Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Love in the Time of Omer (part II)

The night before I left for camp one junior high school summer, my mother and I stayed up past midnight watching the eight-hour movie version of Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds – a story that was to dominate my views of romantic love for over a decade. I had read the novel earlier that year (I remember hiding the bright orange mass market paperback inside a textbook so I could sneak a few pages during social studies class), and it immediately overwrote everything I knew about Roman Catholic priests, Australia, and of course romance. I have not watched the movie since, but I can still conjure in my mind the grand panoramic views of the endless Australian outback, the soft silk Ashes of Roses gown against Meggie's fiery red hair, and the sublime melancholy of the music that would run through my head all summer long. That was the summer of my first boyfriend, and though I did not take the book with me to camp, I had already memorized its first and last paragraphs:

"There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the price of great pain... or so says the legend...

The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it."

These two paragraphs were to become my credo of romantic love, a statement of everything I believed about the human heart. I was determined that I would love just once, but that it would be a grand and majestic love that would demand every ounce of my being. I was sure that this love would be painful—deeply, agonizingly, heart-wrenchingly painful—but that the depths of the pain would be matched by heights of passion and ecstasy. I would put the thorn in my breast and perhaps I would die in so doing, but still I would do it. Still I would do it.

When I graduated from junior high to high school, The Thorn Birds was supplemented by other articles of faith that shaped and hardened my romantic constitution, including Catherine Earnshaw's declaration to Nelly Dean that her "love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath—a source of little visible delight, but necessary"; a statement by Sartre encountered in a Rebecca Goldstein novel ("Thus suddenly an object has appeared which has stolen the world from me…"); and Keats' valorization of a love "forever warm and still to be enjoyed / Forever panting, and forever young." I quote each of these passages from memory as I write this post because I learned them "by heart" – by which I mean that the ink with which these words were written coursed through my veins, beat against my staggering brain, and carved out the channels of each chamber of my heart.

With time, as I have loved and lost and loved and lost again, I suppose I have developed a more sober view of romantic love. Bronte and Keats have been supplanted by the determined calmness attained through great effort of will which I found in Edna St. Vincent Millay ("What lips my lips have kissed and where and why / I have forgotten" – a poem that goes on to invoke Wuthering Heights, I think); at some moments I was even able to adjure myself that "I find this frenzy insufficient reason / for conversation when we meet again" (though I highly doubt that I or Edna ever really believed that was true; what do we have if not for the frenzy?). I have resigned myself (not without kicking and screaming) to Yeats' take-no-prisoners enjoinder that "to be born a woman is to know / although they do not talk of it at school / that we must labor to be beautiful." When I chant Shir Hashirim on Pesach it is not with a heart open to the possibilities of the future, but with a heart weighed down by memories (What men have recited Shir Hashirim to me and where and why / I have forgotten….) And just this morning (while waiting each half hour for my next appointment to arrive at the London Book Fair), I memorized a poem by Jack Gilbert called "Waiting and Finding" (discovered in a recent New Yorker magazine), which I think I shall henceforth regard as my new credo of romantic love -- a poem that, like everything I have quoted until this point, I can now recite "by heart":

While he was in kindergarten, everybody wanted to play
the tomtoms when it came time for that. You had to
run in order to get there first, and he would not.
So he always had a triangle. He does not remember
how they played the tomtoms, but he sees clearly
their Chinese look. Red with dragons front and back
and gold studs around that held the drumhead tight.
If you had a triangle, you didn’t really make music.
You mostly waited while the tambourines and tomtoms
went on a long time. Until there was a signal for all
triangle people to hit them the right way. Usually once.
Then it was tomtoms and waiting some more. But what
he remembers is the sound of the triangle. A perfect,
shimmering sound that has lasted all his long life.
Fading out and coming again after a while. Getting lost
and the waiting for it to come again. Waiting meaning
without things. Meaning love sometimes dying out,
sometimes being taken away. Meaning that often he lives
silent in the middle of the world’s music. Waiting
for the best to come again. Beginning to hear the silence
as he waits. Beginning to like the silence maybe too much.

Like The Thorn Birds, encountered when I was less than half as old as I am now, "Waiting and Finding" relies on a musical metaphor for love. There is Colleen McCullough's "one superlative song," and then there is Gilbert's "perfect, shimmering sound." These two metaphors bookend my thoughts on romantic love until this point in my life, with the latter taking the place of the former. Love is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime song that the whole world stills to listen, but a series of cacophonous rehearsals in which everybody tries to learn how to play their part, and most of us never get it exactly right. The romance of romantic love lies not in the uniqueness of its limited-time-offer-only, but in the guaranteed "fading out and coming again" (enacted by the constant back-and-forth flashes from tomtoms to triangle throughout the first thirteen lines of the poem). For Gilbert, romantic love is romantic not because it requires us to surrender our lives, but because it requires us to live the surrender again and again. Love has poetry in the same way that a sunset has poetry; the color streaks across the sky as the light fades, but then the sun always rises. "The best," a phrase that appears in both texts, is something that costs us our lives for McCullough; but for Gilbert it is inevitably reborn again and again, like the morning light.

Unlike McCullough, for whom life ends when the song dies, Gilbert allows for the silences, and even acknowledges that the silences have their own appeal. As I sit alone in a tiny top-floor London hotel room overlooking a quiet park, scribbling these words in a notebook with my feet curled under me in the corner of a narrow single bed, I have no use for birds and thorns and savage breasts. I am beginning to like the silence – maybe too much.

See also "Love in the Time of Omer" (part I):

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Bava Kama: פרקים א-ב

Perek Aleph: ארבעה אבות נזיקין

Four groupings of damage may be
Inflicted on you or on me:
The ox and the pit
Are the fire. That's it?
Oh, the Maveh. The Maveh? You'll see.

An ox can do harm in three ways
Horn – he willfully rams. Master pays.
Teeth – he'll eat what he'll find
(If he's yours, you'll be fined)
Foot – He tramples where others must graze.

"Be your own bodyguard" that's the law.
Don't extend to your friend a big claw.
One who sleeps, he can be
Flailing dangerously--
He can hurt with his arms, legs and jaw.

For a mitzvah, spend up to one third.
Third of all that you've got? Oh my word!
What if then there are three
Mitzvot? How can that be --
You'd be bankrupt. That's clearly absurd.

Five men sat on a bench. It stayed strong.
Then a sixth man came ambling along.
He sat down. It went splat
It was Papa, who's fat!
Well, then Papa's the one in the wrong.

This one's sad. If a baby's born dead
The placenta takes time, and instead
It comes out one day late
Mom must count days and wait
Til she's pure. Count from when? From the head.

If a newborn is torn limb from limb
By a wild beast, say, on a whim.
There's no need to redeem
It would be quite unseem-
Ly. Poor baby! (Poor what's-left-of-him.)

Olah, Chatat, Asham – we can't eat
Of their sacrificed burnt altar meat.
But the Shlamim, like most,
You can eat. Make a toast!
To dead animals! Ooh, what a treat.

"Dude, your cow trampled on my Tallit!"
"Your Tallit brought my cow to its feet!"
So two men scream and shout.
Does it all even out?
Don't assume it's all so nice and neat.

Do not keep a dog in your house
(It could bite off the head of your spouse)
Or a rickety ladder
(It might slip and shatter
And injure much more than a mouse.)

When it's time for the Modim prayer, make
Sure you bow – there's a lot here at stake!
If you don't, then your spine
After seven years time
In the grave – it will turn to a snake!

Rabbi Yochanan's students would cry:
"Teach us this halacha! How and why!"
He would answer. But he,
When he needed to pee
Would then wait 'til he washed to reply.

Perek Bet: כיצד הרגל מועדת

The perilous feet of a beast
Can cause damage – some damage at least.
When it walks it will break
Any jug in its wake
Scatter pebbles and leave your rug creased.

Your chickens were dancing in dough
(These were quite jolly chickens, you know.)
They pecked at the batter
Their footprints made splatter
It's full-damage payment you owe.

