Forgetting Reminds Me…

The national election created in me a deep sense that I wanted to meet and speak with more of my neighbors. In my busy-ness, it’s easy to walk past the community of the every-day. That seems wrong to me now.

Recently I went into a liquor store (vodka is also part of the post-election world). When I walked in, the woman who was keeping the store looked at my kippah and greeted me with, shalom! I responded, shalom, shalom!

When I brought my purchase to her register, I noticed her name emblazoned on her orange uniform shirt: Lethia. What an unusual name! I said. How do you pronounce it? Lay-theey-ah, she replied. Said I, Your name makes my entire mouth work: tongue to teeth for the l, open for the ay, tongue to teeth—with breath behind it—for th, jaw tightened for eey, then, loosening and opening to roll out the ah! She laughed and said her name, feeling its shape and sounds.

Where did your name come from? I asked. From my great-grandma, she said. Great-grandma named me after one of her sisters. She lived her whole life in Roanoke Rapids, NC. That’s where I grew up.

What does your name mean? I asked. I don’t know, she said. I’ve been meaning to look it up, but I haven’t. My name comes from great-grandma, and I think about that every day.

When I returned to my car, I searched the internet for the name, Lethia. I found it, got out of my car, and went back inside the store. Lethia looked concerned when she saw me. Is everything alright? Yes. I just learned something about your name. Lethia is a Greek name, and it means Forgetful. Oh, no! she said, frowning.

But there is a bigger story of your name that fits you, I said. Do you remember the Bible story of Joseph in Egypt? She smiled: Great-grandma used to tell me Bible stories a lot when she was raising me.

Here’s a Bible story that will soon be read in the Synagogue: Joseph had a son whom he named Menassah, from the Hebrew word that means forget. When Joseph named his son, he said: God has made me forget—nashani—my troubles and my father’s house (Genesis 41:51). Of course, every time Joseph spoke his son’s name, he couldn’t help but remember his father and the place where he was raised up.

When you say your name, I continued, it sounds to the ear and feels to the tongue and teeth like your great-grandma naming you and calling you in Roanoke Rapids. The name that means forgetful is its own reminder. As long as you know your name, you’ll never forget.

Thank you, she said, while touching her fingers to her name, emblazoned over her heart.

With Joseph’s story in mind, I went home and consulted the ancient Greek Torah translation, the Septuagint. Translation into Greek stripped away the Hebrew pun that joins the Hebrew name Menasheh and the verb nashani, he caused me to forget. But, I found Lethia’s name in the verb at the heart of the story in parashat Mikketz. God has made me forget? Just the opposite!

Posted in Names, Parshat HaShavuah, Torah | 5 Comments

The Walk Is Painful

The poet, Muriel Rukeyser, learned from her mother the family tradition that she was a direct descendant of Rabbi Akiba. Muriel carried that legacy into a life of vision and activism, beginning in the 1930’s when she wrote and spoke out on behalf of wrongly accused black men in Scottsboro, Alabama. She fought for West Virginia miners afflicted with silicosis. Rukeyser supported the People’s Olympiad, conceived as a protest against the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Her battles against McCarthyism, her support of feminism as well as her efforts against the Vietnam war demonstrated that her energies had not flagged over the years.

Tangles of injustice, opposition, and uncertainty made the walk of her life hobbling and humbling. Her social and political activism required the slow, painful, constant realignment of passionate vision with rational insight. If only the past could lead directly to the redeemed future and circumvent the present! But the activist knew that such was never the case; and she nurtured the vision that halting steps would come to be a graceful dance leading to God.

Muriel offered this vision of her activism in the tradition of her ancestor in a poem called Akiba:

This is not the past walking into the future,
The walk is painful, into the present, the dance
Not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.

(Click here for the poet’s words and voice)

An ancient story carries Akiba’s own celebration of human effort enlisted in the service of improving the world. A Roman governor asked Rabbi Akiba:  Whose works are better, the works of God or the works of human beings?

Akiba brought out sheaves of wheat along with delicate cakes and said to him: These sheaves are the works of the blessed Holy One; and these cakes are the works of humans. Are not the cakes more pleasing than the sheaves?

