Aging for the Ages

This essay by Rabbi Steve Sager was written in 2019 as he began a multi-year fascination with this midrash from Genesis Rabbah. He taught it on several occasions as part of a trilogy of the patriarchs. He was able to complete Abraham and Jacob on Zoom in 2022, only months before he died. He was unable to complete the third part of the trilogy on Jacob. It was recently produced by some of his students as we approach the first yahrtzeit of his death. All three videos of The Patriarchs and Journeys of Aging can be viewed here.

Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon was a third-century master of midrash, the ancient rabbinic art of reading Scripture in a way that invites personal experience and imagination into the biblical text. In this case, “aging” is the personal interest that Rabbi Yehuda brings to the Torah text, catching a glimpse of himself among the patriarchs and making the Torah a living document that is both timely and timeless.

Abraham was the first to give Rabbi Yehuda the opportunity to explore aging through the lens of a biblical text. Despite genealogies beginning with Adam, consisting of huge life-spans, Abraham is first in the Torah to be called old, followed by Isaac, and then Jacob. The keen-eyed Rabbi Yehuda, disposed towards thinking about aging, discerned something unique and different about aging in each of those formative generations.

In addition to providing an extended reflection on aging, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each in his own day, had occasion to declare:  Here I am—each one making that declaration in a unique circumstance. As he projects what he knows, imagines, and hopes about aging against the screen of the patriarchs, Rabbi Yehuda figuratively declares: “Here I am! I stand ready to bring the Torah to my life and to bring my life to the Torah; to illuminate the text and to be illuminated by it. “Here I am, he declared through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, insisting through them that powerful, complex dramas of aging needed and deserved a more detailed, illuminated Torah:

Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon said: Abraham insisted on old age, saying before God:  Master Of All Worlds, when a man and his son enter a place, no one knows which of them to honor. If you would adorn the father with old age, then one would know which one was worthy of respect. Said the Holy One to him: By your life, you are insisting on a good thing, and from you it will begin! From the beginning of the Torah until here, there is no mention of age. But to Abraham, he gave zikna, age: “And Abraham grew old [zaken], coming along in days” (Genesis 24:1). (Genesis Rabbah 65:9)

Up to the time of Abraham, the only Torah description of age was statistical. The text says, All the days that Adam lived came to 930 years; then he died. (Genesis 5:4-5). The personal records of progeny, life span, and death, constitute the main narratives that connect Adam to Noah, and Noah to Abraham

But statistics do not describe living experience. They do not offer insights into life’s seasons, or the seasoning that comes through living. The Torah’s deeper story of aging, Rabbi Yehuda insisted, resided in the word zaken, relating that Abraham grew old with physical manifestations of age.

Rabbi Yehuda’s Abraham insisted that something critical was lacking in a world where seniors could not be distinguished from their juniors. Missing was a physical marker of the venerable past, a sign of the honorable future; of life in which character grows. Signs of aging first appeared in the world as a concession to the mortal, human intuition and sensibility of Abraham that was won from a creator God who had simply never considered such a thing. The value and meaning of this creative partnership between the insistent patriarch and God continued to grow as Isaac took up the tradition of his father, standing up on behalf of aging in another way:

Isaac insisted upon impairments. He said before God: Master Of All Worlds, when a person dies without impairments, the measure of justice is drawn tight against him. But if you bring upon him impairments, then the measure of justice is not so tightly drawn. Said the Blessed Holy One: By your life! You have insisted upon a good thing, and it will begin with you. From the beginning of the book until here no mention is made of impairments. But when Isaac came up, God gave him impairments: “And it was when Isaac grew old that his eyes became too weak to see, etc.” (Genesis 26:35)

Rabbi Yehuda animated Isaac as he had Abraham, fashioning the second patriarch in his own rabbinic likeness and language, giving him a voice to express the sage’s insights about aging from within the Torah, itself. And so, Isaac, with the perspective of a third-century sage, argued that impairments would be useful—even heartening—signs that divine justice for any transgressions was being exacted during one’s lifetime and not stored up for one coup de grace in the World to Come.

