Give Us Joy

“For all our days slip away in Your anger. We consume our years like a sigh.

Give us joy as the days You afflicted us, the years we saw evil.”

(Psalm 90: 9, 15; trans. Robert Alter)

May joy in 5782 soften the trauma of recent times.

The embroidered verses of Psalm 90 are fitting for these times and for the holiday season that ends with Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah. As we recite that day’s special prayer for rain, we contemplate the bitterness of past harvests and the insecurity of times ahead, while joyously opening our hearts anew to wisdom and learning. Accordingly, in the embroidery, color accents follow the words from right left, brightening from brown to peach.

The blackwork embroidery, Give us Joy, was created and stitched in memory of my grandmother, Rachel Eisenberg z”l, who died in the 1918 flu epidemic.

Give us Joy, 2021, Rachel Braun, generously photographed by Philip Brookman

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…

To honor Yom Yerushalayim earlier this week, I presented images of Jerusalem on postage stamps of Israel (along with other favorite Israeli and pre-state postage) for the Ohr Kodesh Congregation Rosh Hodesh group.. What an innocent evening, before all the violence commenced…

You can view the images in the powerpoint I showed that evening. It is a very large file (146 MB!) and must be downloaded. It’s at this link:

While I haven’t written out all the comments I shared that evening, I hope you will enjoy the slide show! Sha’alu shelom Yerushalayim — pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122).

Owning and Telling our Story

Most years around Pesah, I purchase a new Haggadah to peruse for good art and challenging commentary.  This year, I sought out Elie Wiesel’s book, A Passover Haggadah, mainly for the beautiful illustrations by Mark Podwal, whom I heard speak at a Jewish Arts Salon event. I commend to you Podwal’s book, Kaddish, which I purchased, along with the Haggadah, from the National Yiddish Book Center.

With his permission, I am including an image from Podwal’s book, “Matzoh Moon Over Dąbrowa Białostocka”, the shtetl he commemorates in Kaddish.

The devastation wrought by white supremacy is very much on my mind.  Through that lens, I was drawn to two particular comments Wiesel shared:

Discussing Avadim hayinu (“we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt…”), Wiesel argues that the essence of Jewish faith is “Jewish allegiance to a collective memory.  …Even converts must affirm their connection with Egypt…In becoming Jewish, converts absorb our entire past, effectively making it their own.”

After frowning at the awkward their/our/they/us language Wiesel used, my thoughts jumped to those of us whose families (Jewish or non-Jewish) came to the US after the enslavement and eventual emancipation of African Americans.  We became citizens and absorbed the entire American past, including its prejudices and its disparate outcomes, often ourselves benefitting from privileges that our particular forebears did not participate in crafting.  Occasionally we hear folks saying “my family wasn’t even here yet when slavery happened.  Why do I have to (etc. etc.)….?”  To quote Wiesel (p. 27-28) “It is as though we had all been in Egypt together, prisoners of the same enemy, suffering the same pain, the same anguish.  It is as though we had all been carried by the same hope….Thus we share our memory, going all the way back to Egypt.  In exchange, like us, converts must proclaim their faith in divine strength and goodness.”

Belief in the American dream goes hand-and-hand with inheritance of her history.

Later in the Haggadah (p. 47), Wiesel comments on a section of Maggid :  “ ‘We cried out to the Lord.’  The Bible recounts: And it came to pass that the King of Egypt died.  And the Children of Israel sighed from their hard labor and cried out…”  He shares a commentary from the Kotzker Rabbi: “Why did they sigh? They should have been happy….but until the King of Egypt died, they did not even have the right to sigh.”

That notion, that oppressed people do not even have the right to sigh, is alive in American culture as well.  In recent times, whether in the denigration of athletes like Colin Kaepernick or exception to the very words “Black Lives Matter”, much less vicious reactions to those protests, large segments of American society take umbrage at or even criminalize the sighing of the oppressed.   

The Maggid (literally, “Telling”) section of the Hagggadah, where our story is told, can feel tedious and time-consuming, as aromas of the awaited seder meal drift in from the kitchen. But owning the story and having the luxury to tell it are essential rituals of freedom and identity.  May that be true at home at our seder table and in the streets of our communities.

Here comes the sun!

I am looking forward to our country’s and our government’s renewed interest in climate change.

Our ancient texts celebrate the sun as a life-giving manifestation of God’s creation. Here is an embroidery, Gateways of the East (2004), that reminds us of God’s “solar power”:

The embroidery depicts eight pairs of gates rendered in blackwork embroidery patterns. Framing the embroidered gates is a passage (ha’El haPoteah…) from the the Jewish morning prayer service that thanks and praises God for the work of Creation. The text imagines the gates and windows of the East bursting open each morning as God bountifully renews the morning light. The words remind us of the wondrous renewal of Creation each day on our planet.

The prayer reads: “God opens each morning the doors of the gateways of the East, and flings open the windows of the firmament. God sends light for all the world and for those who dwell there, in mercy. God lights up the Earth and its inhabitants with compassion, and in God’s goodness renews, each day, perpetually, the work of Creation. All thank You, all praise You, all declare “None is Holy as Adonai!” All sing praises—Selah!—to the Creator of all.”

This prayer portrays God as the One who accomplished and continually nourishes the work of Creation, an act of compassion and bounty. Indeed, the reference to Creation highlights one of the most important messages of Torah, apparent in its first chapter. The Creation story in the book of Genesis highlights creativity as God’s introductory trait and describes a God who is restless regarding the state of the world. God commands light as the first motif of existence and challenges us to perceive all of humanity as having common roots.

The embroidery was generously scanned by Philip Brookman.

God Counts the Stars

In a week that we’ve been star- and planet- gazing, I offer the following embroidery (2015):

The embroidery pattern quotes the Psalmist: “God counts the stars, giving each a name; with grandeur and power, wisdom beyond measure.” Accordingly, each of the four stars has its own embroidered “name” of five distinct blackwork patterns.

Those two verses, Psalm 147:4-5, are among my favorites and are nearly statistical in nature. Each star is counted as an essential part of the whole and is granted a distinct name, evidence of God’s greatness and understanding.

This is the essence of census-taking and other statistical data gathering, the notion that individual stories are part of a national (or in this case, universal) narrative, even when we don’t have the chance to know each individual personally. There is no allowance for someone (or some star) being “just a statistic” — a much-hated phrase in the statistical community. Rather, each act of counting honors and includes the countee.

In our verse from Psalms, God does just that, counting each star and acknowledging its individuality. How extraordinary that even in the vastness of the heavenly expanse, the Creator-of-All notes and names each individual star!

The Hebrew verses include a wordplay not apparent in the translation: God counts the starts (moneh mispar, apportioning a number), showing immeasurable (ein mispar, without number) wisdom.

The embroidery was generously scanned by Philip Brookman.

Reading the Shema incorrectly helps me think about gratitude.

The recitation of the Shema in our tefilot includes three passages selected from Deuteronomy and Numbers.  I find the second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, the most challenging one to read.  It tells us that if we obey mitzvot, love God, and serve God will all our hearts and souls, we’ll know success – we’ll have nourishing rains, successful harvests, and satisfying sustenance.  If we follow bad temptations of our hearts, God’s anger will flare against us, the sky and earth will not sustain us, and we’ll disappear from our good land that God has promised us.

Kinda grim.  Heck, it’s 2020.

This theology of reward and punishment often doesn’t seem to unfold empirically.  It helps to know that the Bible’s stance on reward and punishment changed over the course of the assembly of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.  In fact, after sifting through all the punishments in the Book of Job, God never speaks directly to human beings again within its pages.  It’s as if God said “I made enough snarky comments in my youth; now I know to be more cautious when I speak.” That’s good advice from God.  I am working on taking that advice, myself.

Most of all, though, the second paragraph is notable for what it doesn’t say.  Remember what it says: “if you are good, things will go well for you.”  It doesn’t say “If things are going well for you, you must have been good.” That statement is the so-called “converse”, which you learned, in 10th grade geometry, is not necessarily true.

The fallacy of the converse – the idea that if things will go well for you, you must have been good –is demonstrated just a few chapters away, again in Deuteronomy. When we find lost property, such as a neighbor’s ox or garment, we must endeavor to return it.  In the Talmud, in Baba Metziah, we learn detailed specifics about the obligation to reunite lost property with its owner.

