California Girl in NY, Week 3: Ki Tavo… coming and going

The Weather – again…
Summer rainstorms?? If the CA “weather paradox” imagery might be skiing in t-shirt, NY’s might be negotiating puddles in shorts, flip-flops and umbrella…

New Yorkers 101
My morning walk is great, mostly because it saves me from dealing with parking near the Yeshiva, a near impossible task. But what about after school, or Sunday?
In order to successfully drive in NY, I have to dig up an almost forgotten ability: my Israeli driving skills. I’m too slow, right now, too polite. In the time it takes me to figure out whether a spot is even meant for parking, I am cut mercilessly by a car that u-turns right into it. Honking is the drivers’ language and I am not sure if mine even works.
To go to “the city” (technically speaking, this is the city too!) I prefer public transportation, and therefore became the newly proud owner of a metro card.
The other day I was the only passenger on the BxM (Bronx-Manhattan bus) and before too long, the driver was telling me all about his life, plans for retirement and – his faith and understanding of scripture. I know, I know, the driver is not supposed to talk with the passengers but so it went. And – it was friendly, not evangelical in nature (I’m sure driving around Riverdale for years, he could tell who’s “team” I’m on). So- maybe that’s just the sort of thing that happens to me (it does), but maybe also, this is just one small example to refute some of the bad rap handed to New Yorkers (I guess I now have a vested interest in improving this reputation!). In that way too, it’s a bit like Israel: if you smile at someone randomly, they’ll likely look at you with a ‘do I know you from somewhere?’ stare, but if you need something, someone will help. So far, the people I’ve run into, whether someone on a street corner offering me help (did I look that lost??); showing me how to add money on my card; how to find things in the store (there’s no kosher section….); or give good advise for my car at a gas station; maybe I’m just lucky but contrary to rumors, people have been super nice and helpful. And some even smile.

Shabbat in Riverdale
There are things for which I don’t yet have all the right words. Central Park is one. Shabbat in Riverdale is another. Wow. More later.

Yoga and Avoda Zara
Last Friday, at a lovely Shabbat dinner, the conversation suddenly shifted from the usual how are you and where you’re from to whether yoga is “avoda zara” (idol worship). At first, I thought it was a joke, but a quick look around the table indicated, it was not funny. It took me back some 30 plus years to when I first started practicing yoga and encountered it universal as well as Hindu sides. The universal – was all over the place with slogans like “G-d is one, names are many; G-d is one, paths are many”. And even the “Hindu” was mild, and felt very “decorative”. It was always very clear that any “idols”, pictures, songs, names – were all just manifestations – just very few manifestations of how is possible to experience – the true Divine Oneness. I remember friends telling me that their parents won’t visit them at the ashram since it is “idolatrous”. My own mother asked me if I’m not “a little uncomfortable”, having grown up with Jewish traditions at home, shul life etc. I explained the whole thing and she said something like, oh. When she went back to Israel, she found a suitable yoga class for herself.
Very distraught over the dinner situation (week 2 in Riverdale and here I am…), I asked my Rosh Yeshiva for help. He in turn, directed me to Dr. Alan Brill, and you can read more here. But the question remains, because it is bigger than anyone taking a moment to stretch and breathe in some yoga postures. It is about our conversation with the world around us. What kind of conversation is it and what guides it? Is it love or fear, trust or caution, happiness or suspicion, and maybe all of these? Where is the line between learning wonderful new things and losing sight of our own path? Is in individual or communal? How do we decide? How do we treat others who decide differently??

Ki Tavo: Coming and Going
It is the season of “coming and going”, said Rabba Sara Hurwitz at a recent event. This can be based on the names of last week’s and this week’s Torah reading: Ki Tetze – when you go out, and Ki Tavo, when you come (in), and also reflects this time of year. To me, it sometimes feels like an extended / mega Friday afternoon – a minute to Shabbat – with everybody rushing about trying to get ready. The “High Holy Days” are here! Soon, we’ll be in shul for millions of hours, beating on our chests and what will be the take away? Starting a new year, is there any one thing to focus on, something new to “take on”, to pay attention to, to try and incorporate more into our lives?
This week’s Torah reading offers a challenge:
יא וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ–וּלְבֵיתֶךָ: אַתָּה, וְהַלֵּוִי, וְהַגֵּר, אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ 11 “And you shall rejoice in all the good which the Hashem your God has given unto you, and unto your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of you“.
It also tells us what if not. In the middle of the harsh section about the “consequences, it says:
מז תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּשִׂמְחָה, וּבְטוּב לֵבָב–מֵרֹב, כֹּל. 47 “because you did not serve Hashem your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things“;
In Hebrew, there are two words for joy – simcha & sason. What’s the difference? Turns out, the latter, sason, is unexpected joy (finding a treasure) while simcha is a joy one works hard for. If so, maybe it’s no wonder that we can be commanded to be happy. If we’re commanded, that means it is within our power to do so, just like anything else we can and should do.
In one of our classes, Rabbi Avi Weiss asks us to do a fascinating exercise: instead of the usual list of ashamnu, of what we have erred and wronged and been guilty of and bad at, try a list of ahavnu, we have loved. Instead of “dibarnu dofi’ – we spoke badly, maybe dibarnu yofi – we spoke of beautiful things. Hebrew or English, go letter by letter and see what comes up, what have we done well at. Then use this to learn how we can increase goodness, and in turn, joy in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

