Thursday, November 29, 2012

Red & Cerulean Badge of Courage

Today's a DSBD (Damn Sexy Blood Donor) day! I've got a red badge with a cerulean bow gauzing up my arm.

Had an awesome phlebotomist named Nate and an equally awesome screener named Michael, both of whom were entertaining. Michael explained to me that you can't freeze blood because then the cells would burst. It sounded very interesting.

It was a good day.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Literary Foils: Pairs in Shmuel Aleph

Today I was learning Shmuel with a student when I came to a realization. It gives new meaning to the phrase, "Right in front of my nose."

Elkanah is married to Peninah and Chana.
Eli has two sons, Pinchas and Chofni.

Coincidence that the names start with the same letters? I don't think so! 

These two pairs are literary foils for one another.

This also answers the question asked by a particularly astute student of mine. She was confused as to why the following pasuk shows up in Perek Aleph, when we never hear about these two again until Perek Bet:

ג  וְעָלָה הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מֵעִירוֹ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת וְלִזְבֹּחַ לַיהוָה צְבָאוֹת בְּשִׁלֹה; וְשָׁם שְׁנֵי בְנֵי-עֵלִי, חָפְנִי וּפִנְחָס, כֹּהֲנִים, לַיהוָה.3 And this man went up out of his city from year to year to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there priests unto the LORD.

At the time, I just told her that this information is simply there as foreshadowing. It happens to be that Eli goes up to the Mishkan each year, and while he is there, interacts with the two sons of Eli, who are Kohanim. We will hear more about them in the following perek.

But if you understand these two pairs to serve as literary foils to one another, it all makes so much more sense.

To quote Wikipedia, simply for its accessibility, "in fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character. A foil's complementary role may be emphasized by physical characteristics. A foil usually either differs drastically or is extremely similar but with a key difference setting them apart."

In this case, the main distinction that is highlighted has to do with each one of these pairs' relationship to God. But let's look at them a bit more superficially first.

Peninah and Chana                                            Pinchas and Chofni                                 
* Each receives a portion of meat; Chana receives a double portion

*Elkanah does not seem to see what is going on in terms of Peninah's tormenting of Chana; he tries to comfort Chana by saying "Am I not better to you than ten sons?" but does not address the situation

*Elkanah does not rebuke Peninah for her behavior towards Chana, possibly because he does not know about it

*Chana tells Eli that he should not consider her to be a Bat Belial 

*Peninah is eventually punished for her behavior; "the many-sonned woman is bleak and/or childless while the barren woman bears seven"

*Per Midrash, Peninah recognizes that she is being punished and begs Chana to pray to save her last remaining two children
* Each receives a portion of meat; they instruct the Na'ar HaKohen to get them triple portions (and/or to take the meat with 3-pronged fork)

*Eli does not see the sins of his sons (whether they be the taking of the meat or  the 'sleeping' with the women assembled at the Tent of Meeting); he eventually hears about them

*Eli does not rebuke Pinchas & Chofni for their behavior towards Bnei Yisrael (he asks them why they are doing these things, but does not impose actual consequences)

*Chofni & Pinchas are considered to be Bnei Belial 

*Chofni & Pinchas are eventually punished for their behavior; they die in the same day

*Pinchas' wife recognizes they are being punished and names her child Ichabod to represent the fact that once the Aron was stolen, the "glory is departed from Israel" 

In these scenarios, the standout role is given to Chana. When Pinchas & Chofni feel like they are not being given their due in the Mishkan, their response is to ignore God (indeed, they are described as 'not knowing God') and to simply take what they want for themselves, whether that means taking more than they are permitted, taking too early or sleeping with women/ delaying the women's sacrifices. Similarly, when Peninah feels that Chana is not acting appropriately, rather than sitting her down and having a conversation with her to that effect, she decides to take matters into her own hands, flaunting her children in front of her and tormenting her, in order to get her to pray (per Midrash).

In contrast to all these people who are taking matters into their own hands, Chana does not take matters into her own hands. She does not start tormenting Peninah back, or play tattletale and tell on her to her husband. Rather, she goes to speak to God. She tells God about all the pain and suffering in her heart, makes Him a promise and implores that He hear her. She is misjudged by Eli, but rather than firing back with venom (as she could have done, having been tutored in this skill by Peninah), she responds by defending herself and explaining that she is not what he thinks, a Bat Belial. Despite all the suffering that she has experienced, she has kept her faith in God and trusts in Him to deliver her and to grant her the child she so desires.

In contrast to everyone else in the narrative, Chana is the one who surrenders to the Almighty. She does not say, as is stated in Deuteronomy 8:17-

יז  וְאָמַרְתָּ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ:  כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה.17 and thou say in thy heart: 'My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.'

Chana understands that the source of children is ultimately not her, but God. Unlike Pinchas and Chofni, who do not understand that the source of their power as Kohanim ultimately stems from God, or Peninah, who does not understand that her children are not hers to keep but can be kept or taken away by God, Chana is the only one who truly understands the concept of the source. Hence her prayer-poem which directly addresses this concept, the concept of the source and the need to surrender to and to turn to that Source for all blessing.

Because Peninah tormented Chana by flaunting her children, she loses them (they die per the Midrash). Because Chofni and Pinchas abused their position as Kohanim, they lose their position (and ultimately die). But because Chana did not do any of this, did not decide to take matters into her own hands by sinking to her rival's level, by becoming a torturer, by giving up her faith in God, or by stealing someone else's child or otherwise doing something forbidden- because she recognized the source- she becomes mother to Shmuel.

