We Are The Text

Since ancient times, a ritually prescribed Torah reading—a parasha— has been known by a title taken from the prescribed opening biblical verse. In addition to its conventional designation, some sages have given us the precedent of calling a parasha by a name that draws the eye and ear to an inner theme.

The parasha called, “Noah,” might resonate more deeply today if we were to name it parashat Come Into The Ark (Genesis 7: 1).

All generations share the outer name, the name that puts us on the same communal page. The inner name invites personal experience and imagination into the story. For example, parashat Noah, the second Torah reading in Genesis, is deeply, invitingly, reflectively relevant to those living in the generation of a pandemic; a generation in need of living shut tight within the ark.

The Torah offers only a rough blueprint of the Ark’s outer dimensions. But our challenge is to go into the ark by exploring, appreciating, and elaborating its inner space. Two second century teachers were curious enough to go through the door and explore the undescribed interior of the Ark, treating parashat Noah as though it were parashat Come Into The Ark.

Inside the Ark, Rabbi Yehuda found two rows of stalls along the length of the Ark that were separated by a single corridor. His colleague, Rabbi Nehemiah, saw three rows of pens with two corridors. Neither sage offered any argument or biblical proof in support of his vision. Each teacher entered, as do we, because the outer story gives us entrée and the inner life gives us need and imagination. And, parashat Noah in the scroll shows us precisely where to find the door. Thanks to parashat Come Into The Ark, we are moved to enter and to learn about the Ark, which is our own, that shapes and is shaped by each of us.

Everyone shares the image of the Ark’s door. Each of us inhabits the interior space that is shut against violent and viral seas. In addition, we might say, there are Arks within Arks—houses and bodies that bring one another to life. Parashat Come Into The Ark invites us to explore the vessels that keep us afloat—and alone—together.

My own body-ark is now at sea in the treatment of recently discovered cancer. Consequently, our house-ark is now refitted with a bathroom anticipating my body-ark’s falling and rising on seas of regular chemotherapy. I find myself stocking the house-ark with stores of books and music—more than enough for a lifetime. Between seas of pandemic virus and personal disease, mortality is a snugger fit, at the very least. Perhaps books and music are life preservers, waving, floating, and pulsing me forward. In any event, I feel secure and energetic; one ark within another lovingly supported by family and community.

I imagine that Noah, flesh and blood, fearful and hopeful exemplar, certainly must have made accommodations for personal and family needs in the Ark. It must be true since the Torah has told him and us to shut ourselves within and we have entered—each of us—with experience, hope, and imagination.

Parashat Come Into the Ark allows me to see the interior of the ark for myself while seeing the ark that is my own self. Just as for Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nehemiah, that inner space is made from my own experience and imagination; it needs no proof or confirmation by an outside verse. I am—we are—the text. The Torah is the commentary.

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Truth Will Spring Up

The first few weeks in quarantine were not too difficult. For one thing, we had just returned from Israel and we were tired—and frightened. For another thing, the world seemed painted in pandemic colors and moods: grey and foreboding. But then we—and springtime—awakened. Light and color returned. The garden, renewing itself, was oblivious to the dis-ease in the air.

Our first post-quarantine outing was to purchase flowering plants so that we could be outside, safely on our own property. We were consciously working to cultivate evidence that the world dependably returns to vitality even in the face of virulence. Such work is good for both the soil and the soul.

Now, each morning I sit next to that small, colorful garden. I always have my notebook in hand keeping in mind the psalmist’s promise that truth will spring up from the ground (Psalm 85:12). Perhaps there will be some new Torah to transcribe.

With every morning’s pilgrimage to this little patch of revelation, I am reminded of other overlooked teachers.

By the undrinkable waters of Marah (Exodus 15:23-25) God taught a very distraught Moses the Torah of the tree: There is often a thing overlooked that can sweeten what is bitter.

Said Rabbi Yohanan: If Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat, protection of property from the ant, and faithfulness from the dove…

If Torah had not been given, the way we see the world would confirm that we had learned it, nonetheless, from the teachers that surround us.