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California Girl in NY – Week 2: Vignettes and Torah

Choices I’ve never had to make:
When I walk out of the Yeshiva this afternoon, the morning clear, beautiful, blue sky gives way to glorious thick, dark, grey clouds. Within minutes, torrents gush down the streets. I’m drenched and hurry on to the little corner store, my extra long skirt (davka today…) tangled around me. There I discover a new unexpected predicament: to be very wet yet very warm outside, or very dry yet very freezing from the a/c inside? I get a couple of items fast. Option one wins.

Co-op Lunch:
There are lots of wonderful things in learning in a Yeshiva, many of which are challenging to imitate anywhere outside this magical bubble (it is-), but here is one: we have a co-op lunch. That means, that a group of us who signed up, shares preparing lunches for each other. Each one of us (depending on how many people sign up), makes lunch for the rest of us once every 2-3 weeks. Lunch has rules but because Riverdale is (a little) like a Jewish Bay Area, food is mostly vegan / vegetarian (serving meat requires a 24 hour notice) and healthy (beat salad, steamed kale, brown rice, African peanut soup etc etc…). I look forward and am thankful daily. Those who have worked with me know what I would eat if it wasn’t for this invention (yes, grapes, and trail mix and some more grapes…).

Daily Schedule:
Starting at 9am and going till 5pm, we’re learning things that from afar all sound the same: Halacha (Talmud), Gemara (Talmud), pastoral care (with passages from… you guessed it) and more. A dear friend of mine – successful engineer – once said that the only thing more interesting than the Talmud is the stock market. You might not like the stock market at all; the point is, that’s one way to explain the wow of Talmud. Talmud is life. There’s everything in it, with incredible depth. Yes, sometimes we’re “splitting hairs” and “dancing on top of a pin”, but I like dancing. And there is great love in the attention to small details.

9-11:
At some point I realized that I am going to be in NY on 9-11. What to do? perhaps overwhelmed with choices, I opted to create my own day in this place I’m starting to call home. I bought a metro card (yeh! a local!) and boarded a subway to the city (luckily there is only one option from here). Feeling somewhat adventurous, I got off at the George Washington Bridge station, found my way to the bridge itself and walked on it. It’s not gold, but I have to admit, it’s very impressive. Spanning almost 5000’, it has 14 lanes (8 upper deck, 6 lower deck), and some consider it the most beautiful bridge in the world. Best; there is a (really narrow!) path for pedestrians and bicyclists alike on its south side, from which the view of NYC is amazing.
From there, I navigated my way down to Ground Zero(subway, of course! It’s easy!…). Walking in Lower Manhattan, I merged into swarms of people heading to the same place. There were many visitors, tourists, police and firefighters from all over the country. People approached the “uniforms” to say ‘thank you for your service’ and asked to take pictures. A guy behind me told someone on his phone: ‘I just didn’t know where else to go today’. What was most striking to me, was the relative quiet: hundreds and thousands of people, walking around silently, in an outdoor temple of remembrance.

