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Parsha post: Toldot

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!

French lentil soup by French lentil soup by J Doll. CC BY 3.0 U.

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.

According to Rabbi Judah, the 1st of Kislev is the first day of winter in Israel (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzi’a 106b).

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 made Esau 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.

Some of this is present in key texts, including the Talmud, where Rabbi Yochanan gives 5 reasons for what Esau did before eating the lentils that tired him out. That’s a lot for one day and it includes multiple violent crimes, plus also some apostasy for good measure. In case we might miss this in the Talmud, Rashi also points out something like this for us in the world’s most popular Jewish Torah commentary!

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.

We leave you with this thought of reconciliation! You can check out our previous posts on the weekly portion in the meanwhile.

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Tune into the launch event of David Curzon’s WHAT REMAINS!

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.

Last Things

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

“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.”

II

“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.”

III

“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.”

IV

“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.”

V

“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.”

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Parsha post: Chayei Sarah

Our latest post on the weekly portion is here:

  • 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:

Here it is on Sefaria and here it is on Mechon Mamre. (Finding major Jewish websites which do not have the small kaf is an exercise left to the reader!)

Abrams asks:

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.

(If you click through to the Talmud, you’ll even see that the yud was screaming for YEARS. “עומד וצווח כמה שנים” Gevalt)

Rabbi Hammer continues:

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.

(1986)

Thank you 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!

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Parsha Post: VAYEIRA

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

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

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

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

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

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

(OR NOT)

(I MEAN)

(FAMILY STRIFE INCOMING)

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

From Generation to Generation by Herbert J. Levine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wings by Hanoch Guy-Kaner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parsha post: Lech Lecha

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

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

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

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

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

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

BT Bava Batra 163a

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

Abrams explains:

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

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

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

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

Listening
by Abe Mezrich

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

Then God names Abraham Father to All.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see how Rabbi Hammer summarizes it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the third option Tucker presents is even more radical:

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

So let’s see the first option.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the third option involves the Angel of Death.

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

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

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

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

To entice you about this, here are two nuggets.

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

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

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

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

John von Neumann

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

Also on (affiliate links):

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

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Parasha post for Simchat Torah: V’Zot HaBrachah

Prepare for the holiday with us!

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

Crowns of Torah scrolls, by shlomi kakon, CC BY

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, Rabbi Gold notes:

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

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

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

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

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

BT Shabbat 153a

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobius by Rachel Barenblat

For Simchat Torah

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

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

arpeggio of signs and wonders
stout strength and subtle teaching)

would lead seamlessly to
the beginning of heavens

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

hovering over the face of creation
like a mother bird.

This is the strong sinew
that stitches our years together:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(infinite in all directions)
by Sue Swartz


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

In it, nothing remains itself very long.

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

Dear reader, dear dizzied reader:
Enjoy the circumnavigation.

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

Do not disappear yourself from it.

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

Like a pencil poised for calculation –

A key not yet turned in the twitchy ignition –

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

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For your Sukkot poetry needs…

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

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

Hoshanna Rabbah Prayer

by Rachel Barenblat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: