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.

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.

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.

Counting the Omer

(Reprinted from the Fabrangen Omer Blog, 2010)

A different count-down today (or the case of the omer, a count up)

My friend, Pat Marks, is a Christian minister with Kairos ministry, which conducts intensive weekends in women’s prisons. I met Pat through Lisa Newell’s healing circle.

Pat sent around a broadcast email earlier this week asking us to each take a half hour prayer slot, part of a ‘prayer chain’ on behalf of the women, coinciding with their intensive weekend. Pat wrote, “I believe the prayer chain helps to break all other chains.” I feel too cynical about Jewish history to fully accept this idea, but decided to participate, both to support my friend Pat and to extend myself toward some of the prison work my son Eli was doing (very different — legal work with Ohio Justice and Policy Center [2008-2010]). My slot was today, midday. I thought I would read from the book of Psalms, which is a traditional Jewish choice to signal distress and need for comfort.

I ended up choosing Psalms for a New Day by Debbie Perlman. Her Psalm 30 reads in part:

Give thanks for the journey,
And for the destination;

Give thanks for the rehearsal,
And for the performance;
Give thanks for the kneading,
And for the good sweet bread.

Give thanks for the washing,
And for the folded clothes;
Give thanks for the sweeping,
And for the cleared stoop.

Her poem made me think of many things: In preparing/cleaning for Pesach, indeed, both the sweeping AND the cleared stoop have been fortifying. Journey and destination.

I thought about counting out time, which we do with the omer. Having an extra bracha for the omer to recite each day is part of the journey; Shavuot is the destination. By numbering each day, we add importance to and patience with the journey.

What about the counting that the women in prison do? I imagine they are counting down the days, not up, the way the seniors at my high school count down the days till graduation. Is there anything about the journey that is important to the incarcerated women? I imagine their days are filled with impatience. I was sad at the contrast.

To paraphrase Pat, maybe counting helps to break chains. I feel very grateful to have the omer to count.

END NOTE 2020:  Pat is still active in prison work and is now a deaconess.  Prison issues are today even more ominous with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Finishing the book of Exodus, 5780

The Book of Exodus, Shemot, starts with the saga of enslavement and deliverance.  Next the narrative moves away from story-telling, toward lawgiving and the Covenant: the Ten Commandments in parashat Yitro and the many instructions of Mishpatim.  In the third section, we have the instructions and implementation of the architectural, interior design, and priestly accoutrements needed for the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  We get the instructions in Terumah and Tetzaveh, interrupted by rebellion (Golden Calf) and more law-giving in Ki Tissa, and at last the implementation of the instructions for the Mishkan in Va-Yakhel and Pekudei.  In both Ki Tissa (Ch 31) and  Vayakhel (Chap 35), the building details are interrupted to with a warning to observe Shabbat.

The four parshiyot that focus on the Mishkan are very emotionally rewarding texts.  I love the attention to all the “stuff”.

I learned a lot about them from the commentary on Exodus by Rabbi Umberto Cassuto on Exodus.  Cassuto lived from 1853 to 1951 and Cassutohad been the chief rabbi of Florence. He fled to Palestine in 1938 and took a position at Hebrew University.  He died in 1951, the year his book, Commentary on Exodus, was published. My copy is from Max Ticktin’s z”l collection, and I wonder whether Max had Cassuto as his teacher in 1947 and 1948 when he and Esther lived there.

While he discussed the construction in great depth in his book, in some ways, Cassuto was not too concerned about the details.  In his mind, just as narrative portions of Humash are not meant to teach history for its own sake, but to give, by narration, religious, ethical, and national instruction, so too is this section not meant to describe antiquities of Israelite worship, but to convey what was considered conducive to the idea of the presence of God in the camp of Israel.

In fact, he insisted that the details given in parashat Terumah were not a blueprint.  I imagine he wouldn’t have cared for Moshe Levine’s book, The Tabernacle, along with others who have tried to recreate the Mishkan in tiny detail.  For example, Cassuto notes, Adonai instructs Moshe concerning the LampstandLampstand-small by showing him its likeness, so it’s apparent that the Lampstand is not fully described here.