It is interesting that both Peninah and Pinchas' wife are the ones mentioned as the ones who learn their lessons too late and who mourn. Peninah loses her children, and Pinchas' wife loses her husband and father-in-law. These two women are clearly meant to parallel one another.

I just think it's so interesting that despite having learned this perek many times, I never saw the fact that the names are deliberately similar until today.

The People Who Forgot Their Roots

It fascinates me that when it comes to fiction or literature, we love 'chosen' people. Harry Potter is 'The Chosen One.' Katniss Everdeen is the 'Mockingjay.' Tris Prior & Four are 'Divergent.' Clary and Jace are 'Shadowhunters.'

And yet, when it comes to real life, we do anything we can to try to suggest that we are not special, are not different, are not chosen.

I'm talking about us in terms of the Jewish people. The Jewish people is chosen by God. We are given a difficult, holy, incredible responsibility. We are chosen, not for what we innately are but for what we have the power to become. We have special talents and special responsibilities. That is what it means, what we mean, when we say we are chosen.

But so many people I know feel like they must apologize for being chosen. Moreover, they must apologize for caring for their family, for their people, for their nation. As Jews, we are one people, we are one nation; our hearts beat as one and we bleed together. Sanctified through the ashes of the crematoria, consecrated through our shared beliefs and the suffering our people has been dealt, all of us who are born as Jews are connected, in an intricate and multifaceted web.

It is shocking to me that gay people have a 'gay pride parade' where they stand up, loud and proud, and announce to the world that they love their identity, but we as Jews are ashamed, cowering and hiding, afraid to say that we either have an identity or that we are proud of it.

To believe I am chosen is not to say that you do not have an important role to play, an important place in this wonderful world. It is to believe that I have a responsibility to my nation, to my people, to God, that you do not necessarily share, a burden that is not yours. Frodo Baggins was the one who had to bear the ring, but in the end, it was Samwise Gamgee who carried Frodo. Those of you who are not Jewish, you are important in my life and I care deeply for you; I believe that you have your own unique role to play in this world, but it is not the same as mine.

And for this I do not apologize.

I do not apologize for caring deep, passionately, unashamedly about my brethren, my family, my nation, the Jews and the Israelis who are currently under fire.

I do not apologize for caring more for them and for their safety than for the evil Hamas terrorists or the people who support them.

And of course I am sorry for those Palestinians who have good hearts and who are caught up in this mess through no fault of their own. But do I feel equally for them? Are they the same to me as my family members, as my brothers and sisters, as my nation? Of course not. Of course I love my father and mother more than I love the average human on the street, even though I do love them. Of course I love Jews and Israelis more. They are my people. They are my nation.

The Palestinians are not.

So to suggest that everything I say must be laced through a carefully politically correct prism and spectrum where the struggling and suffering of Palestinians is equal to that of my Jewish brethren, that I must care equally about both of them- no, that is not my role. Yes, God made every man in His image, and so He cares equally for them all, and so do I, on some level. On some level, but not on the deepest level; if I saw my sister and a neighbor and both were about to be hit by a car, I would save my sister first and I don't apologize for that; she is my sister, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh and I love her most. Not only- but most.

God has called us and commanded us; He has told us over and over that we are His people, His treasure, His chosen ones, His nation. He has promised that He will comfort us, raise us up, rescue us.

As God says in Isaiah 51-

יב  אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא, מְנַחֶמְכֶם; מִי-אַתְּ וַתִּירְאִי מֵאֱנוֹשׁ יָמוּת, וּמִבֶּן-אָדָם חָצִיר יִנָּתֵן.12 I, even I, am He that comforteth you: who art thou, that thou art afraid of man that shall die, and of the son of man that shall be made as grass;

What are you afraid of, o' Israel? Are you afraid of men, who will judge you because you are not politically correct and do not pretend to care for every Palestinian with the same degree of love that you feel towards your Jewish brethren?

Are you afraid of man, whose life is like "the wind that blows, like the flower that fades, like the passing shadow?"

What are you afraid of? Storm the heavenly gates! Cry out for your people, who are sitting in bomb shelters, who are running from rockets! Acknowledge that you are a Jew and that you care for your fellow Jews! Know who you are, know what you stand for and rise up, rise up and say, "I am a Jew and I stand with my fellow Jews; I will pray for them, stand with them and care for them with every breath in my body. I will live with them and die with them and I will not suffer to hear their names uttered in the same sentence with those who live to kill them. I will not have mercy for the murderers and for the victims; we have been baptized in rocket fire, and our cause is righteous. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, sayeth the Lord."

It is God who has designated us thus; it is God who made us chosen, made us family and it is our job to cry out for and support our family. Let us ensure that we know who we are, that we do not forget who we are, and that we work to protect those we love.

Anna Karenina

I just walked out of the theater, where I went to see the 2012 adaptation of "Anna Karenina" directed by Joe Wright.

This adaptation is extremely disappointing. In fact, it is terrible. It boasts beautiful cinematography, gorgeous costumes, and an overly clever, almost gimmicky storytelling device, but its characters lack depth or realism, and the person who draws me in the most is, of all people, Karenin!