This is one thought I bring to the recitation of the Shema.   Our tradition gives detailed emphasis on our obligations when we happen upon unearned valuables, even something we find on a sidewalk or a metro car. This is one small way that we shouldn’t imagine that just because good things happen to us, we deserve it.   Good fortune is not necessarily something we deserve, only something to feel grateful for.

Yotzer Ohr — cracks of light

  . בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם  וּבוֹרֵא אֶת־הַכֹּל

The yotzer berakhah is found immediately after Barekhu in the Shaharit service.  It concerns the creation of light: “Barukh atah A’, our God, ruler of time and space forming light and creating darkness, bringing harmony while creating all (Mahzor Lev Shalem)”.  

The berakha is a bridge between the themes of pesukei dezimra, which include a celebration of God’s role as Creator, to an upcoming theme of Shaharit, our access to Torah.  The transition is accomplished in a bit of liturgical imagination by using “light” – specifically, enlightenment — to characterize our relationship with Torah.  “Ve’ha’er einenu beToratekha”: enlighten our eyes with your Torah, we pray, in the paragraph immediately before the Shema.

This year, the yotzer berakhah and its emphasis on light feel remote to me.  We live in a dark time. All around me, the world seems cracked.

This summer, I was reminded of a lyric by Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

That’s how I want to live with this berakhah, yotzer or.  When the world feels too cracked to rejoice in the light of creation and Torah, I will endeavor to use those cracks to let the light get in.

Next, another image came to my mind- the practice of kintsugi, the Japanese repair of pottery cracks. 

Many of us, faced with a crack in some earthenware, try to push the cracks together as seamlessly as we can with Super Glue. Consider instead the kintsugi-repaired bowl pictured here.   In this Japanese artistic tradition, the cracks are incorporated into the object and contribute to its beauty, as we lovingly repair it by overlaying those cracks with gold.  I would like to do that with the cracks in my own life experience.

Those two metaphors – Leonard Cohen’s cracks and Japanese kintsugi –  help me embrace the yotzer berakhah this year.

Parashat Mas’ei and the cities of refuge — tragedy and randomness

The arei miklat, the cities of refuge, are described in Bamidbar (Numbers) Chapter 35.  I’ll summarize the text and share some remarks:

A person who kills another unintentionally – that is, via manslaughter – is called the rotzeah.  Manslayers may flee to one of six cities of refuge described in this section of the Torah.  They leave the city for their trial, but if acquitted of premeditated murder, are still at risk of the victim’s family’s vengeance at the hand of the go’el ha-dam, the blood avenger. So they return to the city of refuge where the go’el may not pursue them.  That is, for unpremeditated crimes of negligence or passion, the rotzeah is granted some measure of protection, but still endures some punishment by separation, via removal to the city of refuge.  This protection is lost should the rotzeah leave the city of refuge.

The rotzeah is released from the ir miklat upon the death of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest.  The reasoning is given toward the end of the chapter:  “You shall not pollute the land…you shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people.”  That is, bloodshed is a source of defilement of the land, and death of the High Priest releases the land from its defilement.

The Talmudic treatment of these passages is presented in Makot 9-11 and involves amazing attention to infrastructure. The court system is obliged to construct and maintain roads leading to the cities of refuge.  It must shore up the water supply if needed. Every year on the 15th of Adar, the day after Purim, the courts were to send emissaries to inspect the roads. The towns should be of intermediate size. They couldn’t be so small that there would not be enough for the manslayers to maintain a standard of living, but not so large that a blood avenger could slip in, unnoticed, to pursue his kill.  If the population fell to an unsustainable number, the court could send in priests and Levites to bring up the population counts. There is even attention to the vegetation in and around the towns.

The responsibility of the community to provide appropriate infrastructure, maintaining this milieu of punishment and rehabilitation, is admirable.

Also relevant to the rotzeah’s outcome is his anticipated length of stay.  The manslayer’s “term” ends when the High Priest dies, and he is free to return to his normal city of residence. So the length of the sentence is unknown.  Makot also describes the efforts of High Priest’s mother, who brought food and clothes to the cities of refugee, so the inhabitants would be content with their lots and wouldn’t pray for her son’s death.

But I wonder — why is the term in the city of refugee related to the lifespan of the High Priest?   That seems unrelated to punishment, rehabilitation, or indeed, to any needed protection from the goel ha-dam.