Some Torah Words:
On Wednesdays, we take turns to share a short Torah word, and I jump in. The Torah portion of “Ki Tetze” has the most commandments any parasha in the Torah has: 74 in total: 27 “positive” (do this and that) and 47 “negative” (don’t do this and that). The commandments are very detailed and on the surface, all dealing with our immediate physical existence, starting with war situations and moving on. But already Rashi (1040-1105) states that the real war this section is talking about, is an internal war one wages against one’s own “evil” sides. If so, what about the rest of the reading? Can we see more in the outward references? Here are a few ideas:
Deuteronomy 22:8 states: “When you build a new house, then you shall make a railing for your roof…”. Ok, so this totally makes sense: if you have a flat roof which you might use to dry apricots, hang laundry, sleep in the summer or sunbathe in winter – as is still the custom in many places in Israel and around, make sure there is a railing so no one falls. Does the Torah need to tell us that? The Kabbalists add a less obvious layer. They play with the fact that in gymatria “gag-cha” – your roof – is numerically equal to G-d’s four letter name (26), and tell us that we should have a railing – or what today we would call “boundaries” – around ourselves to protect ourselves and disallow disruptive things from coming in. Our human “gag” – roof, the highest point in our being is our mind, our thoughts, and much of our connection with the Divine. That part need to be secure and safe.
The next verse (22:9) states: “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seeds; lest the fullness of the seed which you have sown be forfeited together with the increase of the vineyard”. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “two kinds of seeds” is “kil’ayim”, which literally means – two jails. Rav Hirsch (1808-1888) explains in his commentary elsewhere, that “two jails” implies that we are not to mix two different kinds – of seeds or anything that grows, people too – who inhibit and limit each other’s growth, because they make each other feel in “jail”. Our goal should be to grow to our fullest potential; boundaries and a good environment – are key necessities.
And last: In the beginning of that chapter (22:1-4) is a famous favorite mitzvah, that of returning lost objects. The mitzvah is what’s called “a double mitzvah”: it says both “hashev teshivenu” – “indeed you shall return”, in itself using the same root-verb twice, and also a negative one: “lo tuchal lehit’alem” – “you will not be able to ignore / avoid”. The sages teach us that if you find your neighbor’s lost object you must return it even 100 times, and again I wonder: really?? What can we possibly return 100 times??
So as we are right before Rosh Hashana, here is an alternative. Maybe the construct hashev teshivenu does not only refer to returning a lost object but also – to another word that shares the same root: teshuva, which also mean return as well as repentance (its own kind of return). If so, maybe this is also about us noticing within us – or others – things that are lost; different qualities that went astray, like our ox like stubbornness, our lamb-like meekness and what we do with our possessions. Maybe these are the things we must notice and can’t ignore. Maybe it’s a reminder for making teshuva with each and every one of our separate, lost pieces, and even if it takes us 100 times, it’s ok. As the U’netane Tokef High Holiday prayers tell us:
כי לא תחפץ במות המת / כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה
ועד יום מותו תחכה לו / אם ישוב מיד תקבלו.
“For You do not wish the death of the dead, but rather in his return from his path and living;
And until the day of his parting You shall wait for him; if he returns, you’ll immediately accept him.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

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Don’t do nothing – Parashat Shoftim

For now, I am fortunate to walk to school in the mornings. The weather is actually very much a reminder of my Haifa childhood. There are magnificent, tall maple and other so green trees that enjoy and benefit from the humidity and occasional summer rains; lovely stone houses; beautiful front yards. When I walk in the mornings, I am part of a whole city going to school. Kids and parents in all shapes, colors, languages, dresses, habits, smelling like coffee, morning cigarettes, and fresh soaps.
Then somewhere on the curb, I chance on a bird’s nest. I think of stopping, and “doing something”, but the nearest branch is some 20 feet above me and the morning rush is at my back – people behind, people in front. I keep walking. But in a way, this little moment, takes me to a very strange incident at the end of this week’s Torah portion, when the laws of the “egla arufa” are introduced (Deuteronomy 21:1-9).

I posted the whole quote below (translation by mechon mamre). Here is the short: if you chance upon a body in the field and you don’t know what happened, who killed the person etc, your elders and judges should measure from that body to the nearest city, so the elders of that city can perform a “ritual” (yes, don’t like this word -) to atone for the dead. The ritual includes taking a heifer and breaking its neck in the gushing river nearby, washing hands in the blood and water, and thus “doing right in the eyes of G-d”. And it’s hard to read this and not just go, what???
Luckily, the great commentators and sages throughout the centuries have been likewise baffled by this. Abravanel (1437-1508) asked the same question, wondering how can the blood of a beheaded heifer atone for the iniquity and blood of the slain man? And further: if ‘no one knew’ and ‘no one did it’, why is anyone required to do anything???
Let’s try and picture the scene: instead of me walking down the streets of Riverdale and finding a nest, chas vechalila (G-d forbid), I would chance upon a body in the middle of nowhere. What would I do? Scream, perhaps; well, that would be useless. So maybe just be horrified and stumped and say nothing. I would look right and left for help, we’re nowhere, there is no one. What would I do? Will I go get help? What’s to help with? The guy is dead! And I don’t know him! Will I slowly back up and pretend I didn’t see it, and this didn’t happen?? What do I need to get involved in this for?? What if I get blamed? What if they don’t believe me?? And it’s so far, and I have things to do!!
I know it’s tempting to think I would just “naturally” or “automatically” do the “right thing”, but humans were not given laws for nothing.
Next: Suppose I made it to the nearby city, and told someone about the whole thing. And suppose they believe me. They now have to assemble “my elders and my judges” – not just anyone but sages with whom I have trust – and we need to go out and measure. We don’t have google earth and can’t do this from home. We actually have to walk the distances to the nearby cities. What a strange procession we must be! Surely, we attract others attention. This now means, more people are involved from all the towns around. In re e-days, this is our way of telling everyone of what happened: something serious. Someone was killed nearby.
People are starting to talk: Who is that someone? Is he from around here? Do we know him? Did he have enemies? Did anyone see him?? Maybe he is not from around here. How come he was near our towns and we did not know? Did he need hospitality and we didn’t provide it? Food? Shelter? Someone to talk with?? No doubt, there is an investigation. We must find the murder; we must uncover what happened, because if not, we know what’s next.
We need a heifer. Do you have one?? We need a heifer “which has not been worked with and which hath not drawn in the yoke”. Do you have that one?? And if you do, if you do have that little, cute, young, heifer that “has not been worked with”, etc, and that you so need, because, after all, we live in a place where things happen and who knows what will happen, are you sure you want to give it to us, to be beheaded for this ritual??
I think not. I think you- or me, if I had that heifer- would do everything possible to avoid this. This is perhaps expressed in the verse which the elders say at the end, “our hands have not shed this blood…”. Asks the Talmud, why do they need to even say this? Would we think that the elders have actually shed this (the man’s) blood?? But rather, they publicly acknowledge that they have done all they can; all that is possible and required: they were loving, kind, hospitable; they exemplified responsibility to their fellow town-people and travelers alike; and they taught others to do so as well. Can they say that? Have they (we) really done all they can??
I’d like to think that the ordeal of “egla arufa” happened very rarely if ever, because the conditions for it to happen, are so numerous and complicated, but its lessons are what matters. The whole Torah portion is about creating order and justice in society and yet, there are not enough policemen (and women) in the world to guard us. The main thing, is don’t wait to worry about finding the “right” heifer, and solving obscure murder cases. Do something well before. Value and care for those around you.