(Click for midrash in Hebrew and English)

Bread begins with the raw ingredients that are the works of God. But only through the works of humans does the loaf come to be. Regardless of whether we sustain or distain one another’s causes and convictions, human industry conspires to make possible the bread on our tables. Because the bread rises to a whole greater than the sum of its parts, Rabbi Akiba, and his descendants, recite a blessing over bread that celebrates not the work of humans, but rather, nurtures a vision of the One who brings forth bread from the earth.

May it make for a better world if we come to know those who sow and grow, who harvest, grind, bake, transport, and sell. They enable the blessing. Let bread symbolize the best aspects of our variety and our common needs. Let the bread that we eat fuel action and feed hope. We are the descendants of Muriel Rukeyser and of Rabbi Akiba. We share the same bread, the same painful walk and work; and we move slowly towards the dance.

Posted in Midrash, Poetry | 2 Comments

Created On The Second Day

When was love created? asked a modern Israeli poet. When were the angels made? an ancient sage inquired. Each question contains an essential quest: to read a detail of personal interest both into, and out of, the few verses of the Torah’s creation story.

The question of the Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, was implicit in the answer that she discerned when she brought her own quest to bear on a close reading of Genesis chapter 1:

Love was created on the second day. When the two expanses were torn apart
the day that was one became two.
Love was created on the second day. ‘Ere called by name
and with no “let there be!”
Yet the sea began to rise. Embrace was fashioned, and lament was formed.

(Click here for Rivka Miriam poem in Hebrew and English)

The day before love was created, light came to be with a let there be; and with an act of naming, light became day. Through separation, day and night were made to follow one another, independent sovereigns presiding over bordering realms.

In contrast, water was not formed by let there be. The separation of water above from water below did not resolve into different and independently named elements that could exist easily side by side, like day and night. In fact, love was created by the distance between the water’s two parts that would forever strive to become one, again. Love is the tide’s rise and the rain’s reach, as old as the world.

Eighteen hundred years before Rivka, in the land of Israel, Rabbi Yohanan discerned another story in the waters of the second day:

When were angels created? Rabbi Yohanan said: On the second day angels were created, as it is written: He sets the rafters of his lofts in the waters (Psalm 104:3); and next, it is written: He makes the winds his messengers/angels (Psalm 104:4).

(Click here for Midrash in Hebrew and English)

At the heart of Rabbi Yohanan’s question was a quest to find the story that would found his belief: God, alone, was eternal. Angels were creations, despite their heavenly presence and powers.

Rivka Miriam relied solely on her reading of the Genesis narrative. Rabbi Yohanan, in the manner of the sages, adduced a Bible verse in which the winds (also spirits in Hebrew) that are God’s messengers (also angels in Hebrew) are to be found among the roof beams of heaven’s expanse that are miraculously set in waters above.

The poet, the sage, and the rest of us bring living concerns in search of a sacred past. Ask a question about the beginning of things. Look past the narratives of let there be. Rather, ask about the hidden narratives of there must be. Like Rivka and like Rabbi Yohanan, you will see that your question urges you to give to the story of beginning a plot that your life already holds.


Posted in Angels, Midrash, Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry | 1 Comment

The Binding Of God

To my mind’s eye, Rabbi Berechiah appeared stoop-shouldered and mournful on Rosh Hashanah as he listened to the Torah reader recite Genesis 22, The Binding of Isaac. Berechiah, a 4th century sage of the land of Israel, was pained by the story of a father who would agree to sacrifice his son. More painful—if he dared to think it—was his distrust of the God who commanded the sacrifice. Where was the Abraham who risked all to save Sodom and Gomorrah, cities of mainly strangers whom he defended with his life? And where was the God who had offered Abraham the opportunity to defend those cities?

(Click here for Genesis 22 in Hebrew and English)

In his heart, he chastised his predecessors for having added the troubling chapter to the holiday Torah reading. Now that we celebrate for two days, they had decided, on the second day we read: After these things God tested Abraham. In simpler times, the only Torah reading assigned to the holiday had been: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month… you shall observe a sacred occasion, complete with loud blasts (Leviticus 23:23). The only provocation of this section was mild: Why advance the counting of the years in the seventh month?

Another year was at hand and Berechiah realized that he would, once again, join the community worship. He would—like Abraham?!—sacrifice his own values on the altar of a tradition that demanded the binding of Isaac. Despite the parallel’s clear limits, Berechiah’s thoughts revealed a certain truth: He preferred to focus on some tendency found in others, but not in himself. How much easier is anger and certainty when strengthened by the objectivity of distance? But now, the merit of Abraham became the merit of Abraham-who-is-me. Perhaps there was merit in every character and lessons to be learned by entering the story as each one, in turn.

