Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tisch Drash

D and I have chosen to speak today from Masechet Bava Batra, the tractate of Talmud that we are currently learning as part of Daf Yomi. This is a program in which thousands of Jews the world over learn the same page of Talmud every day, completing the cycle in seven and a half years. We began this masechet last August, and our learning has taken a variety of forms – some days we meet at a morning shiur in a local synagogue taught by Rabbi Benny Lau; other days we learn on our own after work; and still other days we meet in the evening to learn the Daf together over dinner. Our original goal was to wait until we finished the Masechet and then have a siyum-slash-wedding. But as we did not particularly want to put off today’s celebration until February, we decided that we’d get married now, and share with you some of what we have learned until this point.

I’d like to teach from a recent daf, 98, where we find a mishnah about a person who accepts a contract from a friend to build for him a wedding house בית חתנות for his son. The Mishnah considers the minimum size of house that is acceptable for this purpose – touching upon such issues as whether a person can choose to live in a home that resembles a cattle barn, and why a bride and groom are not advised to move in with their in-laws (at least according to Ben Sira, which may help to explain why his work is known as wisdom literature!). These digressions aside, in its discussion of the minimum dimensions of the wedding house, the Talmud draws an analogy to the Temple, which is often used as the model for other structures in rabbinic literature. Rabbi Chanina points out a contradiction between two different measurements of the Temple stated in two verses from the book of Kings – in one verse, the Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of Holies) is thirty amot high; and in another verse, it is twenty amot high. The Talmud reconciles this contradiction by explaining that one measurement refers to the height of the Holy of Holies from floor to ceiling, whereas the other measurement starts from the tops of the Kruvim (cherubim), which were ten amot tall, and goes up to the ceiling. But why would one opt to measure from the tops of the Kruvim rather than from the floor? The Talmud answers that this way of measuring comes to teach us that all thirty amot of the Holy of Holies were as empty as the uppermost twenty because the Keruvim, the cherubs, took up no physical space. Or, to quote the Talmud:
כרובים אינו מן המידה

Miraculously, the Kruvim did not take up any room. They existed in spiritual space only, and not in the physical world. This expression speaks to me, for I am a person who lives very much inside her head. I feel very grateful—and relieved!--to have found a partner who is so practical and down-to-earth --- someone who reminds me to cook food for myself, and prevents me from burning down my home while doing so. Much as I admire D’s pragmatism and his masterful organizational skills, I also feel privileged to be privy to his intellectual and spiritual depths. So much of our relationship developed in the context of classes we attended, poems we read, Shabbat meals we shared, and other tastes of the world to come—that world that is suspended somewhere beyond the physical and material realm. And so I love the next phrase that the Talmud uses to describe the Kruvim:
כרובים בנס היו עומדין
The Kruvim were suspended in a miracle. This is the same image that the Talmud uses elsewhere to describe the letters Mem and Samech in the Ten Commandments, which, although they were identical to their mirror images and although they are round, miraculously did not fall out of the tablets, but hung there with the other letters, suspended in a miracle. This notion of being suspended in a miracle is very much how I feel today – as if my whole life until this day hangs in balance with the wondrous miracle of joining my life today with D’s, surrounded by so many people we both love. On this day of Kedusha and of our Kidushin, we are not unlike the Kruvim, suspended in a miracle in the midst of the Kodesh Kodashim.

The Talmud explains that part of the miraculous positioning of the Kruvim was due to the fact their wingspans alone were equivalent to the entire width of the Holy of Holies. Where, then, were their bodies? The Talmud posits a series of possible answers: Perhaps they stood on a diagonal, or perhaps they stood with their wings overlapping, or perhaps they stood with their wings protruding from the center of their backs like chickens (this is the Talmud’s image, not my own!). What I like about all of these answers is that they all have to do with how to share space – how to make room for another person, and how to let another person into your space. That this space is the Holy of Holies is not incidental. I feel privileged, in the past few months, that D has made room for me in his life, and that I, in turn, have felt so eager to let him into mine. This intimate shared space, built on a deep trust that developed between us over time, is truly, to my mind, a sacred enclosure.

In speaking of the Kruvim, the Talmud goes on to ask
כיצד היו עומדין
How were they standing? Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar disagree about this. One rabbi says that they were facing each other
פניהם איש אל אחיו
(perhaps looking into each other eyes?)
And the other rabbi says that they were facing the walls of the Kodesh Kodashim, meaning that they were turned away from each other, as per a verse from Divrei Hayamim (II 3:13):
ופניהם לבית
The Talmud famously resolves this contradiction by saying that both answers are correct, though they apply at different moments. When Israel is doing God’s will, the two Kruvim are facing each other; when Israel is not doing God’s will, they are facing away from each other.

It is my hope, in our marriage, that we will spend most of our time facing towards and not away from each other, working in partnership to do God’s will in the world. After all, it is from the space between the Kruvim that God speaks to the people –
ונועדתי לך שם ודברתי אתך מעל הכפורת מבין שני הכרובים
There I will meet with you, and I will speak to you, from above the cover, from between the two cherubim." (Exodus 25: 22)
God speaks from between the two Kruvim, a space that our teacher Avivah Zornberg describes as the “locus of desire.” I like to think that this is also the space between Ish and Isha, that is, the space of Shechina -- the presence of God whose dwelling place is the Holy of Holies and all our holiest moments.

Of course, two people, no matter how much they are in love, cannot and should not always be looking at each other. And so when we are not looking at one another, I hope that we are at least looking in the same direction, as expressed by the poet Frank Bidart: “The love I’ve known is the love of two people staring not at each other, but in the same direction.” Bidart’s image offers me a new way of thinking about this sugya. When both Kruvim are facing the walls, Pneyhem LaBayit, perhaps they are looking not at opposite walls but at the same wall, as D and I look together today towards our shared future. As we prepare to move into our own Beit Chatanot, we set our sights towards a future in which we will always have moments of looking into one another’s eyes; always make space for one another; and always carry with us the memory of today, of standing suspended in this miracle.


כל עולמינו כלו
ארץ תלויה על בלימה
לכה דודי, נשכימה—
נעלה כי יכול נוכל
נשבח כי טוב להודות
נברך כי מי יודע אם
לעת כזאת הגענו.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Aufrauf - Sunday Dec 13

One of the major subjects of Parshat Vayeshev and of the Joseph story cycle is dreams – from Joseph’s dream of his brothers bowing down to him first as sheaves of wheat and then as stars in the sky at the beginning of this week’s parsha, to the two ministers’ dreams in Pharaoh’s royal prison, to Pharaoh’s two dreams about the sturdy and skinny cows, and then the solid and scorched corn at the beginning of next week’s parsha. Perhaps this preoccupation with dreams throughout the second half of Breishit has something to do with the fact that God is less of a visible player – God never appears to Joseph directly as He did to his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. The closest that Joseph comes to prophecy is through dreams, a natural phenomenon with which all of us are familiar, but which Joseph interprets in each case as an omen predicting the future.

The brothers also consider dreams to have some reality to them, insofar as they find Joseph’s dreams threatening. Their motivation for throwing Joseph into the pit is at least in part to prevent his dreams from coming true. The Torah describes that the brothers saw him from afar, and said to one another: “That Ba’al Chalomot, that dreamer, here he comes! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits, and we can say, “A savage beast devoured him.” We shall see what becomes of his dreams!”

According to the simple reading of the text, this comment, “We shall see what becomes of his dreams”
ונראה מה יהיו חלומותיו
is meant as a snide remark. We will kill Joseph, and then we’ll see if his dreams come true, they say, mocking him incredulously. Rashi, however, reads this verse differently. Commenting on the words, “We shall see what becomes of his dreams,” Rashi says, “It is Ruach HaKodesh (the divine spirit) that speaks these words. That is, the brothers say “let us kill him,” and then God responds, “We shall see what becomes of his dreams!” Rashi explains why the latter half of the verse cannot possibly be spoken by the brothers – and here I quote from Rashi:
אי אפשר שיאמרו ונראה מה יהיו חלומותיו, שמכיון שיהרגוהו בטלו חלומותיו
“It would be impossible for the brothers to have spoken these words, ‘And we will see what becomes of his dreams,’ because once they killed him, they invalidated his dreams.”

Why is it that the brothers cannot have spoken the second half of this verse? Because, reasons Rashi, how could they possibly see what becomes of Joseph’s dreams if they kill him? Here I think that Rashi is playing on a double meaning – on the one hand, מה
refers to “what his dreams will become,” the content of his dreams, that is, what he will dream in the future. In this sense we can understand why Rashi says that the brothers could not have spoken these words – after all, once they kill Joseph, he will no longer have any dreams
בטלו חלומותיו
and would certainly be unable to share them with his brothers.

But of course,
refers not just to the content of Joseph’s dreams, but also to whether or not the dreams actually come true. Here God is asserting that even if the brothers try to kill off Joseph, they will not succeed in killing off his dreams – as indeed the rest of the Joseph story will attest.

I am intrigued by this distinction between the content of Joseph’s dreams, and whether or not they actually come true, because I think it speaks to where D and I stand on the brink of our marriage. Until this point, we have spent much of our time talking about our dreams. The process of our getting to know one another was a process of sharing dreams with each other, not in a boastful way like Joseph with his brothers, but in an attempt to draw one another in to our hopes and aspirations. We have discovered many shared dreams—to always fill our lives with Torah and with literature, to live in Eretz Yisrael while remaining close with our families—and I think that much of what made our courtship so wondrous was realizing how many dreams we had in common. Moreover, in describing our dreams, we discovered that we spoke the same language – the language of ours favorite poets Yeats and Stevens, and the language of Talmud and midrash. We found that we shared the reflective, intense self-awareness that comes of keeping journals as a written emotional record of our failings and of our aspirations. Both of us moved from confiding in our journals to confiding in each other, as the record of our email correspondence attests. The Talmud in Masechet Brachot, in an extended passage about dreams and dream interpretation, famously states
חלמא דלא מפשר כאיגרתא דלא מקריא
a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read (Brachot 55a). When I think of how eager I was to read each of D’s emails during the first few months of our dating, I can only hope that our dreams will be fulfilled with similar alacrity.

As we got to know each other better, D and I moved from sharing our individual dreams with one another to creating shared dreams, as we began to imagine a life together. “We will see whose dreams come true—mine or yours,” God scoffs at the brothers, according to Rashi’s reading, suggesting that God has His own dreams for Joseph. In the same way that Joseph’s dreams are bound up in God’s dreams for the Jewish people—such that God refers to Joseph’s dreams as “mine,” we can only hope that in the joining of our dreams, in the joining of ish and isha, we will create a space for shechina, for God’s presence and God’s role in the unfolding of our destiny.

Of course, the only way to know if a dream is true or not is to wait and see if it is actually realized. A dream is what scientists refer to as outcome-determinant – its outcome determines its nature. We cannot know if our dreams are going to come true, if our marriage is to be a good one, until we live out our lives together. Our dreams will carry us only so far – beyond that point, we must work to make them into reality, to climb out of the pits into which we’ll inevitably fall, and to return to the people we most love. John Donne, a poet that D and I have often quoted to one another, captures this notion in his poem about a man who is awoken by his lover in the middle of his dream, and says to her:

Thou art so truth, that thoughts of thee suffice,
To make dreames truths; and fables histories;
Enter these armes, for since thou thoughtst it best
Not to dreame all my dreame, let’s act the rest.

It is with great dreams for the future, and also with a deep faith in God, that D and I make the transition from dreaming our dreams to “acting the rest.” In the past month, as we have planned for our upcoming wedding, I have been again and again impressed by D’s ability not just to dream dreams – not just to come up with great ideas – but also to execute them smoothly and efficiently, whether by speeding on his bike to the other side of town on a moment’s notice, or by carrying a 30-pound box of wedding booklets up a big hill (no load is too heavy for D), or by organizing a bus to transport 60 people to another friend’s wedding just one week before ours. D is a master of logistics and organization, and I am grateful to him for tirelessly applying his skills throughout our wedding preparations. It may sound silly to say, but I couldn’t have gotten married if not for D! While performing each of these logistical feats, D always remains aware of the individuals who are involved. He takes the time write thoughtful personal notes, and to figure out how he can most meaningfully be helpful to others. As I got to know the Fs, I realized that D’s attention both to the logistical details and to the sensitivities of the people involved did not come from nowhere, but is typical of the entire family.

The Talmud teaches that a person who wakes from a dream and does not know how to interpret it should recite the following prayer:
חלום חלמתי ואיני יודע מה הוא....אם טובים הם, חזקם ואמצם כחלומותיו של יוסף....וכשם שהפכת קללת בלעם הרשע לברכה, כך הפוך כל חלומותי עלי לטובה
“I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. If it is a good dream, strengthen and sustain it like the dreams of Joseph…. And just as you converted the curses of Bilaam the evildoer into blessing, thus may You change all my dreams into good” (Brachot 55b). As we prepare to get married just a week from today, it is our fervent prayer that God will strengthen and sustain the good dreams we have shared, and convert them into blessing. To invoke the language of Birkat HaChodesh that we said in shul just yesterday, the prayer we recite each month at a time of new beginnings:
שימלאו כל משאלות לבינו לטובה
May all our heart’s wishes be fulfilled for good.
I know that both of our hearts are overflowing with hopes and wishes for the future. We are grateful to all of you for being with us today to take part in and to celebrate our dreams.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Bava Batra Perek Aleph: השותפין

Two neighbors would like to divide
Up their backyard, or so they decide.
They both build the wall
So that if it should fall
They can split up the stones on each side.

A man is forbidden to stand
In the field, on his friend’s fertile land
And to gaze and his grain.
Such a man must abstain--
Keep your eyes on your own, we command.