For a short while, we find ourselves traveling in easy company with Rabbi Yehuda, agreeing with him that we seek to make meaning out of our impairments. But we likely part company over the meaning of impairments as a partial payment against ultimate judgment.

If we no longer travel side-by-side with Rabbi Yehuda, he still leads the way, securing our right to imbue Isaac’s story with renewed and personal meaning. Impairment is neither a decree nor a verdict, says the Isaac who speaks for us. We aspire to live with our impairments from which we fashion meaningful life. Weakening vision is not a sign of divine punishment or of poetic justice. To construe impairment as an enactment of divine judgment is a sign of the all-too-human impulse to draw lines of fault and blame. To understand impairment as the ever-tightening grip of divine justice constitutes its own impairment of a life that might otherwise thrive.

As signs of aging appeared first with Abraham, and impairments with Isaac, so did illness begin with Jacob:

Jacob insisted on illness. He said before God: Master Of All Worlds, one who dies without some preceding illness is unable to settle matters with the children. But one who was ill for two or three days could settle matters with the children. Said the Blessed Holy One: By your life! You have insisted upon a good thing, and it will begin with you! [As it is written concerning the end of Jacob’s life: “A servant] said to Joseph: Look! Your father is ill.” (Genesis 48:1)

In the case of Jacob, the Torah quickly recorded the outcome of his innovation. Jacob’s end-of-life illness afforded him the opportunity to speak himself—for all to hear—into his family’s story of journeys and blessings (Genesis 48-9). Thus, he closed the era of the Patriarchs. In his deathbed blessing, Jacob addressed each of his twelve sons, and wisely blessed in equal measure his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, ending generations of sibling rivalry. His request for burial in the ancestral grave joined his family to their inheritance of land. At the same time, knowing that his family would bury him and then return to Egypt, he made it clear that Jacob’s legacy extended beyond territory.

Through the Torah’s stories of the patriarchs, Rabbi Yehuda expressed his concerns about aging, finding and founding everyday life in the epic story. Through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Rabbi Yehuda insisted that no aspect of aging could proceed without meaning. The patriarchs became for him—and remain for us—not only heroes of aging but also partners in the creation of the human archetype.

Let us make humankind in our image (Genesis 1:26), said God in the beginning. Through the patriarchs, Rabbi Yehuda petitioned the Creator: Let us make humankind in our imagination. And God agreed, confirming as divine the truth that human imagination is a necessary partner in creating a meaningful life. And God’s agreement with the patriarchs, according to Rabbi Yehuda, constitutes a celebration of God as a gracious partner in creation itself.

We can be inspired by Rabbi Yehuda, especially in light of today’s culture that is so fearful of aging. We can aspire to become patriarchs and matriarchs who are mindful of the riches and opportunities presented by the aging self. We can add our voices to those of our ancestors, turning the whisper of the text into the shout and insistence for deeper and fuller meaning.

Posted in Life cycle, Midrash, Torah | Leave a comment

V’Zot HaTorah…This is the Torah

(This poetic essay, like so many of the unpublished writings of Rabbi Sager, z”l, is the beginning of a sicha (conversation). Rabbi Sager eloquently likens his aging body to Torah. He has become a living Torah and suggests that others among us likewise embody Torah — having become repositories of sacred teaching by virtue of “the swirl of aging life” and the redeeming power of an outstretched arm. Thanks to our dear friend, Rabbi Gary Fink, for his editing prowess.)

I have written this essay before. With each attempt, I have tried to be a scholar of midrash probing an important inquiry into healthy aging for the benefit of those who practice the spiritual arts of attending to life transitions such as aging and dying. In my previous attempts, I was always a docent pointing and explicating, standing on the visitors’ side of the cordoned area at a proper distance from the work, speaking in careful tones echoing scholarly words. Now, I am the art and the artist. Aging and cancer have opened new meaning for me as creature and creator. The ripening of life brings me inside—and brings me insight. Who can explain the moment when personal meaning happens, when text and experience illuminate one another, becoming words where no word had existed? Even if one agrees that Torah tells the truth and nothing but the truth, it cannot possibly tell the whole truth. Aging and the increasingly snug fit of mortality remake vision.

