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)

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. 


(A friend had been teaching the kids in her student teaching class about the space program. Meanwhile, we’d been studying the story of the four who entered the Pardes (the orchard) in Talmud class. Somewhere between the two, this poem came out.)


When first we breached the blanket of air
Wherein we lay snugly wrapped for all the years of our species’ gestation
Like the pupa of a moth in its coccoon
Slowly liquifying to rebuild itself into a thing that flies
Our eyes beheld a novel thing–
What it is to be dazzled, not by light,
But sheer immensity of space

How well our ancestors knew
The sky we look upon by day,
Opaque and cloudy blue,
Is but a bowl in which we float,
A nest you built to hold us close
Until our wings grow strong,
A window to our other, truer home

Four there were who went there once
Or so they say, and of them three
Did not have the courage but to peek
And so were stricken–
Dead or mad, or shaken so
As to leave behind him all he thinks he knows
Like a child’s broken toys

But we–
May we take our heart from the last
Who went with arms outstretched,
Eyes open wide to see you there
Your hands held out to welcome us
Like a mother beckons her dearest child
Into the water
May we, like that one, say to you–
We come in peace
We go
In peace


Meditation on the Face of Your Neighbor

Find your neighbor. Not the person you came in with–someone else.

Turn and look at your neighbor’s face. Not into their eyes, not yet. Don’t smile, or nod, or perform any of the gestures we normally use to reassure each other and get past the nervousness of face-to-face contact. Just live with the nervousness. Pay attention to it. Look at your neighbor. Examine their features. They are doing the same with you right now, but that isn’t important. Just look.

To begin with, study your neighbor’s forehead–its contours, the curvature of the cranium sweeping upward to form a snug resting place for the brain. It’s a shape that’s so universally human and yet so unique to this individual person. Study its lines of care and laughter. This is where God placed a mark on Cain, to settle his fear that in his wanderings he would be recognized and executed for a murderer. Actually, we are all born with that mark–a sign written in blazing letters spelling out the primal commandment: “Do not murder.” Cain’s tragedy was that he wasn’t able to recognize that mark until it was too late. Let your eyes wander over the face of your neighbor. Search for that mark, the word of God, written to you on your neighbor’s face.

Take your time, but once you’ve had time to really take in the face of your neighbor, close your eyes for a moment and just hold the image of that face in your mind. See it floating there before you in all its silent expressiveness and vulnerability. Take a moment to contemplate the riddle of the human face, so perfectly contained in this one here before you–that the face is both a window and a mask. It expresses and at the same time conceals. Your neighbor’s face speaks eloquently of all they have ever seen and done, all the joy and the anguish, all the fear and the pleasure. And yet, at the same time, it conceals their essential being, marking the boundary between you and an inward experience, infinitely vast, to which you have no access, sealed off from you by the boundary of the face which says, “This far and no further.”

Open your eyes now and for the first time, or as if for the first time, look into the eyes of your neighbor. Take a moment now, both of you, to look into each other’s eyes. Let your face respond naturally. Take note of this experience. What passes between you, from one person to the other, through the eyes? The eyes have been described as a window into the soul. For some this window seems transparent. For some it seems nearly opaque. Right now, try to pay attention to what you see through the windows of your neighbor’s eyes. No matter how clearly you see, it is always across a distance, as though a great depth separated you, though you are standing just a few feet apart. This fundamental distance is not wrong or unnatural. It is simply the boundary marker that marks the separation between the I and the you, the self and the other. One of the most profound laws in the Torah is not to move the boundary markers placed by our ancestors. This is the beginning of ethics.

Reach across that boundary now with your hand. Take the hand of your neighbor in your own. Still you remain here on this side, your neighbor on the other. Through this gesture of clasping hands you are able to make contact here in the shared space between you. Reach out now with your other hand and take the hand of another, and that person to the hand of another, and so on until we are all connected. Here we all are, together.

Dvar Torah: Parashat Vaera

Well it’s Parashat Vaera and the story is starting to heat up. Like the producers of a really good television drama, the authors of our previous parsha started by introducing us to our main characters and built us up to a tense cliffhanger of an ending, with Pharaoh casually disregarding the message Moses brings him from God and only increasing the harshness of the burdens upon the Israelites. As this parsha opens, even the Israelite leaders seem to have given up their initial hopefulness that salvation is attainable and we are left wondering what assistance God will provide to ensure Moses’s success.

Now that the story of Moses is starting to really get underway, I thought it might be interesting to draw back from the action for a moment and take some time to look at what happens to him after the Bible is through with him. Those of you who know your Chumash will be able to tell me pretty flatly that, in a narrative sense, the answer to this question is nothing, because by the time we get to the end of Deuteronomy, Moses has died, having shepherded the people through forty years of wilderness wandering and brought them almost, but not quite, to the land promised to them by God.

But even though in a certain sense the story of Moses is over by the time we get to the first chapter of the book of Joshua, in another sense it has only just begun. That’s because in the Jewish tradition the way in which later generations re-imagine the stories and characters depicted in the Bible is often just as important as the “official version”–sometimes even more so.

