Because

There’s an old joke: God is speaking with Moses and teaching him about halakha (Jewish law). And He says to him: “Remember, Moses, in the laws of keeping kosher, never boil a calf in its mother’s milk.” Moses replies: “So you’re saying we should never eat milk and meat together.” God says: “No, what I’m saying is, never boil a calf in its mother’s milk.” And Moses comes back with: “Oh Lord, forgive my ignorance! What you are really saying is we should wait six hours after eating meat to eat milk so the two are not in our stomachs together.” And God replies: “No, Moses, listen to me. I’m saying, don’t boil a calf in its mother’s milk!!!” Moses says: “Oh, Lord! Please don’t strike me down for my stupidity! What you mean is we should have separate silverware for milk and meat and if we make a mistake we have to kasher the utensil with hot water…” And God interrupts Moses and says: “For God’s sake, Moses, do whatever the hell you want.”

One could debate whether jokes based on deeply-held religious beliefs are funny or appropriate in all company—I once told this joke to a Shabbat table full of friends and was met with stone-faced silence—but from the first time I heard this joke, I understood that in its own way, it’s as profound a statement about halakha as I’ve ever heard.

Observant Jews are bound, equally, by “two” Torahs; one written, one oral. Both were transmitted by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and when the Jews, famously, called out in unison, “Naaseh venishma!” (We will do and we will listen!), it was both Torahs that they accepted. However, because the divine words of the two Torahs are so enigmatic, we rely on generations of Talmudic determinations, rabbinic responsa and the resulting development of countless minhagim (customs) to further elucidate and guide us in the practices that govern our day to day lives.

So, for example, when among the 53 mitzvoth (commandments) that appear in Parashat Mishpatim, we read the strange words, “Lo tevashel g’di, bechalev imo,” (Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk)—the first of 3 separate instances this commandment is mentioned in the Torah—the wheels of this mitzvah’s real-life observance are set in motion.

It turns out the rabbis understand the term “mother’s milk,” as any dairy product, irrespective of its source. And, “boiling,” they say, refers, also, to broiling, baking, frying or roasting. They further determine that meat and dairy should not be eaten together under any circumstances, even if they aren’t cooked together. And, upon further consideration, the rabbis extended the ban to include beef and lamb. And, notwithstanding that Rashi understands the prohibition to specifically exclude fowl, and notwithstanding that Rabbi Akiva and Rav Yosi Ha’Glili debate the subject to a Talmudic draw in Tractate Hulin, and notwithstanding that birds produce no milk, rendering moot at least half of the mitzvah, Rav Yosef Karo, in the 15th century, codified in the Shulchan Arukh, that the meat of birds cannot be cooked or eaten with dairy products.

Rabbinic adjustments such as these are known as “siyagei le-Torah,” or fences around the Torah, which the Rabbis are enjoined to create to protect the mitzvoth from inadvertent violations; in this case, fences most likely constructed out of chicken wire. And so, over two millennia, the rabbis established a myriad of rules and guidelines, leading to the evolution of various minhagim meant to dictate the proper way for a Jew to separate meat and dairy.

This is why, from five narrowly focused words in the Torah, we fill our kitchen with separate milchig, fleishig and pareve utensils, plates, glasses and cutlery. It’s why some install separate dishwashers, microwaves and sinks for milk and meat. It’s why many observant Jews only consume Cholov Yisroel (literally the dairy of Israel), that is, dairy products produced under the supervision of a Jew, who can certify that no milk from non-kosher animals is mixed with the milk from kosher animals. Given that the risk of a non-Jewish dairy purveyor substituting camel or horse milk for Bessie the cow’s is not exactly a 21st century concern, it raises the question of whether paying substantially higher prices for a gallon of milk or block of cheese, produced behind a fence, is necessary.

I’m not suggesting we should be allowed to have a glass of milk with our corned beef sandwiches. And not only because the thought of such a combination is nauseating. Or that it would probably lead to mixed dancing (Sorry, cheap shot. Couldn’t resist). Nor am I suggesting that rabbis don’t have the right to build fences around the Torah. What’s concerning isn’t the fence; it’s the fence around the fence and the deep, crocodile-filled moats we dig around our fences, about which, inevitably, someone will argue “we really ought to erect some fences around those moats.” The tendency to take on chumroth (restrictions) rather than tear down fences that have ceased to be protective, does more to confuse and alienate the observant, than safeguard the mitzvoth they are diligently trying to observe. If I mistakenly use a fleishig utensil to eat a dish of Ben & Jerry’s, can God possibly care if I boil the metal spoon to kasher it or simply use my shirt tail to wipe it clean, and return it to the drawer with no one the wiser?

And, so, my heretical doubts now public, I offer you this week’s parsha poem, entitled Because.

Why’s that the title? Well, just, because.