To be fair, I am a purist. My mother brought me up with Russian literature from the time that I was a little girl, and I learned to love it, breathe it and find meaning in it. This film version renders one of Tolstoy's greatest works superficial, conventional and cliche. I would hardly find it possible to imagine it thus, except it was.

The greatest problem with this adaptation was the gimmicky story-telling device. The audience sees "Anna Karenina" as a drama performing at a theater, complete with dances and ballets, so there are curtains rising, falling, beginnings of scenes, ends of scenes, a section of the theater that reflects the stage, the wings and so forth. This serves to distance the audience from the feelings and emotions that should be rendered on the screen rather than bringing them closer. It continuously cut into my experience of the film, reminding me again that I am removed from it rather than peeking into the characters' lives as they are lived before me.

The time that this idea worked most advantageously was at the ball with Kitty & Anna. It was almost as though this scene was taken out of 'Swan Lake' with Kitty cast as Odette, Anna as Odile and Vronsky as the prince. The music, the dancing and the choreography worked brilliantly here, and it was one of the few places in the film where I felt compelled to sit up and pay attention. My heart fluttered; I was moved.

But after that, it disintegrates. The scene in which Karenin forgives Vronsky because Anna is on her deathbed is awfully maudlin. There needed to be a bit more gravity, a bit more severity, before that forgiveness came; it seemed almost like an interrupted menage a trois - the only problematic element was the tears. Levin & Kitty's love, at least, seems more authentic.

I think the problem is in the casting. Kiera Knightley, as much as I love her, does not make a believable Anna. She does not have the gravity, the seriousness; whenever she speaks of love, she seems only to be speaking of lust. She seems silly and playful, taken in by a young fop, and while that is one reading of the book, it is not my reading of it. Anna in my reading is deeply unhappy; Karenin is old and ugly and frigid; he does not understand her, and she reaches out to try to preserve her youth, in hope of love. She is not silly; she is a woman of deep feeling, a conflicted woman, and none of that came across.

In fact, I found myself far more captivated by Michelle Dockery's acting, during the few moments that she was onscreen. I think she would have made a much better Anna.

In short, this version is a disappointment; it has no feeling, only sentimentality, and the deep and enduring pain that it should cause the viewer to feel is lost. I felt little; in fact, I sympathized with Karenin. Where is the Anna that came to life in my mind when I read the book? That Anna is lost; she does not exist in this film.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Sated & the Hungry

My incredibly creative, incredibly talented student came up with the most fascinating idea in his essay on Perek Bet.

He was writing about the connections between the Tefillat Chana poem that starts off the perek and what actually ends up happening in the remainder of the Perek.

He made the following connection. In the poem, Chana says:

שְׂבֵעִים בַּלֶּחֶם נִשְׂכָּרוּ, וּרְעֵבִים חָדֵלּוּ

This means: "The sated have hired themselves out for bread, and they that were hungry have ceased."

My student came up with the following statement:

"This type of change is hinted at in Chana’s poem when it talks about how not by might will a man prevail, that not by force will Kohanim rule and that the common people who care about how the ritual takes place will rise, and when it says the sated will be hungry and the hungry will become fulfilled. That the Kohanim who are growing fat from all the meat that they are eating will be defied by people who do not care just about food, but about the word of God, and that that will fulfill them."

I immediately thought of Deuteronomy 8:3.

ג  וַיְעַנְּךָ, וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ, וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַעְתָּ, וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ:  לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ, כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם--כִּי עַל-כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי-יְהוָה, יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם.3 And He afflicted thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every thing that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.

My student's realization here is that when it says "the sated have hired themselves out for bread/ and they that were hungry have ceased" it can have more than one meaning. The Kohanim who are fattening themselves on meat must, at the end of this chapter, beg for a mere loaf of bread, while the hungry have ceased. Which hungry have ceased? The ones who were hungry for the word of God, for as we know, man does not live by bread alone. He lives by the word of God. Once these Kohanim are demoted, those who were hungry for the word of God, such as the man who plaintively requests that he get the chance to offer up the Chelev first, will be sated. They will again be able to follow God's law.

A Reform Rabbi's Thoughts on Gender & Judaism

I had the pleasure of hearing a Reform rabbi speak to us at our school recently. She gave a presentation on Gender & Judaism, with a specific emphasis on feminism. I found her presentation interesting, first, because it explained to me why many people who are Jewish feminists think the way they do, and second, because it illuminated to me the differences in our starting premises that explain why I do not think this way.

She began her presentation by asking three questions, but I can only remember the first one, which was: "To what extent has your gender impacted your experience of Judaism, and your Judaism impacted your gender?" I liked this question very much, as there is no question that my experience of Judaism has been greatly impacted due to my being a woman.

After raising the three questions, she explained that per her point of view, there is no such thing as "just" Judaism. Judaism has been created through the lens of men, with rituals that work for men, and with a halakhic system that favors men. Thus, the Judaism that we have been practicing is not "just" Judaism; it is male-defined and created Judaism. She was careful not to place a value judgement on this- it is not necessarily good or bad, but simply, from her perspective, a fact.

Then she touched on the binary process in Judaism, which she referred to as "the sanctity of separation." In Judaism, objects, times or events are made holy via the "sanctity of separation." There is a binary process in which we have (and there is obviously a longer list than these provided):


She explained that current research explains that women favor connectivity in their relationships, living within shades of grey. This may be based on the difference in their very biology; they are the ones who are capable of birthing a child, a connective experience if ever there was one. Thus, this very binary separation between different items may not work for women; they may not experience it as holy. How can we (or should we) change Judaism in order to create holiness that works for women as well?

