From the Diary of Kasdya (Keep out! Harriet, this means you! 😠)

My mother always told me I was an angel.

Okay, had to put my pen down for a minute, I was laughing so hard reading what I just wrote. I don’t mean that in some sappy, warm and fuzzy way. I mean like an actual, literal angel — beautiful, terrifying, fire and brimstone, the whole bit. She used to say that with our power anyone could see we were born to rule, but our cousins had chosen instead to serve those less worthy than they were, to make themselves into slaves to a thing that didn’t even exist because they were too afraid to face the obvious truth that there is no power in the universe greater than we are, and that because of this it is our right — and responsibility — to rule.

My mom tends to go on like that sometimes. It’s kind of cool, but also kind of not? Anyway, she is definitely an angel. Why else would I be so scared of her? As for me… I mean, on the one hand it just makes sense: My mother is an angel, my father is an (extremely creepy) angel, even my idiot brother is an angel, therefore I am an angel — Q.E.D. But lately I’m not so sure anymore. I guess I have you to thank for that, just like I have you to thank for whatever the hell is going on with my eyes. Before I followed you up that stupid tree it never occurred to me to think I’m not exactly what my mother told me I was. But now…

They could have been lying. An angel can lie, I know that much. But the thing that keeps bugging me is that I can’t figure out what reason they would have had to lie to me about that. To make you pity me? Your Insufferable Highness had already made it crystal clear that’s how you felt about me, and to tell the truth it didn’t look to me like your angel pals were buying it.

How dare you pity me, by the way? How dare you pity me? You think you’re so special because some feathery suck-up gave you a sparkly crown and told you to go out and play hero? You

Okay, had to take a break for a minute. Anyway, the school library keeps copies of all the old year books, did you know that? Well they do. So one night while Mom was out plotting world domination and Azrael was off admiring himself in the mirror or whatever he does when he’s alone, I snuck off by myself to take a look. I figured if I really used to be a human then I must have gone to this school, right? Mom’s been living here since before this town was founded, there’s no reason for her to go looking anywhere else for children to steal. So I opened up last year’s yearbook to see if I was in it. I mean, I think I would have remembered being a human girl just last year, but then again I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and I don’t look any older than the rest of the kids in this school.

There wasn’t anyone in last year’s yearbook that looked like me — big deal, maybe I’m in the one from the year before that, right? But I looked, and I’m not in that one either. So I looked in the next one, and the next — I mean, I guess I could be a really young-looking freshman? — but no me. By now, I’m starting to think those angels really were just screwing with me after all, but still I couldn’t quite get myself to stop. I looked in the next book, and the next one, and the next. I went through a whole shelf of those books, carefully, page after boring page of middle schoolers’ pointless memories. And with every book I was going back a year — through the early 2000’s, the 90’s, the 80’s…

I was just about to give up when I turned the page and there it was, what I was looking for, one tiny little black and white rectangle among all the others, about two thirds of the way down the page — my face. It wasn’t exactly my face, of course. This girl had eyes, for one thing, and her hair wasn’t nearly as cool. But it was me alright — me as I had been as a human girl almost forty years ago. Does that make any sense to you? Because it makes zero to me. Forty years ago this dweeby-looking little human girl with no fashion sense had a name, a life, probably even some kind of human family, and then… what? Something, but I can’t remember. I can’t remember any of it. All I can remember is growing up in Qlippah with a megalomaniacal sea witch for a mother, who tells me I’m an angel. And now I don’t know what I am, but there’s one thing I do know:

I am definitely no angel.

Midrash: That the Holy Blessed One wears a mask

That the Holy Blessed One practices social distancing, from where do we learn it (מנא לן)? As it is written (דכתיב): “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the ark cover, lest he die, for I appear in the cloud over the cover.” (Leviticus 16:1-2) And from where that God wears a mask? As it is written (דכתיב): “He shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over the [Ark of the] Pact, lest he die.” (Leviticus 16:13)

It’s Tevet! Let’s get lost in translation!

So as of yesterday we have officially passed over from the month of Kislev into the new month of Tevet, a month which features no holidays or festivals save for the tail end of Chanukah, but which does include a number of relatively minor fasts.

One of these fasts is the 8th of Tevet, an optional fast-day commemorating the date in 313 B.C.E. when the Torah was translated in to Greek at the behest of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, an event which has been described by one rabbinic source as “as bad for the Jews as the day on which the Golden Calf was made” (Masechet Soferim 1:6 – a non-canonical addendum to the Babylonian Talmud probably composed in the 8th century or so).

It might be instructive to take a look at how this translation came to be: The Ptolemaic kings (a dynasty of Greek kings, descendants of one of Alexander’s generals who ruled over Egypt after his death) were notable for their love of knowledge and learning. It was they who created the famous Library of Alexandria, devoted to collecting texts from all over the known world. King Ptolemy II wanted a copy of the Torah for the library, and for this purpose he commissioned a group of 72 Jewish scholars to produce a translation into Greek, the lingua franca of the Hellenistic world. According to tradition Ptolemy put each of these 72 scholars in a separate chamber and had them produce their own translation independently of all the others. Miraculously, the text each of them produced was identical. This text, the “authoritative” translation of the Torah into Greek, is known as the Septuagint (a Greek word referring to the text’s 72 authors), and was used as a holy text by the Greek-speaking Jewish community of Alexandria, as well as the Christian church later on. (For more details on the story, I suggest taking a look at Masechet Megillot 9a, as well as the Letter of Aristeas.)

When it comes to the question of why this act of translation was so bad, opinions are mixed. Some claim that Ptolemy’s segregation of the Jewish translators was an effort to trip them up, that if the translations had come out different it would have been held up as proof that the Torah was a human creation rather than a divine gift. Some focus on the problems inherent in translation, suggesting that the availability of an “authoritative” translated work cuts people off from the sacred original text. Still others regard it as a tragedy precisely because it made the Torah, which they see as being God’s gift to the Jews alone, accessible to other people.

Now as for me, as a rabbi I am certainly a strong advocate for reading Jewish text in the original language, because there are so many nuances, ambiguities and subtleties of expression that are difficult to render in translation, and because translation inevitably leaves us beholden to the editorial decisions of the translator. Nevertheless, there is something deeply uncomfortable about the idea that textual accessibility should be included among the great many threats to the Jewish people commemorated with a public fast. For all my love for the text in its original language, I can’t help but see accessibility as a good thing, both for Jews who may not have the privilege of an extensive education in the classical language of the Jewish tradition, and for non-Jews who may be inclined to explore Judaism and the wealth of wisdom contained therein. You can say what you like about the perils of cultural appropriation, but for me the bottom line is this:

Violence and misunderstanding increase whenever communication and mutual comprehensibility cease.

And so, as we enter this month of Tevet, I invite you to join me in turning this fast into a feast… of words! Do you have a favorite translation of the Torah, one that captures something interesting about the text and makes it accessible to those who don’t have mastery over the original language? What are some of your favorite works in translation?

I’ll start: My first ever encounter with Jewish text was Robert Alter’s translation and commentary of the Book of Genesis. His artistry and attention to detail really captured my imagination when I read it back in college, and may have set me on a path which eventually led to my conversion to Judaism!

Exploring Jewish Prayer: Amidah pt. 1, Avot v’Imahot

Check out the first in a series of videos I’m doing about getting into Jewish prayer!

In this one, we explore the first blessing of the Amidah, the central part of the prayer service. It focuses on our connection with our ancestors, how we benefit from their acts of loving kindness, and how our own acts of loving kindness translate into redemption for our descendants!

Mixed Multitudes: The Firstborn Son

I should have felt resentful toward the Hebrews, for whose sake the curses of their God had befallen my people, but in fact all I felt that night as I lay in my bed waiting to die was an immense sense of relief. I remember thinking, My life is about to be over. After tonight, I will never have to lie to anyone about who I am again. Perhaps that in itself is a kind of mercy.

When I awoke the next morning, I was filled with confusion. At first I thought it hadn’t happened, that the Pharaoh had defeated the Hebrews’ God after all. I felt a pang of sympathy for the Hebrew slaves. Ah well, I thought, it just shows that it is better not to hope, not even for release. But then I heard the wailing from outside, a cry of anguish rising up from the houses of my town such as I had never heard, and a kind of wonder crept over me, for I knew that it had happened after all. But why had I of all the firstborn sons of Egypt been spared?