 

Because

Do not boil a kid, in her mother’s milk
                                         –Exodus 23:19

Because God created the world and saw it was good,
because He created Adam and Eve as helpmates,
because God destroyed the world but had Noah build an ark,
because God let the waters retract and a dove plucked an olive branch,
because Avraham went forth from the land of his birth,
because God promised Avraham children as numerous as the stars,
because Sarah laughed, because an angel said, “Avraham, Avraham,”
and Isaac was saved, because Avraham paid for a burial plot so that
no nation, no group of nations, can ever question who owns that land,
because Yaakov knew how to cook a cholent, because he knew how to
wrestle angels, because he worked an extra seven years to marry Rachel,
and because Rachel weeps for her children and will not be comforted,
because Yosef was a show-off and a dreamer and did not succumb to desire,
because he wept when his father died and returned his bones to Canaan,
because a new Pharaoh rose, who did not know Yosef, because two midwives
saved Jewish babies, because Moses survived a cruise down the Nile
in a makeshift yacht, because the burning bush did not consume itself,
because God commanded Moses to lead the Jews to freedom,
because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, because there were frogs here,
frogs there, frogs hopping everywhere, because God split the sea and
finished off Pharaoh, because He brought the Jews to a mountain,
raised it above their heads like a barrel and said, “If you accept these
commandments, fine; but if not then here your grave shall be.”
And because the people replied in unison, “We will do and we will listen.”

Because of it all, when I use a spoon from the wrong drawer to eat a bowl of
Chunky Monkey, somewhere, a baby goat sucking at her mother’s teats,
stops for a moment and bleats. The sound travels to the Kingdom of Heaven,
where one of God’s angels takes out a red pen and, scowling, enters a mark
in my permanent record.

It’s the Little Things

When I was 19, and a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a group of us went to climb Mount Sinai. Though I find it difficult to remember the simplest details from my everyday life, I recall, with great clarity, everything about that trip.

We arrive at the foot of the mountain, make camp and, after a dinner of stuffed cabbage from a can, we build a bonfire. We warm ourselves against the surprising desert chill, smear chocolate spread on matzah, tiny grains of sand getting caught in the backs of our throats, as we sing earnest, off-key versions of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Erev Shel Shoshanim, Hafinjan; and, when we exhaust our supply of Zionist standards, Fire and Rain, American Pie and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

As the hours pass, our fellowship fortified by warm slugs of arak, we turn serious for a while. Someone tells the famous Talmudic legend: When God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments, He suspended Mount Sinai above them like a barrel and said: If you accept these commandments—fine, but if not, then here your grave shall be.

An intense debate ensues—the kind only college students have—about determinism, free will, the ego and super-ego. My friend David Trombka quotes Freud, someone else John Stuart Mill, a kid from Y.U. drops the name of Reb Moshe Feinstein and, in case we didn’t get the point that he goes to Y.U., he further cites some European rabbi none of us have heard of, whose name and very existence we’re sure he’s concocted solely to support his argument.

The dialogue is loud and utterly pretentious, but also kind of wonderful. Our collective understanding of the world wouldn’t fill a thimble, but what we lack in experience we make up for in exuberance. When each of us speaks, it’s with the conviction of one who knows that anything is possible. Our appetites are insatiable: for knowledge; for enlightenment; for adventure; for friendship; for love. We are glorious in our hard, healthy bodies, glorious in our youth.

Smitten by a shapely blonde with lovely eyes, who has made it clear she wants nothing to do with me, I recite a passage, by memory, from Tchernichovsky’s epic poem, Man is Nothing But; hoping to impress her:

Man is nothing but the soil of a small country,
nothing but the shape of his native landscape,
nothing but what his ears recorded
when they were new and really heard,
what his eyes saw, before they had their fill of seeing—
everything a wondering child comes across
on the dew-softened paths,
stumbling over every lump of earth, every old stone,
while in a hidden place in his soul, unknown to him,
there’s an altar set up
from which the smoke of his sacrifice rises each day
to the kingdom of the sky, to the stars…

I look across the fire’s dying embers, hoping she has seen my tour de force, hoping to stare into those lovely eyes. Such passion! Such emotion! My mother is right: I am special. Any girl would be lucky to have me. But I see Miss New Jersey of 1979 has fallen asleep. Somehow, she is even prettier in repose. I decide I will recite Tchernichovsky to her on our wedding night.

Woozy from the liquor, I soon doze off as well. And, immediately, I am dreaming I’m there; standing among the 600,000. I feel the ground quake, see the mountain soar into the sky. I am filled with dread and wonder, my life will never be the same. I hear the voice of God fill the cosmos; deafening, but somehow, soft as a caress: “WILL YOU OBEY MY COMMANDMENTS?” I do not hesitate, I answer in unison with the others, accepting the Torah sight unseen: “Naaseh venishma. I will do and I will listen. Hear O’ Israel, The Lord Our God, the Lord is One.”

And, at that exact moment of rapture, Trombka kicks me hard in the ribs. It’s 2am, time to start climbing.

With the moon lighting our way, we begin the ascent on wobbly legs and, at daybreak, sweaty, tired and hungover, we stand on the peak of Mount Sinai. To the east we watch the sun rise over the mountains of Midian—modern-day Saudi Arabia—and to the west we gaze in silent awe as the moon disappears over the ancient Land of Egypt.

We are privileged Americans with fancy hiking boots, our young lives just waiting to be lived. This place is a box to be checked off, another experience in a year of self-absorbed living before entering the world of jobs and marriage and kids and mortgages and receding hairlines and colonoscopies. But, at that extraordinary moment, I feel connected to the past in a way I never have before.

I close my eyes and am back in my dream. I see the Jewish nation, gathered together, waiting to become the Chosen People.