Gender issues in Judaism can run the gamut from our liturgy (in the Orthodox siddur, men thank God for not having created them female) to our Torah (notice that Sarah is not mentioned in the story of the Akedah; her absence is meaningful; had she been there, the story might have ended differently) to our very language. Hebrew is a gendered language; nouns, verbs and so on can be classified as either 'male' or 'female.' In her speech, our presenter brought up an anecdote about a woman named Norma who is the wife of an Orthodox rabbi and who told her husband she found it hurtful that every day he thanks God for not making him like his wife or his daughters. (Does anyone happen to know who this person is?)

In addition, our presenter challenged us to think about where women's mitzvot traditionally take place. Women's mitzvot generally take place within the home or in private places: consider mitzvot such as lighting Shabbat candles, going to the mikvah or counting days of niddah. She suggested that this might not be satisfying anymore.

She also noted that it is inappropriate to think of objects themselves as being gendered. A pink tallit, for instance, is thought of as a female tallit. But that is not ideal. The tallit itself ought not to have an identity as either female or male, or specifically feminine or masculine. Rather, it should simply be an object unto itself, and males or females or anyone of any gender identity should be able to purchase it without it being understood to be a "women's" tallit.

When it comes to feminism in Judaism, feminism has gone through various stages. It started out with the "language of permission," which refers to the use of the word can. It is almost as though women were knocking at the door, so to speak. Can we learn Talmud? Can we don a tallit? Can we wear tefillin? Can we count in a minyan? Women, per our presenter, were still asking permission of men to take on these rituals.

Then we got to the point where women determined that they did not need to ask, but could simply appropriate whichever rituals they felt comfortable with. Women decided they had the right to do this. Today, we can go further- women can create new rituals, should they so desire, for their needs, such as lactation, menopause and so forth. Today, we also have female rabbis and women who lead services in shul. Unfortunately, part of the pushback with that is that in services where women are very involved, male participants tend to flee. This is an issue that needs to be addressed/ discussed.

Our presenter did not like the idea of special "Women's Tefillah" group or "Women's Week," because if that one week in your synagogue is "Women's Week", then what were all the other weeks? Women ought to be a vibrant, participating part of the service every week, not only during special weeks.

To conclude, our presenter urged us to consider why gender is so important, anyway. Why is it that the moment a baby is born, the first thing parents want to know is "Is it a boy or a girl?" Why must we ascribe gender designations and labels to this little child when it is barely an hour old? Why is this our greatest concern?


I found this speech very interesting, particularly because it clarified to me some of the major places in which our premises differ.

1. I do not see Torah, Talmud or Halakha as a male-dominated system that privileges males. I believe that our Tannaim and Amoraim were vessels for the halakha rather than the creators of it; thus, they carried and passed on a tradition rather than creating it based on their own biases and prejudices. (See more on this by clicking this link).

2. I see Judaism as something that I strive to live up to, not something that I can change because it is not working for me. Thus, the idea that research points to women focusing more on connectivity and thus needing a type of holiness that doesn't center around separation doesn't hold weight for me. Judaism for me is the standard; I am not the standard. It's the same way that my father taught me to learn Rashi. I was never to say "Rashi is wrong," rather, I was to say "I do not yet understand Rashi."

3. Much of this presentation focuses on the idea of rights vs. obligations. The idea here is that women deserve rights. They deserve equal rights to participate in Judaism, and participation in this regard refers to their being able to count in a minyan, don tefillin, do public mitzvot, not only private mitzvot, etc. This reminds me of the sentence, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." The way in which I approach Judaism is "Ask not what your religion (Judaism) can do for you, but what you can do for your religion (Judaism)." Judaism for me obligates me in certain ideas and actions; it is not a system in which I can really speak about my rights so much as about my duties. This is a fundamental difference, not only in this regard, but in medical ethics as well. Secular society will talk about abortion within the framework of a woman's right to choose; religious Jews understand abortion as a question of what are my obligations to the fetus. (More on this if you click this link).

4. Longtime readers of this blog know that Heshy & I are huge fans of Heschel. Heschel writes about aggada & halakha and how/ why the two of them must remain in a symbiotic relationship, where we cannot detach one from the other. I think that dissolving traditional divides between the gender roles and discarding mitzvot that women do not find meaningful to them does away with the halakhic approach, to the aggadic approach's detriment. We are, in fact, doing away with the concept of making an effort to do something that is unfamiliar to us, and that is not ideal. (More on this if you click this link.)

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau: A Brand Plucked From the Fire

I finished reading Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last by Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau last week. I've been thinking about it since then, as reading the book was a spiritual experience. What struck me most was how deeply human Rabbi Lau is, and how his humanity came across in the book in a very beautiful way. I decided the best way to experience the book is simply to reproduce some excerpts below.