Time and again, Rabbi Berechiah lived the story, anticipating a wise poet who would one day encourage everyone to become the knife, the ram, and even to become God:

Everyone who gets up in the morning is alone,
bringing himself to the binding, he is Abraham,
he is Isaac, he is the donkey, he is the fire
he is the knife, he is the angel,
he is the ram, he is God.

(Click for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

When he became the God of the story, Berechiah felt in his own throat an unanticipated softening between the commanding, Take your son! and the appeasing, By my own self, I swear. O! the wisdom of (God’s) vocal chords! Berechiah’s anger turned to wonder: One takes an oath to re-balance a relationship, to assure repayment, or to right a wrong. Excitement rose. The Abraham of Sodom and Gomorrah had returned! He rose from his surrender and forced the commanding God to swear an oath of allegiance to the future generations of Isaac’s children!

Berechiah felt less alone in his radical thoughts when he discovered that a generation earlier, Rabbi Yohanan and one of his students had also sensed the deep story behind God’s vow. But Rabbi Berechiah directed himself beyond the insights of these few fellow travelers. He would not be content with a scholar’s joy of learning for the sake of the endless journey. Berechiah was determined to be a focused pilgrim; his eyes fixed on the holy destination of Rosh Hashanah; his offering, an Abraham whose moment of surrender was bound to a moment of strength, binding God to swear an oath.

That year, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Berechiah himself read the final Torah verse—that verse with its minor irritation that he had thought quite distant from any story of moral action. But now, he understood that this most ancient holiday reading strengthened the most recent, just as the most recent gave meaning to the most ancient.

In the seventh [shevi’i]month, on the first day of the month,  Rabbi Berechiah taught, should be read, In the month of the oath [shevu’a], the month of the binding of God; the month in which Abraham moved beyond his surrender to become the defender of his children’s children. It is the month in which the apologetic God said, I swear [nish’bati].

(Click here for the ancient text of Rabbi Berechiah’s story)

It was the oath [shevu’a], that named the season—the month of the oath—a yearly reminder to Isaac’s children and to God that this would be a time during which our  to be mindful of the human capacities for both surrender and empowerment, forever.

Posted in Days of Awe, Holidays, Midrash, Poetry, Torah | 1 Comment

Each Person’s Stamp and Seal

The end of the matter, all things being heard:  Revere God and observe his commandments, for this is the sum of human life.

With this verse, the liturgical reading of Ecclesiastes comes to an end; the penultimate verse is repeated so as to underscore the fullest expression of human possibility and dignity. In a midrash, God uses the second half of the verse to underscore the mortal constraints on the human spirit. In the matter of living on beyond the Jordan, God says to Moses, You cannot prevail for this is the sum of human life.

The poet, Yehuda Amichai, dips his pen into the sober colors of the Ecclesiastes’ verse. Fragility is in the air when his daughter is drafted into the Israeli army:

The end of the matter, all things being heard. Now even my daughter
is drafted into the army. Now it’s even her face in the window
of the bus slowly pulling away. Now it’s even her face
in the corner of the window, like stamps on letters, like her brother.
Oh, those stamps, those letters
to be sent and to send. Oh, the names and the addresses
and the numbers and the colorful stamps and the faces.
And the hand-cancel seals that resound with the hollow ring of fate.

(Click here for the poem, Talmud, and Midrash in Hebrew and English)

For the poet, the bus window becomes the envelope posted to its destination. His daughter’s face is the stamp joining other stamp-faces, like that of her brother. Each brightly colored stamp-face is a small, colorful, part-for-whole of memory, history, and pride artfully made. Addresses and numbers can be written clearly; but it is the stamp, the brief, finely wrought glimpse of home that enables the send-off. Between the stamp and the address there is the journey.

The Hebrew word for stamp, bul, has made its own journey. In the language of ancient rabbinic sages, a bul was a block or a lump—sometimes of sand or salt when either is exposed to fire:

One sage asked:  In what way shall Israel be like the sand of the sea (Hosea 2:1)? It is a property of sand that if one puts it into the fire, one brings out lumps from which glass vessels are made. Just so, when those of Israel enter the fire, they come out alive.

