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.
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…).
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.
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.