It’s a time of silent contemplation. All temporal desires have been set aside in anticipation of the sacred event. For this single moment in history, the Jews are unified in mind, body and spirit and it is unimaginably peaceful. An unassailable pact has been formed, predicated on God’s solemn promise in Parashat Yitro: “If you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples…And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.”

Forget Freud, John Stuart Mill, even Reb Moshe; the truth is in the vista before me. And, at that extraordinary moment, I understand that God has brought me to this time and place to bear witness.

I tell you this story because the giving of the Torah at Sinai is, ultimately, about the never ending Jewish obligation to validate the unshakeable, infinite bond between God and the Jewish people.

But how do we get from there, to creating a Jewish historical chain that begins at Sinai and extends, unbroken, until the end of time?

Well, for one thing, the Torah is explicit in the importance of keeping the memory of Sinai alive. In Parashat Nitzavim, God says to Moshe: “Not with you alone do I seal this covenant, but with whoever is here and with whoever is not here today.” A few passages later, speaking of the individual who forgets Sinai, Moshe says: “God will not forgive him, for God’s wrath and jealousy will smoke against that man… and God will erase that man’s name from the heavens.”

But it’s not enough to simply tell the story. The Jews of each generation must relive the moment of deliverance, because the stories of it are too fantastic to be taken at face value. If future generations did not have this obligation, were not forced to suspend disbelief and reason, were not instructed to actually insert themselves into the experience, Sinai would eventually become nothing more than a legend; like a story from Greek mythology; interesting, perhaps, but of no practical significance.

Many centuries later, during the Spanish Inquisition, this became a hotly debated philosophical and theological dilemma among the Jews of Spain. In mortal peril to the Inquisition, they cried out: “Why risk our lives for a promise made by ancient characters, who could not contemplate the danger involved in attempting to live as a Jew in Spain?” The Abarbanel, who lived during this terrible period in Jewish history had little sympathy for such complaints, declaring that the obligation to serve God is permanent, because the Jews permanently enjoy benefits from accepting the Torah.

Nevertheless, there is free will, of course. The Jews of Spain were neither the first nor last Jews in history to struggle with identity in the face of persecution. And every Jew in every generation has the freedom to abandon the Torah’s precepts entirely. But, as much as Sinai is an historical event, it’s also a state of mind, a state of being. A Jew can take communion, genuflect until his knees bleed, wear a crucifix covered in precious stones.

But, even that individual was at Sinai.

I recently read an essay by journalist Jane Eisner with the endearing title “Why Am I Irrationally Worried About Kitnyoth?” in which she tells of a trip she made during Passover of 1982 to meet refuseniks in the Soviet Union. Eisner, a secular Jew, did not observe kashrut but writes about a kind of epiphany she experienced: “the piercing moment for me was when I met refusenik Lev Elbert one evening in Kiev, just as he arrived home from work. A bear of a man, he had forgotten to bring his kosher food with him and had not eaten all day. ‘My God,’ I thought. ‘This brave Jew is sacrificing for rules immeasurably easier for me to follow. What was my excuse?’ From then on, I committed to join him, if only to act in solidarity.”

That each of us was there, that each of us cried out na’aseh venishma might as well be coded in our DNA. And, while the Abarbanel’s position may not have resonated with those Spanish Jews that embraced the Church, the Anusim, clandestine Jews, worshipped in secret and kept alive the memory of Sinai. They found a way of ensuring that the unbroken chain remained intact. Notwithstanding the danger, they bore witness.

But this is nothing new for us. We Jews navigate the bloody rivers of history; covered in the ashes of children, like snowflakes that never melt. And, though there is not a single day in the calendar that we could not choose to recall our misfortune, if any event in Jewish history requires us to bear witness, it is the Shoah.

In 1944, when the first reports of the Final Solution reached America, the poet Muriel Rukeyser published a poem called Letter to the Front. She wrote:

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit…

The poet understood that choosing to abandon the gift—specifically, that which distinguishes the Jew from every other people—is and always has been the real existential threat. The poem is a rallying cry, exhorting the last remnant of the world’s Jews to honor their history, to honor the martyred millions, to honor Sinai.

Primo Levi, the author and poet, who survived Auschwitz, put it even more directly, in a poem that appeared in his book Survival in Auschwitz:

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home…
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.

And beyond such indictments or any obligation we may feel to experience this type of personal connection, affirming the covenant in memory of the Six Million, serves as a declaration of solidarity and commitment to our historical beginnings. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it beautifully in his book, Crisis and Covenant. He writes: “The affirmation of Jewish life after the Holocaust is itself testimony that the covenant survives and that the voice of God continues to be heard…by the contemporary heirs of those who stood at Sinai.”

On Yom Hashoah, Jews throughout the world gather in their respective places of worship to declare such affirmation of Sinai. In not so many years, the survivors will be gone from this world and it will fall upon us to tell their stories. To be visible. To bear witness in their stead.

At our sedarim, we faithfully declare: “Bekhol dor vador, chayav adam leer’oth et atzmo ke’eelu hoo yatza me Mitzrayim” (In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt). How many of us are willing to replace the word Mitzrayim with the word Auschwitz? Can any of us put ourselves in that gruesome place, that unholy place: the antithesis of Sinai?

