Friday, February 22, 2013

Simchat Banot -- Liav and Tagel

Friday morning, 22 February 2013
י"ב אדר תשע"ג

Our daughters were born last Thursday afternoon, and so I was still in the maternity ward on Shabbat parshat Teruma. As I do whenever I cannot make it to shul, I leyned the parsha aloud, this time while sitting in my hospital bed with the bassinets of our two daughters on either side of me. The hospital bassinets are essentially rectangular transparent plastic cases containing mattresses resting on a cart with wheels, and so I could observe my daughters at all times. As newborns are wont, they lay with their hands above their heads, each one looking towards the other and hence facing me as well as I taught them about the building of the Mishkan. I smiled when I came to the description of the two planks supporting the corners of the tabernacle, which are supposed to be To’amim, matching – a word I accidentally misread as Te’omim, twins. But the pasuk that most resonated for me was the description of the Keruvim on either side of the Kaporet: (24:20).

והיו הכרובים פורשי כנפיים למעלה, סוככים בכנפיהם על-הכפורת, ופניהם, איש אל-אחיו; אל-הכפורת--יהיו, פני הכרובים.  

As I watched my two angelic daughters face towards one another with their arms swaying above their heads, I felt myself in that most holy of holy places between the Keruvim, where the divine presence communicated with the people of Israel (25:22):

ונועדתי לך, שם, ודיברתי איתך מעל הכפורת מבין שני הכרובים, אשר על-ארון העדות--את כל-אשר אצווה אותך, אל-בני ישראל.

The space between the Keruvim was the point of contact between the divine and the human. For me, the experience of giving birth to our twin daughters also afforded rare and intimate access to the divine, the Boreh Olam, creator of all living things. As I lay in the hospital between my two daughters leyning parshat Teruma, I was reminded that the Mishkan offered a new way of meeting God in the world and a new avenue for religious expression, which are gifts that our daughters offer us as well.

The Torah teaches that the faces of the Keruvim were turned toward one another. To my astonishment, this is also how Liav and Tagel sleep. Ever since we returned from the hospital, we have been placing them side-by-side in our pack-and-play crib. Regardless of how we position them, within a few moments they always turn their heads towards one another. Sometimes one baby opens her eyes and peers intently at her sister; other times they look into each other’s eyes before sinking into sleep. But they are almost always facing one another, each somehow reassured and calmed by the presence of her sister. We can only hope that this is how they will go through the rest of their lives, turning to one another in friendship, support, reassurance, and love.

The image of angelic presences speaks to me on another level as well. This past week, Daniel and I spent many intense hours trying to name our daughters. In so doing, we were reminded  of a midrash about Jacob’s struggle with the angel in Parshat Vayishlach. Jacob asks the angel his name:
הגידה נא שמך
And the angel responds:
למה זה תשאל לשמי
The midrash in Breishit Rabba connects this verse to another encounter between a human and angel that appears in Sefer Shoftim: Shimshon’s father Manoach asks the angel his wife has encountered for the angel’s name, and the angel responds:
למה זה תשאל לשמי והוא פלאי 
The midrash explains that angels change their names based on the particular mission they are sent to accomplish at any given moment. And so I imagine that in choosing a name for our daughters, we are also in some sense charging them with a unique mission in the world. I have felt this past week that so long as our daughters were still unnamed, every mission remained open to them. I imagined thousands of winged angels hovering over us, each representing a different name we might choose, and each angel beating its wings in hopeful anticipation that perhaps that angel might be the one whose mission matches the name we choose for our child. This amassing of angelic presences may explain why the first week of a newborn child’s life is such a time of intense connection to an otherworldly realm. The moment our daughters are named—like the moment when the box with Schroedinger’s cat is opened—all the angels fly off, leaving just two, one for each of our girls.

Perhaps the two angels who remained were the same angels that accompanied the namesakes of each of our daughters, Daniel’s father and my maternal grandmother. My Savta Gilla Rubin, for whom Tagel is named, was a vibrant, headstrong woman who grew up in Brooklyn but spent her entire adult life as the rebbetzin at the Wantagh Jewish Center on Long Island. Still, the place in the world where she was happiest was Yerushalayim, where she and my Zaidy spent many sabbaticals attending parshat hashavua shiurim just as Daniel and I love to do. Together they took their children on their first family trip here in June 1967, where Savta enjoyed showing off her Biblical Hebrew in all the most modern contexts.  Having grown up with Zionist Hebraist parents and grandparents, Hebrew was, in fact, her first language. I was fortunate to share with her a love not just of Hebrew, but also of crossword puzzles and literary novels – I always knew which books were hers because she wrote in pen in the margins (I only dare use pencil) and because the pages were pervaded by her distinctive perfume which I can still smell to this day, exactly 18 years and one week after her death. We hope Tagel will draw from her spirit and embody her strength, her vibrancy, her love of language and literature and her attachment to the Jewish people.