Shabbat Shalom.

* * * * * * *
א כִּי-יִמָּצֵא חָלָל, בָּאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ, נֹפֵל, בַּשָּׂדֶה: לֹא נוֹדַע, מִי הִכָּהוּ. 1 If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath smitten him;
ב וְיָצְאוּ זְקֵנֶיךָ, וְשֹׁפְטֶיךָ; וּמָדְדוּ, אֶל-הֶעָרִים, אֲשֶׁר, סְבִיבֹת הֶחָלָל. 2 then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain.
ג וְהָיָה הָעִיר, הַקְּרֹבָה אֶל-הֶחָלָל–וְלָקְחוּ זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא עֶגְלַת בָּקָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עֻבַּד בָּהּ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-מָשְׁכָה, בְּעֹל. 3 And it shall be, that the city which is nearest unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take a heifer of the herd, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke.
ד וְהוֹרִדוּ זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא אֶת-הָעֶגְלָה, אֶל-נַחַל אֵיתָן, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יֵעָבֵד בּוֹ, וְלֹא יִזָּרֵעַ; וְעָרְפוּ-שָׁם אֶת-הָעֶגְלָה, בַּנָּחַל. 4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which may neither be plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley.
ה וְנִגְּשׁוּ הַכֹּהֲנִים, בְּנֵי לֵוִי–כִּי בָם בָּחַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשָׁרְתוֹ, וּלְבָרֵךְ בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה; וְעַל-פִּיהֶם יִהְיֶה, כָּל-רִיב וְכָל-נָגַע. 5 And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near–for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto Him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and according to their word shall every controversy and every stroke be.
ו וְכֹל, זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא, הַקְּרֹבִים, אֶל-הֶחָלָל–יִרְחֲצוּ, אֶת-יְדֵיהֶם, עַל-הָעֶגְלָה, הָעֲרוּפָה בַנָּחַל. 6 And all the elders of that city, who are nearest unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley.
ז וְעָנוּ, וְאָמְרוּ: יָדֵינוּ, לֹא שפכה (שָׁפְכוּ) אֶת-הַדָּם הַזֶּה, וְעֵינֵינוּ, לֹא רָאוּ. 7 And they shall speak and say: ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.
ח כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר-פָּדִיתָ, ה’, וְאַל-תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם, הַדָּם. 8 Forgive, O LORD, Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of Thy people Israel.’ And the blood shall be forgiven them.
ט וְאַתָּה, תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי–מִקִּרְבֶּךָ: כִּי-תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר, בְּעֵינֵי ה’. 9 So shalt thou put away the innocent blood from the midst of thee, when thou shalt do that which is right in the eyes of the LORD. {S}

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5 decades later – starting again…