A fuller truth awaits telling, including our sages’ personal experiences, the swirl of aging life, as well as the dreams, experiences, observations and aspirations through which embodied life—the real art—might be weighed and measured.

I catch a glimpse of this process, and of myself—waking and dreaming. In my dream, I raise the Torah and hold it open so that all can see. The community points to the scroll and sings: V’zot HaTorahAnd this is the Torah that Moses put before the people of Israel at God’s command by Moses’ hand.

I hold the scroll as high as I can. I extend my arms such that the loose sleeves of my robe slide from wrists to elbows uncovering thin arms stained with the purple ink that comes to light when blood thinner mixes with bumps and bruises. Unlike the Torah scroll that I hold, the script on my arms, hands, and neck constantly changes.

In growing circles around me, people raise slender fingers, pointing: V’zot HaTorah. They are also pointing to me: V’zot HaTorah… And this [too] is the Torah; a legacy for all who care to see and who see in order to care about aging and its vital place in the world. Both timeless and timely, the Torah tells a fuller story than either could have told separately.

I am a body-scroll, part of the art, constantly unrolling, getting closer to the end, and explaining the beginning:

on my skin whose gold has darkened
that has dried to parchment
is inscribed the acts of creation. (poem by Rivka Miriam can be found here)

I am proud of the scroll that is me (not only when I am dreaming). My straining, shaking arms enable the community to acknowledge that This is the Torah! Both scroll and body are Torahs that tell sacred stories and are told by them as well.  

The God of the written Torah never ages. In the parchment scroll raised on high, there is no aging God to teach the unfolding Torah of personal experience. Thin arms dried to parchment reveal a fuller text.

An aging, fatiguing, outstretched arm has a redeeming power unknown to the untiring and unfailing arm that forever splits the sea. God’s omnipotence ends at the shore of a sea that God could not cross without my outstretched arm.

V’zot HaTorah… This is the Torah, the acts of creation, the outstretched arm, the swirl of aging life. Look around the room, through my in-the-round dream vision. This is the Torah, and This is your Torah, and This is my Torah, and This is the Torah that tells all of our Torahs.

The embodied Torahs point through all the years as they exclaim: This, and this, and this; these are the Torahs of aging, the Torah of the ages.

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

Things Last and Lasting

By Rabbi Daniel Alexander, who is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA, where he continues to write and teach and serve as a Spiritual Director (read more here). Dan and Steve met in Jerusalem while studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1992. Since then, they became hevruta and sipped scotch together most summers on many balconies and rooftops in Jerusalem and while sitting in the rocking chairs at Wildacres Retreat in NC.

The new year of 5783 has begun, with new possibilities – and with it – the beckoning, the invitation to pause and engage in introspection, to turn inward and attend to the first question posed by the Creator of the Universe to the first human, “where are you?”

As I try to get a grip on myself, striving for the inner balance required in order to engage in the work of teshuvah this year, to respond to that question, I am struck by the dizzying nature of some contrasting claims on my attention. I find myself beset by sharply contradictory moods, moods reflecting the polarizing experiences in my life during the past year. The poet Yehuda Amichai describes this sort of instability in his poem, A Man in His Life (read entire poem here):

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose.
Ecclesiastes was wrong about that…

…He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

A prose reduction of the poem might say: it is hard to be a person. Or more expansively: because of life’s finitude, a person must accommodate life’s contrasting stimuli at each moment. With our intricate but limited wiring, all under warranty of uncertain length, if at all, life often makes it hard to get a grip.

During the past year, I experienced many joys. By contrast, I also accompanied a dear friend and spiritual companion, Rabbi Steven Sager, zichrono livracha, during his final days of life.

Back in the spring of 2020, during the now all-too-familiar pandemic, I received the draft of an essay from my friend, Steve. It read, “Mortality is—literally—in the air, and we rabbis are especially attentive because our vocation is bound up with last and lasting things.”

What my dear friend omitted from the essay was any mention of the diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer he had received concurrently with the news all of us were absorbing about the pandemic. Indeed, mortality was in the air and for him an increasingly snug fit – to use a phrase he would come to apply to himself.

