Monday, September 25, 2006

John Keats in the Summer Shuk

No mellow fruitfulness this summer: Reds
Crown softened hearts that set us free, once fast-
Held, still-to-be-enjoyed, they rear their heads
These berries-of-the-field: Now spring is past.

Next June is kissed goodbye with sticky lips
As pink-to-green anticipates the fall
To sidewalks, sinks; must we say, given pits,
One pepper proves superior to them all?

A weapon's thrown at season's end: Like blood
Be-spattered on the walls. Once more assay
The bitter-sweet, but waken not the bud
Until it please; Then put the pearls away.

The market fills with ripeness to the core--
Conspire to bless (if not the fruit) their lore.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Learning Torah on One Foot

I was leading Shacharit in shul last Shabbat, trying to place all my weight on my left foot, when the irony of my situation suddenly dawned on me. Here I was, standing there with a broken foot and reciting Psalm 34: "God guards all [my] bones; not one of them breaks." I smiled in spite of myself and hoped that no one noticed.

I'm not exactly sure how I fractured my third metatarsal, but the x-ray reults were unequivocal, as were the doctor's instructions: "Minimal walking, and no running for six weeks." This charge has proven both frustrating and debilitating. For the past two years, my feet have traced a continuous path throughout the streets of Jerusalem. Only rarely do I lift my feet from the surface of the ground – not because Eretz Yisrael is holy, but because I am a lover of texts, and my reading and learning have always been intimately connected to walking. Whenever possible, I read novels set in Jerusalem, and then visit the places described – the YMCA stadium where David Grossman's Rhino used to watch soccer games in Someone to Run With; the old Arab house where Batya Gur's Zahava was brutally bludgeoned in Murder on Bethlehem Road.

My study of Talmud, too, connects me to the geography of the city. The streets in my neighborhood are all named for the sages whose statements comprise the skeletal structure of the Talmud: Shimon ben Gamliel; Yochanan ben Zakkai; Elazar Hamodai. When I wake up each morning, I go for a walk or a jog with my Ipod, listening to a Daf Yomi (page-of-Talmud-a-day) lecture while I get my exercise. Sometimes it is difficult to follow the line of the argument without the Talmud page in front of me, but I follow the directional cues of the text: I take a left on Rabbi Akiva and then a right on Hillel, and note how, in a moment of concession, Rabbi Hisda turns into Rabbi Meir at a quiet intersection. .

Each week I xerox the portion of the Torah that I will be reading in synagogue the following Shabbat so that I can practice chanting aloud from the xerox pages while walking to work. When people ask me why I learn my Torah reading while walking, I cite the Talmud in Tractate Eruvin: "A person who is walking along a path and does not have company should occupy himself with Torah." At this point in my life, I often find myself walking alone; I feel fortunate to have Torah as a constant companion.

Two weeks ago, with the start of Elul, I began reviewing the Yom Kippur service on my feet, singing the Hineni and the Vidui prayers aloud as I retraced the steps I have taken over the past year – the streetcorner where I inadvertently left my cousin waiting for me for a half hour; the coffee shop where I really shouldn't have stayed out late gossiping with friends. I planned to continue preparing this way until the holidays began. But now, with the fractured metatarsal, I'm stuck at home. A person cannot learn while walking if she has only one good foot.

We are, of course, in the season of good and bad feet. Our lives hang in the balance – will we put our best foot forward or stumble over the obstacles in our path? Will we be inscribed for life or death? The liturgy of the Al Chet, the long confessional prayer recited many times on Yom Kippur, links most of the sins to the parts of the human body: "For the sin of wanton eyes; for the sin of being stiff-necked; for the sin of the evil tongue." And then, of course, there is the line that involves feet: "For the sin of running with our legs towards iniquity." At least I can't do that one in my present state.

I hope that my foot is healed by Yom Kippur, a day that involves long hours of standing -- especially since I'm leaving just two hours after the fast ends for a marathon of business meetings in Frankfurt. But if I'm still hurting, I can rest assured that I'll be in good company – Ravina (also a big walker and traveler) had an injured foot on Yom Kippur as well. As we learn in the Talmud (Yoma 78a):

The exilarch was invited to the city of Hagrunya to visit the beit midrash of Rav Natan. That morning, Rafram and all the other rabbis went to Rav Natan's class, but Ravina did not attend. The next day, Rafram came to Ravina to find out what had happened, in an effort to exonerate the absent student.

Rafram: What is the reason that you did not come to the class?
Ravina: My foot was hurting.
Rafram: Then why didn't you put on shoes and come to the class?
Ravina: It was the top of my foot that was hurting, and shoes would not have helped.
Rafram: Well then you should have worn sandals.
Ravina: There was a pool of water on the path, and I would have had to cross it.
Rafram: Could you not have crossed it wearing sandals?
Ravina: No, I hold like Rav Ashi, who says that a person may not cross a stream wearing sandals on Yom Kippur.
Rafram: Why does Rav Ashi say this?
Ravina: Because a sandal is more likely to fall off, leading a person to pick it up and carry it [which is forbidden].