Twenty years ago, while working on my masters in Jewish Studies, I had the great honor to learn in person with Dr. Rebetzin Naomi Cohen, wife of then Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Eliyahu Yosef Sh’ar Yashuv Cohen. I still remember standing in front of their door in Ahuza, on the Carmel, knocking hesitatingly, feeling extremely lucky and fortunate. I could not believe I would be entering their home. Some years earlier (1977), my best friend and I were on TV with the great Rav (rabbi) in an intimate q&a session he held with a group of his city’s students. This is how he was: the most tolerant, wise, thoughtful person possible. Seeing his tall friendly figure walking calmly through the neighborhood, smiling to the passersby, held great comfort.
Naomi – she went by first name, no titles –led me to her study, which was – her study; a good size room covered with heavy, sagging bookshelves loaded with books from top to bottom, as she is not only the wife of, but a great scholar in her own right with a PhD in philosophy, decades of teaching in the university and numerous writings published. And yet, always modest and attentive to others. I remember us walking through the spacious house, which had a dome for a roof. Naomi smiled, pointing to the unusual ceiling, and said, ‘see, even the house is wearing a kippa’. We met twice a week over quite a few months, first in person and later via phone and email, and occasional visits. Every so often, the Rav would be home, say hi and check in on our studies.
I thought of her today, as I thought of a number of my special teachers along the way. Those who trusted and encouraged my abilities greatly contributed to my being here and taking on this next step. I figured out that it’s been exactly five decades (!) since I walked to school for the very first time, with my then new backpack, pencils and notebooks and probably my reddish shoes, and here I am, fifty years later (!), and ‘ah, you haven’t changed a bit’! walking to start my learning at Yeshivat Maharat.
The 2 miles morning walk was lovely, through huge maple and linden trees and old, beautiful stone homes with well cared for gardens and flowers. Somewhere along the way, clicking my phone for directions, I checked the news from Israel. That’s when I learned that my hometown’s Rav – Sh’ar Yashuv Cohen – passed away yesterday.
I listened to the eulogies and agreed with all the beautiful words said about him. Born in Jerusalem, 1927, he was the son of the “Nazir”, Rav David Cohen and as a child, was close to Rav Kook. He studied extensively, secular and rabbinic studies. During the War of Independence, while defending the old city of Jerusalem, he was captured and became a POW held by the Jordanians. He was released and went back to the IDF where he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was chief rabbi of Haifa from 1975-2011 and during that time received the Tolerance Prize for his work. His life was an inspiration for constant learning, care, outreach, dialogs, spirituality and more. I can only hope that a tiny spark of that is still with me so I can continue to share it with others.
Day 1 was mostly orientation. We spoke of “makom”, which is Hebrew for “place” as well as one of G-d’s names, combining the idea of being somewhere very specific and yet, simultaneously being everywhere. I thought of my grandmother, who if anything was a very “orthodox” reform Jew, and yet always told me, “go with G-d, then you won’t be going alone”. I can’t help but look with wonder at the people and places I’ve met thus far. I hope to remain open to what’s ahead.

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“See, I set before you…”

Some of the Torah commandments are quite baffling. And I am not talking about the commandment to eat certain foods, or keep Shabbat; not even peculiar things like separating wool and linen, or meat and milk. Those are all maybe strange and arguable but easily doable. Then there are the Deuteronomy mitzvot, like “love!”, “hear!”, “see!”
If we’re commanded, it follows that there is something to do which we are capable of doing. Specifically, that love is not just a “feeling” but an action; and that so are our senses. There are not automatic, involuntary reactions, but there is / can be /should be an intentionality in them and in how we apply them to the world around us.
Today, reading the first word of the Torah portion – “Re’e” meaning “see – really, really reading it and taking it to heart – is enough. There is no need to go on. You can skip the rest here. The only thing is, if we could just stop and open up – and I am purposefully not adding “our eyes”, but just open up – and see.
When Abraham takes Isaac for the Binding journey, it says: “and Abraham lifted his eyes and saw that place” (Genesis 22:4), and immediately in the next verse, he instructs the lads traveling with him to stay with the donkey (Genesis 22:5). What happened between? The midash adds that Abraham saw G-d’s presence on the mountain. Isaac saw it too, but the lads accompanying them saw nothing. Abraham then told them, “stay here with “donkey”. Donkey, in Hebrew, chamor, shares its root with chomer, materialism, as if saying, ‘you stay here with what’s obvious; we’ll go beyond’ because real seeing has to do with more than noticing “stuff” around us as is.
The Torah addresses seeing elsewhere. In the Book of Numbers (15:38-41), it says, “Do not wander after your heart and after your eyes which lead you astray” (15:39). The background is the commandment to wear tzitzit, which I won’t go into now, but just look at the order in that verse again: heart before eyes! Implying that what determines what we see, is our heart, not our eyes; that in order to “see” better, we need to fix with our heart. And just to make things more confusing, some say that in the Torah, the heart was the seat of the mind (while the kishkes / internal organs was the seat of feelings)!
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, we’re told about aspects of the kosher laws (which animals we can eat). One of the non-kosher birds is the ra’a (with an alef, spelled like re’e). We have a teaching that the forbidden animals are forbidden because of their internal qualities which we do not want to imbue. What’s wrong with the ra’a? The Talmud says that, “it stands in Babylon and sees a carcass in the Land of Israel”. Simplistically, it can mean that those outside of Israel misunderstand what’s going on there, but alternatively, it is the Talmud’s way of warning us from those situations when we ourselves are confused (Babylon, Bavel, related to the Hebrew root for bilbul, confusion) and we judge things we don’t understand from afar, using our eyes superficially.
It is always interesting to check where a word first appears in the Torah. For seeing, it is when G-d checks His creation and “saw the light that it was good” (Genesis 1:4). There are those who say that G-d did not just “see” the world, as in glancing over, but that He put in the ability to see it as good and as a complete whole oneness; that potential He gave to us too. It is not an easy thing to do. Therefore, we’re reminded that we need to use it. We need to stop and really, really “see”.