Reuven threw a great jug from on high
While the jug was midair through the sky
Shimon came with a staff
Broke the jug into half
It would break anyway! Jugs don't fly!

A dog took a still-flaming cake
Off the coals and proceeded to take
To the haystack his food
Quite a fire ensued
Restitution his master must make.

A chicken was dancing in dough
Soon the chicken, it seems, had to go.
Not a nice sight, is it?
Home-made baked chicken shit?
Would you eat it? Ahem, that's a no.

A chicken extended its beak
In a vessel of glass. Then it shrieked.
Oh the glass – how it shattered
The pieces were scattered
What havoc a chicken can wreak!

A chicken with string 'round its foot
Runs. (A chicken, we know, can't stay put.)
It flutters and breaks
Everything in its wake
Strewing dirt, pebbles, feathers and soot.

The cat ate my gymsuit –it's true!
Paula Fox, here's a sugya for you!
Is the way of a cat
To eat something like that?
No? Then cat-owner owes me a few.

What if I set up camp in your yard?
I live rent-free when living gets hard.
You're not even aware
That I'm living right there.
I get benefit; you don't get scarred.

Rav Chisda asked, "How do we know
If the tenant pays not-in-the-know
Master? Rami bar Chama
Said "Bring my pajama
I'll answer if you serve me. Go."

There were orphans who owned a trash heap
There they stored what it is orphans keep.
Some guy built there a castle
Said Nachman, "A hassle
You've caused. And I hold it not cheap!'

A camel is carrying flax
Which ignites in some hot burning wax
That is hung at the door
Of a man's roadside store--
"Was it Chanukah then," you must ask.

A cow enters a fine fancy home
Not a place where a cow tends to roam!
Rubs its back on the wall
And erases the scrawl
Of the mural. Who repaints the home?

The Torah is from where we know
A principle known as Dayo
If Miriam were spat
At by father, well that
Would mean one week. And God rules just so.

A man has a rock on his chest
He gets up and it falls from his breast.
Is the damage his fault?
He meant not to assault!
He pays Nezek, but not all the rest.

A baby is thrown off a roof
It resembles a comic book spoof:
Below, someone comes toward
It with quite a large sword.
Slashing baby midair. Babe goes poof!

Someone falls off a roof and he lands
In a woman (Er… not in her hands)
What was done has been done
(And perhaps it was fun)
Are they married? This was not the plan!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

לברכה ולא לקללה (Taanit 7a)

It says, "May my words come down like rain" and it also says, "may my speech be like the dew" (Deuteronomy 32:2). If one is a proper Torah scholar, God's words fall like dew; and if not, they smite him like rain. (Taanit 7a)

It is Saturday night of Chol Hamoed Pesach, just a few days after we recited the prayer for dew, and I am sitting at my kitchen table drinking hot tea and reading an article about Talmudic stories. The article mentions the prayers for rain and dew in Masechet Taanit, so I find myself opening up my Gemara and reviewing that sugya. The Talmud is trying to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the two halves of Deuteronomy 32:2. Do God's words come down like rain (which falls with violent force) or like dew (which descends gently)? This depends on whether the Torah scholar is proper or not. The Talmud goes on to explain that a proper Torah scholar is one who studies "for the sake of God's name," and not for any ulterior motives. If the scholar studies for the sake of God's name, Torah becomes "an elixir of life"; if not, it becomes an "elixir of death." I hope that I am a proper Torah scholar, but (rather ominously) the ensuing events suggest otherwise….

Why is Torah analogized to water? It is written, "All who are thirsty shall go to the water" (Isaiah 55:1) to tell you: Just as water falls from a high place to a low place, so too does Torah not endure except in someone who is exceedingly humble. (Taanit 7a)

I have drunk my tea to the lees and I am thirsty again, so I walk over to my special Pesach hot water heater. But there is only a small amount of water left; it is time to refill the heater. First, though, I will lift up the lid and pour the remaining hot water into my cup. I am still thinking about the article I am reading and I fail to pay attention to what I am doing; the next thing I know, burning hot water is pouring down on the hand holding my glass tea cup, and I leap and yelp in agony and watch as my scorched hand turns a deep red.