Cassuto advised considering what other ancient cultures were doing, because those would inform the Israelites’ sense of sacred space.  We could then learn what is important to the Israelites by contrasting their Mishkan with other Sanctuaries of the time. For example, Ugaritic poems describing temple of Baal included furniture items that do and don’t overlap with our Mishkan: throne, footstool, lamp, chest of drawers, table and its utensils, bed.  The bed and chest of drawers would be necessary in idolatry: Baal needed a bed to lie down on, and drawers for his garments.  In the Israelite Mishkan?  No bed, no chest of drawers.

Cassuto goes on to argue that the materials: metals (gold, silver, bronze); items spun or woven (wool, flax); coarser materials (goat’s hair); along with rams’ skins and dolphin(?) skins – were all entirely plausible.  The “dolphin skins”, for example, might be a sea-cow found in Red Sea whose skins were used by Bedouins for sandals.  Wood is specified in the Mishkan parts inventory, and indeed, atzei shittim, likely acacia, is found in desert.  All these materials were possible.  His comment contrasts with medieval commentators who struggled to understand this materials list.  Cassuto offers the perspective of someone who actually lived in Israel.

So let’s imagine we have an entirely plausible Tabernacle. Why was it so important?

The story has emotional resonance for anyone who has kept a momento of a person or experience that is now far off or long ago.  Because the Israelites are clearly in it for the emotion. This sequence of parshiyot starts with Terumah:  “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus25:1)  cropped-cropped-mishkan-2.jpgAn instruction for VOLUNTARY action?  That’s especially astonishing given that recent text of the Ten Commandments and Laws are covenantal and mandatory, not “asher yidvenu libo” – whose heart so moves him.

There are of course a number of commentaries on that—

Terumati – “my gift” – God’s gift to us is that we have the internal motivation to be generous and have hearts that can be moved. (Ohr HaChaim)

Tikhu et terumati – The imperative verb, tikhu, is actually“take” and not “give” – because the Israelites’ actually received a gift of being able to volunteer (Beit HaLevi).

Etc.  Not exactly the wording you’d find in a home improvement contract.

Bravo to God for figuring that out.  BUT: Despite this example, God is often not so good at figuring out people and physical things.  In the Garden, God put a beautiful tree in front of Adam and Eve and told them “you can’t touch this” – then gets sore at them when … surprise!… they do.  In our parshiyot, Moses gets a long set of instructions to build this Mishkan,  and that keeps him away from the Israelites, a real let-down after the extraordinary experience at Sinai.  Naturally, they want a memento, and before you know it, the entire Tabernacle narrative is disrupted by the pesky Golden Calf.  Not just Moses, but God has been gone a long time, and the Israelites are brooding.  To add to the insult, God is typically generous with Moses about sensory experiences – Moses gets a burning bush and a cleft of rocks behind which to witness God’s glory, whereas the Israelites are supposed to wait and be patient, and like a little kid, not touch anything.  NOT!

So I will interrupt to show you a memento that means a lot to me.  In the photo is a Czech dictionary that my father brought home from World War II. He was stationed in Czechoslovakia at the war of the war Morton Eisenbergs Czech dictionaryto interrogate German prisoners, using his Yiddish to pull together a German interview.  He loved his time in Czechoslovakia and befriended a family there along with the local priest.  I knew a bit about that. But he died 40 years ago, and as strongly as I know that I felt safe in his presence, I didn’t really know him as I would like to now.  So the dictionary takes on out-size importance.  It’s a bit of something my father touched, that my father took notes in, that he found important, and, as I can tell from his handwritten vocabulary lists stuffed inside the cover, that he devoted some effort to, that was a part of his life experience he found important. Sometimes I feel that if I look at the dictionary, maybe I’d know my father a little better, or at least, could say I’m perpetuating the family story in a way I wouldn’t feel if I was just remembering him telling me the story.