Shabbat Shalom from NY.

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Looking for the Nothing in the Middle – 3805 Miles Later

3805 miles later, from upstate NY, reflecting on the last 12 days, journeying from coast to (almost) coast…

1. My Blue Stallion:
When we – my stallion and I – arrived at Rapid City, South Dakota, at 10pm, having left Billings, Montana some 454 miles earlier that morning at 8:00am, and following some white knuckles sections on the 10% grade, climbing from Bighorn Canyon to the observation point at 9430 feet elevation and zigzagging through the Rockies of east Wyoming, I literally kissed the steering wheel. And when I was given a room on the other side of the motel, unable to see “him”, I asked to be switched, even if it meant shlepping stuff to the 2nd floor. Yes, I checked and filled up oil as needed and had him looked at once along the way (ok, that was after the A/C stopped working, and yes, the guy showed me some hose but I know it’s just because my stallion is not used to the intense humidity), and when all else failed, we talked. After me worrying all across Nevada, trying to listen and “check the gauges” (oh, wait, this is water, not oil; so where is the oil gage? Oh, I don’t have one?!…) he told me that he was created in order to do this sort of stuff (i.e. drive),and I can just relax and enjoy the road. All cowboy songs of admiration and partnership to their horses now make sense. It just so happened that mine is blue. Which bring us to #2.

2. Radio
I was plenty warned about the radio during the “nothing in the middle”, because there is only “country and G-d”, so I must say, I like this country and I don’t mind G-d. I also left equipped with 2 books on tape (CD) – both excellent [“Promise Me” and “The Japanese Lover”], totaling some 15 hours of story time, which granted, is a fraction in 12 days driving but nevertheless were great, entertaining and thought provoking – and between finding my way, wowing at the views and listening to songs I grew to like, I didn’t have time for much more. Not to mention, NPR – it’s almost everywhere. Driving through South Dakota’s Black Hills I chance on a program presenting Israeli Author Etgar Keret, and here I am, very present with the curvy drive along the beautiful dark hills, and at the same time, transposed to his IDF experience, and that of becoming a writer.

3. Politics
“Oh, you must be seeing a lot of Trump signs”, said a friend who heard I was traveling through the “nothing in the middle”. Not even one! Also no Hillary signs. Maybe it’s too early; or maybe everybody knows what they are voting; or maybe which John Deer to get and what to do about the litter of hogs and how to prepare for winter, which is going to be much harsher than the amazing weather I encountered, are a lot more pressing issues. I listened to one radio program – on fox – and the interviewer and interviewed sounded seriously concerned and undecided about the elections. No inflammatory slogans, just a real interesting deep conversation. Which made me think that maybe — the people on the edges hear things and assume things about the people of the middle, and vise-versa without really spending too much time talking and getting to know each other.

4. “Not’ig much eve’ happens he’e”
Shabbat morning in Billings Montana: I ask the concierge at the hotel for directions to Riverfront Park on the Yellowstone River and if it’s “safe” to go there, you know, safe, you know, me, by myself. He’s confused. He calls another “gal”. They both look at me unsure what I’m asking. I think of Oakland and Israel. They finally say, “Well, ye know, it’s a country road; speed limit is 45? I think, maybe 55? But there’s a good shoulder”. We stare at each other. Finally he says, “You’ll be fine, not’ig much eve’ happens he’e”, and I think to myself, I’m afraid I’m going to miss that.

5. Alabama / California
At that same moment I reach the observation point at 9430 feet elevation above the Bighorn Canyon, another car stops to admire the scenery. A woman, maybe in her 60’s, goes out, and we exchange the usual – isn’t this something? Yes, amazing. Then she says, “where you’re from?” in her southern drawl, and I hear myself answer: “California”. I can see a little cloud come over her face, as if she’s thinking, ‘they sure talk funny there’, but then a brighter cloud replaces it, as if the rest of the thought is, ‘well, they think we talk funny too, so maybe it’s all alright’! we wish each other a great day, and farewell, and for those 2 minutes, life is simple: I come from there and am going there.

