s nothing wrong with them.
I learned that these diagnoses are most common in two groups: Indian women and evangelical Christian women. The medical literature is sparse, but what does exist suggests that these diagnoses are more common in populations where sex is treated as something negative and shameful.
Though my teachers would disagree (they did say that sex within marriage was beautiful and husbands were required to sexually satisfy their wives), I spent the first two-and-a-half decades of my life being told that sex—that any touch between the sexes—was bad and shameful. It’s hard to flip a switch on that mentality just because I had a ring on my finger.
I started seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist shortly after that appointment, and began seeing a licensed sex therapist. I knew that the physical problems were largely a manifestation of emotional and mental blockages related to sexuality, and I wanted to address the issues head on.
I loved my physical therapist and our weekly sessions, despite the fact that they caused me tremendous discomfort. Each week, my physical therapist stuck her fingers inside my vagina, pressing down on my muscles to decrease the tightness and teach my body to be comfortable with foreign objects inside me. I had to use a series of dilators, each bigger than the next, to continue this exposure therapy at home. None of this was covered by my insurance, which considers vaginismus and vulvodynia unnecessary problems to treat.
With my sex therapist, I began to uncover the emotional and mental entanglements that made sex impossible for me. In sessions alone and in sessions with my husband, we explored the meaning of shomer negiah in my life, the dictate to “wait until marriage,” the shame I associated with sex, and what it might mean to live a life different than the way I grew up.
Slowly, I began to heal.
Four years later, I’m proud to say that my husband and I have the sex life we were promised in our kallah and chatan classes. My teachers were wrong about many things, but they were definitely right about one thing: sex does mean so much more when you have to wait—and work—for it.
We don’t know for how long Amazon will offer this deal, so make sure to check it out now! These are Amazon associate links and we get paid some additional commission if you purchase books after clicking on them. (Amazon pays royalties to us after the cover price, so don’t worry about taking advantage of their price drops.)
This week’s Torah portion is Toldot, in which an exhausted Esau eats the lentils, but what was he doing before that? Excessive speculation ensues. Also, bonfires herald a new month!
Before we get to Esau, there is something special about this time that we wanted to discuss – It is Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the first day of winter in Israel according to the Talmud, and it was traditionally celebrated in a way that was both beautiful and useful. The first Torah tidbit we picked from books we published is about this time. It’s from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s The Jewish Book of Days, which has something timely for every day of the Jewish calendar…
In Kislev, the darkest month, a sliver of moon appears like a dusting of snow. In ancient times, the Rabbinic court of Jerusalem would send messengers to announce the coming of the new moon on six months of the year: Kislev, Adar, Nisan, Av, Elul, and Iyar, to remind people of upcoming holidays. The new moon of Kislev was the first of these occasions, and it heralded the coming of Hanukkah.
We note that even back then, people liked to have specific times when they knew it was time to start preparing for the next holiday! This was not invented by American businesses.
And now come the sparkles!
Once the new moon was announced, bonfires were lit in the hills above Jerusalem. Far-flung communities would see the bonfires and light their own, until all the Jewish communities knew that the new moon had come. As stars help a ship locate itself on the sea, the bonfires helped Jews locate themselves in time, joining them to the root consciousness of their people.
If you click through, you can see that of course, the Talmudic sages disagreed about everything!, also including the first day of winter. Some divided the seasons not by the start of months, but by the middle of months.
We are close now to the darkest days of the year, and the new moon bonfires remind us of the Hanukkah candles growing each night. The flames teach that when the moon is dark, we can expect its face to shine again, and when the sunlight is dimming, soon it will begin to grow again. This is true also for us: The quiet of introspection can and should lead to outward action in the world.
It can also lead people to start setting up the Chanukah holiday display, and one-up the neighbors, if you have Jewish neighbors; but that’s another topic! Now that we move on to one of the most famous scenes of the book of Genesis, we’ll see plenty of other strife.
This is the scene where Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentils. I put a bowl of lentils into the title image just to show that it is ENTICING.
Lentils today! Who knows what will happen tomorrow. But then why is Esau so maligned?
To start the discussion, I chose a poem from Isidore Century’s From the Coffee House of Jewish Dreamers, which book covers all the Torah portions and offers much else besides. (Incidentally, Kislev is the month of dreams!)
This one is written from the perspective of Esau, and includes much resentment – that tips into complaints about Rebecca which might or might not be fair…
Toledoth – Rebecca by Isidore Century
She was a nice Jewish girl, but suffered from depression. At night she had dreams of rotten red apples from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil falling on her head. She had migraines, she hated red. When I emerged from the womb, she saw her worst nightmare come true; I, Esau, her first-born son, was as red as blood, as hairy as an orangutan. As an old saying goes, “If they that look at thee doth a monster see, a monster thee will be.” From the start she saw me to be a bad apple, my twin brother, Jacob, was the apple of her eye. Together they stole my father’s blessing from me, then covered up their theft by making me a midrash monster. Holy I am not, nor am I the monster they made me out to be. What did they expect of me, a yeshiva bucher?