Why is Torah analogized to fire? It is written, "Behold my word is like fire, declares the Lord" (Jeremiah 23:29). To teach you: Just as a flame does not ignite on its own, so too does Torah not endure in one who is alone. (Taanit 7a)

I feel as if my hand has just been singed by fire, and I am not sure what to do. Whom can I ask? Rashi explains that "one who is alone" refers to someone who has no study partner to challenge and sharpen his or her learning. It is true that if I had a study partner, that person might be able to offer assistance in just such a situation! I am hurting too much to think straight, but somehow I manage to pull the brown packaging tape off my freezer (which is prohibitively marked "CHAMETZ"), grab a frozen bag of string beans, and place it on my burning hand. The coldness feels soothing, but when I lift the bag for a moment, I am distressed to see that my hand is covered by several protruding welts, reminiscent, perhaps, of the plague of boils…..

If a scorched disciple [צורבא מרבנן] is boiling, it is Torah that is boiling in him, as it is written, "Behold my word is like fire, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 23:29). (Taanit 4a)

A term often used in the Talmud for a young Torah scholar is צורבא מרבנן, which literally means "a scorched one of the rabbis." As I rummage through my bathroom cabinet for aloe vera gel, I wonder if I now qualify for this distinction. Perhaps I do not remember standing at Sinai, but I certainly received the water of Torah in an experience of fiery flames. And I certainly learned a good lesson tonight (albeit a lesson I seem to need to keep learning again and again). My hand hurts too much to concentrate on studying, so I put aside my book and decide to go to bed. I hope that the rain is truly over and gone, and that when I wake up in the morning, the world will be bathed in gentle dew.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Drawing Out: From Exodus to Exegesis

"By the merit of the righteous women who lived in that generation, the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt." So teaches the midrash in Tanchuma Pikudei 9, which goes on to tell the story of how Egyptian oppression was so great that the Israelite men lost all desire to sleep with their wives. The women, in an attempt to rectify the situation, went out to the fields to seduce their husbands. How did they do it? They would go out and draw water, and God would arrange that small fish should enter their jugs. The women cooked the fish and carried them out to their husbands in the field. When they had eaten and drunk, they took their mirrors and looked into them with their husbands. She would say, "I am more beautiful than you," and then he would say, "I am more beautiful than you," and as a result, they would awaken in each other desire, and they were fruitful and they multiplied.

This midrash tells the story of how the women succeeded in re-kindling desire in their husbands, thereby drawing them out from the misery of slavery. By the merit of these women who managed to draw out their husbands, God in turn drew the children of Israel out of Egypt.

This emphasis on "drawing out" finds its echo in the midrash on the four sons which we recite as part of the Haggadah. To draw out is the engage and to arouse someone's interest. Of the four sons, two naturally engage, and two are unable to do so. That is, the wise and wicked sons are eager to engage through their questions. They seem to genuinely want to know (whether out of intellectual curiosity or hard-nosed cynicism) what the rituals of Pesach are about. In contrast, the simple son and the one who does not know how to ask are able to engage only on the most minimal level, if at all. Mah zot? asks the Tam; and his brother cannot say even that.

The responses given to the sons reflect an awareness of their level of engagement. The wise and wicked sons, who have no problem saying whatever is on their mind, are given responses that signal restraint. The wise son is instructed in "the laws of Pesach, that we do not have an afikoman after the Pesach." Of all the laws of Pesach, why should this one be singled out? It seems important to teach the wise son is told that there are limits; no matter how much he may want to engage, even Kol Hamarbeh L'saper has its bounds. The wicked son is restrained even more forcefully -- his teeth are blunted, and he is told that even if he had been around at the exodus, he would have been excluded from redemption. God would have left him back in Egypt. He would not have been drawn out.