Like Ravina, I'm going to have to stay off my feet as much as possible during the next few weeks. Perhaps this will enable me to turn my gaze inwards and focus on the teshuvah that is incumbent upon us during the month of Elul. As we recite in the Yom Kippur liturgy, "God searches all the inner chambers of the stomach and checks the kidneys and the heart." God, then, is the ultimate x-ray machine, and we would do well to follow His example.

Teshuvah begins with self-examination; we are required that we think long and hard about all the ways in which we have not behaved in accordance with God's commandments. According to Kabbalah, these commandments, which number 613 in total, are intimately connected to the human body: There are 248 positive mitzvot, which correspondent to our 248 organs; and 365 negative mitzvot, which correspond to our 365 sinews. Our good deeds and our sins are once again mapped on to the parts of the body. We can only hope that with every step we take, we are drawing closer to God. Our world is fractured enough; we owe it to ourselves to do everything in our power to bring about wholeness and healing.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Structure of the Sukkah Sugya (Sukkah 2a)

There are sugyot in the Gemara that lift themselves off the page to become physical edifices with a tertiary structure that mimics the primary structure of the rabbinic arguments they comprise. Quite appropriately (and perhaps not surprisingly), this happens on the first daf of sukkah, at the beginning of a perek that takes as its subject the very issue of physical structure.

The rabbis are discussing the rule introduced in the first line of the first mishnah of Masechet Sukkah: A sukkah that is higher than twenty amot is pasul. In other words, a sukkah may not exceed a maximum height of twenty amot in order to be a kosher sukkah. The mishnah goes on to list other rules that apply to the physical structure of the sukkah, including the fact that it must be comprised of at least three walls.

M'na haney milay? Where are these words from? With this question, the Gemara seeks out the source of the rule that the sukkah may not be higher than twenty amot. Three possible answers are presented, each attributed to a different Talmudic sage:

1. Rabbah holds that the source of the maximum-height rule is a verse in the Torah: "In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt" (Leviticus 23:43). As Rabbah explains, a person needs to be COGNIZANT of the nature of the structure in which he is sitting. If the structure is taller than 20 amot, it would be impossible for a person to dwell therein with the requisite awareness.

2. Rabbi Zeyrah cites a verse from Isaiah as the source of the maximum-height rule: "And it shall serve as a sukkah for shade from heat by day and as a shelter from protection against torrents and rain" (Isaiah 4:6). R. Zeyrah concludes that it is the CANOPY of the sukkah that needs to do the sheltering; however, if a sukkah is taller than twenty amot, then effectively it will be the walls and not the canopy that is providing the shade.

3. Ravah cites the verse immediately preceding the one cited by Rabbah as evidence for the maximum-height rule: "In Sukkot you must dwell for seven days." As he sees it, the emphasis is on the TEMPORARY nature of the structure: Any structure that is less than twenty amot may be considered temporary; but once it exceeds this height, it becomes something permanent.

The answers provided by Rabbah, R. Zeyrah, and Ravah serve as the three walls holding up the edifice of the sugya. Yet each of these three walls is then delivered a blow. The Gemara states that it is impossible to achieve a universal consensus regarding any of these three opinions:

1. Everyone will not hold like Rabbah because there are those who hold that the idea of being cognizant of dwelling in the sukkah exists for "future generations," and not for those actually dwelling in the sukkah at this time.

2. Everyone will not hold like R. Zeyrah because if the shade provided by the canopy is the critical factor, then Isaiah should have used the term chuppah (a structure whose canopy is its primary feature) rather than sukkah (a structure whose canopy is secondary to its walls).

3. Everyone will not hold like Ravah because of a problem raised by Abayey: If indeed it is most important that the sukkah be temporary, then shouldn't a sukkah made of iron be considered unkosher – since iron is a permanent material? And yet a sukkah with iron walls is indeed kosher!

What is the source of the maximum height rule? None of the three answers provided by the Gemara is fully satisfactory. No one answer holds on its own, just as no one wall can hold up a sukkah. At the sugya's conclusion, each of the three walls is still tottering. For this reason, all three are necessary to uphold the sugya-sukkah, that flimsy structure that we must inhabit, albeit temporarily and uneasily, throughout the seven days of Sukkot.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Song to be sung on the bus at camp after Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer: A translation of Yoma 84b

You should save a life on Shabbat, and the faster you do so, the better. And you need not ask permission from the Bet Din first. Yes, you need not ask permission from the Bet Din first.

If a man sees a baby fall into the ocean, he should cast out a fishing net and catch the baby. And the faster one does so, the better; and it is not necessary to obtain permission from the Bet Din to save the baby in this manner, even though fishing is prohibited on Shabbat.

If a man sees a baby fall into a pit, he should dig a step out of sand and lift out the baby. And the faster one does so, the better; and it is not necessary to obtain permission from the Bet Din to save the baby in this manner, even though building a step is prohibited on Shabbat.

If a man sees a door slam on a baby, he should break open the door and release the baby. And the faster one does so, the better; and it is not necessary to obtain permission from the Bet Din to save the baby in this manner, even though breaking open a door is prohibited on Shabbat.

You should save a life on Shabbat, and the faster you do so, the better. And you need not ask permission from the Bet Din first. Yes, you need not ask permission from the Bet Din first.

Psalm 27

the rectang
ular patch
of jeru
salem sky

that I see
when I lie
on my back
in the pool –

this is all
that I ask
god of