Yet, the Shoah was no less a seminal event in our history; one, I would argue, we are obligated to internalize as we internalize Sinai. We owe that much to the victims and survivors. They have the right to expect of us and of future generations that we testify:

Bekhol dor vador, chayav adam leer’oth et atzmo ke’eelu hoo yatza me Auschwitz.

But, it’s equally important to contextualize such a heavy message; to understand that, even post-Auschwitz, most memories are—and ought to be—focused on far less lofty subjects than apocryphal, hovering mountains or the pain and suffering of the Jewish people. Such enormous events are deeply ingrained, yes, but life is just as much about the little things. These little things—intimate moments, fleeting memories—are much harder to recall, much harder to relive; which is ironic because there are so many more of them.

For me, it’s things like bread and butter. Long, hot showers. Taking a nap. Waking from a nap. Getting a laugh from one of my kids, from my granddaughter. My T-shirt, drenched after a workout. The way a basketball feels as it leaves my fingertips. The first, the fifth, the tenth draft of a poem I may never finish.

I think a lot about the little things; so much so that I wrote a poem called It’s the Little Things, which I’d like to share with you now. The poem may, on its surface, seem lighthearted. But at its core it describes a kind of brit me’at or small covenant between two people, similar in many respects to the kind of loving, eternal connection established between God and the Jewish Nation at Sinai.

I dream of the grand gesture: of showing
you the extent of my love by pulling you out
of a burning building or handing myself over
to a menacing gunman holding you hostage.
Take me instead, I plead and though the
terrorist has barely a shred of humanity,
he lets you go, moved by my act of selflessness.
As you leave, our eyes meet and, with a look,
I tell you, if I do not get out of this alive,
find someone else, remarry, be happy.
This is part of the grand gesture. But your look
in return says, don’t be silly, I could never replace
you, who loved me more than life. I’d rather die
a despondent widow, remembering your sacrifice
every day of my wretched, lonely existence.

I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’m yours forever.

At breakfast, I tell you about my dream.
You laugh out loud—you cannot stop laughing—
and when you finally catch your breath you say:

Will you please take out the garbage, like I asked
last night; my protector, my grand gesturer?

As I leave the table to do as you ask, not at all deflated,
I think to myself, that’s a laugh worth dying for.

Commitment. Love. And, most of all, memory. These are the enduring lessons of Sinai and we experience them not only in connection to the grandeur and cataclysms of Jewish history but every day in our own little lives. We dream, we laugh, we take out the garbage. And, thus, remember who we are and why we are here.

Elie Wiesel writes: “memory is a blessing… it creates bonds between the present and past, between individuals and groups. It is because I remember our common beginnings, that I move closer to my fellow human beings… what would be the future of man, if it were devoid of memory?”

I treasure my memories of Sinai; my friends’ voices around the campfire, the way the arak made my head spin, reciting the words of a great poet beneath the infinite, star-filled sky.

But I do not need to climb a rock to remind myself of God’s presence. I simply look into my wife’s eyes and remember. And, if the light is just so, I can see the moon as it disappears over the ancient Land of Egypt.

Upon Meeting My Granddaughter for the First Time

There’s a line in the Haftorah for Parashat Beshalach that says, “Devorah, Eshet Lappidoth (wife of Lappidoth; also, a fiery woman), was a prophetess.” The sages tell us that the term Eshet Lappidoth derives from the Hebrew word lapid (torch) and refers to Devorah’s vocation, which was preparing the wicks for the Tabernacle. Devorah’s custom was to prepare thick wicks that give off immense light. Some even go so far as to see cause and effect in the language of the text: because Devorah was Eshet Lappidoth, she was a prophetess.

This seemingly simple sentence in the Haftorah caught my attention, as if it were illuminated in neon, as I struggled to understand the hopelessly out of touch statement, this week, by the Orthodox Union that it is halakhically impermissible for women to serve as rabbis or act in any way that connotes authority over the community. And, coming as it does, so shortly after the (ongoing) despicable treatment of the N’shot Hakotel (Women of the Wall) on Rosh Chodesh Sh’vat, in which women wearing talitoth and kippoth and carrying Torah scrolls were not permitted to pray at the Kotel, though they have every legal and moral right to do so, I was especially impressed by the Tanach’s recognition of Devorah as a leader of the Jewish people.

This isn’t the forum for me to take on the arguments made by the OU one by one, nor am I enough of a Torah scholar to refute their specific points. I refer you to others, better qualified than I, who have commented, such as Herzl Hefter (“Why I Ordained Women” http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/why-i-ordained-women/) and statements by Yeshivat Maharat and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

I do feel it’s fair to point out that of the seven eminent poskim (adjudicators) who issued the OU statement, exactly none of them were women. This would be ironic, perhaps, were it not, of course, emblematic of the fundamental problem.

In any event, as much as I’m infuriated by backward halakhic thinking, based on customs that are increasingly unsustainable in the modern world, I’m convinced that this debate won’t be determined by rabbis. Instead, communities of halakhic Jews will ultimately determine the outcome of this debate (and many others) by demanding creative halakhic solutions to contemporary challenges. Perhaps this will lead to further schisms within Orthodoxy. That would be a shame. But as much as Orthodoxy may suffer losses, I am confident halakha will survive.

And, that brings me to this week’s parsha poem, entitled Upon Meeting My Granddaughter for the First Time. The poem is dedicated to Charlie Ruby Gindea, now 21 months old.