The simple son and the interrogatively-challenged one, in contrast, are drawn out -- they are given a version of the Pesach story that is far longer than anything they were able to articulate. The simple son is quoted a verse that serves as a one-sentence summary of the whole story: "It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out of Egypt from the house of bondage." The response to the son who does not know how to ask, too, focuses on the process of coming out of Egypt: "This is on account of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt." With these answers, the father is to draw out those sons who are unable to engage deeply on their own.

The essence of the exodus--that is, what physically happened in Egypt--was a process of being "drawn out" from bondage. The metaphor most commonly invoked is that of giving birth -- Egypt was the birth canal of our people, we were "delivered" only after painful "labor," and the story itself would not have happened if not for the crucial intervention of righteous midwives. But perhaps another, equally-apt metaphor is that of exegesis. Exegesis, too, is a form of "drawing out" -- we draw out meaning from the Biblical text by means of our interpretations of that text .This is what we do at the Seder when we study the midrashim on parshat Bikkurim that form the core of the Maggid. We read meanings that others have drawn out of these verses, and we draw out our own meanings. The word "exegesis" comes from the Greek words ex (out) and hegeisthai (to lead) – exegesis is a form of leading out. Thus exegesis is, etymologically, an exodus. By engaging in exegesis, the seder enables us to experience the exodus on a whole new level -- we ourselves perform the act of "drawing out" that defined this key moment in the history of our people.

The Hebrew word for exegesis, midrash, comes from the root darash. It is interesting to note that the first time the verb darash appears in the Torah is in Parshat Toldot, where we are told that Rivka, who was experiencing difficult labor pains, went to "seek out" or "draw out" God. Rivka was thus the first person to engage in midrash. Maybe it really is by the merit of righteous women that we were redeemed, as the midrash puts it. Maybe the connection between the two metaphors --birth and exegesis-- is closer than we might have thought. And finally, maybe by engaging in midrash at the seder we are, through our acts of "drawing out," becoming God's partner not just in creation but also redemption.

The Way It Still Is: An Excerpt

The below is taken directly from The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven (Translated by Dalya Bilu; Melville House, 2009)

Interviewer: So how did it happen that you went to study law?
Feminist writer: It was a coincidence. With women, you know, things happen by chance. There was a man I wanted to impress.
Interviewer: Did you want him to fall in love with you?
Feminist writer: I knew I didn't have a hope.
Interviewer: But surely he must have been impressed….
Feminist writer: He didn't even know I was studying. You see, he wasn't in the country at all, there was no contact between us. I just imagined that he was looking at me all the time.
Interviewer: And afterwards?
Feminist writer: What afterwards? There is no afterwards. There is no earlier and later in love. When he felt like summoning me, I went to be his mistress. That's the way it still is.

Friday, April 03, 2009

מנחת יהודה וירושלים (Malachi 3:4)

It is Thursday night before Shabbat HaGadol, and the air in Jerusalem is charged. I decide that it is not enough to listen to the rabbis discussing the halachot of Pesach all day on Reshet Moreshet, my favorite frum radio station. I want to be a part of it all! Besides, the weather took a sudden turn today -- when I got to the office (after a morning seminar on the history of the Haggadah), I removed several layers of clothing and turned on my fan. For several hours I have been trying to concentrate on work, but I keep hearing Wordsworth echoing in my ears: "All things that love the sun are out of doors." I simply cannot bear to miss the final hour of daylight. And so I push aside the pile of contracts on my desk, empty the heavier books out of my backpack, and set off in the direction of the center of town, light on my feet and humming my favorite Chad Gadya melody.

My thoughts and wishes bend towards the shuk, where I intend to buy fruits and vegetables for Shabbat; but on the way I stop in a clothing store or two, hoping that I might find something colorful to wear for Pesach. I generally buy clothes only before the major holidays; this way, I feel like I am buying not just for myself, but lichvod ha-chag. I come to refer to my various items of clothing as "last year's Pesach skirt" or "the lace shirt from Sukkot two years ago." The Talmud teaches that a man is obligated to bring joy to the members of his household before Pesach. What brings joy to men? Wine. And what brings joy to women? Colorful clothing (at least in Bavel). I walk into a store where countless young mothers with elaborately-wrapped head coverings are balancing babies on their hips and hangars between their teeth. I pull a purple skirt off the rack, hold it against my waist, and bring it to the register. Clothes in Israel are very poorly made and very cheap, which is why I like to shop here. After a year or two of wear, I have a fresh set of curtains for my windows and a convenient excuse to buy something new.