Excerpt 1

As we were boarding the train, the Gestapo commandant in charge fixed his eye on me, the little boy, although I tried to keep close to Naphtali. He thrust his stick into my face, grabbed me by the nape of my neck, and shouted, "Children with the mothers!" Then he threw me into a group of about fifty women and a few children. They had arrived from other camps near Czestochowa and were crowding into the first train car behind the engine. At a certain point, Naphtali realized, this car was to be detached from the other train cars, which held only men, and sent to another camp. Later, my brother told me that the last thing he saw, after I had already completely disappeared inside the car of women and children, was the loaf of bread. I grasped it determinedly, holding my two hands above my head, guarding with my life the precious food I had been entrusted with. This is how Naphtali saw our separation.

Of the train car into which I was thrown, I recall mainly horrible smells, screams, and the sound of children crying. We often hear about the victims of the Nazi Aktions, but rarely do we hear about the days and nights, the hours and seconds, in which people drew their last breaths inside suffocating cattle cars, without water or bathrooms. These trains were in no way suitable for human beings. The souls of many women and children in that car returned to their Maker as a result of the inhuman conditions.

As I was being thrown into the first car, Naphtali was pushed along with the other men into one of the last cars of the same train. Thus we were on the same train, but at a great distance from each other. Naphtali was worried; he had no idea how many cars separated us, and the promise he had made to Father echoed through his head. In the stairwell of our home in Piotrkow, he had sworn not to let me out of his sight, and to do anything in order to continue our family dynasty.

The train set out on its way, and Naphtali had an idea. He and two friends, who had been with him the whole way from Piotrkow, began to manipulate the handle of the door of their train car until they managed to open it. But the train continued on its journey, and the open door did not advance the effort to rescue me at all. At the train's first stop, Naphtali and his friends slowly opened the door and looked around. Then Naphtali lowered himself underneath the car, aligned himself between the tracks, and crawled forward on his elbows to the door of the next car. He pounded on it and shouted my name: "Lulek! Lulek!" Meanwhile, the train whistled and shrieked, signaling that it was just about to move. Naphtali quickly crawled back to the car he had just left. Because he had returned empty-handed, he repeated this operation at the next station, and the one after it, and so forth, four times, each time returning disappointed. He ignored those who complained of the freezing cold that penetrated the car through the open door, and insisted on continuing his mission to rescue me.

His next attempt was a success. When he reached the seventh car, the one just behind the engine, again he shouted my name. I was inside the car, wearing Mother's giant pillow and holding the bread, which had since hardened. One of the women had sprinkled a few fine sugar crystals on the bread, but they had slid off, scattering on the floor of the car, which was packed with bodies. I busied myself hunting for them, so longing to put something sweet into my mouth! Suddenly, as I was searching for the grains of sugar, I heard my name. I thought I was dreaming, but still, I moved in the direction of the voice. I climbed over and between the bodies, forging a path between the women and children, until I fell into the arms of my brother, Naphtali. He had managed to open the train car door using a pin he had modified.

I wanted to hug and kiss him, but he stopped me, demanding that I keep silent. He pulled me down under the car, and again signaled silence with his fingers over his mouth, in case a guard was posted on the roofs of the cars, or in case someone in the engine car noticed the movement on the tracks. It was night; thick darkness surrounded us and I could see only his eyes, but I understood the significance of what we were doing. behaving with extreme caution, I imitated Naphtali's movements, crawling rhythmically on my elbows and knees. He counted seven cars, then stuck out his head, pulling me after him. Two pairs of hands pulled him inside, and he pulled and lifted me into the car.

I remember his wisdom and common sense: a second before we squeezed into the car, he filled his hat with snow so that we could drink the pure water when it melted. Only after the two friends from Piotrkow had closed the door did we allow ourselves to embrace each other tightly, with heartbreaking cries. After a seemingly final separation that we had thought impossible to overcome, we were together again.

In a few hours, Naphtali's intuition proved justified. At a certain point along the way, the train cars separated. The women and children's car continued to Bergen-Belsen or to Ravensbruck, I am not sure which, while we continued on a very long trip with countless stops. Quite a few of the men died in those freight cars. Those who survived the long journey found themselves, three days later, at the entrance to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

-Pages 37-39


Excerpt 2

"Now I ask you," continued Rabbi Frankel, "really, why does the Torah emphasize the negative side of this- Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother? We understand the importance of the positive statement, and shall cleave to his wife- to establish a home and family. But why does the Torah use the verb to leave regarding the parents? For twenty years, the parents invest in their child. They can't sleep at night while he burns with fever, they work overtime in order to support him, they take care of his every need. And after twenty years, he leaves his father and mother. What is this- a divorce from the parents? What did they do to deserve this? Why does the Torah have to say, to leave?"

I listened carefully, and thought that this was indeed a fascinating question, but was this why I had come to the rabbi's house? I wanted to hear what he thought about my proposed marriage to his daughter! Was this, in fact, a parting meal? He wines and dines me, and then all of a sudden poses a question from the Torah, putting me on the spot? I had no answers.

Thinking quickly, I admitted to the rabbi that I had never thought about that verse. I told him that I had heard many homilies from my friends about engagement and the seven wedding blessings, but none of them had addressed his question. Rabbi Frankel was not surprised. When I finished, he said in a fatherly manner, "I tell you what I think. Sometimes I stand under the chuppah before a bride and a groom whom I don't know. Often, I ask myself whether this match will last. After all, these are two different worlds we're talking about. How can they possibly cleave to one another? I ask myself, 'Yitzchak Yedidya, what can you say at the wedding ceremony of these two worlds?' But on second thought, I think to myself that there, standing on either side of the couple, are the parents. Twenty or thirty years ago, they stood in the exact same position, excited brides and grooms at their own weddings. They also were not born in the same mold, but the connection between them has held. Now they're marrying off the next generation. In other words, when we look at the parents' home, when we see the father respecting the mother and vice versa, and we see that they live in a home of peace and love, this is a personal example for the chain of generations to follow."