My father, Chuck Feldman, alav hashalom, would have rejoiced at this simcha, and his absence, which we feel so keenly today, is all that impinges on this wonderful occasion. A consummate family man, he knew that every simcha must be celebrated to the fullest. Our girls are the first grandchildren born to the family since our Saba left us, and so it is appropriate that the first of our daughters, Liav, bears a name that pays tribute to his memory. Li-av. To me my father was a model of commitment to family, community, and Am Yisrael. A devoted physician, he was also a leader of the Jewish community in northern New Jersey, especially in the realm of Torah education. He was a trusted advisor whose empathy and concern for others made him beloved to so many. He was a wonderful, charming man, and he relished every moment with his family. As my mother, may she live ad meah v'esrim, holds our beautiful Liav before us, we feel dad's bracha upon us. Along with Ilana's Savta Gilla and our other departed grandparents, Zaidy Mel Rubin, Grandma Betty and Grandpa Joe Feldman, Baba Sally and Zaidie Isak Levenstein, Dad is surely looking down upon us from the yeshiva shel ma'ala, smiling his radiant smile with his characteristic twinkle in his eye, as we welcome these two angelic girls into the family he was so proud to build. To quote the words of the Megilla which we will read next week, it is our tefilla that זִכְרו לֹא יָסוּף מִזַּרְעו.
It is also my happy lot in these days of Purim to offer words of shevach and hoda'a for all those responsible for this mishte v'simcha.
First to our parents, whose love and support accompanies us at every step as our family grows. My mom, Baba, arrived with her impeccable timing and inimitable grace just as our twins were born. Mom, you are always selfless in offering to do anything and everything on our behalf, including buying now a second crib for our home. You instill in us a sense of gratitude for all that we are blessed to experience. Ilana's parents, Savta and Saba Kurshan, have been our neighbors for the past few weeks, helping us prepare for the twins' arrival, caring for Matan, and offering all kinds of help, love, and support with characteristic good cheer and attention to detail. Thank you for all you have done for us during this special period, including reading the name dictionary that one last time. We are so pleased to celebrate with all of you, and we extend our love to the proud great grandparents in Princeton New Jersey, Grandma Phyllis and Grandpa Jerry Kurshan.

We also recognize the endless generosity of my sister, Estie Agus, who, along with Elizur, and their adorable children, are extraordinary role models of chessed. Estie sends us food, clothes, babysitters, and everything we could possibly need. Liav and Tagel, prepare to be spoiled. As Matan has already discovered, you will quickly learn that visiting your cousins in Raanana is our family’s equivalent of Disneyland – if not Gan Eden.

We are also deeply grateful to our other siblings, including Mindy, who was here with us last Shabbat, and Naamit, who spent hours and hours in late-night phone consultations about matters medical and nomenclatural. Michael and Nira, Joe and Dana, Mindy and Eric, Naamit and Michael, Ariella and Leo, Eytan – we feel your love from afar, and we can’t wait to introduce you to your nieces.  

Finally, to Ilana, I can only express my endless love and admiration. Everyone here knows how remarkable a woman you are, but only the children and I witness the full force of your creative genius day to day. You brought these beautiful girls into the world with determination, intensity, and even your characteristic wit -- who else would have been offering divrei torah in the delivery room between contractions to the nurses, the midwife and the anesthesiologist? With the blessed arrival of these two babies wrapped up in their little scrolls, may it be said that we commit our love to each other anew: קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר. It is the supreme privilege of my life to be your husband, partner, and father to our children.

Thank you all for joining us today. Chag Purim Sameach, enjoy the seudat Hodaya, and Mazal tov.


It was an Et Ratzon, a propitious moment, when we had the privilege of being in the hospital with Ilana and Daniel as Ilana gave birth to these two beautiful babies whom we are naming today. These girls were welcomed into a room  that was Tzahalah v’samecha—a room ringing with joyous cries.
These children are named today during the week we read Parashat Tetzaveh. The Parasha this week continues to address the details of the Mishkan—this week not so much the construction of the Mishkan but rather the roles of the Kohanim and specifically the details of the clothing they were to wear when serving in the Mishkan.

Ktzat muzar--it is a little strange that the Parasha spends so much time on the external garments of the Kohanim. Normally in Judaism we focus not so much on the exterior features of a person—we don’t concentrate on their appearance or the clothes they wear but rather on the integrity and purity that defines their souls and character. We are more concerned for the purity of the soul than the cleanliness of the clothes. But there is an expression “that clothes make the man”-- or perhaps it is more appropriate to say today that clothes make the woman.  These tiny girls were born into the world without any outer garments or possessions—just two naked bodies squirming and crying b’simcha u-v’sa-son--as they made the passage from the world of the womb into the room of the world.