Upon Meeting my Granddaughter for the First Time

–For Charlie Ruby

You lay sleeping on my chest, like your mother used to.
Three days old and growing on me already. Your body
seems heavier than 7-pounds, 6-ounces and, soon, your
warmth and the rhythm of your breath have lulled me to
a dream state. I see you at 6, reciting the four questions.
At 12, chanting from the Torah. Now, you are graduating
from college. Now, you stand under the chuppah. Now,
you are a mother yourself. And, somehow, I know you
are a new kind of Jewish woman. Defined not by the value
of rubies, not by your husband’s praise. No man controls you.
No rabbi dictates what you may study, where you may pray.
In Jerusalem, you sing the Hallel and the black hats cover
their ears. But your voice is a whirlwind, an earthquake.
The pent-up force of a thousand generations of silenced women.
It carries through streets and neighborhoods, study halls and
synagogues. Impossible to ignore. Impossible to stifle.
It breaks chains. It penetrates the heart. It penetrates the soul.
It penetrates, even, the ancient stones. And, then, a familiar
odor wakes me from my reverie. You are no prophet, darling.
No crusader. Just a baby, whose diaper is full. Let’s get that
taken care of little Charlie. Little love. Little girl of my dreams.

Miracles

I recently traveled to Israel and on the in-flight entertainment system, I was distressed to find that the only music channel that appealed to me was the Golden Oldies. And though I thoroughly reject the idea that I’m part of that demographic, the first song to come on, as if to mock me, was a favorite of mine called The Boy in the Bubble, in which the great Paul Simon sings: “These are the days of miracle and wonder, miracle and wonder somewhere…”

And a month later, the song still stuck in my head, driving me a little bit insane, it seems an appropriate musical trope for the entire book of Sh’mot, which is filled with miracles and wonders.

In fact, in last week’s parasha, Va’era and this week’s parasha, Bo, God brings terrible, but nonetheless, miraculous and wondrous plagues onto Egypt; all of which halt at the borders of Goshen, sparing the Jews; miraculously and wondrously. And yet, it almost seems like God’s trying too hard.

Who, exactly, is he trying to impress?

The sages tell us it was necessary during that specific, historical era for God to act in a public and overwhelming fashion; to show the otherwise doubting Egyptians and even (and especially) the doubting Jews that God—and only God—is capable of suspending the laws of nature. And, with these grand and emphatic acts, God’s bona fides as an omnipotent being would be established for all people and for all time.

Perhaps. But given the vast existential problems in the world these days and the equally vast skepticism as to God’s place in the world, one has to wonder: why doesn’t God perform such miracles in our own times? Disease? ISIS? Drought? Hunger? Donald Trump? All could be gone with a single snap of God’s anthropomorphic fingers.

In that context, it’s worth considering whether our understanding of the laws of nature is sufficient to distinguish between an everyday occurrence and a miracle. If we’re so smart, how come so much that we want to know, that we need to know, remains unexplained?

What lies at the heart of romantic attraction? Why does this one get cancer and that one does not? What motivates someone to jump into the ocean to save a drowning stranger, to put on a uniform and charge into battle, to sacrifice one’s own needs for some, perceived, greater good? If we’re such brilliant scientists, where is the absolute proof of the theory of evolution? Or, who among us can refute it, absolutely? And, if the universe began with a big bang, who triggered it and what existed before that miraculous, wondrous moment?

Dating myself, once again, I’m reminded of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks 2,000-Year-Old Man routine in which Reiner asks Brooks, playing the 2,000-Year-Old Man: “did you believe in a superior being?” And Brooks replies “Yeah, a guy named Phil, the leader of our tribe. He was very big. Very strong. Big beard, big chest, big arms. I mean, he could kill you. So, we did everything he commanded.” And then Reiner asks: “how long was his reign?” To which the 2000-Year-Old Man responds: “Oh, not too long. Because one day Phil was hit by lightning. And we looked up, we said ‘There’s something bigger than Phil!'”

As it turns out, we don’t know much at all. Maybe we need to be reminded from time to time, there’s something bigger than Phil.

On the other hand, it could be that biblical miracles are overrated. Let’s not forget what happened at Sinai. The Jewish people, miraculously freed from slavery, miraculously rescued from annihilation by a sea that split for them and closed on their enemies, miraculously nourished by food that fell from the sky, couldn’t contain themselves from building a Golden Calf, even as God stood sentry for them, in a miraculous pillar of fire. One has to wonder if there was any individual miracle or series of them so impressive that might have satisfied such an entitled, apparently ADD-afflicted group.

I wonder: if God appeared to me tonight in a burning bush that did not consume itself, would it assure my faith forever, or would I require even greater miracles in the future to reinforce my loyalty? Is the burning bush really any more miraculous than the bush itself?

Whether God chooses to astonish us with the extreme act or allows the random forces of nature to dictate the circumstances that affect our lives, the world is miraculous place. And, if we’re paying attention, we can find miracles wherever we look; miracles that can fill us with gratitude and imbue us with hope; miracles that inspire poetry, such as this week’s parsha poem, entitled, simply, Miracles.