The straightforward traditional answer is that the death of the High Priest atones for all sins, including defilement of the land via bloodshed, so the guilt of the manslayer is over.

Rashi, in his commentary on Makot 11a, wonders whether, had the High Priest prayed more fervently, the mishap would not have happened during his tenure.  Perhaps his lack of leadership and example contributed to the ill-fated deeds of the rotzeah.  Hence, upon his death, the rotzeah is given another chance.  This commentary speaks to the importance of leadership in securing society’s safety.

Rashi also argues that were there no cities of refuge, there would be a risk that the rotzeah and the High Priest could run into each other somewhere.  Perhaps we could call this a Biblical “AWKWARD!” moment.  Since one person defiles the land and the other purifies the people, we don’t want the two of them in each other’s presence.

I’m not a fan of Rashi’s reasoning. I don’t see why the High Priest must be spared confronting one of his presumed failures, whereas the rotzeah is physically separated from society specifically to confront his gross misstep.

Rashbam felt that the release of the rotzeah represents a general sense of transition and clemency after the death of a High Priest.  That’s an admirable though sadly, not full believable proposition – that a society experiencing loss and transition would react by turning to compassion and forgiveness.  That’s a very different mood than last-minute Presidential pardons that characterize leadership transitions today.

Sforno suggested that perhaps God manipulates the timing of the High Priest’s death, so that if the manslayers are particularly egregious, God prolongs their exile by causing the High Priest to live longer. One could just as well reason that if the manslayers are not particularly awful, it would be fair of God to hasten the death of the High Priest so as not to prolong their punishment.  That doesn’t seem right.

I’d like to suggest something else.  The problem that brought the manslayer to the city of refuge was probably something quite random, unpredictable.  In our day, those folks might be a careless driver, a doctor who made a mistake, a car mechanic who didn’t tighten a bolt enough to prevent a fatal accident.  I don’t mean that these individuals weren’t truly negligent in causing manslaughter.  Rather, there’s a random element behind who indeed, among all those displaying negligent behavior, precipitates a crime. Ten thousand people might check a text message on their phones while driving; one unlucky person amongst them strikes a pedestrian. The other drivers were not less negligent; perhaps the brightness of a pedestrian’s clothing, the proximity of the car to a speed bump, a honk from a car behind them, etc., spares them an awful outcome.

Is it fitting that their sentences are also unpredictable?

Let’s assume, unlike Sforno, that God hasn’t manipulated the timing of the High Priest’s death.  Rather, we could consider it essentially unpredictable.  Or at least, I don’t think we could predict manslaughter rates based on the age of the High Priest. In contrast, in another Biblical instance, Israelites did modify their behaviors, refraining from making loans and land sales in the final year of the shmita and Yovel cycles, prompting the rabbis to institute a remedy via prozbul.  Would the Israelites have embraced similar game-theoretic reasoning with manslaughter, as with loans and land sales? I doubt that people would behave less prudently, just because the High Priest was old and their sentences for any infractions would be short.  No one thinks, “I know I shouldn’t be fiddling with my cell phone while I’m driving, but hey, the High Priest is REALLY old — so how bad could my jail term be?”

That is, the crime feels random and unpredictable, and for me, the sentence seems that way, too. That almost feels fair. I think a lot of human emotion is misdirected to anguishing over events that are random and unpredictable.  I’ll try to catch that in myself, though I doubt I’ll be successful.

So now let’s turn our attention to the hapless blood avenger, who remarkably seems to be the bad guy in the story of the Cities of Refuge.  He and his family have suffered a terrible loss.  He finds it hard to forgive and to understand the circumstances of the accidental killer. On top of that, though he might hope to get some satisfaction knowing that the manslayer is removed from society for a time – well – even that length of time is unpredictable!  He’ll probably feel resentful, even enraged, if the sentence turns out to be relatively short.

Perhaps the unpredictability of the manslayer’s punishment will bring the blood avenger to a realization: that everything is precarious, and that there’s a limit to how much we control.  Life circumstances have already taught him that grief and horror can drop into his family’s life unexpectedly and unpredictably.  Can he accept that the satisfaction he might get from the punishment is also seemingly random?  Might this lead him to a realization that his need to engage with his family’s profound loss won’t fully be addressed by punishment of the accused? The statistician in me would like to imagine that he could.

Torah is acquired in 48 ways.

