Torah Blog


A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
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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.



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?


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.


"You've Become Esau"

In Gen 31:28, while complaining to Yaakov of his tricky ways, Lavan says:
ולא נטשתני לנשק לבני ולבנתי עתה הסכלת עשו
28. And why did you not let me kiss my sons and my daughters? Now you have done foolishly in so doing.
The final word "aso" reads identically in Hebrew to "Esav".

Might this be Lavan mocking: "Look at you, Mr High and Mighty, you're no different now from Esav in your trickery and immorality"?
Or perhaps the subtext is the echo of Yaakov's own thoughts - I am no different to my twin" -  feeling debased by all this engagement in crass materialistic acquisition through unpleasant, if not unfair, means?

A different idea: I imagine that when Yaakov had to flee before Esav he did not manage to kiss his family goodbye or take a proper leave of the household - and that has been rankling with him ever since. Arriving, tired and heartsore, at Lavan's house, he told of this sorrow. Lavan, master manipulator, tucked this away and now has found the opportune moment to fling at Yaakov the accusation:
"Look, you've just done the same thing!"

When we do problematic things, no matter how justified the ends, we run the risk of becoming those people whom a moment before we judged. The one positive outcome might be that we feel ashamed to judge anyone after that.



Points of Choice

In three of the five megillahs we find a central moment that contains a weighty choice by a woman, which is the pivot for the entire narrative and its moral messages. Two of these choices are positive ones, and one is not.

I -  In the Book of Ruth, it is that moment in which Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to return to Moab. Ruth refuses to do so (1:14):

And they lifted up their voice, and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law; but Ruth held fast to her

This choice, and Ruth's subsequent famous speech, leads to her marriage with Boaz and the subsequent birth of the Davidic lineage.


II -   In the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai sends Queen Esther the terrifying instruction that she must go to the King although she has not been called - which carries a penalty of death.  

Mordechai says (4:14):

For if you remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but you and your father’s house shall be destroyed. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Esther replies in verse 16:

Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my girls will fast likewise; and so will I go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.

This fateful and heroic choice leads to the salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire.


III -  In the Song of Songs, we see a different kind of moment. The two lovers have been seeking each other. He has finally arrived at her abode and knocks at the door. Instead of eagerly answering it, she is suddenly attacked by a moment of torpor and apathy, and makes a strange choice not to arise (5:3):

I have taken off my robe; how could I put it on? I have bathed my feet; how could I soil them?

Although a moment later, she realises her folly and jumps up, he has already gone. They do not meet.

The Song of Songs is traditionally symbolic of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. In this verse are encapsulated all those moments in which the Jewish people did not leap up to answer God's call, in whatever way that was manifest - often with disastrous consequences.

This is the negative. But fortunately, we have Ruth's shining example and later that of Esther.

Fascinating, though, is a strong textual link between the Esther and the Song of Songs narratives. We find Esther explaining to King Ahasuerus:

For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come to my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred? (Esther 8:6)

The Hebrew word here for "how" is איככה. This is the very same word used by the female lover in the Song of Songs for "how could I put it on?" The word איככה appears nowhere else in the Tanach, and clearly signals a connection between the two stories.

Esther's איככה, her realisation of "I could not possibly (abandon my people)"shows that she has heard and answered the knock of destiny on her door. In doing so, she atones for and recitifies the moment of wooden-heartedness and sluggishness on the part of the lover who cannot possibly don her robe right now.