 

Miracles

Just as it may be said that for the heretic there are no answers, so may it be
said that for the skeptic there are no miracles…

                                             –Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

A friend, a non-believer, asks me why God no longer
performs flashy miracles, as he did in biblical times.

“Has He lost his touch? If God exists, let Him show
Himself to me in a burning bush that does not consume itself!”

What can I say? He is an old friend and I am used
to his derision, when it comes to matters of faith.

And though I believe, with complete faith, that God
appeared to Moses in that burning bush, I do not tell

my friend he is totally missing the point. The burning
bush is no more miraculous than the bush itself.

And the fire that burns but does not consume,
smolders deep within, even, the skeptic.

Chumash Chaikus™

 

After the garden,
Adam was no fan of snakes.
Or apple cobbler.

****************

Cain killed his brother
Why did he do it? Because
Cain was not able.

*****************

Methuselah lived.
He lived. Lived. Lived. Lived. Lived. Lived.
Then, sadly, he died.

****************

Noah hated cats.
Their dander made his skin crawl.
And their attitude.

****************

It was the termites.
Chewing wood. Insatiable.
That worried Noah.

****************

That’s impossible!
Cubs win the World Series?
Sarah laughed. And laughed.

****************

That’s not a knife, this
is a knife, said Abraham
To Croc’dile Dundee.

****************

Isaac. Recalling.
Feels so guilty, eating
lamb chops. Nicely grilled.

****************

The Real Housewives
of Canaan. Sarah. Rivka.
Rachel. And Leah.

****************

Joseph. With the dreams.
And with that farkakteh coat.
Enough, already.

****************

“Take off your sandals.
For this ground is holy ground.”
Moses burned his feet.

****************

Manna from heaven.
Delicious. Nutritious. But,
I’ll have the fruit plate.

****************

Red Sea splits. Good thing.
In such haste, who thinks to pack
Bathing suit? Beach towel?

****************

It must be so sad
to be a minor fast day.
Poor Tzom Gedaliah.

****************

Man’s depravity.
On display for all to see.
Yom Kippur break fast.

****************

Clouds blot out the sun.
Rain falls. Wind blows from the north.
Sukkot’s here again.

****************

Long sixth hakafa.
Arms like jelly. Won’t someone
take this Torah scroll?

****************

Eating Rocky Road.
Too late, husband asks his wife.
Is this spoon fleishig?

****************

Honey cake. Herring.
Dietetic kichel. Schnapps.
Kiddush for Dummies.

****************

I don’t want much, but
wish I could grow a beard like
Theodore Herzl.

****************

Names on temple wall.
The high and mighty donors.
My name in small print.

****************

Hillel and Shamai.
Tomato. Tomahto. Let’s
call the whole thing off.

****************

Mezuzah affixed.
To doorpost of my Prius.
Chumrah of the week.

****************

Mohel rules of thumb.
Bring correct tools for the job.
Measure twice, cut once.

****************

The Gates of Heaven

At our family seder, my wife directs a creative production of the 10 plagues, including props, that would’ve impressed Cecil B. DeMille. For example, she provides us all with red masks to represent the plague of blood and tiny plastic bugs, reminiscent of lice, which my children insert into my kiddush cup when I’m not looking. It’s amazing that I fall for this every year, but enough about me.

We implemented this family tradition when the kids were little, to keep them engaged until it was time to eat. Yet, while it’s clever and fun and it remains a part of our Seder routine even though the kids are grown now, I’ve always felt that the revelry of the moment undermines, to a great degree, the gravitas of the story. When we’re throwing small rubber frogs across the table at each other or donning dime-store sunglasses to commemorate the plague of darkness, I’m not really thinking about the plagues in terms of their human cost.

What must it feel like to want a sip of water and draw nothing but pail after pail of coppery-red blood from the family well? To barely be able to move for the slimy frogs covering every inch of the land? To not be able to sleep for the agony of the lice; to run in fear from stampeding beasts; to gag at the putrid smell of rotting animals; to gasp at the pain of oozing wounds; to be driven mad by the unremitting thump, thump, thump of hail against the roof; to weep at the pangs of hunger that seize the belly as you watch an endless cloud of locusts devour your crops; or to stumble through the horror of real darkness, in which every pinprick of light has been extinguished from the world? Nor do I stop to consider what it must have felt like to endure all this misery, only to arrive at the most awful of days; the unimaginable morning on which all of the first born of Egypt lay lifeless in their beds.

And as I studied Parashat Va’era, where the story of the first seven plagues is related, it occurred to me that as much as the Torah goes into great detail about what the plagues consisted of, how they were meted out and their after-effects, not a word is devoted to how the Jews felt about the suffering of the Egyptians during the onslaught.

I suppose it’s easy to say that the Egyptians had it coming and deserved no pity or quarter from their downtrodden Jewish slaves. The Egyptians were the people, after all, that invented antisemitism and institutionalized it into forms of physical persecution and religious oppression; the starting point of a razor-sharp line that extends through history, uninterrupted, to this day.

Still, I picture myself in an imaginary scene from long ago: an Egyptian boy, who looks like one of my sons, stretches his hand in my direction and chokes out the words, “help me.” Could I ignore the plea of a child, irrespective of how cruel his father may be? Would I be justified in treating all Egyptians, even children, as deserving only my contempt?

