Posted on

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.

Posted on

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!

Posted on

A poem for Elul! Teshuvah by Rachel Barenblat

To help along your repentance and self-reflection, we share this Elul poem from Rachel Barenblat’s Open My Lips: Prayers and Poems. This is one of two Rachel Barenblat collections we published in our Jewish Poetry Project imprint; the other one is Texts to the Holy.

Open My Lips cover art, featuring a painting of a hand wrapped in t'filin pointing at a place in the Torah text.

Teshuvah
by Rachel Barenblat

God and I collaborate
on revising the poem of myself.

I decide what needs polishing,
what to preserve and what to lose;

God reads my draft with pursed lips.
If I really mean it, God

sings a new song, one strong
as stone and serene as silk.

I want this year’s poem
to be joyful. I want this year’s poem

to be measured like flour,
to burn like sweet dry maple.

I want every reader
to come away more certain

that transformation is possible.
I’d like holiness

to fill my words
and my empty spaces.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

who will be a haiku and who
a sonnet, who needs meter

and who free verse, who an epic
and who a single syllable.

If I only get one sound
may it be yes, may I be One.

*

Thank you for reading! If you appreciated this poem, we offer free shipping on the book within the US. We also have more information to entice you:

This volume of contemporary liturgical poetry is both a poetry collection and an aid to devotional prayer. Open My Lips dips into the deep well of Jewish tradition and brings forth renewed and renewing adaptations of, and riffs on, classical Jewish liturgy. Here are poems for weekday and Shabbat, festival seasons (including the Days of Awe and Passover), and psalms of grief and praise. Open My Lips offers a clear, readable, heartfelt point of access into the Jewish tradition and into prayer in general.

Those who wish to begin a prayer practice in English but don’t know where to start will find this volume offers several starting points. These poems could be used to augment an existing prayer practice, Jewish or otherwise ­— either on a solitary basis or for congregational use. For the reader of poetry unfamiliar with liturgical text, they can serve as an introduction to prayer in general, and Jewish prayer in particular. And for the pray-er unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, these poems can open the door in the other direction.

We offer another way of preparing for the High Holiday season as well – have you checked out our calendars for the upcoming Jewish year? We have cats and also plants, for the cat and/or plant lover in your life. Start your new year with us!