As an example of this, I thought it might be interesting to look at a discussion that takes place in masechet Berachot of the Talmud. The conversation begins by quoting a saying  of Rabbi Haninah: “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven, as it is said: “And now, Israel, what does Ha Shem ask from you but to fear (Ha Shem your god)?” The biblical passage rabbi Haninah quotes to back up his saying is from Deuteronomy chapter 10, in which Moses is reminding the Israelites of their responsibility to fear God, to love God and to walk in God’s ways. By quoting this passage Rabbi Hanina seems to be saying that because God asks for fear “from you,” we can infer that fear of Heaven–by which is meant a sense of awe and respect for God–is special in that God cannot simply cause it to happen but must receive it from us.

But the Talmud has a problem with what Rabbi Haninah is saying. “Do you mean to say,” it asks, “that fear of Heaven is a small thing?” The Torah passage Rabbi Hanina quotes asks us “what does God ask of you, except to fear God?” The question seems to imply that fear of God is an easy thing to ask of us, and even to carry with it a note of exasperation that it had to ask us in the first place. We can imagine the tone of this passage to be almost like that of a mother surveying her children’s messy rooms and saying, “All I ask you to do is clean up after yourselves. Is that so hard?”

But fear of Heaven is hard. To carry ourselves at all times and in all circumstances with an awareness of the divine and the responsibilities it has placed on us is incredibly difficult. What then are we to make of this passage? Rabbi Hanina responds with a clever point: Fear of Heaven is an easy thing, he says–for Moses. And in fact, it is Moses who is speaking the words of this passage, speaking of the fear of Heaven as the easy thing it is for him, and not as the hard thing it is for us. As Rabbi Hanina says, it is as if you asked a person for something big and he happened to have it–to him, it would seem like a small thing. But if you asked someone for something quite small, and he didn’t have it, it would seem to him as if you’d asked for something big.

But is fear of Heaven really such a small thing for Moses? From what we see of him in this week’s parsha, it would be quite hard to make such a claim. Far from carrying himself with a constant awareness of God’s power, Moses seems much more concerned with the power of Pharaoh. “I am the LORD,” says God, “Speak to the king of Egypt all that I will tell you.” And Moses responds with nervousness and lack of confidence: “See, I am of impeded speech! How then should Pharaoh heed me?” It isn’t until God agrees to send Aaron with him to act as his spokesman that Moses agrees to go.

Is Rabbi Hanina wrong about Moses? We might say so, but I can’t help but feel that this would be overly simplistic. The truth of the matter is that we are all complicated human beings, and none of us is ever completely consistent, either in our virtues or our flaws. By choosing to focus on one aspect of Moses’s character and ignore others, Rabbi Hanina is making a point to help us better understand ourselves and our place in the world. In a way, part of what fear of Heaven implies is the awareness that our own perspective is limited, and there is always some new way to see a subject or a person. This awareness is one of the strengths of our tradition, because it helps us grow and adapt to a changing world. And so, as we continue to read again the ancient tale of our people’s redemption from slavery, may we blessed with the ability to look upon it with new eyes and find new ways of making it speak in our lives.

Story Time: L’Azazel, Part 1

This is kind of a departure for me, but I’ve been working on this for a little while and wanted to post it somewhere for people to see. It’s an experiment in fiction-as-midrash based on the Torah readings for the High Holidays. More than that though, it’s a story about a goat.

You’ll have to excuse the expression, but I’m a goat. If I’ve got a name no-one’s ever told me what it is, but I know who I belong to. It’s branded on my side, seared in letters of pink, puckery scar tissue where the fur will never grow back: ”L’Azazel.” Which is to say, ”for Azazel.” Before all this happened I’d never heard of the lady personally, which isn’t all that surprising–your social circles are pretty limited when you’re a goat. In all my wandering since, I’ve never run into her, but if you do, you let her know she’s got a goat waiting for her if she cares to claim him. Personally I’ve got my doubts.

Hell, we all do. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about humans–and I mean no disrespect by this, some of my best friends are humans–it’s that each and and every one of them is deep-down crazy because they know they belong so someone who will never show up to claim them. You can feed me whatever line of pious bullshit you want, but you know in your heart of hearts that what keeps you up in the middle of the night is the fear that your owner is never gonna show up for you and when it’s all over you’re gonna find yourself stuck out in the wilderness all by yourself like an old lady on a bench, clutching a plastic shopping bag to her chest as the darkness falls around her, waiting for a bus that will never come.

There I go again. I didn’t used to talk like this when I was just your run-of-the-mill, every day, garden variety goat. I didn’t talk at all in fact. Goats don’t, as a rule. Don’t bother asking whether that’s because they can’t or because they just don’t feel the need. I’ve asked myself that question more than once and I don’t know the answer. To tell you the truth it’s getting harder and harder to remember what it was like being just a goat. I never used to think about things so much as I do now, and a lot has happened since then.