Some commentators offer justifications for the collective punishment of all Egyptians, given that the civilization was rotten at its core. Yet, is this really the Jewish way? Since when do Jews hold innocent individuals accountable for the crimes that others commit? And, even if one is persuaded that an irredeemably evil society must be cleansed, the irony is not lost on me that stigmatizing an entire race is exactly how the Egyptians got themselves into trouble in the first place.

Elie Wiesel, in a book entitled One Generation After, published on the 25th anniversary of his liberation from Auschwitz, writes a letter to the “new left” in Germany. In it, he excoriates German leftists for their anti-Israel and anti-Semitic words and deeds. He admonishes them that if they revive and embrace the murderous legacy of their fathers, they’ll become “heartless creatures without memory.” Yet, Wiesel, is unwilling to respond in kind to their hatred. He writes: “Do I believe in collective guilt? Of course not… you are not responsible for the crimes of your fathers… even if you perpetuate the evil spread by your fathers, I shall not hate you. I shall denounce, unmask, and fight you with all my power. But your hate will not contaminate me. No I shall never hate you. Not for yesterday and not even for today. It is something else: for yesterday, you have my pity; for today, my contempt.”

And Wiesel tells a story. A just man comes to Sodom, determined to save the population from sin and punishment. He walks the streets and markets, preaching against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning, people listen because his outbursts entertain them. Eventually, they ignore him. Seemingly, he is a failure but every day he comes to the town square and repeats his jeremiad. One day, a child approaches him and says: “Stranger, you expend yourself body and soul but no one listens. Can’t you see it’s hopeless? You must be crazy!” The just man replies, “In the beginning I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I shout today, it is to prevent man from changing me.”

And, circling back to Parashat Va’era with the image of Wiesel’s lonely naysayer in mind, I wonder: why didn’t Moshe question God as to the necessity of collective punishment, if for no other reason than to stay in touch with his humanity? Are we to take from the narrative that obedience to God, even in the face of what we believe to be injustice, is the greatest virtue of all?

Certainly it’s hard to imagine challenging a direct order from God, inasmuch as it implies we know better than Him, that we are entitled to judge Him. And, we’ve seen this before; in the case of Avraham who, unquestioningly, places a knife to his son’s throat on God’s command, and is stayed from the kill only at the final moment by the words of an angel. And, yet, how I wish Moshe had shouted against the injustice of the sentence he was being told to execute. How I wish that God’s angel had, once again, been a deliverer rather than the gruesome harbinger of death.

And it’s this unsettling conflict of emotions that informs my parsha poem for Parashat Va’era; that is, to hate the evil that men do, but hate no man. The poem is entitled The Gates of Heaven.

 

The Gates of Heaven

There’s a woman who stands in front of the building
where I work. She begs for money in a torn coat
and shoes that do not match. I think she is crazy.
Once, I dropped a dollar into her cup and she wished me
“Merry Christmas,” though it was the middle of July.
Another time, she went on and on about Jesus,
preaching with such fervor, that I stopped to listen.
Aware of an audience, she looked at me and said,
“For the Jews there shall be no salvation, you cannot
buy your way into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
I did not put anything into her cup that day.

After an earthquake in Iran, I sent money to a relief agency,
because I saw a picture of a 9-year-old boy crying, his family
buried beneath the rubble. Iran, whose leaders point rockets
at Tel Aviv, who believe in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy,
the old canard. I know they are dangerously crazy.
But the little boy is alone and he looks like one of my sons.

Israeli intelligence has found videos that teach suicide bombers
the best way to kill Jews. And, because so many lose their nerve,
the prospective terrorists are told that, at the instant of death,
the gates of heaven open wide in their honor. In one attack,
a Jewish girl was killed. And, yet, her parents—perhaps they are
crazy—donated the child’s organs to whomever was next on the list.
So, now, Jameel sees the world through Jewish eyes and, in Hana’s
chest, a strong Jewish heart will beat for the next 70 or 80 years.

Sometimes, I almost believe in the gates of heaven. Sometimes,
I can almost believe anything.

Letting Go

Parashat Sh’mot begins with the foreboding news that there’s a new Pharaoh in town. And this Pharaoh, the world’s first anti-Semite, feels threatened by Jews, as anti-Semites tend to be. So, he orders two Jewish midwives, named Shifrah and Pu’ah, to murder Jewish babies as they are born. But the midwives, heroically, circumvent the evil decree by telling Pharaoh that Jewish women are like animals, giving birth so quickly it’s impossible to kill their babies before they are born. Pharaoh falls for the clever ruse—the women knew to appeal to his perverted view of Jews as less than human— but, being a resourceful genocidist, Pharaoh simply orders that all Jewish baby boys be drowned in the Nile.

At this time, a Jewish woman named Yocheved (some say she also went by the name Shifrah), gives birth to her own baby boy. Desperate to protect her newborn son, she hides him from the death squads. Imagine her fear every time an Egyptian soldier walks by, listening for the telltale cooing of an infant. Imagine how little sleep she is getting, staying awake to nurse her son the instant he makes a sound in the dark. Imagine her doing the daily chores, collecting straw, trudging through mud to fulfill the daily quota of bricks, cooking and cleaning for her husband and other children, with a baby strapped tightly to her chest. Her entire body aches and with each twinge in the knees, the hips, the lower back she is consumed with despair; for the pain reminds her that her son is growing strong and healthy and that she cannot conceal him much longer.