So I congratulate the Israelites on bringing their terumah and for supporting the Tabernacle artisans Betzalel and Oholiab, and even for wanting a Golden Calf.  God was gone, and they wanted something to reach out to because they wanted to know God better and they wanted the experience of feeling physically engaged with God, using all their senses.  They weren’t the most mature Children of Israel, and God wasn’t the most perceptive, reactive teacher.  Believe me, it happens all the time at school.

Finally, perhaps that tension of physicality and spirituality relates back to the mention of Shabbat that happens twice in the Mishkan narrative.  The rabbis connect the laws on the melakhot of Shabbat, forbidden work and artisan activities, to comparable steps in building the Temple.  Now on Shabbat, we get the neshama yetira, the extra soul.  With an extra soul, we can take a pass on physical objects and forgo all those arts-and-crafts melochos.  But 85.7% of the time (that’s 6 out of 7), we are stuck with our one, clumsy soul, the same soul that spurs you to comb the overpriced airport shops at the end of your vacation for that last physical souvenir (a word which is French for “to remember”), even when your memories should suffice, a very minor instance of Golden Calf-ishness.  You’d think God would understand that need, and not pull a 40-day retreat. God has very high expectations.

So that’s how I understand the Mishkan, and in the end, God does too, because God even promises to dwell there, among the Israelites. In one midrash, Shemot Rabba 34:1, God is willing to constrict God’s presence to within the tiny space of one square amah so God can fit in the Mishkan and be close to the people.  Because in the end, that’s where we, the physical Jewish people, are.

Atonement when we’ve done right


Comments at the Yom Kippur Ma’ariv service 5780, Fabrangen, Washington, DC 

The Torah reading for Rosh Hodesh is drawn from Numbers 28.  It describes the special Temple offering for that day as l’hatat l’A’, for a sin offering for the Lord.  That wording, oddly, suggests that perhaps it was God who brought a sin offering.  Why?

There’s an aggadic parable in the Talmud, Chullin 60b, that notes that in Genesis, God is described as creating two great luminaries in the sky: the sun and the moon.  The moon, however, complained to God: “Can two kings share the same crown?”, hoping that God would appoint the moon the greater light, and the sun the lesser one.  In response to the moon’s complaint, though, God did the reverse, designating the sun to “rule by day” and the moon by night.  God tried to console the moon, promising, for example, that the Jewish people would keep our calendar by it, but God could not succeed in comforting the moon. The Talmud describes God saying “Bring an atonement for me, for I diminished the moon.”  According to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish who is cited in that Talmudic passage, that means it’s actually GOD who needs the sin offering.

This midrash is especially pertinent in our season of atonement. It seems to me that if God really wanted to console the moon, God could have reversed God’s decision.  It would be easy enough for God, we can imagine, to make the moon as great as the sun again.  Instead, God stood by the original decision.

Yet still, God felt compelled to request a sin offering to effect an atonement.

The texts we have in the Yom Kippur liturgy make it clear that we must atone when we’ve done wrong. This Talmudic story, though, suggests that atonement may be due, even if we’re sure we’re right. In making a decision and sticking with it, sure that we’ve pursued the right course, we can still acknowledge that we cause pain.  In an age of polarization and an inflamed sense of righteousness, it’s possible, like God did, to acknowledge that our actions may designate winners and losers, and that even when our behavior is correct, the losers, like the moon, are diminished.

(Embroidery:  Gates of Repentance, 2009, verses of the piyyut Petach Lanu Sha’ar (“open for us the gates”) of the Yom Kippur Neilah service, scanned by Philip Brookman)

Ruth and Naomi, Devoted Partners

Devar Torah on Megilat Ruth, in memory of Dorothy Braun z”l
Fabrangen, Washington, DC, June 8, 2019

My mother-in-law, Dottie Braun, died eight weeks ago.  I was close with my mother-in-law and sometimes called us a “Ruth-Naomi” pair.  So today, I had planned to comment on that aspect of the book of Ruth, in memory of Dottie.

