This morning my wife and I drove our youngest daughter to the airport as she left for a year of study in Israel to be followed by university study in New York. I think we are now official empty-nesters as our older daughters have established residences of their own. While you never cease being a parent (or a child for that matter), this does usher in a new time in our lives with the usual challenges, but we are both looking forward to this next period.
But what does it mean the nest is empty? We are in constant communication with our children through cell phones and other electronic means. The nest may be physically empty but access to it exists in the digital world. Is there a Jewish lens I can use at this moment to make sense of this experience?
I am going to quote 2 verses and the somewhat long (at least for a blog post) commentary of Rashi. It is worthwhile to study the texts first and only then read my thoughts on them.
1. Genesis 1:2
Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.
and the spirit of God was hovering: The Throne of Glory was suspended in the air and hovered over the face of the water with the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He and with His word, like a dove, which hovers over the nest.
2. Deuteronomy 32:11
As an eagle awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings, it spreads its wings, taking them and carrying them on its pinions.
As an eagle awakens its nest: He guided them [Israel] with mercy and compassion like an eagle, which is merciful towards its own fledglings and does not enter its nest suddenly. [Rather,] it beats and flaps its wings above its young between one tree and another, between one branch and another, in order that its young should awaken and have the strength to receive it.
hovering over its fledglings: [The eagle] does not impose its [whole] body upon them. Rather, it hovers above them, touching them and yet not quite touching them. So too, is the Holy One, Blessed is He. [As in the verse:] “We did not find the Almighty great in power” (Job 37:23). When He came to give the Torah to Israel, He did not reveal Himself to them from one direction [thus concentrating His power at one point, as it were], but rather, from four directions, as Scripture states, “The Lord came from Sinai, and shone forth from Seir to them, and appeared from Mount Paran” (Deut. 33:2). [This accounts for three directions.] The fourth direction is referred to in [the verse], “God comes from Teman” (Hab. 3:3). – [Sifrei 32:11]
spreading its wings, taking them: When it [the eagle] comes to move [its fledglings] from place to place, it does not pick them up with its feet, as do other birds. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, which soars very high and flies above them. For this reason, it [the other bird] carries them with its feet because of the eagle [above them]. The eagle, however, is afraid only of an arrow. Therefore, it carries its young on its wings, saying, “It is better that an arrow pierce me, rather than pierce my young.” So too, the Holy One, Blessed is He, [says]: “I carried you on eagles’ wings” (Exod. 19:4). [I.e.,] when the Egyptians pursued [the children of Israel] and overtook them at the [Red] Sea, they cast arrows and catapulted rocks [at Israel]. Immediately, “The angel of God moved… [behind them… and the pillar of cloud] came between the camp of Egypt [and the camp of Israel]” (Exod. 14:19-20) [for Israel’s protection]. — [Mechilta 19:4]
The Hebrew word for hovering, which Rashi sees as associated with the image of a mother bird hovering over her nest, is used twice in the Torah. Rashi appears to have taken the nest image from Deuteronomy and used it in Genesis, although the bird shifts from an eagle in Deuteronomy to a dove in Genesis. God hovers over the world just before creation and God hovers over the Jewish people. Rashi’s image in Deuteronomy of the eagle hovering: “touching them yet not quite touching them”, is a striking description of God’s paradoxical relationship and presence with Israel and the world.
But in the context of Deuteronomy 32, this description only applies in the desert wanderings of the people before they cross over into Israel. Once Israel leaves the nest of the desert, the pillar of cloud will cease and Israel will have to make choices without the guarantee of God’s protection. For the rest of Deuteronomy 32, these will be most unfortunate choices.
The image of the empty nest is then this capacity to choose. We hope and want our children to make the right choices. Yet, I would suggest that according to Rashi we do not have to lose the experience of the nest entirely. It is always recoverable, even if the protective, almost miraculous elements of it are no longer accessible.
The image of the eagle hovering over its young is the image of Sinai. God’s presence in Torah is the moment of “touching them yet not quite touching them”. We can always return to Sinai textually. The miracles of the desert may no longer happen, but the call of Sinai remains. The nest beckons both parents and children to pursue this relationship of “touching them yet not quite touching them” to God and each other.
One should not be surprised the Pope is not coming to my seder. Truth is, we do not know each other and I seriously doubt he would come. But what is more striking is that I will not be inviting Moses to join me either and it is not simply because he is dead. After all, each year I invite Elijah to join and even open the door for him to enter.
Why is Moses not present at the seder? How do we account for the fact he is virtually erased from the traditional Haggadah? If we are to be recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt, how can we ignore a crucial character of the story? Would we tell the story of the founding of the United States and leave out George Washington? Do we really transmit the Exodus properly to our children by hiding Moses?