6. Stam lake
My Blue Stallion and I had an agreement: everyday I’ll stop and take a walk for at least 1 hour so we’re not just driving through endlessly. That day, as already mentioned was a long one, but shortly after Burgess Junction on Route 14 (we’re in Wyoming -), a lake appeared on my right side. “Stam Lake” (just a lake), I called it between me and myself. There is no obvious sign, no national park, no entrance fees, no tourists, just a gorgeous, deep blue water, dark green trees – lake. I park, take my phone as camera (no reception) and walk down. Then I see- a trail. And here the magic: the ability to trust the trail. I have no map, no backpack, nothing. But there is a trail, and I know it’s going to be ok. There are a few people, couples, families, local license plates, fishing, “chilling” – hats down, polls stretched out, kids and friendly dogs wading; evidence for beaver and baby ducks in water. It’s so beautiful and so peaceful, I almost run the whole circumference in joy.

7. Teton and Yellowstone
The night at Grand Teton, after the storm, in a small cabin with the wood stove, was so, so nice! Outside the cabin, there are the bear lockers; and me, with the Yosemite “hype” experience from the summer, ready to pack all I have into the lockers, but the park people here are so much more at ease: “ca’ is fine”, he says, swallowing the ”r”. And the next morning, maximizing my time to check every “attraction” at Yellowstone. No wonder it’s the 1st National Park. If the god of Grand Teton seems moody and stormy to me, the god of Yellowstone seems like a relaxed, comfortable grandpa. Even his sneezes are predictable: “Old Faithful” erupts at known times. Next one at 9:45am.

8. Idaho Falls and Sioux falls
Surprise! Places that are called something “falls” – turn out to have waterfalls! Different, but both beautiful, I take time to walk around in each city. The “middle” has friendly, helpful people, I should add here. For example, Elko, Nevada: how I dreaded driving across Nevada! I used to say that driving through NV is a “dream” – since I much prefer to sleep right through it. But here we are, me and my Blue Stallion, and the CA license plate, and everybody smiles: the people in the gas station; there are clean bathroom, cold water to fill, and fascinating desert views. At the motel in Elko, the credit card machine is not working. “If you don’t mind”, says the lady, “please stop by in the morning and we’ll try to run it again”. “What do you mean, if you don’t mind?? Aren’t you afraid I’ll drive off without paying?” She laughs. Her husband comes in, “it’s not a problem.” When in the morning, the machine still doesn’t work, he writes the number on a piece of paper. I’m clearly not from around here. I clutch my purse, and lock the car. They look at me with this, ‘CA / city people are so uptight!!’ It takes time to get used to the middle.

9. PA
“Are you taking highways or country roads?” asks one of my friends, “well…” I stammer. “Because if I drive cross country, it will be all on country roads!” is the answer. I shrug. Going across Wisconsin – on country roads – I think I now see the same farm house again. And again. It’s still beautiful, really very beautiful: the bright green fields, the red barns, the white houses, the tractor parked just so, even the Amish carriage (yes! Saw one!), and the perfect clouds, but then, so was the first hour. Or two. Or three. Now , after I’ve seen the grand Mississippi River, driven around Chicago in the stormy rain, and across almost flat Indiana and Ohio, I admit, I’m slightly resigned. The Midwest makes me think of my kids’ grandparents. And Zoe, our golden lab who would have been so much fun right now. And everyone who isn’t here, which at this point – is everyone. It’s grey. It’s long. It’s humid. Who’s idea was it anyway? I click in my final destination in upstate NY and decide to just pull through. Then, I enter Pennsylvania, and glorious hills – mountains! – appear! My daughter, who – lucky for me – made her state report on Pennsylvania, calls. I’m all “wowed” with the newly discovered scenery, after thinking I said goodbye to anything higher than a mound, as these lovely shapes and colors appear stretched to the horizon all around me . “It’s the Appalachians!”, she reminds me. “Beautiful!” I report, “Not like the Rockies or Sierras”, I’m quick to assure I’m still loyal to the West, “but really, really nice”. Before too long, we roll into NY state.