Such was the case with Daniel’s three companions, tried in the fiery furnace by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. They emerged honored and elevated, each one a bul transformed by the fire.

A bul of salt changes the fire. The sages taught:  We can put a lump of salt in a lamp to help it burn brightly. Each living bul is unique in its own fires—reflective, colorful, sometimes transparent; serviceable and fragile, brightening the world around it in a unique way.

Regardless of its strength and beauty, the human bul does not survive forever, although Moses might have thought so. Certainly, those who live to wondrously old age make us think that mortality might occasionally overlook us. But as God said to Moses and as Amichai said while reflecting on his daughter’s face in the window:  This is the sum of human life.

We each hope to recognize and to honor the stamp from which we came. We also aspire to write (with our own hands) the address to which we travel. And what comes after the hand-cancel seal that marks safe delivery of those whom we love? The end of the matter, all things being heard, we now have the obligation and honor to read the letter.

(In memory of Rabbi Tobias Rothenberg, a passionate advocate for Israeli stamps and for the educational opportunities that they present. He died at age 95 on 16 Menachem Av, the month whose name means consoling father, 5776.)


Posted in Midrash, Poetry, Talmud | 3 Comments

The Eleventh And Twelfth Commandments: Don’t Change! Change!

My father was God and didn’t know it.  He gave me
the ten commandments neither in thunder nor in fury, neither in fire nor in cloud
but in gentleness and in love. He added caresses and added kind words
adding, “I beg you,” and “please.”  He sang keep and remember
in a single melody and he pleaded and cried quietly between one commandment and the next:
Don’t take your God’s name in vain; don’t take it, not in vain.
I beg you, don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.  He hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear:
Don’t steal.  Don’t commit adultery.  Don’t murder.  And he put the palms of his open hands
on my head in the Yom Kippur blessing.  Honor, love, in order that your days might be long
on the earth.  And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later, he turned his face to me one last time
like on the day he died in my arms and said, I want to add
two to the ten commandments:
The eleventh commandment: “Don’t change.”
And the twelfth commandment: “You must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and went off
disappearing into his strange distances.

(Click here for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

(Click below to hear the Amichai poem as interpreted and sung by Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann)

The poet, Yehuda Amichai, wove a personal story of receiving Torah on the loom of Scripture’s own account in which God gave ten commandments in thunder, fire, and cloud. The poet’s text-weaving shows an intimate texture. His father gave him ten commandments in a voice that inflected stone-hard, chiseled words with loving and gentle urgency, with tears, and with embrace.

The joining of the timeless, epic warp and the timely, personal weave present a Torah that is ever-more fully revealed.

Torah is more fully given when the Sinai moment becomes larger than the mountain.

The Torah of the Sabbath commandments is more fully given when divergent commands—keep in Deuteronomy, and remember in Exodus—are sung in a single melody; a venerable story captured in an ancient legend and in a Sabbath hymn. To sing them together is to bring them together.

The Torah of a parent is more fully given when the inner tensions of nostalgia and of hope are equally expressed:  Don’t change! Change!


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Finding Oneself On The Mountain

He gave to Moses—when he finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai—the two tablets of the covenant, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18).

So ended Moses’ forty-day audience with God on the cloud-covered mountain, shielded from all except those sages and poets who have ascended and continue to ascend to find themselves wondering over the mystery of the “summit” that lasted more than a month. Why so long? Why did it take forty days to give the tablets? Did Moses ask questions? Did God explain and expand the ten chiseled sayings? What finally brought the meeting to an end? Had everything been taught, asked, and answered?

The 3rd century teacher, Rabbi Abbahu, found himself viewing the scene this way:

Rabbi Abbahu said:  The entire forty days that Moses spent on high, he would learn Torah and forget it. At the end, he said to God:  Master of the world! Forty days have come and gone and I don’t know a thing! What did the blessed Holy One do? When forty days came to an end, he gave Moses the Torah as a gift, as it says:  He gave to Moses—when he finished speaking with him (Exodus 31:18).

(Click here for the Midrash in Hebrew and English)

Rabbi Abbahu found himself recognizing that Torah could be gifted from on high, but only learned in the world of experience below. When God discerned that the mountain made Torah too abstract and distant for Moses to learn it, he brought the learning to an end and gave to Moses… the two tablets.

The Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, found herself singing the mystery of the summit:

The Torah not yet given, but already my father was sitting with Moses on the ground
teaching him Torah. The no-book shedding its light on them
presence and absence skipping between alef and bet.
Here were Moses and the Torah tasting one another, saying sheh-hecheyanu and sheh-hakol nih’yah bid’varo
and already, just like father taught him, Moses was beginning to call the God of his fathers,
Gottenyu, and Elohimaleh.

 However, when God came to separate them
and to put the Torah in his storehouse until he wanted it
each va-yomer, va-y’he, and key tov were all gathered together
and Moses in whom a budding caress was again becoming a clenched fist
ranged back and forth in the splash of the storehouse shadow moving his lips with no sound
trying to repeat the Torah by heart until he could write it.

(Click for Rivka Miriam’s poem in Hebrew and English)

The ancient sage and the modern poet found themselves on Sinai not in the sense of an unintended destination, but in the sense of self-awareness. Rabbi Abbahu found himself setting aside forty difficult days and celebrating the moment when the divine teacher turned the limitation of the student into a promising beginning. This was the giving of Torah.

The opposite of Rabbi Abbahu, Rivka Miriam found that it was in the timeless days on Sinai that Torah was fully present in an uncompleted way. She never described the formal giving that was central to her ancient counterpart. For Rivka Miriam, Torah was literally in the air. Time and senses were fused and confused. Presence and absence flickered in the unfastened letters of the not-yet-book. Moses and Torah tasted one another like new fruits and blessed the tasting with blessings always, but not yet, existing. At the same time, Moses learned from Rivka’s father how to call God by tenderly inflected nicknames.

Rabbi Abbahu and Rivka Miriam found themselves valuing the Torah of different Sinai moments. However, they did cross paths on the heights of anxiety, edging towards the chasm between the no-book and the book. Rabbi Abbahu felt the press of bounded time together with the growing mountain of information hanging over Moses’ head. Rivka Miriam relished the hour-less days. But on the eve of formal giving, unbounded Torah words were sorted, stacked, and stored. Then, the budding, open-handed caress of unexplained knowing tightened into a clenched fist of white-knuckled anxiety in the shadow of the storehouse. Both Rabbi Abbahu and Rivka Miriam prized long days rather than frantic hours. Both valued Torah given by tasting rather than testing. But for Rabbi Abbahu, only the gifted Torah in hand could create such spacious conditions. For Rivka Miriam, the Torah in hand ended a time of boundless learning.

Rabbi Abbahu and Rivka Miriam represent a millennium and a half of pilgrims who find themselves on the mountain. On Shavuot, we pilgrims hope to scale the mountain image with our own imagination, just like the sage and the poet. Each of us traveling in our own direction reaches the mountain to find the self that each has brought.

Posted in Poetry | 2 Comments

Leavening On Our Shelves And In Ourselves

Every year, several weeks before Passover, my personal search for leaven begins in a way that is more symbolic than actual. I approach my bookshelves where there are many books that have served their rising, yeasty purposes and are now fermented and frail beyond use. With each search, I take note of the year’s new decisions. One year I might decide to hold on to a particular book while the next Passover, for reasons too subtle to know, I’m able to part with that book, saying: “Whatever I need of you is now in me.”

I find this a soulful enterprise, a springtime version of Rosh Hashanah reflections about what I carry and what carries me forward.

This year, I honorably buried my 5th grade Hebrew School book that I redeemed from the dusty exile of a “nostalgia” shelf. When I realized that I could bring that volume into a timeless Passover conversation, it became clear that I could hold onto the book even as I let it go.

HaYehudi HaRishon (The First Jew), is a book of biblical and rabbinic stories about Abraham rewritten in easy Hebrew. One story recounted how Abraham, the young monotheist, smashed the idols in his father’s shop in order to prove the error of his father’s ways. The Passover Haggadah carries the biblical foundation of this story. As a preamble to reaffirming Israel’s covenant, Joshua traced the people’s history beginning with Abraham’s idol serving father, Terah:

Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers. But now, the Ever-Present One has drawn us to his service. As it says:  Then Joshua said to all the people, Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: In olden times, your forefathers—Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor—lived beyond the river and served other gods (Joshua 24:2).  (Passover Haggadah)

Here was the biblical kernel of the rabbinic story found in my  an ancient midrash and in my 5th grade book—a story in which Abraham’s father was not only an idol worshipper, but an idol maker:

