Day 6 of Chanukah arrives with a prose poem from our forthcoming retrospective, The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2021 by Rodger Kamenetz. If you’ve read and enjoyed his poetry (or his nonfiction!), or if you’re new to it, it will bring light into your life – quite literally.
Before we start, you can also take a look at the earlier updates:
And now, let’s read this poem inspired by the Rebbe Nachman of Breslov!
To Add Light to a Name by Rodger Kamenetz
— after Rebbe Nachman Sichos HaRan #44 “On the topic of a person’s name”
Am I a misspelling? Perhaps there are too many versions for any to be convincing. In one version you will bless intricacies. I see in the fey of rafael a dangling yod. And a white bet traced in black which meaning calls house. I will bet on a hidden bet the b-b-b-b of first creation. Letters inside letters spell hidden lives. The rebbe said I will take your name and permute —do not say it is a trick. Do not say this! It is a great work to add light to aname.
Or in a dream to seal a body in light to brave a darkened door. To wrap wings of presence around trembling shoulders. Every word has secret doors. I will find levels in my name or stumble through a trap. There is a trope in your name rebbe. You drew me into yours and we fell together in the Nameless Who says I kill and I make live.
All around me I saw live the light in every name.
Thank you for reading! We will be back after Shabbat 🙂 Shabbat shalom, chag sameach and chodesh tov!
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…
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!!)
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?
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.”
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?
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.
A special Shabbat is coming up! Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot. We have some readings for you from our books – and if you feel like everything is such a mess at this point in the holidays, we have something for you too.
On this Shabbat, the Torah reading is something we also read at other times during the year – and the last Torah portion of the cycle will actually be read on Simchat Torah, a weekday. (Along with the new beginning of the cycle!) So now, all of a sudden we find ourselves back in Exodus, with Moses, and G-d giving rules about kashrut and all that.
To match the feeling of ‘can all those rules be enough for now?’ I picked a poem by Zackary Sholem Berger from his collection ALL THE HOLES LINE UP: Poems and Translations.
Ten Commandments are Not Enough by Zackary Sholem Berger
Six hundred thir teen don’t even saturate the terrifying space of choice. We can always do something else? Help me, compromiser keep my inadequate choices at bay not whimpering on chains not weeping in twilight but crouching for a morsel
(You can also follow him on Twitter at @DrZackaryBerger where he also talks about medicine and healthcare!)
Next up, I chose something from THE JEWISH BOOK OF DAYS by Jill Hammer! Rabbi Hammer talks about every day in the Jewish calendar, and this unusual Shabbat is no exception. While Sukkot is supposedly a partying holiday, on this Shabbat we read Ecclesiastes!
On the Sabbath that falls during Sukkot, it is customary to read the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a mournful work about the futility of possessions, wisdom, and ambition in the face of death. Yet Ecclesiastes is also about the acceptance of time and the poignant beauty of the ephemeral. Enjoy life, the author of the book says, and do good deeds and know that your stay on earth will not last forever. This seems the right message for Sukkot. The harvest is itself the beginning of a journey into winter and an uncertain future.
The writer of Ecclesiastes is called Kohelet, “the gatherer.” A king in Jerusalem, he has reaped a harvest of wisdom, wealth, and love; and yet he cannot hold onto these gifts forever. He struggles with this reality and finally accepts it. On Sukkot, we too know that the harvest will soon be eaten. Our hearts are full only for a moment. Then we must be willing to move on. This is the wisdom of the heart: We are like the sea, always filling, yet never entirely full. On this day of Sukkot, we invite into our sukkah Moses and Miriam, redeemers who crossed the sea toward an unknown future.
(Look, here is Moses again!)
Rabbi Hammer also quotes an especially poignant bit from Ecclesiastes to match:
One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever. The sun rises and the sun sets – And glides back to where it rises. Southward blowing, Turning northward, Ever turning blows the wind, On its rounds the wind returns. All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full. To the place [from] which they flow, The streams flow back again.
And she also quotes this midrashic bit about how Ecclesiastes Rabbah explains it:
All the streams flow into the sea – the wisdom of a person comes from the heart. But the sea is never full – but the heart can never be filled.
Before we move on, you can also get The Jewish Book of Days from us (we also have more of Jill Hammer’s work!) Super great time to buy now, at the beginning of the year! It’ll be a companion year-round.
Now. I’d say we also have a clash between all the holiday observances (including both the partying and the mournfulness), and being quite exhausted…! As I was looking through various books of ours, I opened THE SABBATH BEE at a page that described exactly how I felt.
This is a book of prose poems and tiny stories about Shabbat, by Wilhelmina Gottschalk – we wrote about it earlier, it’s really cute and heartwarming. This book has chapters for all the special Shabbat times too, including this Shabbat that falls on Sukkot. The chapter I chose, however, is not that chapter. (For that, you need to get the book..)
Did I say something about messiness? This’ll say something about messiness!
Macaroni necklace by Wilhelmina Gottschalk
It was a macaroni necklace day. A seat of your pants, I saw this thirty seconds ago in a shop window and it sorta reminded me of you, I can’t find my glasses – you mean the ones you’re wearing right now? – sort of a day.