I would like to suggest that Moses is not present Passover night because despite of his greatness, or perhaps because of his greatness, he cannot have a seat at the table. Moses represents the opposite of what the seder is intended to convey.
In Exodus Chapter 18 we read of the encounter of Moses and his father in law Jethro after the Exodus but (according to most) before Sinai.
1. When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt;
2. Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her back,
3. And her two sons; and the name of one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land;
Notice that he brings Moses’s wife Tzipporah with him and her two children. Tzipporah was not in Egypt during the Exodus. Moses had sent her away before that fateful night. According to some he even had divorced her. One passage in the Zohar says that the reason the children are called her’s is that while Moses fathered them, she had brought them up.
In an earlier blog post I discussed a Midrash that says Moses after the Revelation at Sinai never returned to his tent, which is understood to mean he never resumed a conjugal relationship with his wife. He remained celibate, always on call to God.
Moses, the great leader and teacher he was, is the absent father and absent spouse. His family is sacrificed for his leadership. He is our hero, but not our model to be remembered at the seder. Indeed at the very first seder in Egypt, Moses was alone and had no children present who could ask him ma nishtanah, the Four Questions. Moses is the opposite of the very experience we strive to have at the seder. He represents the negation of family. His leadership might require the sacrifice of family, but the seder is still not his place. He has no seat of honor there.
I am aware that many people this Passover may be at a seder where there may be no children or where everyone is single. I am not being critical of this. It should be pointed out that tradition dictates it still be in a style of questions and answers. While people who gather may not be related, a family of sorts is created at the seder.
But then why do we invite Elijah to the seder? You can discuss it then.
A professor friend of mine has been thinking about moments of interruption. How do we cope when they intrude upon our lives? Death is perhaps the most extreme example of this as in many ways our lives come to screeching halt in order to bury and mourn our loved ones. Jewish tradition has a number of rules as to when someone can interrupt their prayers to greet someone or remove their screaming baby in the middle of silent prayer. When can one interrupt performing one mitzvah if another one beckons as well?
But we know that the most interruptions occur when we are in conversation. Sometimes we assume that the person interrupting is simply rude, while the interrupter may feel that it is crucial to the moment. Universities have to make rules about when it is or is not appropriate to interrupt a speaker.
Circulating on the web now is an extraordinary talk by MK Ruth Calderon in her first Knesset speech. It can be viewed here in Hebrew and it is translated here. Aside from the content and the reclaiming of Jewish tradition and text for all Jews, there are two moments that stand out for me. One is her acknowledgement of Rabbi David Hartman who had just passed away. Secondly is when Chairman Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas) interrupts her presentation:
Rabbi Rechumei – a rabbi, a rav, a whole lot of man [“rav” can mean “rabbi” or “much”]. “Rechumei” in Aramaic means “love”. Rechumei is derived from the word “rechem”, womb, someone who knows how to include, how to completely accept, just as a woman’s womb contains the baby. This choice of word for “love” is quite beautiful. We know that the Greek word for “womb” gives us the word “hysteria”. The Aramaic choice to take the womb and turn it into love is a feminist gesture by the Sages.
He was constantly, he could be found before Rava, the head of the yeshiva at Mechoza…
Chairman Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas):
Rechem also [has a numerologically significant value of] 248.(the number of positive commandments out of 613)
Thank you. Yasher koach.
Thank you for participating. I am happy…
I think the idea she is saying is wonderful…
I am happy about this participation in words of Torah.
What is lost in this moment of the English translation is that as Vaknin adds his thought, there are sounds from the Knesset of what appear to be some protesting his interruption of Calderon’s speech. However, she apparently does not see it as a rude interruption, but rather a genuine moment of Torah study. In that short exchange a woman who is self-described as “very Jewish, very Zionist, secular-traditional-religious home that combined Ashkenaz and Sepharad, [Revisionist] Betar and [Socialist] Hashomer Hatzair,” has a brief exchange of Torah with a member of Shas. For those few seconds Ruth has transformed the Knesset into a Beit Midrash, a place while still filled with conflicting voices, but now for the sake of Torah. It was a brief, but real moment of a shared religious passion. Although Torah study is generally not the agenda of the Knesset, may more interruptions for the Sake of Heaven be found.
There is an old joke about the Israeli fellow who would always ask people for the time. People would get irritated, but would tell him the time. Finally at one point somebody asked/told him: “Why not get a watch?”
The fellow responded: “Why should I pay for a watch, I have you to tell me the time. ”
“But what do you do at night when you need to know the time?”