Terah was an idol maker. Once, he went away and put Abraham, his son in charge to sell in his place. It happened that a man came hoping to make a purchase and Abraham said to him:  How old are you? He answered: fifty or sixty. To which Abraham responded:  Woe to the one who is sixty years old and wants to worship something that is one day old! He became embarrassed and left. Once a woman came bearing a plate of fine flour. She said to him: Offer it before them. He took a club in his hand and broke the idols and put the club into the hand of the biggest of them. When his father returned he said to him: What have you done to them? Abraham replied: I can’t hide it from you. A woman came bearing a plate of fine flour and she said to me: Offer it to them. I offered it to them and this one said: I will eat first, while that one said:  I will eat first. Then the biggest of them rose, took the club and broke all of the others. His father said to him: Why are you trying to fool me, do they know anything! Abraham responded:  Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying?!

(Click here for the Haggadah passage and the midrash in Hebrew and English)

For Joshua, Abraham’s father was an idol worshipper; he was not his son’s first convert. Abraham’s break with the past was radical and complete. Nevertheless, Joshua observed that despite father Abraham’s idol-breaking new faith, discarding idols was not an easy thing to do for his children and for theirs. Even now, Joshua must insist: Put away the alien gods that you have among you! (Josh 24:23).

Joshua held up Abraham’s father, Terah, not only as a witness to the past but as an urgent reminder that we still tend to hold on to our idols and icons. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, echoed Joshua’s observation and widened its implications:

We are all children of Abraham
but we are also grandchildren of Terah, Abraham’s father.
And now perhaps the time has come for the grandchildren to do
to their father what he did to his father
when he shattered his idols and his icons, his religion and his belief.
But even this will be the beginning of a new religion.

Click here for the Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

We should be mindful:  The tradition of idol-breaking can become its own idol. Perhaps we have items on our shelves and in ourselves that have been in place long enough.

Posted in Holidays, Midrash, Passover, Poetry | 1 Comment

Blossoms of Seder Night, Fruits of New Year’s Day

Rabbi Eliezer was sure that the world was created in the fall month of Tishrei, the season of the New Year. His rival, Rabbi Joshua, was equally positive that the world was created at Passover time, in the spring month of Nisan:

Rabbi Eliezer asks:  From what biblical source do we learn that the world was created in Tishrei? From the verse: God said, let the earth sprout grasses, seed bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth bearing fruit with the seed in it—and it was so. (Genesis 1:11) In what month is the earth bringing forth grasses while the trees are filled with fruit? You must say that it is the fall month of Tishrei.

Rabbi Joshua asks:  From what biblical source do we learn that the world was created in Nisan? From the verse:  God said, let the earth bring forth grasses that carry seed of their own kind and trees that produce fruit each containing its own kind of seed—and God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:12). In what month is the earth filled with grasses while the trees are just bringing forth fruit? You must say that it is the spring month of Nisan.

(Click here for Talmudic text in Hebrew and English)

Both of these 2nd century sages were certain of their positions, each only seeking a verse to confirm what he already believed. Sometimes, people need visual proof to reinforce belief:  “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua exemplified just the opposite:  “I’ll see it when I believe it.” Each sage pulled his thread of certainty from a complicated weave of the calendar that warms and protects each one’s certainty. Tishrei is the 7th month of the calendar year. Yet, in the world of the sages, Tishrei was time for celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Nisan, the month of Passover, is the 1st month of the year, according to Exodus 12, because it marks the beginning of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt.

For Rabbi Eliezer, creation’s pattern and plan appeared in the ripe fall evidence of Tishrei. The world was created with fruit trees already bearing fruits that contained their seeds. In the beginning, there was fruit that carried the seed.

The world’s first movement was not from fullness to promise but from promise to fullness, according to Rabbi Joshua. The Passover season of Nisan was the beginning of the beginning; the time of year when Israel’s seed, long nurtured underground in Egypt, burst into blossom. This was the foundational pattern of creation:  In the beginning, there was seed that carried the fruit.

Each teacher saw in his verse a distinct beginning. Of course, each knew that both beginnings are found in consecutive verses in the story of one day of creation.

The Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, explicitly elaborated the idea that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua offered two beginnings that are enfolded into one:

Night of the Seder, or New Year’s Day, I ask the questions and I reply.
I am the girl here and the elder as well.
One is the time that at first seems to change and one is the likeness.
My father commanded me not to die.