I went to see their prophetess. I found her with a group of other women, face and arms covered with flour, hurriedly mixing dough in preparation for their departure. 

“That will never have time to rise,” I observed.

She didn’t even look up, focused on her work. “We’ll make do. Now what is it you wanted? Better make it quick — as you can see, we’re in kind of a hurry.”

Haltingly, uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the women upon me, I told her who I was and put my question to her: “Why was I, of all the firstborn sons of Egypt, spared?”

Now she did look up, when her eyes met mine they crinkled up and she laughed. My heart went cold — somehow this daughter of slaves knew what I had never uttered to a living soul.

“Do you think anything is hidden from the eyes of God?” she said. “The firstborn son of your house is dead, but you were spared. If you ask me, I think you’ll be better off without him. Now come along and help me with this bread.”

Still smiling, I got down on my knees alongside the other women of Israel and began to knead.

Mixed Multitudes: The Boy Next Door

The boy next door was about my own age. It’s funny, but I can’t seem to remember what his name was anymore. When we were small he would show up at our door every morning, politely asking if I would come out to play. I always did. His parents were Egyptian and mine were Hebrew, my parents slaves and his free, but that didn’t seem to matter… that is, until my brother Chayim was born. Nowadays when a woman gives birth to a son it’s a cause for celebration, but back then the prayer on every pregnant woman’s lips was that God would give her a daughter. We daughters, you see, were allowed to live. The Pharaoh’s men came for my brother Chayim on the day of his brit milah. After Chayim was taken, whenever the boy from next door came to ask for me I would hide and pretend I wasn’t there. I could no longer bring myself to play with a child of the people who had stolen my brother from me.

Then the man of God came. We watched as plague after plague rained down upon the Egyptians, and in my heart I was glad, for the sake of my brother who was never allowed to live. But after the darkness departed and the Pharaoh still refused to let us go free, the word reached us that God was planning to visit one more plague upon the Egyptians — the death of every firstborn male. Standing outside our house, watching my father as he painted the doorposts with blood to ward away the angel of death, I looked over at the house next door, and saw the boy I used to play with looking back at me through the window. From the look on his face I could tell he knew well what was in store for him. All at once the memory of our time spent playing in the courtyard came flooding back, and I knew what I had to do. I talked with my mother and father, and they talked with his mother and father. That night, when we celebrated the Passover feast, there was one more sitting at our table than there had been the night before. And when we departed Egypt the next day, my brother Chayim went with us.  

Mixed Multitudes: The Borrower

The Hebrews came to our doors in the early morning on the day when they were to leave us, asking to borrow our fine clothes, our vessels of gold and silver, to be used for the festival of their God. We knew it was a lie, of course — the part about borrowing. And they knew we knew. And yet we gave willingly. Why? 

I knew the woman who showed up at my door. She was much older now, her back bent with toil, face lined with years of hardship, but still I remembered her as she had been on that day long ago when the Pharaoh’s men shoved her roughly out of the very same door I was standing in now. “Egypt for Egyptians,” is what they called it, but the thing I remember most was the look on her face as she was cast out from the home she and her family had lived in for generations to make way for another family — my family. At first we felt guilty, of course, but what could we do? It was the Pharaoh’s will. And then over the course of the years the house began to feel less like someone else’s home and more like our own, and we thought less and less of the Hebrews whose hands had built these walls. Now, standing in the doorway of my home, with my son’s body growing cold in his cot in the kitchen and my husband’s in the bed in the back room, I looked upon the face of the Hebrew woman and remembered. 

“Go,” I said as I handed her the vessels, among them items that had been left by her family when they were forced to leave in haste all those years ago. “And ask for your God to bless me also, for my heart is broken into pieces.”

“Ask Him yourself,” she said, not unkindly. “It is said that He is close to the broken-hearted.”

When the Hebrews marched out later that day, I followed them. I did not look back, nor did I bother to shut the door of the house my family had borrowed for a time.