In her poem, “My Teachers,” Sivan Har Shefi enlarges the circle of overlooked teachers—often inanimate—that animate her:

Oh! mountain, my teacher of
Oh! river, my teacher of
streaming consciousness
Oh! earth, my teacher of
inclusiveness, my homeland of fallowness
Oh! dust, my teacher of mystic wisdom
and my teacher of equality
Oh! grass, my teacher of
renewal, of revival
Oh! bird, my teacher of
free thinking
Oh! fruit, my teacher of
process, of patience
Oh! seed, my teacher of innerness
Oh! thorn, my teacher
of fear, Oh! pain,
my teacher of repair
Oh! abundance, Oh! Famine,
my teachers of measured-ness
Oh! human, my teacher of compassion
Oh! human, human,
my teacher in the complex ways of

In a world and time when much confronts us, let’s not overlook a single ally, inspiration, or teacher. Small plants are a modest beginning. But if we tend them and attend to them, truth will spring up.

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Everything Will Not Be Alright

This is how you shall eat your Passover offering: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it b’hippazon (Exodus 12:11)—in hurried, harried, anxious haste.

Everything will not be alright in the morning. For then, you will have to leave even your meager peace of mind.

The way out of Egypt begins at the blood-painted door that no longer secures safety. The negef —pestilence—kept at bay last night becomes a nagif —a virus. Everything will not be alright in the morning.

You will take your hippazon —your vulnerability—with you.

A far-seeing prophet imagined a time of leaving the final Egypt behind. Only in that moment would there be no hippazon, no panicked flight (Isaiah 52:12). Until then, hippazon remains a true carrier of experience. Without its necessary weight, we risk making light of the story.

Why is this year different from all other years? This year’s hippazon —the harried, hesitant uncertainty—must not hide behind the comforting, familiar words and songs of the Seder.

Everything will not be alright in the morning; to pretend so is to undermine the deep, necessary truth of the story that must be told in order to move forward.

Seeing himself like one who has come out of Egypt, Yehuda Amichai understands that uncertainty is the very continuity of his life:

What is the continuity of my life?
I am like one who left Egypt
With the Red Sea split in two and I passing through on dry ground
With two walls of water on my right and on my left.
Behind me Pharaoh’s force and his chariots and before me the wilderness
and perhaps the promised land. This is the continuity of my life.

Walls of water on either side, thundering danger behind, an uncharted wilderness before, and only a “perhaps” out of sight, beyond the horizon.

Let the truth of the hippazon be of service. Everything will not be alright in the morning.
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On That Day

“Living with halacha is risky—living without halacha is impossible,” said David Hartman. On that day, in the bet midrash our teacher was probing a core Talmud text of the Hartman canon, “The Oven of Achnai,” a story that underscores Rabbi Hartman’s style, his passion, his Torah, and his idea of what a bet midrash should be, at its best.

“On that day,” the ancient storyteller began, Rabbi Eliezer’s halachic case was unconvincing. Contrary to his colleagues, he insisted that an oven constructed of layered, unattached clay coils was impervious to ritual impurity. Such a pile might serve a purpose, but it was not a “vessel” subject to the risks of ritual impurity encountered by items that could be moved, whole, from place to place.

To Rabbi Eliezer’s opponents, his arguments must have seemed like that oven’s coils of clay—pure, perhaps, but without coherence. Like the oven, his arguments were neither moveable nor responsive to the changing needs of living experience.

Rabbi Eliezer was infuriated and frustrated. He was the carrier of uninterrupted traditions from Sinai. His Truth was unfailing, but when his arguments failed, he turned argument into exhortation, reason into wonder-working coercion. At his command, a carob tree danced down the road, a canal’s waters flowed backward, and the walls of the bet midrash began to collapse. All signs—arguments notwithstanding—that his was the Truth.