48 Ways (final jpeg) 300 dpi 16 inch

48 Ways

blackwork embroidery design by Rachel Braun, 2020

Torah is acquired in 48 ways: by audible study, by diligent attention, by proper speech, by an understanding heart, by a perceptive heart, by awe, by fear, by humility, by joy, by attendance upon sages, by critical give and take with fellows, by acute exchanges among disciples, by clear thinking, by study of scripture, by study of Mishnah, by a minimum of sleep, by a minimum of chatter, by a minimum of pleasure, by a minimum of frivolity, by a minimum preoccupation with worldly affairs, by long-suffering, by generosity, by faith in the sages, by acceptance of suffering, (by the one) who knows one’s place, who is content with one’s portion, who makes a hedge around one’s words, who takes no credit to oneself, who is beloved, who loves God, loves humanity, loves acts of charity, loves reproof, loves rectitude, keeps far from honors, is not puffed up with one’s learning, does not delight in handing down decisions, bears the yoke along with one’s companion, judges one’s fellow with generous scales, leads one’s companion to truth, concentrates on study, is capable of intellectual give and take, is capable of adding to one’s learning, studies in order to teach, and studies in order to practice, makes one’s teacher wiser, is exact in one’s learning, and quotes one’s source.  Pirkei Avot 6:6

From a dvar Torah at Fabrangen services, Shavuot/Shabbat 5/30/2020:

As we approach Shavuot and the chanting of the book of Ruth, I wonder: how did she acquire Torah?

Ruth’s promise to Naomi: wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God (Ruth 1:16) is a statement of love, loyalty, duty, and attachment that steer her to the Jewish people.  Her words present a path of widening commitment – to Naomi, to Naomi’s household, to Naomi’s people, and to God. While not directly named, somewhere in this hierarchy is Torah.

For Ruth, the acquisition of Torah laws — of gleaning and levirate marriage — is observational and experiential, and the path is animated by elders and peers. In Chapter 2, she appeals to Naomi to let her glean in the fields “behind someone who may show me kindness” (2:2).  Boaz further instructs her to “stay here close to my girls (already reaping in his fields), keep your eyes on the field they are reaping, and follow them” (2:8-9).  Naomi advises Ruth in the practice of the redeeming kinsman.

What has been your path to kinyan Torah, acquiring Torah? And as we approach yizkor, the memorial prayer recited on Shavuot and other festivals, what do you remember about the ways our peers and elders directed us to Torah?

The design of the embroidery interprets the quoted baraita, Pirkei Avot 6:6.  Each of the distinct attributes for acquiring Torah is surrounded by its own blackwork embroidery pattern, and all are set into an open Torah scroll.

I designed 48 Ways in memory of my teachers, Esther and Max Ticktin, zikhronoteihem livrakha.  Their ways included generosity, rectitude, courage, lovingkindness, patience, humor, and love of humanity.   The Hebrew text and modified English translation follow the Vilna edition provided by Judah Goldin in The Wisdom of the Fathers (Heritage Press, New York, 1957). Translations of Ruth are from The Five Megillot and Jonah, Jewish Publication Society, 1969.

The embroidery was generously photographed by Philip Brookman.  I was inspired by my conversation with Amy Brookman and by her soulful chanting of verse 2:9 to consider the impact of the community of gleaners on Ruth’s acquisition of Torah.  In addition to kinyan Torah, we are told “kenei lekha haver” (Pirkei Avot 1:6): acquire for yourself a friend/companion.  I am grateful to Philip and Amy for their friendship, insights, and support.

An accessible tune

My Facebook group, “Life in the Fast Lein”, is discussing the trop (melodies) used to recite  the Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim. We sung it last Shabbat morning services, during Hol Hamoed Pesach.  The tunes are the same for Ruth,at Shavuot, and for Eccesiastes (Kohelet), at Shemini Atzeret.  I wrote:

I love the tune. It’s accessible. Just like the books. Love is accessible. Loyalty is accessible. Death (alas) is accessible. We’re not hiding behind the cleft of the rock in these books; we are visiting the lives and minds of ancestors who discovered, pondered, and lived out their lives. AND since it’s one of the trops that can be read in a fully pointed text, the experience of reading the megillot is accessible to beginners, which means many more voices can be included…and encouraged to move on to Torah reading and the Book of Esther.