The fellow responded: “At night I blow my shofar”
“Your shofar, how does that help?”
“Easy”, the fellow responded, ” I open my window and blow the shofar. Before you know it people are shouting out to me: why are you blowing your shofar? Don’t you know it is two in the morning!”
As a side point today the fellow would probably now own a phone as who owns a watch anymore? But can you imagine an Israeli not owning a cell phone?
Be that as it may, we all know the power of time marching on and the need to know the time as it determines our schedule and where we have to be or what we have to do. The ability to determine your own schedule is a great luxury. The opposite extreme borders on slavery.
The first commandment to the Jewish people in the Torah is understood to be the command of a calendar whose first month will be Nisan, the month of the Exodus from Egypt. “This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.” Exodus 12:2. The first sign of freedom is determining the flow of time on your terms, and not the terms of the oppressor. Over the past years, numbers of for profit companies and non-profits have moved to allowing flex time for people to set up their schedules. This enables employees to better adjust their schedules and balance their work and family responsibilities and employers have discovered the benefits this can provide to the company itself.
For Jewish tradition, Nisan becoming the first month means Passover and the Exodus are foundational, orienting events. History is meaningful, memory is crucial and one day all will be free. In addition, the Biblical scholar William Propp in his Anchor Bible work on Exodus, makes an acute observation. In Genesis 1:14-18 “no calendar is instituted. God establishes the day, the week and the year-but not the month….The implication may be that the birth of the Israelite nation and the concomitant establishment of the calendar are themselves acts of cosmogony completing the unfinished creation”
14. And God said, “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens, to separate between the day and between the night, and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years.
15. And they shall be for luminaries in the expanse of the heavens to shed light upon the earth.” And it was so.
16. And God made the two great luminaries: the great luminary to rule the day and the lesser luminary to rule the night, and the stars.
17. And God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to shed light upon the earth.
18. And to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate between the light and between the darkness, and God saw that it was good.
In making this observation Propp teaches us that a key Biblical idea is Israel’s role in creation. Partnering with God, Covenant and Tikkun Olam in its classical mystical or current connotation, all assume this notion of our role. Our challenge is know what time it is now and what does the current time demand of us to accomplish.
This question is part of the larger issue of immigration reform that will have to be faced by the Congress once we get past the fiscal cliff concerns. But for Orthodox Jews in Chicago the question of having a green card brings to mind something altogether different.
Like any Orthodox community in a large metropolitan area, there are frequent rings of the bell or visitors who show up to a weekday or Sunday morning minyan. In my experience they are only male, from the Charedi or Hasidic community and most often reside in Israel. They are referred to as meshulachim, some who were sent by a particular yeshiva or institution while others are collecting for themselves, a sick relative, or preparing for a wedding of a child (and the household needs of the new couple). In Chicago, they first stop at the local Agudat Israel office that gives them a “green card” which states they are who they claim to be. Donations are made out to Agudat Israel and can be claimed as charitable donations. There are reminders to make the checks out carefully as a small number of meshulachim have been known to add an extra zero to the sum. However, it is important to remember that there are and were many honorable meshulachim in Jewish history who did important work for yeshivot and other institutions.
The question arises as should you give them money? The minyan I attend gives them ten dollars and they are not allowed to ask anyone in attendance for money. Some people at their homes refuse them outright or give them five dollars. I am troubled by the money they spent on a plane ticket to get to North America and various cities and the cash paid to their drivers who chauffeur them. I also am not a supporter of the Charedi community. Indeed last Israel Independence Day a group showed up at my minyan and deliberately sat down for Hallel which caused quite a scene of consternation. From the point of view of Jewish legal tradition, the needs of one’s own community should take precedence. But they are also fellow Jews and perhaps a buck or two with a smile will not hurt, but many of us wonder if we are simply being used.
I am fortunate that I live a couple of miles away from the center of the orthodox community and so my door bell rarely rings. But every October, a few days after Sukkot, I get a visit from a fellow from Israel. He is collecting for his institution. I actually treasure the visit. He knows my name and my wife’s and addresses both of us. He shares wonderful divrei Torah, short Torah teachings. We talk about our families. We share a small shot of scotch for a l’chaim. He is so endearing and personable that I always give him a decent contribution. My next trip to Israel I will visit his organization and see what it actually is. Maybe I will bring a green card from Chicago and collect for my favorite charitable institutions from home.
Each year when I read the Joseph narratives in Genesis I discover something new. It is one of the joys for me of studying Torah. Although I know how the story ends, I still read it as if I am looking at it for the first time and wonder how it will conclude.