By now it is after 8pm, but I am sure the shuk will be open late, as it always is on Thursday nights. This week the regular pre-Shabbat crowds are even more frenzied: the countdown to Pesach has begun. "Pesach magiya, Pesach magiya," one vendor shouts as he hawks pots and pans and dishes and sink racks. One stand over, the vendor at my favorite bakery yells out, "Thirty pitas for ten shekel, thirty pitas for ten shekel, rabotai, don't miss out!" I smile at the antiphonal fugue created by their overlapping cries: "Pesach is coming" and "Thirty pitas for ten shekel." The words for "don't miss out" are "אל תחמיצו," which literally means, "Don't become chametz!" I wonder if he realizes what he is saying.

Everyone in the shuk is buying paper goods and aluminum cake pans, and some shoppers have already begun stocking up on the ubiquitous "matzah ashira" coconut cookies, which make my stomach turn. (On Pesach my diet usually consists of fruits, raw vegetables, yogurt, ice cream, and chocolate bars; I won't eat anything with matzah or anything that is made especially for Pesach. Matzah pancakes? Matzah pizza? I'll wait a week for the real thing.) I buy one knife, one spoon, one fork, and one sponge, as is possible only in the shuk. I cannot help but notice the tremendous poverty around me: the stooping old woman in a kerchief who asks the string bean vendor to give her, for free, the shriveled cut-up beans that he is planning to discard anyway; the old man rattling his cup and asking passers-by for just one shekel; the tired mother who tries to bargain down the price of the eight peppers she is buying to cook for Shabbat. "I will surely open the floodgates of the sky for you and pour down blessings upon you" (Malachi 3:10), God promises in this week's Haftarah – we are waiting with open arms.

For Shabbat I want to make a fruit salad, so I take note of all the new spring fruits: Thick-skinned oranges have replaced the clementines I carried around in my backpack all winter, and the apples are big and shiny again. There are passionfruit instead of pomegrantes, and the grapes are small and shriveled but the pomellos beam like giant yellow suns. One stand has a sign that reads "הגיעה הפיינק ליידי," the pink lady has come! Who is the pink lady, I wonder? הנא אנוכי שולח לכם – who, exactly? Then I see the arrow pointing to a carton of bright pink apples and I figure it out.

Perhaps the best sign that Chag Ha-Aviv is upon us are the strawberries piled up in mounds so high that they block my view of the vendors standing behind them. I buy my strawberries from a man with stained red fingers who sells them for 5 shekel a kilo, which means about 40 strawberries for a dollar. "Do you eat strawberries yourself?" I ask him, and he looks down at the mountain of red fruit in front of him and grimaces. He uses a dustpan to shovel the strawberries into flimsy plastic containers – I buy two kilos, and never have trouble finishing them over the course of the week. I try to remember to come to the shuk with a big tupperware so I can transfer my strawberries immediately; they are the most fragile of fruits, and inevitably they get beaten-up on the bus when not suitably protected.

I know that I am finished shopping in the shuk when I feel like I've been doing Avodah b'pharech: my back is breaking, my shoulders are aching, and there is no room in my bag for even just one of those bright yellow lemons beckoning to me from across the alley. Dayenu. Exhausted, I trek down to the bus stop, adjust the canvas bags on both my shoulders, and breathe a sigh of relief as my bus pulls up and I get on. The driver winks at my bare shoulders but I insist on paying anyway, unwilling to accept his pass-over. I make my way down the aisle and observe that all the Haredi men are learning Arvei Psachim, anxiously guarding the empty seats next to them lest a woman like me sit down. No matter. The bus driver has the radio on loudly – a rabbi is expounding on the lengths to which a person should go when cleaning for Pesach. I take a seat, put down my bags, and look out the window at a city poised once again, as in each generation, to re-experience redemption.