Back in those days I didn’t belong to anybody like I do now. For certain, some schmuck probably considered me his property–it’s hard to be a goat in this world without somebody laying claim to your furry behind. But the thing is, I never really knew anybody owned me, so as far as I was concerned, I was a self-made goat. We lived in the same house as the family of humans who cared for us, and ate much the same food, so we were more inclined to regard them as equals and family members than as owners and masters. We lived our lives and, in their own inscrutable way, they led theirs.

I lived in a herd with all my brothers and sisters. We spent most of our days wandering the pasture land looking for what to eat. When the sun was high up and the air got hot enough to rise in shimmering waves from the dry, dusty ground we would laze about in the shade of a terebinth or in the cleft of a rock. There were the humans too who spent their days with us–girls with dusky skin and long black hair who would go out with us at dawn and come back with us at night. Sometimes when we were resting in the afternoon one of them would lift her voice up in song, and it seemed like the whole world would go quiet, listening.

It wasn’t a bad life for a goat, and none of us knew anything else. In due time I probably would have been quietly slaughtered and ended up as some family’s festival meal, and that would have been the end of me–an unassuming end for an unassuming goat. But God, that old trickster, had another road laid out for me, a road that stretched all the way from the top of the mountain where the great temple stands down into the trackless wastes inhabited by no one but outlaws, dreamers and men of God, a road with no map but a name seared into my flank: L’Azazel.

And here is how it all began:

One morning as the summer was drawing to a close my siblings and I were following the girls who watched over us down the narrow, winding path that led from little village on the hill down to the pasture land in the valley below. The sun was just beginning to crest over the hill when I looked up and there, standing in the village square waiting for us was a small group of men. Some of them I recognized from the village, from the house where we slept at night, in fact. There were others there too, though–men like I’d never seen before, tall and well-fed with sleek, luxuriantly oiled beards that cascaded down over their chests. They were dressed in long robes, and as we came up the path they seemed to be talking with the men from the village, scrawny and undernourished in comparison, who carried themselves with an air of anxious deference. At least I think I thought that–it’s really hard to say at this point what I was really capable of understanding at the time, and what I only recollected afterwards, when my mind had started to work in ways no ordinary goat’s could.

Rather than turn aside down the hill as we ordinarily would, the girls led us up to the little clump of men and brought us to a halt. We milled around in the early morning light, as nervous as our human owners, unsure what the reason was for this unwarranted delay in the daily routine. The servants walked among us at the direction of the tall men, examining my brothers one by one, opening the mouth of this one to get a better look at his teeth, prodding the flank of that one, carefully scrutinizing the belly of another. In the end, they singled me out along with one of my brothers and brought us before the great men, who nodded with approval. We had been found acceptable, though for what we couldn’t say. Instead we bleated sadly as we were driven away down the hill by the tall mens’ servants, separated from the herd and from everything we had known in our short lives.

Great sages have debated for centuries about the true significance of the temple sacrifices. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a number of them, because great sages have a way of pissing off powerful men and being banished to live or die in the wilderness as their wisdom allows. Some have held that the sacrifice is nothing more or less than the food of God, and that as its flesh is consumed in flame it rises up in smoke as a pleasing odor before the Lord. Others have suggested that the very innocence of the animals offered up allows their sacrifice to serve as a meeting point between man and the divine, and that this is why predatory or unclean animals are never offered up. Still others assert that the animal itself is virtually irrelevant, but what really counts is its blood which, as the most potent and concentrated form of life, is necessary to cleanse the sanctuary of the taint of death generated by the sins of the people. In any case, if one thing is certain it’s that no one ever thought to consult the animals in question. Our willingness to be sacrificed, or at least our powerlessness to resist, is taken as a given.

My brother and I knew nothing of these things as we were loaded into a cart and set out on the long journey up to Jerusalem. Idly we munched on our fodder and watched the landscape slowly rumble past, completely ignorant of our fate or of the weighty significance that was to be placed, for a short time, between the horns of two simple goats. The road was hot and dusty and the wagon wheels creaked incessantly as we trundled along. The priests rode along in silence, mostly, maybe preoccupied with thoughts of sins to be atoned for in the solemn days ahead, maybe just tired of the journey and daydreaming of the comforts of home. The temple functionaries who accompanied them talked among themselves, occasionally breaking into snatches of song. First one would start and then others would join in, their voices harmonizing with the ease of long practice, sending the cliffs ringing all around us as the psalm rose heavenward.

The road wound steadily upward though the rocky hills of Judea. Occasionally we would pass a herd of goats grazing on the hillsides and my brother and I would lift up our voices in our own imitation of the Levites’ song, calling out to the strangers. Every so often one of them would raise their head and bleat in response, but for the most part they carried on grazing, unconcerned with what happened to a couple of goats from a different herd. At last, after hours of travelling without any change to break the monotony, we came around a bend and there looking down on us was the city, its walls shining golden in the rays of the setting sun.