At this point, Rabbi Frankel stopped speaking for a moment. Then he continued, "Israel, the verb to leave does not have to be understood literally. That same word, whose Hebrew root is ayin-zayin-bet, can also mean 'inheritance,' as in the word i-za-von, whose root is also ayin-zayin-bet. There is material inheritance, which parents bequeath to their children after a long life, and there is spiritual inheritance, which they grant their son or daughter the day the child leaves home and gets married. Leaving one's father and mother means one should inherit their example. The Torah presents this as a condition: only if a man leaves his father and mother will he have a true chance of cleaving to his wife. That is how they will succeed in raising a family."

He thought for a moment, giving me a chance to digest his words. Then he continued: "I have heard of you and your reputation for some time. My daughter has received marriage proposals from around the country and beyond, but your name has come up repeatedly." Rabbi Frankel named those who had suggested me for hsi daughter, including his friend from the yeshiva in Warsaw, Rabbi David Weissbrod-Halachmi, and my brother Shiko's brother-in-law, Israel Mintzer. "I have considered you and asked about you. I have heard of your talents and distinguished qualities, and I have no doubt about any of them. But one thing bothers me: where is your 'leaving'? You have no home, you have no parents to leave, as the verse says, and you have no spiritual inheritance."

I felt tears choking my throat. His words were like a eulogy for me and my destroyed family. Rabbi Frankel was telling me, in fact, that because of my personal history as a Holocaust survivor and orphan who had no home, because I did not grow up with a mother and father and had no example to follow, it would be difficult for me to build a Jewish home and family. He said, "I recall the speeches of your father, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau. But you did not grow up in his shadow and did not know what family life is like. You have spent almost your entire life in institutions, dormitories and yeshivas. This is what bothers me about placing my daughter in your hands. Still, after checking into your background, talking with all your rabbis and friends in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, I learned something about your brother."

At that time, Naphtali was an editor in the She'arim newspaper of Po'alei Agudath Israel, to which Rabbi Frankel contributed a column on halacha every Friday. Rabbi Frankel said, "I have noted the behavior of your brother, who came to the big city of Tel Aviv but remained an observant Jew. Of everything I have heard about you, I believe and hope that this one worry I have will prove unfounded. It doesn't interest me one bit," he added, "that you have no money, or that there is no father-in-law to share expenses with me. Believe me that my daughter has had offers from wealthy men, but they do not interest me. I also came to Eretz Israel with nothing, with two babies, one about a year, the other just two months old. I taught school and to this day, I live in a rented apartment. I am only interested in the groom's personality."

Rabbi Frankel lived in Tel Aviv for fifty-one years. He was chief rabbi of that city for fourteen of those years, but he never owned his own apartment or car, and the material side of life did not interest him at all. But he feared the scars I might have from lack of family. He was worried that I did not know the meaning of affection, generosity or compromise. That was why Rabbi Frankel made sure to have private conversations with my roommates at the yeshiva. He wanted to know how I got along with others, and whether orphanhood had taken its toll on my interpersonal relations.

At the end of that long, private conversation, Rabbi Frankel declared, 'if for your part you are willing, then we are willing to accept you as part of our family. Welcome." I felt overwhelming joy, along with a piercing sadness that my father and mother could not be with me at this happy moment. Meanwhile, Mrs. Frankel and her daughter had returned home, and Rabbi Frankel told them about our conversation. That week, in early June 1959, we invited my two brothers, Yehoshua and Naphtali, and my cousin Shmuel Yitzchak Lau, who had acted as matchmaker, to a meeting with Rabbi Frankel's four sons, and we toasted le-chaim at the vort, the signing of the engagement agreement. The engagement ceremony was held a few weeks later, on my birthday, 22 Sivan 5719 (June 28, 1959). Eight months later, in February 1960, we were married in Tel Aviv.

~Pages 215-218


Excerpt 3

By definition, a chief rabbi must fulfill two roles. For the first five years of his term, he serves as presiding judge of the supreme rabbinical court and president of the chief rabbinical council. In the latter position, he is responsible for the religious matters in the state: kashrut, Shabbat, religious councils, burials, and examinations for rabbinical ordination. In the second five years, he acts as president of the supreme rabbinic court and head of the religious judiciary system. But the law does not define what the chief rabbi does with the rest of his time- i.e., the events at which he appears or the audiences to whom he speaks. Every person who holds the job can use his time as he sees fit, after first implementing his role as a teacher of Torah and a halachic arbiter.

I decided to focus on an area that I considered of top importance, a mitzvah as well as a mission: social welfare activities related to illness and grief, especially visiting the sick and comforting mourners. My sensitivity to this matter and the special place it held in my world, both personally and as a chief rabbi, stemmed, I think, from the influence of the Holocaust on my life and how it remains with me in all I do. I often recalled the image of myself as a small child, sick with the measles and lying alone in isolation. At the time, Naphtali had typhus and was also in isolation in the Buchenwald hospital, so not a living soul came to visit me to ask how I was feeling or hold my hand. This childhood memory is deeply embedded in my consciousness. This is what compels me to visit hospitals all over Israel, offering words of encouragement to those suffering in pain. this is what leads me to houses of mourning, to comfort the grieving with the few words one can say in trying times.