However, the Torah from Sinai that he bore could not be borne by the living moment. Rabbi Eliezer’s Torah could exist up above, beyond the gravity of human complexity, where angels might prize it solely for its beauty. But the bet midrash, below, would certainly collapse under the weight of his teaching.

The Torah of living experience was “not in the heavens,” as Rabbi Joshua would say when he silenced the divine voice that was Rabbi Eliezer’s final support for his claim. But before contending with heaven, Rabbi Joshua would defend the earthly Torah of the bet midrash by rebuking the walls that were tumbling at Rabbi Eliezer’s command: “When sages contend,” he said to the teetering stones, “what place do you have in the matter?!”

Those walls were now caught between two forces, said the storyteller: “Out of respect for Rabbi Joshua, the walls did not collapse; out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, they did not stand straight again.”

Greater than the power of either sage over the walls was the power of the storyteller who was able to sustain those precarious walls for all time, saying: “And so do they remain standing despite falling until this day.”

From “that day” with which the story began, to “this day,” on which it continues, we sit within those perilous and permanent walls to discern halacha, the path by which we “proceed/holech” in the world of vying claims to truth. There, in the bet midrash, we risk the certain danger of dangerous certainty. We accept the risks of mistake, of anger, and embarrassment. But what choice do we have in the matter? After all, our teacher told us on that day in the bet midrash: “living with halacha is risky—living without halacha is impossible.”

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The Nature Of Teshuvah

An early rabbinic teaching concerns our place in the world’s time: How should we count the years and account for the crops tithed to the Temple? Each season would begin on the first day of the well-chosen month, except for the new year of the trees, about which there was a difference of opinion:

There are four new years: The first of Nisan is the new year of the kings and of the festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for tithing cattle. Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the new year for tithing cattle is the first of Tishrei. The first of Tishrei, they all agree, is the new year of the years, of the sabbatical years, and of the Jubilees, of planting and of tithing vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year of the trees, according to the school of Shammai. The school of Hillel says that the new year of the trees is the fifteenth of that month. (Mishhah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

Breaking the first-of-the-month pattern, Hillel insisted—without explanation—that the 15th of Shevat should be the new year for the tithe-able produce of the trees. Later sages explained that the rains of the preceding month continue into the first two weeks of Shevat and, by the 15th of the month, they coax more fruit into the “tithing circle.”

Despite the plausible explanation, I like to think that the splendid 2-week difference in bloom and blossom, together with the luminous full moon, moved Hillel to select the 15th of Shevat as the new year.

Certainly the atmospheric grandeur of Tu (15th) B’shevat attracted the poet, Hava Pinhas-Cohen. For her, Hillel’s new year of the trees is also the new year that best invites teshuvah—repentance and return—that begins with the 1st of Tishrei new year, the only cycle of counting called Rosh Hashanah, “the new year.”

In her poem, This Is The Time, Pinhas-Cohen celebrates what she has been looking for—a season that deeply fits the nature of teshuvah.

Now, the fifteenth of Shevat, this is the time when I’m
ready for Yom Kippur, for a day of fasting, and to make
full teshuvah
and a meeting between me and you,
this is the time to open the windows and search the heavens
after the rain has fallen in its season
and in the secret recess among the trees stirs something hidden from the eye

this is the time for words, to speak them, and in short order, to enact them.
My soul is open to you and there is no man
demanding your time with the rigorous insistence of sages
and there is, in the world, a kind of attentiveness to a divine voice hidden
from the eye that goes forth in her season and Adar brings its rains
and the doors of houses open to one another with bowls of fine flour mixed
with oil and a pleasing scent rises, and a woman and her daughter
who saw the new moon go out/

to the field. This is the night on which the moon above the orchards is full
and the earth is pregnant, and I focus my attention
on banishing from the horizon the ugly and the urban
and to seeking a roof on which to stretch out in soft robes of light
and a bath of rainwater in which to immerse seven times
to shed the form of woman and mother, that night
to don the aspect of a soft bride to greet you/

(she is not a Semite) on my right, the desert, on my left, the sea
and we, by the power of the day and the offering
                                                                   transcend the words
if it is not this way, I’ll go on the tenth of Tishrei
amidst a white congregation with my face of fatigue and rebellion, and with clothes
red with blood, I will give my testimony before
                                                                  the lower court.

