Torah Blog

 

A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
(Sorry, the comments moderation for this blog is very clunky - if you want to ask me a question, better to use the contact form)

 

Wednesday
Apr172019

The Seder's Wise Child - Missing the Point?

Of the four children at the seder, the answer to the wise child is the only one not taken from the biblical verses. Instead, we teach this child a law, that

one does not eat anything after the Pesach sacrifice (afikoman).

 

While we hold the oral law in high esteem, the fact remains that for whatever reason (and many reasons are offered for this anomaly), this child is set apart from the other three, in that the educational words explicitly laid out by the Torah itself are not given over to this child. The child is willy-nilly “poresh min hatzibbur”, separated out from the community of children and deprived of the original words of the Torah.

Could this in some subtle fashion result from the fact that this child is not whole-hearted (is not tam)? is too involved with his or her own intellect, the minutaie or casuistry, to be listening to the other children’s questions with any interest, due to undervaluing the place of fresh and innocent questions? Does this child perhaps not want to be lumped with the others, and is trying very hard to talk on an adult level – and has therefore forefeited a place with the children, the central feature of the seder, and the biblical verses given to them as a gift?

Ultimately, the child is included in the four children, of course, but we cannot but notice this fact setting him or her apart.

My advice would be, do not let the wise child grow up too quickly. Help these children stay connected to their genuine childish nature and educate them not to look down on the other children for fear of missing Gd’s revelation in the verses, that comes marked with a big sign marked “CHILDREN ONLY”. 

Sunday
Feb172019

Miriam's Trauma/Healing By Water

Let’s talk about Miriam – prophetess, leader, water-bringer. In her life, there are two crucial scenes that take place next to water:

(1) BY THE NILE

 As a young girl she stands by the Nile, watching her baby brother Moses float in a basket, placed there anxiously by his mother after Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys must be thrown in the Nile (Exodus 2):

3. And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark made of reeds, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child in it; and she laid it in the rushes by the river’s brink.

4. And his sister stood far away, to see what would be done to him. 

Pharaoh’s daughter takes him and saves him from the genocidal decree by adopting him, and Miriam is instrumental in that.

(2) BY THE SEA

Much later, as a woman of eighty-five, after the Red sea has split allowing the Israelites to go through and then closed over the Egyptian foe, she witnesses her brother Moses singing the famous song known as “Az Yashir”. Then, following his  lead, she takes up her tambourine and leads the women in song and dance by the sea (Exodus 15):

20. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.

21. And Miriam answered them, Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea. 

In the first instance, she is not named – she is only named in the second story, many decades later. Why is this? And moreover, why don’t hear anything of Miriam in the intervening years between these two scenes? What was she doing in Egypt? Was she not involved in leading the people? What happened to the resourceful little girl who spoke up boldly to Pharaoh’s daughter – why does she vanish from the text?

And since we are asking questions, let us also wonder why Miriam is described here suddenly as “sister of Aaron”?

* * *  

Many answers are possible, but one that ties all these threads together emerged during a Bibliodrama I ran in Rechovot. It goes as follows:

Let’s conjecture that the first incident caused young Miriam to experience a trauma. Yes, her baby brother was saved from death, but he was still ripped away from his family, taken to the palace of the cruel tyrant whom the Israelites hated and feared, and raised there by another woman as an Egyptian. We have no idea if Miriam even saw him from that day forth. Perhaps this took all the wind out of her sails. She was unable henceforth to step up to leadership roles; she could never forget her little brother or stop being worried about him.

Fast forward to the redemption by the sea.

If the first scene took place by the Nile, the god of the Egyptian, water that belonged to the enemy and served its genocidal purposes, this scene takes place by a sea that was friendly to the Israelites, that opened for them and closed over the Egyptians. Finally, they were safe. And now Miriam also sees her brother sing gloriously, leading all the people – something he has never done before. A moment before that, we learned that the Israelites “believed in God and in Moses his servant.” Miriam can finally put her mind at rest. Moses is okay, he is whole – she can see it. She is entirely joyous now - where in the previous scene "she stood", here she dances. 

In this moment, as her trauma recedes in what we in Hebrew call a חוויה מתקנת. a rectifying experience, she can come into the fullness of her being and be named. She can also finally let her anxiety about Moses rest. And if all these years she neglected her middle brother, Aaron, being unable to give him the attention and love he deserved, perhaps now she can finally become his sister.

* * * 
Two verses later, and surely not by coincidence, the letters of Miriam’s name מרים appear again as “Marim”, bitter. But Miriam’s bitterness has now receded, just as the bitter waters will recede when Moses puts a tree or stick into them. The tree of life. A sweet experience of life – and the tree of life, the Torah – can heal bitterness, as it did for Miriam.

Then, in her merit, the well of life-bringing water comes to the people and remains with them until her death.

 

[1] With thanks to Aviva Harbater-Tsubeiri for her insight regarding the trauma of the first incident, and to other members of the Berman synagogue in Rechovot for their input and ideas.  

 
[2] For more on how the Israelites' belief in Moses enabled him to sing his song, see here.

 

Sunday
Sep162018

Turn Turn Turn - the Key to Change

TURN TURN TURN - THE KEY TO CHANGE

Israeli rabbi Yuval Cherlow shared that in his yeshivah high school the report cards contain an interesting hiddush. Along with a numerical grade, each boy is also graded with an arrow pointing either up or down. Because the numerical grade doesn’t convey enough information: the teacher needs to be able to communicate to the parents whether the student is moving in a general positive direction or is spiraling down.