I saw it as my responsibility to be present at the hospitals for every dedication of a wing or department, to say a few words to encourage and strengthen those doing the work. Another issue I took upon myself, as a rabbinical judge, was to visit the homes of battered women and the families of women murdered by their husbands, attempting to understand how a couple could descend to such an abyss in their relationship, and trying to learn from these tragedies how to help couples in distress.

-pages 264-265

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Gay Marriage

If you've ever studied CBT, you're familiar with the term all-or-nothing thinking (otherwise referred to as splitting or black-and-white thinking). It troubles me that when it comes to personal health, everyone agrees this is problematic, but when it comes to national health, our national discourse is filled with this. Either you are for gay marriage or you are automatically homophobic and hate all gays. Why can there not be a place for people who believe in God, believe God does not desire for people to be gay or act on their gay impulses, but who would still never do anything deliberately cruel or hurtful to people who identify as gay? Why is there no middle ground? Why am I consistently made to feel marginalized, being told that I must be an ally or I am an evil person? I do NOT support gay marriage; I will not support gay marriage; I do not think this makes me evil. Feel free to discuss.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

We Must Not Spurn God's Gifts

I am reading Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last by Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. The book is extremely moving, and I thank Marc, who recommended it to me. (Heshy says my parents also told me to read it, but clearly that fell on deaf ears at the time). I came across a passage in the book that really caught my imagination.


Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach once spoke to Israel Meir and asked him about the story of King Ahab and Naboth. He questioned, "What happens to Elijah is clear, and what happens to Ahab is clear, but the question is, why did all this happen to Naboth? He has a vineyard in the Jezreel Valley that the king desires, but he refuses to sell it, because it is the heritage of his ancestors. Far be it from me before the Lord that I should give you my ancestors' heritage, Naboth protests. Why was he punished? Why was he condemned to death?"

In explanation, the rabbi told Israel Meir a midrash about Naboth's punishment:
God endowed Naboth with the most beautiful singing voice of his generation. Three times a year, when the Israelites would make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Naboth would sing on the Temple Mount, and all the pilgrims enjoyed the beauty of his son. Then one day, pride went to his head; he was swayed by the admiration of the crowds. The next time he went to Jerusalem, he refused to sing until the people begged and pleaded with him. He agreed only after the entreaties of ministers and leaders, and finally he stopped singing altogether. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Naboth, "You had a role in this world, and it was to bring joy to other living creatures. I gave you that talent. I placed this melodious bell in your throat, so that you would ring it and your voice would carry afar. But you are withholding from my creatures what they deserve to enjoy, not what you deserve to have. Do not withhold a good thing from its proper owner. I am bringing you back to me, because you have no more goal in life. You have not fulfilled the mission for which I designated you."
"Israel Meir," Rabbi Shlomo Zalman continued after a short pause, "God gave you the power of speech. You have a mission in life- you take after your father. We must not spurn God's gifts; we should not turn our backs on Him. I don't know whether this is what grabbed you by the hair and pulled you out of the piles of ashes in Europe. I won't try to understand the reckoning of the Master of the Universe. But one thing is clear to me; you must dedicate yourself to your studies, learning more an dmore, so that when the time comes, you will ring this bell and make it heard afar."

This was one of the most important conversations of my [Israel Meir's] life. At every moment of my life since then, it has shaped and influenced me.

(This is found on pages 164-165).

This passage reminded me of another I had read in Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. There, he says (on page xiii):

The imperative of teaching flows not just from hesed, but from true scholarship and knowledge of God:
To know God also means to have a desire to share one's knowledge with others, to have a longing to teach people, to bring the message to the ignorant and insensitive or to those unfortunate ones who have not had the opportunity to learn and to study. A man who is happy and does not want to teach others is not necessarily cruel and selfish. But he is not a scholar. A real scholar cannot contain what he knows within himself; he explodes. Knowledge entails a dynamic element; the knower becomes restless, the truth cries out from the inner recesses of his personality, and he must tell others. 

When God bequeaths a talent to a person, whether it is a talent for public speaking, for accumulating knowledge, for learning and so on, it is not there for the sake of the person, although it certainly enhances their life. It is there because with that talent, the person is meant to serve- to serve the world, his fellow man and God. As the motto of my high school went, "Live and Serve!" If one is so lucky as to be chosen, to be gifted, it is not ever solely a gift; it is always also a means to a path of service. The most beloved man of God was called His servant, and so too do we all aspire to be.

more thoughts on shmuel

I am now learning Perek Gimmel of Shmuel with my students. I noticed some interesting things.

1. Perek Gimmel opens with some gorgeous poetry.

; וּדְבַר-יְהוָה, הָיָה יָקָר בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם--אֵין חָזוֹן, נִפְרָץ
 וְעֵלִי שֹׁכֵב בִּמְקוֹמוֹ; וְעֵינָו הֵחֵלּוּ כֵהוֹת

Loosely translated, this means:
And the word of God was precious in those days/ There were no widespread visions
And Eli slept in his place/ And his eyes were dimmed

I realized that on the literal level, Eli is blind. But on the metaphorical level, the reason the word 'chazon' is used here rather than the word 'nevuah' is because of the poetry. "There were no widespread visions/ Eli's eyes were dimmed." The suggestion is that Eli used to have prophecy but now his eyes have dimmed; his prophecy is gone. This sets up the perek beautifully for Shmuel's induction as a prophet.

