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!
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.
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.
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.
Ran across an interesting discussion in the Zohar on parashat Tazria. If this kind of thing interests you, perhaps you should come by and study with us at RCBI for my regular Thursday afternoon class studying the weekly Torah portion through mystical text!
In this passage, the sages are discussing the question of how spirits end up in their bodies. One rabbi suggests that spirits issue forth as male and female together, but that they become separated into male and female. Assuming a person is worthy, they will be led in their lifetime to the male or female corresponding to the other part of their soul, and this person will be their appointed partner. But Rabbi Elazar objects:
“Rabbi Elazar said, Not so! For in every one male and female are combined together, and afterwards they are separated. But ‘and she gives birth to a male’ (Leviticus 12:2) – they are combined together from the right side. And if she gives birth to a female, female and male are combined together from the left side, such that the left side rules more over the right side, and the male on the right side submits such that it does not rule, and then that male which comes out of the female from the left side, all its ways are like the female, and it is not called male. But the male that comes out of the right, it rules, and the female that comes out of it submits because the left side is not ruling, and therefore it is written, ‘and she gives birth to a male.'”
(Note that in kabbalistic symbolism, the right side is strongly associated with masculinity whereas the left is associated with femininity.)
The language used here by Rabbi Elazar is somewhat complicated, but from what he says we can draw the conclusion that:
- The soul of every human being contains both elements which are male and elements which are female.
- That if a soul can nevertheless be said to have a gender, it is because one of these elements rules over and serves as an organizing principle for the others.
- That even if there are e.g. masculine elements in a female soul, we do not call that soul “male” because those elements emerge according to the (feminine) organizing principle.
Notably absent from this formulation is any indication that the soul’s gender is determined by the body’s physical form. Gender is, at least primarily, a spiritual phenomenon.
Happy International Transgender Day of Visibility!