In preparing this drash, though, I read the book of Ruth more carefully, and no longer think that it conveys the simple story of devotion that many of us imagine.  So my drash is a bit different than what I expected, though it is still a moment for me to pause in tribute to my mother-in-law, Dottie.

So what’s in the book?  Marge Piercy writes in her poem, The Book of Ruth and Naomi,

“When you pick up the Tanakh and read
the Book of Ruth, it is a shock
how little it resembles memory.
It’s concerned with inheritance,
lands, men’s names, how women
must wiggle and wobble to live.”

(from Mars and Her Children, 1992, Knopf; I found it in Poems of Ruth posted on Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s blog.)

Many of us are familiar with Ruth’s statements of attachment to Naomi after the deaths of Naomi’s sons, including Ruth’s husband, Machlon.  Ruth declares (1:16) “wherever you go, I will go: wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”

Ruth has thus become a model for conversion, contributing to the tradition of reading Megilat Ruth at Shavuot, when we re-enact our acceptance of Torah.

Looking more carefully at Ruth’s remarks, though, it seems that her attraction to “your people” and “your God” is based on her relationship with Naomi.  Unlike Abraham, a foreigner who also migrates to the Promised Land, Ruth doesn’t embark on her journey because of a direct relationship with God. Rather, she says, regarding Naomi, YOUR God will be my God, where YOU go/get buried, I will as well.  Indeed, this book is very focused on the Ruth-Naomi relationship.  They speak frequently in the narrative – unusual for women in a Biblical text – and jointly enact their plan to safely glean in the fields and to appeal to Boaz and his redeemer status.

Understandably in a long-term relationship, there are missteps.  Avivah Zornberg, speaking at Adas Israel in Washington, DC  on May 7, 2019, spoke of two “microaggressions” that Naomi directs to Ruth.  The first happens when they arrive at Bethlehem.  Naomi laments (2:21), “I went away full, and Adonai brought me back empty” though Ruth was right by her side.  I wonder whether Ruth felt invisible at that moment.  Honestly, though, Naomi was indeed very nearly empty – her husband and sons were gone, she was displaced, her former family wealth had disappeared, and she returns to Bethlehem like a burnt husk left over from a meal offering (“vatesha’er”, Ruth Rabba 2:8).

The second microaggression is at the end of the book; Ruth has a baby, but then she nearly disappears from the narrative. Referring to 4:14, “And the women said to Naomi… “he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons”, but then the text continues “Naomi took the child and became its omenet (nursemaid/foster mother)”.  Next, the women say “A son is born to Naomi!” and (the women? Ruth and Naomi?) name him Obed. Finally, when we are given a male lineage through to David, both women are lost to the story.

So where is the missing Ruth?  I refer you to a midrash shared by Avivah Zornberg at her Adas lecture.

Ruth Rabba 2 2

In this midrash, Ruth reappears at Solomon’s court, seated on Solomon’s right while his mother, Bat-Sheva, is seated to his left. The judgement (Melakhim I, 3:16-28) concerns the story of the two women who each claim to be the mother of a single baby. So Ruth lives to see the wisdom of her offspring and is honored in the court of her great-great-grandson (Ruth-Obed-Jesse-David-Solomon).  And she is present for a court case where the identity of the true mother is revealed, a kind of last laugh, considering her treatment in Chapter 4.

(I find it provocative that Batsheva attends the court for this decision.  In her lifetime, two men desire her and one dies, and David entirely controls the outcome by putting her first husband, Uriah, in harm’s way in battle. In Solomon’s court, two women vie for one baby, and Solomon’s proposed solution avoids a resulting death.)