The awareness of mortality’s snug fit might be a universal lesson of the pandemic, but, for sure, the dire prognosis concentrated my friend Steve’s awareness of the fast-approaching, ultimate threshold and his ever more limited options for delaying the advance. He became hyper-aware of the poet’s observation that a person indeed does not have time to have time for everything.

Although the diagnosis constituted a distinctly new stage for my friend, in a certain sense, the two years from diagnosis to death simply afforded him yet another series of occasions to apply the qualities he had always embodied in his Torah-infused life. These included curiosity, presence, imagination, and also the twin notions that 1) we humans are in and of ourselves sacred texts as much as the received sacred lore found in books, and that 2) the enterprise of Judaism is never rooted in a fixed set of rules or values but rather in a conversation that takes place both within a generation and across generations. Thus, I had the awesome privilege of observing Steve exemplifying these qualities and embodying these principles during his final months.

During the two-year journey following the diagnosis and despite the imposition of chemo treatments and pills, depleted physical stamina, and other assaults to his body, Steve continued to utilize the available alert hours of each day to read and write and teach, and to keep up with the young rabbis he mentored and with the spiritual companions in his circle, and with his family.

As the fit of mortality grew ever more snug, as the quality of available time became ever more precious, I observed Steve grow ever more intensely present in the present, ever more aware of things last and lasting.

This past March, I made my final pilgrimage to Durham while Steve was still alive. He was still studying and teaching, mostly passages pertaining to aging and sickness and dying and mourning, Torah reinforcing his curiosity about his current reality and his determination to occupy that reality with full presence. I found my friend physically diminished but not morbid, not gloomy just intensely curious, playful but serious, regretful only when his need for rest robbed him of time for study and full mental clarity.

During that visit, Steve shared with me the gist of what would be his final public sessions of teaching. I saw him weave midrash and dream and reflection, much as he had often done throughout his rabbinic career.  In the past, Steve had often accompanied congregants through that “valley of the shadow of death,” and had, in the process, become familiar with the landscape of sickness and dying and death and grieving.  But back then, he now reflected, he had been like a docent in a museum, providing commentary and guidance on the major works of art on the wall. Now, Steve taught, he had become at once both the artwork and the docent, the text and the teacher.

Steve’s final public teaching epitomized a Torah as lived experience and a lived experience as sacred text. In that teaching, he inquired of the following Talmudic passage:

Until Abraham, there was no aging …. [Thus,] Abraham came and prayed for mercy, and [as a result] aging was at last noticeable….

Until Jacob, there was no illness leading up to death; rather, one would die suddenly. Jacob came and prayed for mercy, and illness was brought to the world, allowing one to prepare for one’s death…. (Baba Metziah 87a)

During his musing on this Talmudic passage, Steve read himself into the conversation it implies; that is, he read the text of his life into the rabbinic ascriptions about Abraham as the instigator of wrinkles and muscle aches and Jacob as the instigator of illness.

He described a dream in which he was in synagogue as the magbiah, the one lifting the Torah high into the air, something I’m sure he was then far too weak to do when not dreaming. As Steve dreamed himself raising up the Torah high above his head, he looked up and saw his own arms, the skin blotchy and loose as, in fact, it had become from the ravages of disease and treatments. Those arms had once propelled him to awards as a champion swimmer. And then the words sung in unison by the congregation, “V’zot HaTorah/This is the Torah that Moses presented to the children of Israel” now reverberated in the dream, referring both to the uplifted Torah scroll and to the arms that held it aloft.

E. M. Forster once wrote, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” What a privilege it was to accompany my friend, Steve, as he let go of the life he had planned and leaned into the life waiting for him.

The new year now upon us may well include much that we too have not planned, perhaps a new awareness of mortality’s snug fit, or a new concern for last and lasting things. May we each learn to receive with gratitude the days allotted to us as gifts. And may we learn to traverse the uneven terrain of our gifted lives with the skill of presence, with imagination, with empowerment enough to regard ourselves as sacred texts, and with a reenergized commitment to engage in the conversation that is a life infused by Torah.