2. In Perek Bet, the sons of Eli are described in the following manner:

וּבְנֵי עֵלִי, בְּנֵי בְלִיָּעַל:  לֹא יָדְעוּ, אֶת-יְהוָה

Imagine my surprise when I saw Shmuel described in the following way in Perek Gimmel:

 וּשְׁמוּאֵל, טֶרֶם יָדַע אֶת-יְהוָה; וְטֶרֶם יִגָּלֶה אֵלָיו, דְּבַר-יְהוָה

There's the obvious distinction that the word 'terem' is used in context of Shmuel. Shmuel did not yet know the Lord, but he was soon to know him. Still, it seems odd language to echo. The sons of Eli did not know the Lord and Shmuel did not yet know the Lord.

Rashi must have seen this, because he immediately explains that this is referring to the fact that Shmuel had not yet experienced the phenomenon of prophecy, and this is what it refers to.

But I think this also speaks to a difference in attitude. The sons of Eli did not know the Lord in a sense that was utterly final. They had not encountered Him, despite their service, and they were not open to encountering Him. In contrast, Shmuel did not yet know the Lord. He too had not encountered God, but he was open to it. He would welcome God when he found Him, not push him away.

We too need to remember to be open to the hand of God in our lives. When we approach life with an attitude that things are not final, they are simply not yet, we are able to live with that sense of hope and wonder that characterized our greatest leaders.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

silver anniversary

When I was a child, I used to stare at the blue NCSY wedding bentchers,  looking at the inscription. It read 'Bella & Ira'/ 'November 1, 1987.' 

I wanted to be exactly like my parents, down to the wedding bentchers. When I was little, I could think of nothing better than to grow up and be like them. Now that I'm older, I still can't think of a greater compliment than to be told that I am like one of my parents.

Longtime readers of this blog already know that my mother and my father are extraordinary people. I have had living role models by my side all my life, pillars of tradition and Torah who gave me everything I needed and more. In my Bat Mitzvah speech on Shemos, I connected the two haftorahs to my two parents. I said that my father was my pillar of textual wisdom and my mother was the pillar of tradition. With the two of them supporting me, I was given an introduction to Judaism the likes of which I couldn't have found anywhere else, and for which I am still grateful.

Judaism to me is a living, breathing, beautiful, inherited spiritual tradition. When I wake up in the morning, I do not grapple with questions about existence. I know there is a God. I know it powerfully. I know it in every fiber of my being, and I know it because my father would tuck me in at night and say Shema with me, because my mother would have me repeat 'Thank You, Hashem' after her. I know it because my parents live a life that exemplifies Judaism. 

My mother polished and sharpened me like a jewel. My friend Carey wrote in my high-school yearbook, "Your combined mastery of martial arts and the entire canon of Western Literature terrifies me." He was joking, but there was some truth in it. When it comes to my literary prowess, that is entirely due to my mother. I will never be her match- in her literary exams, she ranked third in the country- but I do reasonably well, and that is because of her. 

When it comes to my Tanakh abilities, that harks back to my father. Many a Friday night I spent grumpily sitting at the table as my father leined through the Parsha, but whether I realized it or not, I picked up knowledge. I devoured The Little Midrash Says and I got excited about texts and I was commanded to say Divrei Torah by heart every Shabbat, and I did so. My father was the one who handed me the books by Rabbi Ari Kahn, who ensured that I would be enrolled at TI even when I stubbornly determined that I hated all Jews. It's my father who influenced me to go to Stern and it is solely due to my father that I have a Masters in Bible.

Ever since I was a little girl, the worst thing I could do to one of my parents would be to hurt the other in front of them. My father would not brook the slightest word of disrespect about my mother. He was a towering force, the voice of God on high. And my mother would certainly not allow me to malign my father. My parents are a team and in the end of the day, they will always be a team. They love each other, protect each other and defend each other. 

The only tears I have seen my parents cry have been for us, for others or for each other. My parents would cry when any of their children were suffering. It tore them up inside. They would cry when they would hear about horrible things happening in the world, like terrorist attacks in Israel. They would cry when they saw one another's pain. I never saw my parents cry for selfish reasons. It wouldn't occur to them. The most powerful moments in my mind, the times that my parents have cried, have been for us, for me, for each other. I can go back to those moments in my mind, and though they were moments of pain and sorrow, they were also beautiful. I knew that my parents shared a deep, profound love for each other, for their nation and for humanity as a whole. 

And that love is my inheritance. I have been incalculably impacted by watching the ways in which my parents interact with people. Whether it was my mother cooking  meals for women who had just given birth, crying after witnessing the death of a newborn or my father teaching countless young men how to lein, never asking for payment, it has been clear. My parents love not only one another, but the community they are a part of and the world that we live in. 

They have had their disappointments. There are things they have given up for us. There are privileges they have denied themselves. We have always been their first priority. Their lives have been about us, and about each other. 

So when I look to a couple that I want to model my life after, people that I strive to be like, I don't have to look far. I have been blessed, and I strive to deserve the blessing. 

Happy Silver Anniversary, Mommy & Daddy.
Hope you have many, many more.