Separately, I found two midrashim that bear on this, in a blog post by Baruch Cohen. Yalkut Shimoni 2:175 (a compilation of midrashim ~ 1100 CE ) claims that the two women were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, while another midrash (Kohelet Rabba 10:16) identifies them as yevamot, women whose husbands died and who need a live birth to avoid Yibbum, the levirate marriage, to male “redeeming” relatives who were undesirable partners. Meiri (1249-1305, Catalonia; commentary on Yevamot 17a) connects these two midrashim, giving us an astonishing motivation for one of the women appearing in Solomon’s court. The consequences of a dead child – living the balance of one’s life with a distasteful redeemer – might have brought a shrewd bereaved mother to court, claiming that the live infant was hers.

I am now more sympathetic to the newly bereaved mother’s desperate and distorted mental state, than I was as a child hearing the Biblical story for the first time and delighting in Solomon unmasking this cruel, murderous mother. Her scheming brings to mind the careful plotting Naomi and Ruth undertake to procure their best redeemer, Boaz.

Mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relations, a question of motherhood status, and the complications of levirate marriage are elements present in both the Ruth story and in these midrashim. It takes the wisdom of Solomon, her descendant, to untangle them.

These stories bring us back to Marge Piercy’s observation that in a hostile, controlling society, women must “wiggle and wobble to live”.  The book of Ruth then becomes a narrative of two mutually devoted women who, facing great adversity, together plan to survive and thrive.  To continue with Marge Piercy’s poem:

“Show me a woman who does not dream
a double, heart’s twin, a sister
of the mind in whose ear she can whisper,
whose hair she can braid as her life
twists its pleasure and pain and shame.
Show me a woman who does not hide
in the locket of bone that deep
eye beam of fiercely gentle love
she had once from mother, daughter,
sister; once like a warm moon
that radiance aligned the tides
of her blood into potent order.”

And with that, I recall again the memory of my mother-in-law, Dottie Braun, zikhronah livrakha.


Other sources I read preparing this drash:

Gabriel H. Cohn, Textual Tapestries: Explorations of the Five Megilot, Maggid Books, 2016, on instances of women speaking in Ruth

Avivah Zornberg’s presentation on “vatesha’er” in Ruth Rabba and Mona DeKoven Fishbane’s on Naomi and Ruth’s bond, in Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, Reading Ruth, Ballantine Books, 1994

Quotation from Ruth Rabba 2:2 from Sefaria.

A current take on Nadab and Abihu

From this morning’s Torah reading (Shemini, Leviticus 10): Nadab and Abihu are charged with executing the Law, laid out in thorough precision in previous chapters. Instead, they choose to conduct their authority according to their own imagination, and are promptly removed from leadership.  A sympathetic family member who also holds power (Aaron) must be reminded that Rules means Rules.

Not my usual reaction to the tragic deaths of Nadab and Abihu, but nowadays…it works.

Yom Kippur commentary

Here are some comments I shared during  5779 Yom Kippur Maariv services at the Fabrangen Havurah in Washington, DC.  Page numbers refer to the mahzor Hadeish Yameinu.

Before Kaddish:

On page 411, we come to the Kaddish.  We are used to extra insertions in our prayers during the High Holiday services, and there is even an extra insertion in the Kaddish.  The last paragraph begins le’eylah u’le’eylah which you could translate as higher and higher, or beyond and beyond.  Normally, Kaddish only includes one le’eylah, not two.   The second le’eylah serves to emphasize the heightened attention to God’s Majesty and expansiveness during the Ten Days of Repentence.

The extra word poses an interesting problem. Starting from the words yehei Shmei the congregational response starting on the 8th line, tradition has it the the kaddish should thenceforth contain 28 words. More on that later.  The extra l’eylah would bump up this paragraph to 29 words, and gracious, High Holiday services are already long enough!  So the rabbis compensated by taking two words found in the usual kaddish min kol, and contracting them to mikol, as you can see on the third line from the bottom:  mikol birchata vershirata.  Phew!

Why is it important to stay at 28 words?  Lots of reasons have been explored.  One reason I learned from an essay by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz of the Orthodox Union, a reason that is pertinent for us in this season, stems from Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes.