At three months, she is left with no choice but to give him up and devises a crazy, dangerous plan. She will place the boy in a basket and set him adrift on the river—the very river that Pharaoh intended as a grave for children such as hers—in the hope that kind strangers will find her son and raise him as their own. She does not know how she knows, but she knows, that the mighty river is her son’s path to salvation and the destiny that awaits him.

And, if we close our eyes we can see her, on the morning she realizes it is time to let her son go. She sits by the river’s edge, a pile of reeds beside her that she weaves expertly into a basket. She dips her right hand into a bucket of pitch and rubs the sticky substance over the surface, making sure to cover every crevice where water might enter. She lines the basket with a fine blanket and places a lock of her hair in one corner of the basket so that a piece of her accompanies him on the treacherous voyage.

While waiting for the pitch to dry, she picks up her son to nurse and when he finds her breast, some intuition tells her this will not be the last time (Indeed, we learn that when Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby in the bulrushes, the wet-nurse she hires to minister to him is none other than Yocheved). When he finishes suckling, he looks up and smiles at his mother. And, though she is about to send her baby boy into harm’s way, she is utterly calm. In fact, for the first time since he was born, she is filled with hope.

As a parent, with four grown children, this section of Parashat Sh’mot resonates deeply with me. And though the exodus of the Silverman sons and daughters from our comfortable home in Skokie to campuses in New York and College Park and, then, lives in the real world, is hardly as dramatic a tale as that of Yocheved and Moshe, the feelings of loss and loneliness I experienced were unsettling. I think it’s interesting that we characterize such natural leave-taking by the term “letting our children go.” This term, almost identical to the one Moshe will repeatedly use with Pharaoh, leads me to wonder: if parents resist letting their children go, are they no better than an evil overlord? Is providing a warm bed, home-cooked meals and free laundry service or asking, only, that someone send a text if they are planning to stay out all night simply a form of slavery? (Seriously, is that asking so much?)

Amy Hirshberg Lederman, author of an essay entitled, The Ultimate Balancing Act: Letting Go of Our Children, offers an interesting take on how parents can let their grown children go, by applying the Kabbalistic concept of tsimtsum or “contraction of the Divine.” Jewish mystics believe that, at the time of creation, the world was filled up by God such that there was no space for anything else to exist. Therefore, in order for the world to come into being, God had to withdraw some of His presence. But though God pulled back, He stayed close and provided continuing guidance and oversight to his children.

Hirshberg Lederman suggests that Jewish parents can similarly employ the principle of tsimtsum. By gradually contracting from their lives, we give our kids the space they need to create their own realities, pursue their own dreams, make their own mistakes and find their own happiness. But we need not pull back entirely. “The trick as a parent,” she writes, “is finding that balance.

Perhaps this week’s parsha poem, entitled, Letting Go will reveal the degree to which I’ve found the balance of which she speaks. The poem is inspired by the third of my four kids, Rebecca, who lives in Los Angeles and is about to turn 25 (!). Rebecca is a talented photographer who seven years ago, before she left home to spend a year in Israel, gave me a gift: a framed picture she took of her bright green bicycle, juxtaposed against the brilliant, blue palette of Lake Michigan on a sunny, summer day.

 

Letting Go

Before you left, you gave me a gift, a framed
picture you took of your bike, a heavy Schwinn
without gears or handbrakes, its bright green frame

juxtaposed against the brilliant, blue palette of Lake
Michigan on a sunny summer day. With your steady
hands and artist’s eyes, you positioned the Schwinn

in such a way it looks like you could hop on and with
a few thrusts of your cross-country-hardened legs,
catapult onto the surface of the great lake.

I imagine you taking off, picking up speed as you pass
incredulous swimmers, spraying them with your wake,
ignoring the angry lifeguard’s bullhorned cry:

Come back to shore IMMEDIATELY! His thin voice
recedes as, unafraid, you head past the breaker into
open water. You spin the pedals easily, skimming waves

and vaulting swells, as if you and the Schwinn are
weightless. Suddenly, inspired, you pull back on the
handlebars and are airborne. You are breaking laws

of nature, but never have you felt more connected to
the natural world. From up high, you see for miles in
every direction, as a bird might (or an angel) and you

are no longer pedaling. The jet stream propels you
and you are drawn higher and higher towards the
beautiful, beckoning sun. You’ve flown in an airplane

many times, enclosed and harnessed, prisoner to the
technology of how to get from Point A to B, but this
is different. This dazzling, magical flight isn’t about

reaching a destination, but how to get there. It’s about
freedom and creativity, enlightenment and wonder.
And if God’s presence is sometimes difficult for you

to feel with your feet on the ground, up here you appreciate
the vast order that exists within chaos. For the first time,
you understand that beyond the horizon is more horizon

and beyond the galaxy are more galaxies. Yet, somehow,
this understanding doesn’t scare you, it only makes you
wonder how far you can travel.

Once, when you were little, a house came up for sale down
the block and you asked us to buy it, so that when you grew
up you could stay close to me and mom forever.

Now, someone else lives in that house we did not buy for you
and your bright green Schwinn is parked in the garage, where
you left it, waiting for its’ rider and a sunny summer day.

When you come back to earth, I know you will find your way home.