The season of teshuvah—repentance and return—ought not be at the Tishrei new year culminating in Yom Kippur, the poet insists. Teshuvah and its seekers are better served when nature informs the nature of teshuvah.

On Tu B’shevat, teshuvah is ascendant and budding, not edging towards winter. Such are the conditions for full teshuvah that includes a deep and honest meeting between me and you. Only here do we learn that the poet is not making her case to Hillel or to readers, but to God. Yom Kippur, aglow with the full moon of Shevat, would still be a fast day. But this fast would be draped in the splendid many-colored coat of a renewed world rather than the white shroud of the last one.

On Tu B’shevat, the world is ready for ripeness, for openness—for open doors, open windows, and open hearts; ready for words—spoken and fulfilled—and for gifts offered in fullness. After the rains, the forest holds the fresh promise of a kind of attentiveness, a divine voice—not the sharp insistence of erudite sages. In the radiant pregnant fullness of Tu B’shevat, the oneness of me and you—the divine and the human—transcends ritual and form. The moonlight rooftop bather sheds the form of mother and of woman. (She’s not even Jewish, so no particular ceremony informs the scene.) Teshuvah has nothing to do with studied ritual or legal nuance. With two indented phrases, the poet marks the contrast between the teshuvah of Tu B’shevat that rises beyond words and rituals, and the dense and tense teshuvah of the fall new year season. In Tishrei, she must encounter the heavy and wearying world of the lower court—that earthly counterpart of the yeshivah shel ma’alah, the celestial court. In the liturgy of Tishrei’s Yom Kippur, both the lower and the upper courts convene to hear testimony.

Hava will stand amongst the white-robed congregation on Tishrei’s Yom Kippur. But the upper court will not assemble until Tu B’shevat, when the buds blossom and the moon is full. Carry her poem with you between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Perhaps, “pray” it in a quiet moment and allow it to shape teshuvah of a different nature.


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“I” Witness – The Song At The Sea

A fierce wind plowed the sea, piling a wall of water to either side of a seabed blown dry. Miraculously, there was stable footing for weary slaves—notwithstanding the wind that the sea itself could not withstand.

Wind, walls of water, dry ground: These are the elemental facts of the story told in Exodus 14. But facts are not the whole truth.

Facts conceal the sea, said the Hebrew poet, Zelda. Facts are a wall around the “I.”

“I” enter the sea through the Song of Exodus 15, in which similes remove the wall around the “I.”  In the Song, there is no wall of water. The water is like a mound of some sort that I am free to imagine. Like invites me into a sea of personal imagination. More than the story shared by all, the Song invites the moment lived by me.

The Song splits the facts as the “I” witness begins to cross the sea with personal amazement, terror, awe, or dread as Israel triumphs and Egypt tumbles. That water—the likes of which I have never seen before—protects me until the awe-full moment when, according to the Song, enemies sink like a stone, like lead; they are consumed like straw.

Like quickens my pulse.

No simile—no like—unites every “I” except for one. Not a simile-declaration of the comparable, but of the incomparable: Who is like you among the mighty?!

The story of Exodus 14 has no similes. But the Song, with its invitations to personal comparisons, invites the “I” witness. According to tradition, the seventh day of Passover is the very day of crossing the sea. That day’s Torah reading contains both the story and the Song. But it is only for the Song that we rise.

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Slowly, And In Our Days

In a fiery chariot that rose towards heaven, Elijah disappeared from ordinary view and broke into Jewish religious imagination—now appearing at just the right moment, to prompt, protect, and provoke us to deepen ordinary events into Elijah Moments.

As a man, woman, sage, warrior, Bedouin, physician, pauper, and prince, ancient sages recognized him—sometimes in retrospect—on the road, in the ruins, and in the market. Very often, they recognized him in the doorway.