Posted in Poetry, Talmud, Torah | Leave a comment

Sea of Memories

(A conversation submitted by Ariele Sager Rosen, daughter of Rabbi Steve Sager. Ariele is a Jewish Studies teacher in Israel, where she lives with her family)

The world is filled with remembering and forgetting
As it is with sea and dry land. Sometimes memory
Is the dry land that is firm and founded
And sometimes memory is the sea that covers everything
Like in the flood. And it is forgetting that is the dry land like Arrarat.

Our memories challenge us to keep sacred what we view as important–those that are rich with relevance and invaluable additions to our lives. They are the strands of consciousness that make up the fabric of our story, the fibers of the parchment of our “Torah” that is our lives.

But what of the forgotten memories? The poet, Yehuda Amichai, offers us two parallel realities in his poem. In one, we hold onto memory to keep our feet firmly planted on “dry land.” In the next, we hold to forgetting, as it saves us from the flood waters of our own memories.

The Talmud cites a midrash (Berachot 32b:15-19) that gives us another glimpse into remembering and forgetting, as the people of Israel are worried that God has forsaken them.

“But Zion/Jerusalem said: The Lord has forsaken me and the Lord has forgotten me. Shall a woman forget her suckling baby, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget (be forgotten), yet I will not forget you.(Isaiah 49:14–15).

The people of Israel ask, how can there be forgetting in God’s pristinely planned world? Could the Holy One forget his people? To this, God explains that the whole world was created for His people, and just as a woman could not forget her offspring, so too God will not forget us.

But wait! If God never forgets and if there is no forgetting in the world, does that mean that even the less good things are remembered? What about our sins? What about the Golden Calf, the epitome of sins?! Does it remain forever here in the world, never to be released or forgotten?

“Perhaps you will not forget my sin of the Golden Calf?” replied the Jewish People.

To this God answers, of course I will forget such a sin! As the verse states, “Even these may forget (be forgotten).” There is forgetting in the world, and it includes that of the Golden Calf.

But wait, continue the people, does that mean that “you will (also) forget the events (at) Sinai?” To this God responds “but you I will not forget.” The giving of the Torah is forever etched in my memory. Forgetting cannot touch it.

This incredible midrash sheds light on the divine ability to move between remembering and forgetting, placing importance on relevance and the ability to move on from our past.

We have the power to remember and the power to forget. We may choose to remember the important events of our Torahs–and we are allowed to release thoughts unwanted. Sometimes we hold onto a memory for dear life, and other memories we beg to move on.

As we move through our journeys, our memories become the stories we tell.

In this season of remembering, we move towards “Yom Hazikaron,” The Day of Remembrance, the Torah’s name for Rosh Hashana. We reconcile with our own thoughts, sorting through the experiences of our year. We are awash in our memories, trying to stay afloat in the sea that covers everything. We continually search for the dry land where we can finally find our footing.

May we all learn to recognize our sea and dry land.

May we find comfort in the dearer memories, finding solid ground–firm and founded–a place from which to build for the new year.

May we have the confidence to release that which does not bring us contentment–and find serenity in that decision.

And may we all remember our teacher, rabbi, and friend (and father), Rabbi Steven Sager of blessed memory, in this season of remembering.

Shana Tova U’Metuka/A Sweet New Year

Posted in Blessing, Days of Awe, Memory, Midrash, Poetry, Talmud, Torah | 2 Comments

Now is the Time

(A conversation submitted by Sabina W. Sager)

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastesas wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

The poet, Yehuda Amichai, suggests that we do not have time in our lives to have time for everything. He says further that Ecclesiastes was wrong in saying that what has been will be again, and what has been done will be done again.

I stand with Amichai.

Today, August 12, is the 49th anniversary of the day Steve and I were married. My world is now very different–everything has changed for me. My whole being is confused and muddled. This year we will not have an anniversary celebration or a special dinner over which we might share our memories or assess how we have grown over the past year. What has been will not be done again. The memories will need to suffice. I will love and hate at the same time. I will cherish the loving relationship that exists in photo albums, letters, and saved treasures. And I will hate the disease that wracked Steve’s body for more than two years, leaving him with uncompleted plans and leaving me with a lonely day to ponder.