Century uses the anachronisms of East Coast Jewish life in his poems with great abandon, but actually he is not the only midrashic author that projects the present back to the past. There are many midrashim about the ancient yeshiva of Shem and Ever…
And also there are many where every bad thing that happens to Esau is justified in a way it isn’t in the Biblical text. Which was the reason I picked this poem – it explicitly reflects on how midrash has madeEsau into a monster.
And there is also this tension where in the poem, Esau does sound very deliberately dismissive of Rebecca the “nice Jewish girl”. We don’t get to find out how much of what was heaped on Esau is justified, after all. And a lot was heaped on him in the midrash – He was supposedly a murderer, robber, rapist and more.
AND HE WAS FAINT through murdering people, just as you mention faintness in connection with murder, (Jeremiah 4:31) ‘‘For my soul fainteth before the murderers” (Genesis Rabbah 63:12).
We do note that some commentators do say that he was simply tired and hungry from hunting, and don’t read any more into it. E.g. Chizkuni: “it is usual for hunters to be worn out after chasing their prey.”
The question is ultimately what the poem poses, too: how compelled do we feel to make Esau bad to justify that Jacob and Rebecca teamed up to cheat him out of the blessing from Isaac?
To finish up, I chose a poem that will bring at least some emotional resolution to all this turmoil – from the poetry collection we who desire by Sue Swartz.
(Isaac’s eyes were dimmed)
by Sue Swartz
And Rebekah instructed Jacob to put on his brother’s skins–
Are you really my son Esau?
How willing we are to believe the other of what is.
Is there no blessing for me too, Father?
There is no absence that cannot be replaced.
This is a short piece, but the ending hits hard – Esau does not get his blessing. But can this absence be filled? Or not? Can we imagine that it can?
The Bible itself gives us a hint… Later on in Genesis, when Jacob meets Esau, he fully expects to be murdered in a revenge killing. Esau runs to him and hugs him fiercely.
Please join us for the launch of the latest book in our Jewish Poetry Project imprint – What Remains: Selected Poems by David Curzon. The poet is going to be introduced by Sandee Brawarsky, and the event will also feature readings by Stuart Klawans, Sharon Dolin and David Roskies.
Curzon writes about his youth in Australia, of love and relationships, his encounters with Asian and Near Eastern art and artifacts, and meditations on ancient texts from many cultures.
The free Zoom event presented by Ansche Chesed starts at 7:30 PM Eastern on Thursday, November 4 2021, and you can register here.
Below we provide a small sample of Curzon’s wide-ranging work, with three poems –
The Days of the Years of Your Life (Genesis 47:8)
How many are the days of the years of thy life? Was Pharaoh asking Jacob how many days remained in vivid memory out of all his years? Had Jacob answered he could have recalled the wedding night when Leah was in his bed; the day he saw the blood-stained coat of Joseph; the night he was alone and wrestled with a man on the bank of the Jabbok River at its ford.
And in The Prelude, Wordsworth gives moment to the “spots of time” when nature spoke to him; and Wyatt recalls a loose gown falling from lovely shoulders; and for Kamienska there was a path with patches of sunlight on which she ran when she was six, that stayed until the end.
Condemned to die what would I savor in the cell of the self as last things? Imprisoned with me as icons to ponder I’d want only objects created with the aid of blind nature’s strange ways: a rock chosen because eroded by wind and water creating furrows on several faces, textures devoid of all design, a primordial hardness transformed by fluid movement; and the network of crazing in an ancient pot; and one with thick glaze which was permitted to trickle.
Five Careers in the Middle Kingdom (translated titles are circa 2000 B.C.E.)
“I aspire of course to be Overlord of Every Pre-eminent Office but would, if offered, consider Overseer of All Heaven Gives and Earth Creates and the Inundation Brings, but I will not be fobbed off with Maintainer of the Moon or some similar trivial juridical position. Overseer of All Tribute? It’s a possibility.”
“I insinuated into the palace as Great Chamberlain of the Children, which (let me whisper this) is just a transition. When the kids come into their own I won’t be held back by lack of family. Overseer of the Repast, or perhaps Overseer of the Offering, is the logical next step, which, I believe, would even serve to get me Guardian of the Herds of the Gods, or Overseer of the Six Courts of Law.”
“For the time being I am a scribe but I’m impatient to make the move to Steward in the future. I’m sick of sitting, scribbling on shards. I harbor hopes for Steward of the Storehouse, or Steward of the Two Jars – I am among the few who comprehend the import of this position. I suppose I could live with, though, Steward Who Reckons Goats.”
“I started out as a Fattener of Fowl but soon flew to become one of the Embalmers of Anubis, who gives gifts. Then, with Anubis behind me, I grew to be a Carrier of the Libation Jar. Complain? It’s been a great career.”
“I was a Washerman of the Temple and slept content. At the end I was given permission – how many, for heaven’s sake, can ever aspire to anything like this? – to wash the walls, and the floor itself, of the inner room where the God walks.”