Never did one sage ask another: “But, how did you know that it was Elijah whom you met?”

Each colleague seemed eager to affirm that, even if not yet bringing the Messiah, Elijah could bring redemptive moments of sense and salvation. I cannot prove that this is so, but I too am eager to join the conspiracy to recognize Elijah in his many disguises—among them, anonymity. Here is a case in point, as remembered from my days as a congregational rabbi:

No one had claimed the hand-woven tallit of white wool with black, gold, and silver stripes found in the sanctuary after a Bar Mitzvah; nor did anyone respond to “lost and found” notices.

In the everyday world of remembering and forgetting, of lost and found, that tallit would likely have been forgotten on a storage shelf. But in the world of Elijah moments, the tallit was not lost, only found—a gift from Elijah!

From that day to this in our synagogue, Elijah’s tallit is used only on certain occasions: It becomes a huppah, or the covering of a “Chair of Elijah” at an infant’s covenant celebration. During the month of Elul, Elijah’s tallit covers a chair set before the Ark where individuals can spend private moments looking for Elijah moments at the door of the new year.

Neither we nor our ancestors ever summon Elijah, but the prophet appears to us through, and throughout, the parts of our everyday lives. The work of a whole life is to see as many parts as we can. The possibility of Elijah encourages me to look for a deeper part—hiding in plain sight. Patience is a key:

Said Elijah, always remembered for the good… I do not reveal myself except to one who is not impatient. Happy is the one who has met Elijah, the one who has sat with him. (Kallah Rabbati, 5)

May Elijah come slowly, and in our days!


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Hesed Is The Prayer And The Answer

When Sarah died at the age of 127, Abraham’s family lost its hesed, the caring, steadfast acts that connect people and sustain the world. Sarah’s hesed was unfailing, even in difficult times. Let this be your hesed to me, Abraham had once said to Sarah when he proposed how she might save him from threatening rulers by posing as his sister instead of his wife (Genesis 20:13).

Under the best of circumstances, a life as long as Sarah’s is a reminder of the difference between what is sad and what is tragic. But, some say that Sarah died of a broken heart, for Abraham had lost his own hesed to a blinding revelation that he should sacrifice their son, Isaac. In that moment, he was no longer the exemplar of hesed as he had been to hungry and tired strangers at the door, to kin held captive, and to unknown residents of the violent cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

With Sarah’s death, Abraham resolved to restore the hesed that he had once known and that Sarah had never abandoned. The new days, going forward, required the connectedness of the old days; they required the old family wellspring of hesed, the unending flow ready to be drawn up and shared.

Abraham’s servant found the very place where the metaphor and the water converged—the wellspring marking his arrival in the home district of Abraham’s family in Aram-Nahara’im. Here, where water was drawn and hesed was offered to strangers, the faithful servant became a master of prayer, an exemplar for all who would follow. He asked for hesed in his master’s name, as Abraham himself had once asked Sarah.  He did not pray for a miraculous divine act, but for a human act of hesed:

He made the camels kneel by the well outside the city, at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and act with hesed towards my master, Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar  that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘drink, and I will also water your camels’- let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have acted with hesed towards with my master” (Genesis 24:11-14).

Those were days of hesed, back when Sarah had stood at that spring; days so necessary, and now, so absent. Abraham’s servant drew the yearning for hesed into a prayer. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, drew that same yearning into a poem:

“Those were days of hesed,” I heard them say once
on a winter street during days of loneliness and pain.
Even for days of hesed we need at least two,
one to give hesed and one to receive it.
When they are separated, the hesed does not abide
or it is spilled into the street as if from a broken pipe.

Religions do not do hesed, they only inform
empty time, with a bell, with a muezzin’s call,
with a siren or a shofar, with knocks on the door
during days of penitence. Religions are not able
to inform either God or his hesed.

Since the day that sacrifices ended
each person is left himself
to sacrifice.