Rabbi Aryeh Nivin teaches the same thing: he says that even more significant than the place where we’re at is the direction we’re moving in.

It seems that the key to making change, to the very valence of your existence, is to turn in the right direction (as the song says, “Turn, turn, turn”).
We need to point our spiritual nose forwards + upwards; then take a step, however small, to get going and keep going.

“Bederech she’adam rotze leilech, molichin oto” – the direction in which one desires to walk, that is the direction in which one is assisted in walking.

It’s about setting up the right desire in your heart, the right directionality. It’s like an escalator: you need to carefully and intentionally put your foot onto the one moving in the right direction, otherwise with each passing moment you’ll get further and further away from where you want to be.

This year I was so inspired by the scene in the book of Ruth where Naomi tries to push her Moabite daughters-in-law away, back to their original homes.

Orpah cries; she does care, she will miss Naomi; but she is not fierce enough in her desire, she is facing the wrong way (oref = back of neck), towards Moab. Thus Naomi successfully turns her back on her and leaves her behind.
Ruth is different. She clings to her mother-in-law, she is determined to accompany her in her direction. She is actively facing away from Moab and towards Bethlehem, towards the great unknown. That is where she will head, step by step. She will walk in the direction of love – her love for Naomi, her God and her people – and trust that love will see her through.

“Which way are we facing?” That is the real question, Hamlet.

This also answers another question we have. Why on Rosh Hashanah do we look ahead to the New Year, while on Yom Kippur we look back at our past year and do teshuvah? It’s logically backwards. First we should look back, and then we can look ahead, no?

Well, you can answer that crowning Hashem on Rosh Hashanah is the right springboard for our teshuvah. Teshuvah without recognizing G-d is only a shadow of itself.
But we can now add another answer: that if on Rosh Hashanah we’ve turned our faces in the direction of G-d and Kingship, then when we look back at our years on Yom Kippur, it will not be while facing that old year and its crimes and misdemeanours. Instead we’ll be doing that cheshbon nefesh with our minds looking back but our hearts and eyes looking ahead in a positive direction, the one to which we turned our faces on 1st Tishrei.

Because looking back is dangerous, it can transform us into a pillar of salt.

So let’s pick ourselves up
dust ourselves off
of whatever was past
and turn our nose in the
forward + upward direction for 5779.

Let’s connect to love of G-d and life
and rebuild trust
in the infinite possibilities awaiting us.

We take one small step
asking heavenly help to take the next
as the positive escalator moves forward
to take us
higher and higher
higher and higher.

 

Tuesday
May222018

The Painful Mangle That Produces Light

While running Bibliodrama on the Book of Ruth, and after we traveled with Naomi as she experienced one tragedy and hardship after another, I was moved to hear participant Shoshana Jenn Lubin point out that Naomi did not know while she was experiencing all this pain that this was eventually going to lead to the good - to Ruth returning to Bethlehem, and the birth of King David and the Messianic line. 

Similarly we have no idea while experiencing setbacks, sorrow and grief, going through the existential mangle, what light might be produced from this process in the end. Let us not forget Naomi, the bitter one who in the end, cradled a baby in arms that thought they had known the last of children.

My name is... well, who remembers my name? 
That young woman, pleasant of thought and countenance, has vanished under the weight of the years, the loneliness, the graves.

When I try to say my name, all that arises in my throat is the gall of loss. 
Do not ask me my name.

Let me pronounce a different name: Ruth.

The word itself is a blessing, She shines her light upon me, and for a moment I remember: I am Naomi. She too has lost, she too is empty. But while I am empty as a grave, she is empty like a vessel yet to be filled up.
She has a future, I sense that to be true.
I am envious, I am delighted. 

I am the Iyov of my time.

Shall I too be rewarded at the end with a new husband, new children?
Will anything serve to erase these lines from my face and make me young again?
Who can answer my cry?


Sunday
Dec242017

From the Heights to the Depths

If you were Joseph sitting in prison, what would you be thinking? Might it be:
"I don't understand this. My life makes no sense. The dreams I had in childhood felt so real and true - and they are further than ever from being realised. What am I doing here?"

But what if, unbeknowst to him at the time. every element in Joseph's life was being carefully crafted by a Divine hand in order to shape him into becoming the man of God he must become?

It's interesting to note that Joseph was not thrown into just any prison, but specifically into Pharaoh's jail. There he would meet many ministers and offficials who had fallen out of favour. One day they were at the top of the power food chain, the next they had been toppled into the pits of prison. 

Perhaps Joseph was being shown this sight deliberately. He learned repeatedly that a person could, upon the king's whim, go from fame to incaraceration. He himself had gone from the heights of favour twice - the first time, a teen beloved by his father, he ended up in a pit by the hand of his cruel brothers; the second, the trusted manager of all of Potiphar's household, he was falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison. The King of Kings, just like the mortal king, could do precisely that - whiplash you  מאיגרא רמה לבירא עמיקתא. We are not in control.

This lesson was branded upon Joseph's mind. Finally released, he knew to his core that no interpretation can be made without divine aid, and was able to be the איש אלהים that could carry out God's plan properly and without hubris.

p.s. adding something I heard after writing this - that Rebbe Nachman sees precisely this kind of symbolism in the dreidel. Everything turns around, revolving and changing from one thing to the next, from top to bottom and from bottom to top again. Connecting the Joseph story to Chanukah, the time at when it is read every year.