We mourn Sarah, including with something you might not have noticed in the Bible
The letter yud gets very upset!!!
Fall is here in the Northern hemisphere, along with Halloween in Cheshvan (AND A BOOK PRESENT)
Make sure to read it alllll the way to the end, both for the offbeat Torah learning, and also because we found a poem for this exact time of the year, and it’s from a book we haven’t announced yet!
But first, we are going to show you something you might or might not have noticed in your Hebrew Bible. Some Bibles do not have it. Even some online Bibles do not have it, to our consternation… (Sefaria has it, as you’ll see in a moment.)
The excerpt that’s going to tell you about it is from Torah & Company by Judith Z. Abrams. This is a book that has sections of Mishna and Gemara for every Torah portion, and discussion questions to match. (Now is your chance to discuss with us!!)
In the Torah scroll, the word which describes Abraham’s crying, “v’livkotah”, has a small, half-sized Hebrew letter kaf in it:
One commentator suggests that this is because he [Avraham] only cried a bit, since she had reached the good old age of 127. Does this make sense to you? What factors influence how strongly you mourn a death? Can you think of another reason for the small letter?
I was actually proactive this time and looked for another reason. Right now I’m reading the MeAm Lo’ez on Genesis, and this offers a further explanation, listed as “the author’s own”. (Here is the author!)
This is an allusion that when a person mourns another, he should be small and humble, saying to himself, “This good person died because of my sins.”
Translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
A very different explanation, but there is yet a third one! Rabbi Culi cites a midrash:
“It also teaches us that weeping should be kept “small,” and one should not mourn to too great an extent. (Bereishit Rabbah) […] No matter how close the deceased was, one must accept the loss with forebearance, and not question God’s judgment.”
Kind of similar to the first answer, but with a different emphasis, of accepting what G-d has decided about someone’s lifespan. Our next Torah tidbit, however, is about someone not accepting what G-d has decided. Someone, or some….thing?
This is going to be about the letter yud. The letter yud is very frustrated!
The excerpt is from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s Jewish Book of Days. A companion for all seasons, including this particular season… about the month of Cheshvan.
Autumn is a time of loss, and Heshvan reflects this subtle grief. It is, according to the Yalkut Melachim, the month when Solomon finished the First Temple. It receives no celebration or festival because of this; therefore, it is a sad sort of month. Yet there is a midrashic principle that nothing is ever lost. The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) tells us that when the letter yud is taken out of Sarai’s name so that the Holy One can change her name to Sarah, the yud complains.
It is put into Hosea ben Nun’s name, and his name becomes Joshua, assistant of Moses. So Heshvan too must be repaid for its loss.
The legend arises that one day, in the world to come, Heshvan will be paid back because of King Solomon’s oversight. Heshvan will become the month when the Third Temple, the temple of peace among all peoples, is built. Like the Messiah, the Third Temple is the legendary culmination of all legends and all generations. Heshvan, though apparently without holidays, holds the promise of a future holiday: the dedication of a new and universal sacred space. This reflects the truth of nature – the decay of autumn will be paid back a hundredfold with growth in the spring.
And now for the surprise! We have a Cheshvan and also Halloween poem from Rodger Kamenetz, from his forthcoming The Missing Jew (with poems from 1976-2021) in our Jewish Poetry Project imprint. Cover reveal and preorders right here:
In a Season of Dreams by Rodger Kamenetz —Cheshvan, Baton Rouge
At the end of a season of dreams the sandman sprinkles black sand on the threshold and closes up his shop. The trees, once a sacred grove are individual, dead veins. Once every word was a sky, but now words sound tired and poor the breath knocked out of them. The mysterious guests who were spirits or angels, all speak plain English. They turn out to be strangers in a crowd their faces in a hurry and the urgent message they came to deliver is common, like a cry in the street. Dreams have their seasons and each day has its distinctive voice. Some quieter than others.
I listen for what speaks through me learn the patience of seasons slow to turn as the moon of Cheshvan wanes toward Halloween. I sit with a cup of coffee and stare to the bottom, stirring with my spoon. I hear voices, like dark wives, faint as shadows coming more and more to light. I will be there with them when they speak, I will move through walls fluid as coffee, where heaven dissolves like sugar till what is sweet in my life returns at last to my tongue.
Thankyou for following along, and if you have an explanation of your own for the small kaf – or someone else’s that you liked -, share it with us! Torah Cat is always glad to hear.
(If you are wondering why davka a cat – when we are not publishing parsha books and/or assorted heresy, we are the publisher of the yearly Jewish Cat Calendars!)
And something what you might have missed on Twitter – this past week (in addition to being Asexual Awareness week!) also included Intersex Awareness Day, and we had some Jewish intersex facts ready. Check them out!
This week’s Torah portion brings muchcontroversyand 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 wepublished, to enrich your weekly Torah portion experience… …or feel like you are not the only one about to run screaming from the synagogue.
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.
(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!!)
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.)
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?
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!