The hesed of once-upon-a-time is a nostalgic memory especially vivid on dark winter days. Loneliness and pain are most keenly felt in the absence of hesed. Those were the days, they used to say; by days, meaning at least two. Perhaps those days were the last gasp of the plural—the final two days before hesed would spill out for lack of connectedness.

Hesed flows through connected days. Abraham’s servant, as well as the poet, knew that human connection makes for hesed; the day is only a carrier. Religions are only carriers. Even God is only a carrier of hesed. The fullness of hesed flows through human acts, and Amichai taught that each of us has only the self to bring to the task.

Go forth and do small things. Look to fellow humans for the everyday evidence of hesed. The bucket drawn from the spring is not hesed. Hesed is the one who does the drawing.

Posted in Blessing, Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry, Torah | 2 Comments

Wholly Complete And Holy Incomplete

The Torah’s first creation story concludes:

Va-yechulu…And the heaven and the earth and all of their ranks were finished. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done and rested on the seventh day from all of the work that he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it for upon it he ceased from all the work that he had created. (Genesis 2:1-3)

Since ancient times, these verses have been a part of the prayers for the Sabbath eve. For Rabbi Hamnunah, a 3rd-4th century Babylonian teacher, Va-yechulu was not mere recitation. It was the deepest of truths, personally experienced by participants in the very act of creation:

Rabbi Hamnunah said: Everyone who prays on the Sabbath eve, reciting Va-yechulu, Scripture accounts that person as a partner with the Blessed Holy One in the acts of creation. As it says: Va-yechulu. Don’t read it as Va-yechulu, the heavens and earth and all of their ranks were finished; rather, as Va-yechalu, they [God and reciter] finished the heavens and the earth and all of their ranks.

The very word, Va-yechulu, offered Rabbi Hamnunah the opportunity to press his point into the (finished) sacred text. Va-yechulu, they were finished, is spelled without a full complement of vowel-letters—ויכלו, instead of ויכולו.  The fixed and finished written evidence allows for another reading: not, they [heaven and earth] were finished, but, they [God and humans] finished.

When we raise a cup of wine to make Kiddush and sanctify the day, we first recite Va-yechulu, remembering our role in the making of the world. We recite Va-yechulu with the authority of a creator who, every Sabbath, experiences the satisfaction of the artist surveying the work and deeming it to be finished.

Rabbi Hamnunah held ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ so gently together in the palm of his teaching! As he declared humans to be partners in the world’s finishing, he rendered the blueprint-text incomplete without his reading of it. The letters were finished, but not their meaning.

Rabbi Hamnunah might well have appreciated the insight of the modern Israeli poet Rivka Miriam who made the same Va-yechulu verses into a prayer-like poem celebrating the open-endedness of creation.

Don’t finish like the finishing of your heavens,
like finishing the starry dust of their ranks.
In your mysterious incompleteness I will be sanctified.

The poet declares herself sanctified by— the same word means ‘dedicated to’—endless imagination. Hers is the language of Va-yechulu: The heavens/shamayim and their ranks/tzeva’am were finished/Va-yechulu and sanctified/va-yikadesh. But for Rivka, the finishing of creation must prompt the beginning of creativity. At a certain point, the creator-poet lifts her pen for the final time and deems her poem to be finished, even though its meaning is not complete.

With the help of our teachers, Rabbi Hamnunah and Rivka Miriam, we renew the cycle and roll the scroll through another year, celebrating what is wholly complete and holy incomplete.

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Heroes Who Limp

Jacob’s midnight assailant was surprised at his adversary’s great strength. He wondered if Jacob might be an angel like himself. Angels have no leg joints, the midrash teaches, so he touched Jacob at the hip to determine whether his opponent’s power was earthly or heavenly. The angel’s mere touch dislocated Jacob’s hip, but the attacker gained no advantage. Indeed, the angel’s surprise that Jacob was only human might have helped the patriarch to prolong the struggle until first light when he could wrestle a blessing. The angel departed as daylight grew and the wounded Jacob set out to meet his brother Esau.

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel and he was limping on account of his hip (Genesis 32:32).

It intrigues me to imagine that Jacob’s earthly joint brought the heavenly blessing of a new name, Yisrael: You have struggled [sarita] with God [el] and you have prevailed (Genesis 32:29). My intrigue is of a personal nature; his story is mine. My Hebrew name is Yisrael. My grandfather was Jacob, and I also have a joint that has been touched by wear and tear. I am always struggling to make my earthly knee—berech—into a source of heavenly blessing—beracha. I, for one, am heartened by a hero who limps.

Many ancient sages applied their interpretive arts to quickly heal Jacob of his limp. More than a few taught: Don’t read, the sun rose upon him. Rather, read the verse literally: The sun rose for him [va-yiz’rach lo]; it rose with the added purpose of healing him. A prophetic verse encourages the claim that the sun of righteousness shall rise upon you [or, for you,] who revere my name, with healing in its wings (Malachi 3:20).

In pursuit of the healing for which they were so eager, these teachers reread, The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel and he was limping, as, The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel while he was still limping on account of his hip. But after he passed Penuel, Jacob was limping no longer. The Torah narrative soon confirmed the healing, the sages taught, noting that after that day’s reunion with Esau, Jacob arrived safely [shalem] in the city of Shechem (Genesis 33:18). Don’t read it that he arrived safely [shalem] in the city of Shechem. Rather, understand the verse to mean that Jacob had become whole, shalem, in body by the time he reached Shechem. His limp was gone and never mentioned again.

I prefer a hero who limps, and I seek out the company of those teachers who allow me my hero. Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac (Rashi) was of two minds as to whether Jacob continued to limp. On the one hand, Rashi taught that the sun rose upon him is a common figure of speech: “By the time we reached such-and-such a place, the sun rose upon us.” In other words, Jacob had broken camp early and was already limping along when the sun rose. On the other hand, Rashi could not resist citing the midrash that the sun rose with a special benefit for Jacob, to heal him of his limp.

Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), earned my gratitude by unequivocally confirming Jacob’s limp as an ongoing condition. According to him, the plain meaning of verse was that the sun rose upon him [making it clear for all to see that] he was limping! The sun did not serve to heal, but to reveal to all that Jacob bore his blessing in the imperfect carrier that was his body.

When Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd century) returned from a mission to Rome, Rabbi Hanina met him as he limped off the ship: “You resemble [Jacob,] your grandfather,” he said. Did Rabbi Hanina note his friend’s limp with surprise? Was Rabbi Joshua’s halting step perhaps the result of a recent accident, or of cramped quarters aboard ship? Or perhaps Rabbi Joshua had always limped—although that characteristic is ascribed to him only this once.

In any event, Rabbi Hanina saw in Rabbi Joshua’s limp the renewed story of a hero who emerged limping from an epic struggle. Jacob’s struggle had been with the guardian angel of Esau; Rabbi Joshua’s contest had been with Rome—founded by Esau’s descendants. Merely by “touching” Rabbi Joshua’s hip, Rabbi Hanina renewed the ancient blessing that had emerged from that weak place.

Rivka Miriam is a modern Hebrew poet who continues the tradition of Rabbi Hanina by preserving Jacob’s limp as an asset, not as an infirmity:

And in the inner room we keep Moses’ heaviness of mouth
Isaac’s weak eyes, and Jacob’s dragging leg.
And when war stirs us, it is to the inner room we go
To examine them closely.
For each one who goes out to battle wraps himself in just these.

Jacob’s limp is among our treasured images of the courage and persistence that thrive in the company of our frailties. It is nothing less than a struggle-with-an-angel to wrestle forth the blessing that emerges from the weak place. If we remember that we grow—skin and bone—most vigorously around the wounded spot, then the limp itself can be its own blessed reminder and encouragement, sunrise after sunrise.

Posted in Angels, Blessing, Midrash, Poetry, Torah | 4 Comments