10. Peace be the Journey
Two passengers did join me. Yes, I know. My friend was worried I’ll pick up someone. “Do you have any stranger in your car?” she asked me. I don’t know about you, but in my life, handsome strangers who you actually can connect with– are hard to come by, and even then, they can’t necessarily clear their schedule and drive thousands of miles with you to the end of the world. But Pesky and Shmesky did. Those were the names I gave two flies who settled in my car in Rapid City, South Dakota, and didn’t leave till later in Minnesota (Actually, I think Pesky flew out but Shmesky stayed to reappear in Wisconsin complaining about his loneliness…). Anyway… 3805 miles, and 14 states later, I have discovered, there is no nothing in the middle. I am also still two hours away from New York city, so maybe the best thing about the journey is that it isn’t over quite yet.
Shabbat Shalom!

day 7 024

Bighorn National Forest, WY

Mississippi River

Pike Peak State Park, Iowa

 

בית חווה

Country Road, Eastern Wisconsin

day 7 043

That lake in eastern Wyoming

 

 

 

 

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Day 9: Crossing the Mississippi River to Chicago

The Mississippi River, from Pike Peak State Park, Iowa, looking at the Wisconsin side.

In the summer of 1977, the synagogue we belonged to (or maybe I should say, it belonged to us, as it was just starting -) embarked on a new project: inviting exchange students from America. For about six months, the students were to be housed with local families and go to local Israeli high schools in a new of its kind immersion program. How exciting!! My own brother was attending a navy boarding high school at the time, and our 2 bedroom apartment (in retrospect, tiny but in my mind then, quite ample -) seemed “empty” and “spacious”.
I don’t know exactly what I said, that I’ll do chores and that I’ll learn English and on and on; and maybe, there were just not enough families who signed up. Before we knew it, a group of shy, slightly awkward, and very American teens arrived. There was no “pre-meeting”, pictures, skype, anything. As Paul reminded me this morning when we were having tea in his spacious home in a suburb of Chicago, the lady in charge from our synagogue, just gave birth and there was no one really in charge. The “ceremony”, if any, went something like an adoption horror story: ‘you, take… what’s your name? Next: you…’ Hey who cares? One way or another, I got my American brother!
Well, there were adjustments, to be sure. We went on family “tiyulim”, showing off the wonderful, amazing, beautiful, one and only – Land of Israel, with its marvelous mountains (the tallest point on the Carmel is 1724’ above sea level-), towering trees (planted by JNF a couple of decades earlier), flowing rivers (at winter, right after the rain), and a lot a lot of rocks and I remember my mom’s dismayed face, when, to her horror, Paul dared napping in the car. How can anyone sleep?? This is our beloved homeland! I think it took me all this time – and this trip – to realize what it must have been like to hear Bible Stories about the Jordan River, and imagine it at least like the Mississippi, and then come to the hot, arid stones that one can cross in a casual jump and us Israelis call “a river”… not to mention that he’s seen many of the sites before, but in that ‘smooth cultural exchange’, we had no idea what exactly was going on.
Then there were efforts to make “American” foods. In her despair, my mom decided to make pizza (American food, right?). It should not be so difficult, just take some dough, pour “sauce”, i.e. ketchup on it, and lay some slices of cheese above. Here! Wait, what’s wrong??
And – worst of worst: Paul refused to speak English. He was very clear that he came to Israel to learn Hebrew, not to be my English tutor. Already then, at 16, he knew exactly what he wanted to be: a rabbi. I also knew what I wanted to be, or do, or maybe… well, let’s see: I want to study – everything. And write. And travel. And dance. And teach. And discuss deep philosophical matters. And talk with my friends. And… interestingly, fast forward and he’s the senior rabbi of a large congregation in the Chicago, and here I am.
To be sure, I was happy with my “brother”. We quickly became best friends and part of a ‘hevre’ at the synagogue’s youth group. Sadat came to Israel. There was peace. Everything was good.
Before my army service, my mom and I went on a trip through the US (anyone remembers “VUSA”? yes -) and got to visit him and his family. I was so sad. He was headed to college; I was going to the army! This was obviously the very last time ever –ever I would see him! I think I spent half the visit in tears.
When I came to the U.S. we spoke a few times, but the distance between CA and Chicago – and between our lives – was much bigger before the internet and we lost touch. Decades passed. Then, an article I wrote through me front and center on the Jewish map and shortly after, I got a message from my long lost American brother. We happened to both be in Jerusalem at the same time: me at Pardes, and him – at Hartman. Once again, we could have coffee and chat. When I decided to drive cross-country, a stop in Chicago to see my brother and meet his wife, was obvious.
Throughout this trip, every day I get on the road I am ecstatic with everything around me. Wow, look at this, wow, look at that, me and myself share excitedly; the rivers and lakes; the blue and green and yellow and brown; the sounds and smells; the expanse around me; the fact that I can trust my phone to take me; that the road doesn’t dead-end somewhere; it never ceases to amaze me that wherever I go there is gas and light and water and a little motel and a bathroom and NPR and grapes and chai-tea-latte… I drive and jot down in my mind all the things I must write about later. Many of them, I forget by the time I get anywhere, but being able to continue a conversation from almost 40 years ago, is a whole different wow.

Pike Peak State Park, Iowa

אח שלי

Almost 40 years later

on the road…

 

 

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