Joseph and his brothers are finally reconciled after Judah, through his speech to Joseph, causes Joseph to reveal his true identity. Genesis Rabbah 93:4 beautifully describes the rhetoric employed by Judah to finally penetrate to Joseph’ s heart. Judah draws out Joseph as the one who draws out the sweet water from the deep well. He enables Joseph to finally reveal his true self.
“Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out (Proverbs 20:5). This may be compared to a deep well full of cold and excellent water, yet none could drink of it. Then came one who tied cord to cord and thread to thread, drew up its water and drank, whereupon all drew water thus and drank thereof. In the same way Judah did not cease from answering Joseph word for word until he penetrated to his very heart.”
“Counsel in the heart of a man is like deep water” is exemplified in Judah at the time when he approached Joseph on behalf of Benjamin, as explained elsewhere, whereas “a man of understanding will draw it out” was exemplified in Joseph.”
For the Zohar it is Joseph who draws out Judah, despite the fact Judah makes the speech. The Shem M’Shmuel asserts that that Joseph is teaching Judah, or perhaps better bringing to the surface, the necessity for Judah to have hachnaah submissiveness or deference to Joseph. Judah, from whom kingship will derive, must understand while he (or his descendants) will have the power of the king, they must also have the characteristic of submissiveness. Judah is willing to be submissive to Joseph to save Benjamin. As kings his descendants will need to be submissive to God. While powerful on the one hand, they are really only the slaves/servants of God.
This Shabbat many rabbis will discuss the murders of last week. Many will call for action from our state and federal governments. The nature of the Second Amendment will be debated among friends, politicians, and in our legislatures. I think one contribution of many we can make to this urgent discussion is that while the “right to” is extraordinarily important, we must also be submissive to God or a greater good that can impose limits on our rights.
We all know people who at some point in their lives may be suffering or depressed and give up hope for any change or improvement. They experience a total sense of powerlessness in their lives and we experience it as well in our efforts to help them. Within our tradition, there is even one startling passage in the Talmud that suggests that during the Hadrianic persecutions in 135 CE, the Jewish people should have refused to have any more children and cease existing within a generation. One can only imagine the despair that must have been felt by the author of that passage.
This week’s Torah reading begins the story of Joseph and his brothers. After the brothers sell Joseph and deceive their father Jacob with a bloodied coat, Jacob falls into inconsolable mourning and refuses to be comforted for the loss of Joseph. The next chapter begins with Judah going down, leaving his brothers and family.
“… and Judah went down from his brothers .…” (Genesis, 38:1)
The Ishbitzer comments on this verse: Why did Judah go and wed a wife at this particular time? As he saw how Jacob refused to be consoled, and as he was the one who had to bring Joseph’s coat to his father, he became greatly depressed, and felt as if, God forbid, there was no more hope. So he went to marry a wife, saying, “perhaps I will have good children from whom will grow an everlasting structure.”
Then afterward, the Holy One, blessed be He, caused him to understand the following. If, God forbid, it is as you think, and there is no hope for you, and you have no life at your root, if so, then even if you give birth to a hundred, they will not have any more life than you. For with the blessed God, the channel through which He sends life must itself be of life. Then, if it is as you think, that you will only have temporary life, then it will be so also with your descendants. Therefore, when he arrived at the clarification of the matter, he fathered Shela, his name Shela meaning misled, the mistake he made in this matter. This is why his first two sons died, and Shela remained alive.
This is a profound teaching. Only those with some hope, even if only a spark, can truly nourish a hopeful future. To create a family there must be a sense of life at one’s core.
In my own work, I have had the pleasure and honor of being the rabbi at many weddings. Some have ended in divorce. This happens. But what is truly sad is couples I knew who decided to have children after they had already determined the marriage was over, deluding themselves that a child would restore the love of the couple. It does not work this way and the divorces happened anyway and for the better of the couples and their children.
Hanukah begins Saturday night. Some commentaries emphasize that the true miracle of Hanukah was not that the menorah stayed lit for eight days, but rather that the people took the initiative to light it even though they had only enough oil for one day. Hope created the miracle, or perhaps was the miracle itself.
A Small Thought on V’Yeitze
Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau, stops on the way, falls asleep for the night and has a magnificent dream. He awakes from his sleep and declares, Surely God was in this place and I did not know it. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 69:7) quotes Rabbi Johanan who plays on the close connection between the words sleep-mi- henatho and study-mi-mishnato and suggests that Jacob arose from his learning and discovered God was in that place. Jacob, as explained by the Sefat Emet, discovers that despite being in the midst of studying Torah, there was an aspect of encountering God which even transcended Torah study.