We will not be able to engage today in the joy of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth day of Av, a holiday mentioned in the Talmud as a time of joy and dancing under the full moon and celebrating the season of love. As Amichai reminds us, there is a season to laugh and cry with the same eyes. My eyes try to see backward and forward through my tears.

We will not be celebrating today the significance of the number 49, or seven times seven years together. We will not share the beauty of what seven represents in our world as Judaism’s most perfect and sacred number. Seven is the number of magical days of creation. Seven species adorn our lives. Seven are the wonders of the world that remind us of the places we have travelled in our journey together. Seven are the days of the chatan and kallah, the groom and bride, and how many times they circle one another under the chuppah. And seven times seven is the Jubilee year, the 49th year, a time to put aside the work of our hands in order to rejoice in the world around us. I will wring my hands and close my eyes to imagine what might have been.

Perhaps Ecclesiastes got it right after all. Perhaps this is exactly the day to tear and then find a way to mend. Perhaps this is just the time to be silent, and then find a way to speak of blessings. Perhaps this is the day to look for the branches pointing to the place where there’s time for everything. And perhaps that time is now and the place is my heart, where there is time for remembering love.

Remember the time
Together in the season
Awash in blessings.

Posted in Blessing, Life cycle, Poetry | 9 Comments

O, Steps! Ground of all Journeys!

Rabbi Steve Sager, z”l, died on May 15, 2022, just before reaching his 71st birthday. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020, he decided to honor his birthday (and that of his father) with a zoom teaching about living his life in the laboratory of illness. He wanted to share his journey (and eventually his teachings about end of life) publicly. In honor of his birthday today, it is a privilege to share part of a tribute by one of his teachers, Melila Hellner-Eshed.

I want to speak words of love and loss about our friend and teacher Rabbi Steve Sager, zichro livracha, I got to know Steve through all the many summers when he attended and was a very active participant at the rabbis’ summer programs at the Hartman Institute in Israel. At the end of the morning sessions we would talk about the texts, our ideas, and the poems I chose to teach. And then he would show me the translations he made to them. He was a wonderful translator of poetry which demands such an attentive soul and ear and a love for both Hebrew and English and the ground language from which all poets of all languages quarry their words. I loved his translations and would turn to him once in while with a poem that I felt needed to be translated into English yet needed his special poetic touch.

I had also the delightful honor of co-leading with Steve at several clergy retreats in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I loved the way he would frame each theme and session. It was all about life, our Torah, our tradition, poetry and our own writings. The themes included leave taking from this world, Kriah/tearing in avelut/mourning, and about what zecher livracha, being of blessed memory could mean to us. I feel all this work was like a long deep and rich preparation for his own leave taking from the world. As a great teacher and Rabbi, Steve taught till the end of his life mamash!

I wish to bring here Steve’s beautiful translation of a poem by Yehuda Amichai. Steve wrote about it and then wrote his own poem-prayer in conversation with it. The poem is called ‘God is Steps’. Here are Steve’s words:

God is steps, declared Yehuda Amichai. Such an outright assertion about God was unusual for the great Israeli poet. He [Amichai] was fond of similes that invited listeners closer to the mystery without violating the distance that mystery needs. Among his similes, Amichai likened God to a magician, to a window, to a door, to bird footprints on the sand, to a tour guide, and to the scent of perfume that lingers after its wearer has passed by.

When the poet declared, God is steps, he stepped outside of his poet-realm of simile and became a theologian making a direct statement about the nature of God in the world. He was clear that he did not invent the name. Rather, he discovered it [in the story of Jacob’s dream]…Amichai was certain that the heart of Jacob’s dream was not the angels, but the steps:

God is steps that ascend
to a place that no longer exists, or that doesn’t exist yet
the steps are my faith, the steps are my disappointment
Jacob our father knew this in his dream
the angels only decorated the steps of the staircase
like a fir tree decorated for Christmas
and The Song of the Steps is a song of praise
to God who is the steps.