A shul cannot be taken down
‘Til a new one is built on that ground.
Brought Rav Ashi his bed
Into shul, for he said:
They’ll rebuild it if I stick around!

Herod said: “That’s the babe I desire!”
Then he killed off her fam’ly entire.
She went up to the top
Of the roof, and went plop
“Honey,” cried he, “It’s you I’ll admire.”

Though saved, Bava Ben Buta was blind
Herod said, “A worse king can you find?”
“Do not curse the king,”
Bava said. A good thing!
Herod then had a (phew!) change of mind.

“Our wall fell! And we both paid our share!”
Said his neighbor: “But you were not there!
It is my wall alone
And I’ll take every stone.”
We rule No! They must split, as is fair.

“Hey, my windows are blocked by your wall.”
Said one man to his neighbor. Tough call.
For what are we to do?
Do we safeguard his view?
Must the neighbor go rebuild it all?

They built a gatehouse for the bourgeoisie
And Elijah stopped visiting me!
That’s what gate guards are for--
Yes, they keep out the poor.
(Did Elijah then sleep in a tree?)

“I’m a wall and my breasts are like towers”
This refers to rabbinical powers.
Rabbis are not affected
By robbers. Protected
Are all in their midst. No one cowers.

“Feed me, Rabi,” poor Ben Amram said.
“Is there Torah inside of your head?”
Amram said to him, “No,
But pretend I’m a crow.”
Good thing Rabi agreed to share bread!

A caravan of camels and asses
From city to city it passes
It comes to a town
Where idolaters abound
Do the riders get stoning and lashes?

Shmuel bar Sheylat would teach.
Every day. No vacations, no beach!
Until he said, “I’ll take
Just a short garden break
From my students.” He thought of them each.

Rav Achad’voy’s mother said, “Shoot
Rav Sheshet has made my son mute!”
Just one thing she could do--
She said, “Look at these two
Breasts that nursed you too, Sheshet, you newt!”

If God loves the poor, why’s their fate
Miserable? Why no food on their plate?
Because charity’s swell!
We would all go to hell
If we had not the chance to donate.

What is a person to do
To have sons – not just one, but a few?
Scatter coins to the poor
Lead his wife to adore
What he does when the time’s come to screw.

“I’ve seen the whole world upside down!”
Yehoshua’s son said. “On the ground
Were the people of status.
While those with afflatus
Like sages, on high could be found.”

Binyamin the Tzadik was in charge
Of collected tzdakah. Someone barged
In. “Please feed me,” she begged.
“I can’t.” Then he reneged
And he gave his own cash, sums quite large.

Munbaz gave lots of cash to the poor
Said his family, “Munbaz! What for?
Your ancestors stored
Up a great cash reward
Don’t now waste it, Munbaz, we implore!”

A shortcut that many folks take
Can’t be cut off for one person’s sake.
You’ll incur neighbors’ wrath
If you block off that path
Do you think we can swim through the lake?

From the Temple’s destruction and ages
Beyond, prophecy went to the sages.
Did the prophets retire
Were sages inspired?
And did this all happen in stages?

(12b) For MA
Bat Rav Chisda on her father’s knees-
Said her Dad: You want which one of these?
Bat Rav Chisda was loath
To choose, so she said “Both”--
“I’ll go last,” Rava said, “If you please.”

A person half-slave and half-free
Says, "I serve both my master and me."
But he hasn't a mate
So he can't procreate
Thus says Shammai, "It simply can't be!"

Dad left us two slaves: One can make
Woven tapestries. One can serve cake.
I’ll take the weaver
I ask you to leave her
Will you keep the one who can bake?

Tanach is a novel conception
Three books are they at their inception--
May they be attached
Say, with glue, may we patch--
Says Yehudah: No! I take exception!

Broken tablets were stored in the ark
Moses shattered them, not on a lark.
Yea, although they went crack
Still we put them in back.
“Yasher Koach,” God warmly remarked.

Who wrote the Bible? We wonder.
Some say Moses. That must be a blunder.
How could Moses have penned
“Moses here met his end”
Could he write once already down under?

Was Job a real man or a fiction?
It’s a legend! We say with conviction.
But we’re given the name
Of the town where he came
From. Is that not a sure contradiction?

Penina by God was created
To make Hannah that much more frustrated
So that Hannah would pray
In her drunkenly way--
When Tzaddikim pray, God is elated!

Perfume-makers and tanners, we think,
Are both needed. But tanners – they stink!
Surely we all consent
Better makers of scent
Than the leathery hide on that mink.

Miriam’s moment of bliss:
When she fell to her death with a kiss
She remained ever-fresh
For no worms ate her flesh
‘Twas the fortune of Moses’ big sis.