I love to study and teach Torah. I am pretty traditional about this and not into meditation retreats and the like. But part of this Midrash that I find compelling is the element of the surprise of the discovery. We can do what we usually do, follow the routines, be sure of our surety, and then discover that we had not even known the true nature of the enterprise. Sometimes we do not even realize we were asleep. Sometimes we wake up and encounter God anew.
There are many directions one can take to answer this question. Yesterday I came across a marvelous teaching of the Netivot Shalom. He frames it in a particular textual peculiarity Genesis 24:1
1. And Abraham was old, advanced in days, and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything.
The question he raises is why the phrase “advanced in days” is needed. The verse says he was old. Is this not the definition of advanced in days? Basing himself on the traditional understanding that the Torah uses an economy of language, the seemingly needless phrase must teach us something more than just telling us Abraham was old.
He suggests that “advanced in days” is a way of describing how Abraham lived. Each day was lived to the fullest, which for Abraham meant each day was infused with an act of hesed, loving-kindness or compassion. Abraham in Jewish tradition is the exemplar of hesed, the person who opened his tent to wayfarers. The Netivot Shalom says that to live a day without an act of hesed is to uproot the very existence of that day. It is as if that particular day did not happen.
He connects this to a verse in Psalms 89:3 “The world will be built with/through hesed.” (Admittedly this may not be the simple meaning/translation of the verse but it does reflect the Hebrew). He develops this further through the concept articulated in the daily liturgy that God renews creation daily. To renew creation each day means that we must perform each day an act of hesed or loving-kindness/compassion for someone. It is the act of hesed that creates each day anew.
The legacy of Abraham in this teaching is compassion/loving-kindness practiced on a daily basis. This is not to reduce the importance of other commandments or to reduce the complexity of Abraham’s life in any way. Rather it is an expression of the importance of hesed, its creative component, and its accessibility to all. To model Abraham is to be a compassionate human being. To experience God’s hesed is to to practice hesed. The Netivot Shalom also warns us that to act in the opposite manner is to be destructive. Withholding compassion improperly and acting in a negative manner can destroy the day you have lived.
We have all been witness to multiple acts of compassion/hesed that people have performed as a result of Sandy. People of course must remember that many people are still in need and must be hesed personalities each day. But I do wonder in the light of the election how hesed/compassion could be part of the national conversation instead of the millions upon millions essentially wasted on the political campaigns. What if opposing sides on the abortion argument could agree to be pro-life, not as a political agenda, but to work together to provide safe and secure environments for children to be raised independent of one’s belief whether there is a right to abortion. A truly compassionate society does cost money. Imagine if all that campaign money had actually gone to help people and not to bloated self-promotion.
In June 1975, I was getting ready to leave Israel after a year of study. I bumped into a friend and told her I was leaving early the next morning and that I would visit the Kotel one last time. She asked me: “Have you felt it?” “You mean you haven’t felt it either?” I replied, relieved that I was not the only person who had no spiritual experience at the Kotel.
It was always fun to go, meet friends there, occasionally dance Friday evenings with the Yeshivat HaKotel guys, but it never carried for me any religious meaning. Now when I visit Israel, I rarely go the Kotel.
In the wake of the latest incident with Women of the Wall and the awful treatment of the police of Anat Hoffman, Facebook and the like are filled with anger, petitions, pre-State pictures of the Kotel where men and women are together, and videos of flash prayer mobs and the like. What has become a sacred moment for some has turned into a political football. How do I react to all this as an Orthodox rabbi?
The Kotel has become a sacred space and it is not just a tourist site. It is now an Orthodox shul. While it is legitimate to have security there, the passing of state laws defining proper religious behavior results in acts that do not preserve the sanctity, but defile it. Halacha can make room for women wearing a tallit and carrying a Torah on the women’s side of the Kotel. There is nothing inherently wrong with these practices except that they are new in practice. Forcing women to wear a tallit as a scarf is degrading not only to the women, but to the tallit itself. Forcibly removing a Torah from a woman by the police is a desecration. A rabbi of the Kotel should be asking how the Kotel can be a place that embraces Jews and does not reject them. How can halacha be maintained without shutting out others.
There are halachic issues with Women’s Torah readings, and while some might make a case for their permissibility, the communal/public nature makes it far more controversial. Doing them at the Kotel Plaza would not be an act that embraces Jews, but causes needless strife. Robinson’s Arch is a fair compromise here for this to occur and my sense is all agree to this. We should find a way that acknowledges we cannot pray together, but can stand together at least some of the time.
There is a wall that needs to be torn down here. It is not the Kotel, but a wall that has been built by the state defining religious practice and giving political power to religious authorities who seek to disenfranchise Jews. It is time that wall was torn down and new models replace it.