And Steve continues…

From the patriarch’s dream-image and the poet’s wakeful imagining, Steps became a name of God; a name that formed slowly, in almost geologic time, beginning when Jacob’s dream surrendered its elemental richness from above, drop by drop, until Steps arose from the earth—a stalagmite staircase; growing, blooming rock the living truth of which attracted the poet…The poet has dreamed his way into Jacob’s dream and made his meaning available to all who still dream themselves into it.

I [says Steve, who takes the bold next step] have taken the name Steps into the laboratory of my life in order to discover what personal insights and opportunities it affords me. I have learned to call God Steps when fear—heavy and broad—must be carried and crossed. Steps is the name that I call when my soul insists on movement, but I don’t know whether onward will be upward or downward. Mindful of Steps, blessed be they, my stride becomes less hurried, less entitled.

Steps, is the God in whose presence I walk, knowing that God who is Steps does not determine my direction or destination. Steps is the God who is ever-present, but not all knowing. Steps is the God who is with me, whether I am a purposeful pilgrim or a foot-loose wanderer; always giving and gaining ground, but making no comment.

Such is the soil—the soul—in which the name, Steps, takes root and flourishes for me. And here is some evidence from my own inner prayer book of how I pray it:

O, Steps! Ground of all journeys!
You are forever beneath my rising and my falling.
You are the level and the slope testing my inclinations
towards faith, towards disappointment.
Another step and I meet you anew.
You are the ground of purpose; mine to determine.
You are my way, whether wandering or pilgrimage.
You are here and horizon; destination long gone or as yet unmade.
Where I meet You is arrival and departure.
I, among the travelers. You, as ancient and present as the journey.

The Steps, blessed be they, assure me—comfort me—that onward is the well-met, grace-filled way. This is a truth as old as the journey.

May Steve’s memory be a deep and rich blessing. May his soul be bundled up in the fragrant bundle of life.

תהא נשמתך צרורה בצרור החיים

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Faithfully Practicing Resurrection

The bedtime stories my father told me in our cramped apartment in the gritty Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn sketched a magical, mythical place… [even] the darker stories about hiding from the Cossacks among the tombstones… I needed to get to the cemetery where my family hid among the tombstones…  I was in the very place where my family ran for their lives during pogroms. I knew this would be the closest I could join emotionally to my mother, Aunt Paula, Aunt Dina, and Buba Laika. (Dr. Ralph Snyderman, “My Parents Escaped The Pogroms In Ukraine, Here’s Why I Returned” The Forward, April 6 2021)

I believe with complete faith in the resurrection of the dead for,
just as a person who wants to return to a beloved place will leave
intentionally some book, basket, glasses, a small picture
such that he has a reason to return, just so the dead leave behind
life for which they can return.
Once, in the mists of a distant fall, I stood
in an abandoned Jewish cemetery, but it had not been abandoned by its dead.
The groundskeeper was an expert in flowers and in the year’s seasons
but he was no expert in buried Jews,
yet he said: Every night they faithfully practice for the resurrection of the dead.

I believe with complete faith in the resurrection of the dead, begins the poet, Yehuda Amichai, quoting one of Maimonides’ well-known principles of Jewish faith. True to Amichai’s poetic way, religious vocabulary such as “faith” sheds its armor in favor of a loosely woven hope based upon faithful human behavior.

The dead leave behind their lives as a sign of promise to return, enliven, reanimate—resurrect—the life still warm from their touch.

Never mind the compass and straight edge or the formal proofs of the philosopher whose sightless vision is fixed on history’s horizon not unlike the fixed bronze eyes of Maimonides’ statue in Cordoba. The philosopher’s faith is not argued here. One must have faith that Maimonides’ point is fundamental to his system.

“Faith,” at its Hebrew root, means, “dependability.” Both the poet and the philosopher would agree.