I should probably be embarrassed. I made tea sandwiches for the queen of the week and left the crusts on. I nodded off in the corner and slept through the entire grand fanfare, trumpets and all.
But Shabbat didn’t say anything. In fact, I may have just dreamed it, but I’d swear she pulled her foot out of her diamond-studded heel at one point to show me the run in her stocking, one toe poking out, before she tucked her foot back in her shoe and let a boisterous gang of children lead her onto the dance floor.
You can also get this book from us:
Thank you for reading, and have a great Sukkot + Shabbat shalom!
This week’s thread about theweekly portion will tell you how to fasten yourself to G-d. (Duct tape optional)
🌄 HA’AZINU 🌄
In which Moses sings a lengthy song and is then told about his impending death. (We warned you.) There’s also a big rock!
Even though we’re just before Sukkot, a happy occasion, this parsha has a lot of rather grim commentary – because this is where G-d tells Moses that he’s going to die, and not be allowed into the Land.
A discussion of death follows, not all of it as peaceful as Moses’. As usual, we will pick 3 tidbits on the portion from books that we published. And we’ll begin with the one NOT about death. It involves fastening 🩹
The first piece is from Abe Mezrich’s collection of poetic midrash on the later books of the Torah, BETWEEN THE MOUNTAIN AND THE LAND LIES THE LESSON.
Hold the World Together
The people of Babel fear they will scatter across the world.
They build a great tower from the valley where they live, up to Heaven.
This, they think, will hold them in place;
will hold them together.
But God disbands them.
Far later God relays a speech for Moses to share.
In it, God calls Heaven and Earth to witness His words–
*like storms upon the vegetation*.
To remain a people on the Land, God says, follow God.
In Babel they thought earth and sky and each of us
are separate things.
It would take a structure to connect them
for us to stay together.
But God tells Moses: Heaven and Earth and the people
and our lives with God
— they are already part of one fabric:
a single fabric beneath the One God Who rains from the sky to the grass.
If you want to hold the world together,
do not invent a new structure to hold it up.
There is no need. It will not work.
Look to the fabric of God.
Fasten yourself to it.
The endnote specifies that this piece was based on Genesis 11 and Deuteronomy 31:16-32:2,44-47, the latter from our weekly portion.
For our next detail, we picked something from Torah & Company, a book by Judith Z. Abrams that finds a matching detail from the Mishnah and the Gemara for each weekly portion! (Demonstrate your erudition over Shabbat dinner!)
In his song, Moses offers a beautiful image of God as a rock:
“The Rock! His deeds are perfect; and all His ways are just. A faithful God without sin: righteous and straightforward is He.” (32:4)
There is a longer story in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Avodah Zarah 17b, that features this quote.
(A warning that this will be grim.)
The Romans then brought up Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon and they said to him:
“Why have you occupied yourself with Torah which the emperor had forbidden under penalty of death?”
The rabbi said to them: “Thus the Lord my God commanded me.” At once they sentenced him to be burnt..
As he went out from the tribunal he accepted the righteousness of the Divine judgment. He quoted, “The Rock, His work is perfect; for all his ways are justice.”
They took hold of him, wrapped him in the Scroll of the Law, placed bundles of branches round him and set them on fire. Then they brought tufts of wool, which they had soaked in water, and placed them over his heart, so that he should die slowly.
( 😱 )
His daughter said to him: “Father, alas that I should see you in this state!”
He said to her: “If it were I alone that was being burnt it would have been a thing hard for me to bear. But now that I am burning together with the Scroll of the Law, He who will have regard for the Plight of the Torah will also have regard for my plight.”
His students said to him: “Rabbi, what do you see?”
He said to them: “The parchments are being burnt but the letters are flying free…”
The executioner said to him: “Rabbi, if I raise the flame and take away the tufts of wool from over your heart (so your death is quicker and less painful), will you assure me that I will enter into the life to come?”
The rabbi said to him: Yes.”
The executioner said to him: “Then swear unto me.”
He swore to him that he would enter the world to come. The executioner immediately raised the flame and removed the tufts of wool from over his heart, and his soul quickly departed.
The executioner then jumped and threw himself into the fire. And a heavenly voice went forth saying: “Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon and the executioner are destined for life in the world to come.”
When Rabbi heard it he wept and said: “There are those who acquire eternity in one hour, and then there are those who acquire eternity over many years!”
Whew! That’s a difficult story in more senses than one. For instance, why was Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon so certain he could make such an offer?
Judith Z. Abrams also has some discussion questions for us –
“Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon accepts his fate serenely. What does that image mean to you? How could you experience “the letters flying free” in your life? “Is there a qualitative difference between the eternal life acquired in an hour, or that acquired over the course of a lifetime? Which is easier? Is it fair to employ a “shortcut” in this matter?”
And the last one is also about death and mourning, but in a less abrupt manner…
It is a poem from Maxine Silverman’s SHIVA MOON: Poems from a Year of Mourning, published by our Jewish Poetry Project imprint.
In this piece she talks about her father’s passing, and relates it to the passing of time in the Jewish calendar and the history of the Jewish people in the Torah…up till and including the passing of Moses and Aharon.