There are 28 instances in person’s lifetime enumerated in Ecclesiastes Chapter 3. You also know the list from the Byrds’ song, “Turn-turn-turn”.  Namely:

(1) A time to be born, (2) a time to die; (3) a time to sow, (4) a time to reap; (5) a time to kill, (6) a time to heal; (7) a time to raze, (8) a time to build; (9) a time to cry, (10) a time to laugh; (11) a time to eulogize, (12) a time to dance; (13) a time to scatter stones, (14) a time to gather stones; (15) a time to hug, (16) a time to refrain from hugging; (17) a time to seek, (18) a time to lose; (19) a time to keep, (20) a time to send away; (21) a time to rip, (22) a time to mend; (23) a time to be silent, (24) a time to speak; (25) a time to love, (26) a time to hate; (27) a time of war, (28) a time of peace.

The list from Ecclesiastes seems especially pertinent tonight.  Tonight we evaluate the times we experienced in our lives – how we’ve spent time, and how we want to spend time.

Tonight is a night of enumeration, too.  In tonight’s liturgy, we’ll so enumerate so many things:

In the introductory prayers: our reasons for gratitude in the introductory prayers,

In the confessionals: our failings

In the piyyut Anu Amekha: the ways our people are close to God

In Avinu Malkeinu: our hopes and desires

In the Selicha section: God’s 13 Attributes we rely on for forgiveness.

Tonight is an occasion for enumeration and attention to time.

Before the Selihot section:

We are entering a section of selichot, prayers of penitence, that provide a model of how God forgives sin – and this is a model for us when we think about forgiving others.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin remarked that we tend to judge other people by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.  Contrast that to God’s quality of forgiveness.  In the fifth line on 438, it says ma’avir rishon rishon –God considers transgressions one by one.  That’s a contrast to the temptation we sometimes face that makes forgiveness difficult – the tendency, when we feel aggrieved by another person’s action, not to consider that action alone, but rather to pile on all our complaints, and judge the person more harshly.  God, in contrast, considers a person’s actions rishon rishon – one by one.

On the next page, the last passage on p 439, we have the Thirteen Attributes of God, based on Exodus 34:6-7.  The actual Biblical verses extend beyond the last word, venakeh, granting pardon.  In fact, the text in Exodus verse 7 reads venakeh lo yinakeh – a double-stressed word that is common in Biblical grammar and actually means the God will NOT grant pardon.  But the redactors of the Mahzor cut the Biblical phrase off at the first nakeh, so it reads ‘granting pardon’.  Perhaps the rabbis were playing the same rishon rishon game that God does in our previous citation—considering the words one at a time so as not to present a more harsh view of God.

A hamsa for parashat Ki Tavo

An embroidery: Hamsa (2011)

The hamsa is a palm-shaped amulet found in Jewish and Middle Eastern art, jewelry, and wall hangings, symbolizing God’s blessings andBraun.Hamsa.JudaicEmbroidery protection. In Islamic culture, it is sometimes referred to as the Hand of Fatima. Indeed, the embroidery features border and fill patterns adapted from a motif from an Islamic frieze.

The accompanying Hebrew words read “Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings” (Deuteronomy 28:6), and are part of this week’s parasha (Torah reading).

The shadowing in Hamsa is executed in a progressive pattern with skipped or lightened embroidery stitches, acting like the rest notes of the song B-I-N-G-O.  The design is fully worked in at the bottom of the palm, created with two shades of blue thread and a double-threaded needle. Next, the pattern is lightened by dropping to a single thread. Thereafter, the lighter blue thread that had appeared in every third row of the design is eliminated, and the darker blue zigzag pattern remains. Then, every other thread is skipped in the zigzag, leaving the squares. Finally, the squares are dropped, with a few zigzag stitches left to grace the remaining fingertip.  I was eager to try the progressive technique, which I read about in a book about blackwork embroidery.  The technique seemed well suited for this verse, which, like the pattern, entails movement.

Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings!