Thursday, June 16, 2011

Moses and Motherhood: Of Manna, Melons, and Matan

I was walking home yesterday, carrying Matan in a sling that hung over one shoulder, when I passed a watermelon kiosk. Since watermelons are so heavy, no one wants to carry them home from the market. And so throughout the month of June, when watermelons are at peak season, kiosks that sell nothing but watermelons spring up all around the city so that people can buy this heavy fruit close to home. As a nursing mother in need of constant hydration, I’ve been eating nearly half a watermelon a day since Matan was born. And so I stopped at the kiosk to buy another. The watermelons were four shekel a kilo; my purchase came to sixteen shekel. As the vendor put my melon in a plastic bag, I realized that it was exactly the same weight as Matan. I lugged baby and watermelon home – Matan in the sling, and the melon in the plastic bag – and deposited them in the bassinet and the refrigerator, respectively.

When I got home, I quickly prepared some lunch. I have learned to eat quickly, since Matan may stir at any moment, and then I’ll have to drop everything to feed him. Like most days, I ate my husband’s homemade gazpacho for lunch (made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, peppers, and leeks), followed by watermelon slices. I realized that I was eating almost all of the foods mentioned by Bnei Yisrael in their bitter complaints about their desert diet: “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions, and garlic” (Numbers 11:5). Had Moses turned the Nile into a blood-red river of gazpacho, with the fish swimming among the vegetables? Before I could pursue this absurd speculation, I heard the first whimpers from Matan’s bassinet. I knew it was a matter of moments before his whimpering would turn to full-throated wailing for food.

I confess that whenever Matan stirs (and he is stirring at this very moment, as I type!), my first reaction is often a sigh of exasperation. Like Coleridge with his person from Porlock, I do not handle interruptions well; and I struggle with how to manage my time given that I never know when Matan will want to be fed. In this sense he resembles Bnei Yisrael in the desert: “Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov said: In the beginning the children of Israel were like hens that peck continuously at scraps, until Moses came along and established fixed meal times” (Yoma 95b). Bnei Yisrael, a people still in their infancy after recently leaving the narrow birth canal of Mitzrayim, had not yet learned how to eat fixed meals. Perhaps, like Matan, their stomachs were still too small to sustain them for more than three hours. And so God rained down manna for them to gather. The manna tasted like shad ha-shamen, rich cream, a phrase that might more literally be translated as “the fat breast.” Like breastmilk, which will taste like whatever the mother ate the day before, the manna had a variety of different flavors. The Talmud makes this analogy explicit: “Rabbi Abahu said: Just as with the breast, a baby can taste a variety of flavors, so too when Bnei Yisrael ate the manna, they could taste a variety of flavors. And some say: It was like an actual breast. Just as a breast can have various shapes and colors, the manna too had various flavors” (Yoma 95a). In any case, Matan seems far more content with his breastmilk than Bnei Yisrael with their manna; the people of Israel began clamoring for solids to be introduced to their diet only months after their delivery from Egypt.

[An excursus] The episode about the people’s clamoring and complaining takes place just after they have “marched from the mountain of the Lord” (Numbers 10:33), which was also the site of the burning bush: “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Yitro, priest of Midyan, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horev, the mountain of the Lord” (Exodus 3:1). Both episodes involve the complaints of the people: In Exodus God tells Moses that he has “heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters” (3:7), and in Numbers the people “took to complaining bitterly against the Lord” (11:1). Both episodes also involve fire: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush” (3:2), and “a fire of the Lord broke out against the people” (11:1). Moses questions his role in both scenes: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites form Egypt” (3:11), and “Why have I not enjoyed your favor, that you have laid the burden of all this people upon me?” (11:11). At the bush, God tells Moses to put his hand into his bosom as a proof that the people will listen to him (4:6); and when the people complain, Moses asks how God could say to him, “Carry them in your bosom” (11:12). In both episodes, God’s response to Moses involves gathering the elders of Israel: “Go and assemble the elders of Israel” (3:16), and “Gather for me seventy of Israel’s elders” (11:16). The passages parallel each other with uncanny linguistic precision as Moses balks at the burdensome role with which God had previously saddled him. [End of excursus]

Moses has had it with the querulous people, who cry out to him like little babies – the text uses the word bocheh, which is the same word used when little baby Moses cried out in his ark (Exodus 2:6). And indeed Moses relates to the people as babies when he in turn cries out to God: “Why have you dealt ill with your servant, and why have I not enjoyed your favor, that you have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive this people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant?” (Numbers 11:11-12). Moses insists that he is sick and tired of nursing the people and responding to their every whimper and wail. Why can’t they leave him alone? Is he their mother? Did he give birth to them? Avivah Zornberg points out that Moses himself did not have a normal nursing experience. He went through a period in the ark when he was deprived of breastmilk altogether, and when he was returned to his mother’s bosom, his mother acted as a hired wet nurse in the employ of Pharaoh’s daughter. We might say (with apologies to Freud, as per the title of this post) that Moses was traumatized at the breast, and has not recovered. No wonder he wants the heavy burden of the people –who weighed surely much more than a watermelon—taken out of his sling.

Like Moses, I sometimes find motherhood frustrating – especially now, as I sit nursing Matan while typing the end of this post, pecking at the computer with one hand like a hen pecking at scraps. But as I look down at Matan’s big fishy eyes staring up at me from my bosom, I’m struck once again by how adorable he is. I did in fact conceive Matan, and bear him; and so unlike Bnei Yisrael and unlike Moses, I really cannot complain.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Speech for Pidyon HaBen of Matan Aharon 10.6.11

Two days ago, on Shavuot morning, Daniel and I sat in this park with Matan trying to lull him to sleep. Matan had conducted his own Tikun Leyl the night before, waking each hour to eat milk and spit up cheese in accordance with the custom to eat dairy on this chag. After a night of no sleep, I did not make it to shul that morning, so I davened in the park with Matan, sharing with him the highlights of Shacharit. Chief among them was Akdamut, the piyut recited before beginning the Torah reading, a long liturgical poem composed in the eleventh century by Rabbi Meir Yitzchak of Worms. This mystical poem moves from a description of the creation of the world to the splendors of the World to Come, and as I chanted aloud to Matan each of the ninety Aramaic stanzas, I realized how much of the piyut’s imagery was appropriate to the place where we were sitting that morning and where we are all now gathered today – beneath a trellis covered by a canopy of trees in a quiet corner of this beautiful park. The poem describes a messianic future in which all of the Tzadikim will gather in Yerushalayim, beneath a divine bridal canopy inside the Garden of Eden. There God will prepare a banquet for the righteous, and they will sit around tables of precious gems and drink their fill from overflowing goblets in a redeemed world. As we stand here today overflowing with joy, preparing to redeem our precious son and enjoy a Seudat Mitzvah on this beautiful Jerusalem morning, I cannot help but think that after joining with God in the creation of Matan, we have truly been granted a taste of the World to Come.

It seems fitting that we are celebrating Matan’s Pidyon HaBen not just two days after reciting Akdamut but also one day before reading parashat Baha’alotcha, the parsha that provides the textual underpinning for this ceremony.

כִּי לִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי אֹתָם לִי. יח וָאֶקַּח אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל-בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. יט וָאֶתְּנָה אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם נְתֻנִים לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַעֲבֹד אֶת-עֲבֹדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
“Every firstborn among the Israelites, man as well as beast, is Mine; I consecrated them to Myself at the time that I smote the firstborn in the land of Egypt. Now I take the Levites instead of every firstborn of the Israelites, and from among the Israelites I formally assign the Levites and Aharon and his sons, to perform the ritual service for the Israelites in Ohel Moed.” (Numbers 8:17-19).