(Click here for Rivka Miriam poem in Hebrew and English)

Rivka began with the Seder, and its familiar image of the questions which she called kushiyot, the common name for the traditional Seder questions. But if transposed into the key of Rosh Hashanah, the kushiot of the Seder would have to coax the hard seed of the Seder ritual story into the ripe fruit of the New Year:  What is the story that begins but does not end? How shall we overcome “pharonic” influences? Where do we find the purpose to cross seas of constraint? When do we emerge into a new world unbounded by the past? Why is this day different from all other days such that we resolve to move forward despite our habitual behavior?

Like the Seder and Rosh Hashanah, like the questions and the answers, the girl and the elder are seed and fruit, the blossom of possibility and possibility ripened.

Once begun, the time of the year and the image of the individual are one and endless. But they must begin somewhere. For Rabbi Joshua, time and image begin with the Seder; for Rabbi Eliezer, they begin with the New Year. For Rivka Miriam, they are engendered by a father who commanded the girl to become the elder and the elder to become the girl—in an endless cycle of seed and fruit.


Posted in Holidays, Passover, Poetry, Talmud | 1 Comment

The Deepening And Expanding Torah

After Mount Sinai, the Mishnah says, height was no longer the measure of Torah; depth and breadth became Torah’s new and useful dimensions:

Moses received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua who transmitted it to the elders; from the elders to the prophets; the prophets to the members of the Great Assembly, and they said three things:  Be deliberate in judgment; raise up many students; and make a fence around the Torah.

According to this story, after its moment on the mountaintop, Torah moved down and in until the members of the Great Assembly revealed that Torah transmitted was Torah transformed into three things. Their Torah was a Torah without verses. Yet, the deepening, expanding Torah imagination of the Great Assembly kept the Torah-on-high image in mind. For every teaching, they declared, must make a fence around the Torah.

A succession of teachers followed the Great Assembly, each teacher drawing a three-part Torah from his own life. The first and last of those teachers—both named Shimon—each claimed that his Torah was the deep, three-pillared foundation of the world:

Shimon the Righteous, was one of the last surviving members of the Great Assembly. He would say: On three things the world stands/omeid:  on the Torah, and on the Temple service, and on deeds of loving kindness.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says:  On three things the world depends/kayam:  on justice, and on truth, and on peace; as it is written:  With truth, justice, and peace shall you judge in your gates (Zechariah 8:16).

After the mountain, verses disappeared into the many Torahs of everyday language and varied lived experiences. Only the last of the teachers offered a biblical verse to give shape to his Torah. From mountain-high to foundation-deep, Torah is that which makes the world intelligible and renders life coherent while honoring both the Torah-image from on high and the imagination from within.

Carrying on the ancient tradition, the Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg, rhymed three-part Torahs in a poem for children. She presented a fisherman, a farmer, and an artist who, like the two ancient Shimons, saw the entire world as the sum of three parts:

So said the fisherman down at the sea:
on account of three things earth continues to be-
on the sea’s waters,
on its shore, dry and set,
and on the deep’s fish coming up in the net.

So said the farmer who handles the plow:
upon three things the world stands now-
on the earth’s fields,
rains the heavens allow,
and on bread brought forth by the sweat of the brow.

 So said the artist sitting home on his own:
on account of three things does the world stand, alone-
on someone’s heart,
and on nature’s splendor,
on matters expressed in music and color.

So said the one who sees with insights:
how wondrous and many the world’s delights-
every morning,
caught up in heart’s net,
is the world and its fullness,
the dry and the wet,
the lights and the shade,
days special and plain,
word and refrain,
fields full of grain,
and every rainbow color set.

(Click here for Goldberg’s poem and Mishnah text)

The fisherman spoke the language of the second Shimon who declared, on account of three things earth continues to be/kayam. The artist echoed the first Shimon who taught, on account of three things does the world stand/omeid, while the farmer—just in the middle—imitates both Shimons but quotes neither.

To her three teachers of three-part Torahs, Goldberg added a fourth character, a wise observer, to say aloud that which was only implied in the Mishnah’s narrative of Torah transmitted and transformed:  There are multiple truths that hold the world together and they can never be exhaustively spoken. Such is the movement of Torah in the world; no longer on high, it is always deepening, always expanding.


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