Without even a new stanza, Amichai continues his exploration of faith, whisking us away to a new venue—a distant, Jewish cemetery, at the fall of the year.  In (the fall) light of resurrection, I imagine a dappled fall scene with colors both full and failing.  The cemetery, says the poet, is abandoned—but not abandoned by its dead Jews. They alone remain the faithful guardians of the place. They are keepers and keepsakes of beloved Jewish life to which people will return to reclaim the lives left behind.  These dead are the saving remnant of Jewish consciousness, the tombstones evidence of past, presence, and promise.

A groundskeeper appears. He knows nothing about dead Jews, but he knows a great deal about seasons of rebirth, planting, blooming, tending—and waiting. He is the poet’s twin, with complete faith in nature as the poet has faith in human nature.

The groundskeeper is very certain that these dead Jews, like everything else in this cemetery, have their season of renewal. All seeds and souls mature towards reappearance. Who is to say how long that maturing season might be?  All he knows is that each night if they are like all buried things, the lives planted in the soil practice for their resurrection.

And here, in the ancient language that he resurrects, the poet joins “faith” and “practice,” bridging from theological statements to human experiences. The verb “to practice” is, l’hit-amen that sprouts from the root word of “faith/a-m-n,” a verb root that stalks and flowers into the words amen, the exclamation that validates what is faithfully accepted as true. Emunah/faith joins the faith of the poet to the (faithful) practice of which the groundskeeper is certain.

The cemetery is both the stone-fact and also the symbolic figure drawn into stories and dreams from the Ukraine to Bensonhurst, and beyond. Here image and imagination are one. Literally and figuratively, we have faith that we can find shelter and safely among the tombstones that will protect us from the Cossacks. The cemetery, in effect, saves us.

The cemetery is our earthiest place and, arguably, our most heavenly: both soil and soul are enriched here. Roots here are both the premise from past life and the promise for the future.

Perhaps it is the cemetery to which the dead return to reclaim what is theirs. Perhaps it is we who must return to the cemetery to rise renewed, to reclaim the lives that have been left there for us.

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Gratitude Beyond Measure

These things have no fixed measure: the corner of the field, the first fruit offering, the pilgrim’s offering, acts of generosity, and Torah study.

Rooted in the life of an agricultural community, the Mishnah extols life grounded in the soil—in field and fruit, and in the soul—through the pilgrim’s offerings, generosity, and learning. At its best, the world could be characterized by beracha—blessing—which is the breaking of bounds for the good.

In this season and in these times, we so need to take heart in the world’s capacity for abundance! We might join our celebration of overflow to the exclamation of the Mishnah, an ancient rabbinic voice that happily praises certain things that have no fixed measure:

But all things without measure begin with a measured step. The Mishnah, like the crops it describes, is rooted. After all, if there is no yield to the ways of careful planting, there will be no yield of sustaining and overflowing crops. Abundance begins with measure:

The corner of the field measure should not be less than one-sixtieth. For even though the early sages said that the corner had no measure, everything is according to the size of the field, the number of the poor, and the amount of the yield.

The Mishnah’s abundance begins with the soil. We might say that the poet, Rivka Miriam, begins with the soul:

These are things for which there is no fixed measure:
the laughter, the blue, and the moment.

But more than abundance unending, Rivka recognizes moments of beginning in her poem. It is not abundance that she most cherishes. Rather, she celebrates the discrete acts—known and unknown—that are the beginnings of overflow:

But it is from anguish that blue comes to me
and from the bell comes the laughter.
And the moment comes on its own.

She forcefully wards off a content and complacent feeling of entitlement to the world’s overflow:

Don’t come near me! I whispered, warning,
I want to be constrained,
contracted as a shout and as final as an ending.
I don’t want to be without measure.
I persist in my stance.
I deploy my voice before me, like a bulwark
while laughter, blue, and moment extend within me
They prod me
without measure.

That which the poet adds to the Mishnah gives voice to our family’s personal joy and thankfulness. In light of my recent cancer diagnosis, our family has received sustaining acts of extended community rooted in the soil and soul of measured deeds. Meals, visits, letters, contributions, prayers, and more continue to come our way. Each act of kindness and concern prods us without measure, reminding us of the abundance that, in the end, is beyond measure.


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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.

Posted in Midrash, Parshat HaShavuah, Torah | 7 Comments

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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