Another connection to this week’s parsha appears in a recent daf yomi, Menachot 86b. In speaking of the lights that were kindled in the Mishkan—which is also the subject of the opening of the parsha, B’haalotcha et HaNerot-- we are told:
צו את בני ישראל ויקחו אליך שמן זית זך כתית למאור להעלות נר תמיד

“Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling the eternal lamp.” (Leviticus 24:2). The Talmud teaches:
אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אליך ולא לי לא לאורה אני צריך
Shmuel bar Nachmani questions why the Torah adds the extra word Elecha, for you. The Talmud’s response is that God specifies that the oil for this light is “for you” because the Ner Tamid is lit for the sake of human beings who need to be reminded of God’s eternal presence, and not for God, who needs no such reminder. It is we human beings whose faith in God’s presence may flicker and grow dim, and it is therefore we who need the eternal lamp, which burns not for God’s sake, but for ours.

We might extend this concept to say that God does not need the Bekhorot consecrated to him, and when we redeem them back, we are not just exempting them from priestly service. Just as God does not need the light of the eternal lamp, so too does God not need Matan Aharon to engage in Temple service. It is human beings of imperfect faith who need the reminder the lamp provides, just as it is human beings in an imperfect world who look to the potential of new life to perform some act of Tikun in the world, thereby inspiring us with hope for the future. And so Daniel and I would like to think that today we are not just buying back our son from the Kohanim; we are also dedicating him to doing God’s work in a world sorely in need of repair and renewal. We offer our Matan as a gift to partner in some aspect of God’s work, and to heal some part of God’s creation.

It is in this spirit of partnering in creation that we will shortly be planting a tree in honor of Matan’s birth and in honor of the birth of Hallel Libson, daughter of our friends Ayelet and Adi. The Talmud teaches in Masechet Gittin, in the midst of the aggadot about the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem, that there was a custom whereby whenever a baby boy was born, a cedar tree would be planted in his honor; and when a girl was born, a cypress. And when they would get married, the two trees would be cut down and used to make the poles for their chuppah. Now, we don’t want to make any assumptions about Hallel and Matan’s future romantic predilections –we cannot know whether Matan will date older women, or whether Hallel will consent to marry the boy next door—but Daniel and I do like the idea of putting down roots in the soil of Eretz Yisrael just a few years after we each made aliyah, as per the words of Shirat HaYam:
תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ פָּעַלְתָּ יְהוָה מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָי כּוֹנְנוּ יָדֶיךָ.
You, God, will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain, the place You made to dwell in, O Lord, the sanctuary O Lord. (Exodus 15:17)

The Mikdash is the province of Aharon HaKohen, Matan’s Biblical namesake, to whom many of the commandments of this week’s parsha are addressed. It is Aharon who is supposed to mount the lamps of the Menorah, and it is Aharon who supervises the Levites and prepares them to serve in Ohel Moed, the place of God’s dwelling during the Israelites’ journey to the promised land where they ultimately put down roots. More generally, Aharon is responsible for the ritual aspects of Jewish worship, whereas his brother Moshe gives them the Torah, the book of laws and teachings that we are meant to occupy ourselves with day and night, as we are reminded in Akdamut:
צבי וחמיד ורגיג דילאון בלעותא
God desires and longs and covets that Israel should toil in Torah study.

In naming our son Matan Aharon, we hope that he will embody both of these aspects of Jewish tradition – the lifelong commitment to Talmud Torah, as well as the rituals involved in divine service. We hope that our son, like his namesake, will be Ohev et HaBriot, and that his love for human beings will find expression in the teaching of Torah, so that he might be m’karvan la Torah – bringing other people closer to Torah. The root of m’karvan is also the root of korban, sacrifice. As we redeem our Matan Aharon today from the priestly responsibility for the korbanot, it is our fervent wish that he will dedicate himself to being one who is m’karvan laTorah, one who brings the light of Torah into people’s lives so that it may burn steadily and unwaveringly for all eternity.