But from the moment of their birth these two babies began the process of individuation that will continue throughout their lives. One was born first; the other was born second.  One with blond hair;  the other with brown. One seemed pensive; the other active. Today the names that Ilana and Daniel give to these girls will further define them.
Each name is an external garment that dresses each of these girls in the clothing of their individuality.  As twins part of their challenge in life will be not only to uncover their distinctiveness, but also to distinguish  themselves from each another.

But it is not only their names which will define them during their lives. It is also their parents who will shape who they will become. These girls have been born to parents who share a love of Torah, a passion for literature and a respect for history. They have been born to parents who have chosen to build their lives in Israel and to raise their children in the homeland of the Jewish people. They have born as sisters to their brother, Matan, who so far has been very gentle and loving toward them. They have been born into two families, the Kurshans and the Feldmans who come from a lineage of study, learning and Ahavat Yisrael. I know I speak for Alisa and Rella when I say how privileged we are to be here as grandparents during these weeks and to share  the beginning of these girls’ lives. And I know, Daniel, you will tell your children the stories about your father so they will know the full richness of their inheritance.

And lastly these children will be defined by their community. Aside from the time Alisa and I have been able to spend with you, Ilana and Daniel, and with your children, it has also been wonderful for us to meet so many of your friends and to come to know the personal and professional communities of which you are a part. You will never have to raise your children alone because there is indeed a village of your friends here who will support you. We have been touched, as I know both of you have been, by the overflowing good wishes of all your friends and colleagues as well as by their concrete offers of help. We know that your children will always be surrounded by an abundance of their peers. Theirs will never be the only stroller pushed through the streets of Jerusalem; rather they will be surrounded by the strollers of so many other children that fill the streets of this city.

So these two girls born naked into the world have already been adorned in the garments of our tradition. We know these girls will grow up enveloped by the teachings of our texts and the music of our Masoret. Today you begin to dress and address them by their names. You wrap them in your love  as their parents. You clothe them in the care of their grandparents, your friends, and your community. You crown these girls with the adornment of their Jewish inheritance. May the garments that they wear be like the garments of the ancient Kohanim--clothing l’khavod  ul-tif-ah-ret-- garments that adorn these girls in dignity and radiance.

המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע יברך את הנערות

May your daughters always following in the footsteps of the angels who will guide their lives. May they always be a blessing to their families and to their community.  May God watch over them and protect them. May God bless these girls so that they will both become an adornment and a crown l’kol am Yisrael--to the entire community of Israel. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Who Knows? An Adar of Anticipation

Among the laws governing the reading of the scroll of Esther discussed in tractate Megillah is the stipulation that the megillah may not be read backwards: “One who reads the megillah backwards has not fulfilled one's obligation” (17a). The story of the Jews in Shushan unfolds in linear progression, moving from “sorrow to joy and from mourning to festivity,” as we learn only in the penultimate chapter (9:22). Of course, since we read the megillah every year on Purim, we already know how it will end, and the triumphant hanging of the evil villain Haman whose plot to exterminate the Jews was foiled by the beautiful Queen Esther comes as no surprise. Even so, we are commanded each year to read the Megillah with a sense of “who knows,” inhabiting a world of lottery and chance in which we cannot divine the ending but can only pray for a better outcome. As Esther’s uncle Mordechai says to her, “Who knows, perhaps you have attained a royal position for just such a moment” (4:14).

            I write these words on Rosh Hodesh Adar of 5773 (2013), exactly six years after I first learned Maskhet Megillah in daf yomi. I sit here nine months pregnant with twins, thinking back to a time when I did not know if I would ever get married again, let alone be privileged to bring children into the world. I try to put myself in the shoes of the person I was back then, pretending that I don’t already know about all the twists and turns that life would take to sustain me and enable me to reach this day. As I try to identify with that uncertainty, I am struck by the realization that in a world of hester panim—a world where God’s face is hidden—the sense of “who knows” never completely dissipates. We may have a wider vista now that we have ascended to the top of one difficult mountain, but other, higher mountains lie ahead, and there is no guarantee that we will surmount them as well.

            I think about this metaphor as I lie in bed, looking over the mountain that is my pregnant belly and wondering if I will ever be able to see directly down to my feet again. Last summer, when I first learned I was pregnant, I remember looking at the calendar and thinking that I’d probably give birth between Tu B’shvat and Purim. Tu B’shvat is over and gone, and with it all the flower and tree names we played around with these past few months. Today we ushered in Adar, the month of joy, and my husband reminded me that Rosh Hodesh Adar would make a great birthday. At this point, though, I don’t need any reminders. Everyone who sends me emails, surely in an attempt to be thoughtful and considerate, prefaces their messages with, “I’m not sure if you’re in the throes of labor as I’m sending this,” or “I wonder if you have already given birth.” No, no, not yet. The new month, whose invisible new moon is not even the barest sliver of a crescent, has not yet revealed what it holds in store. Still, it is a good thing to have made it to 39 weeks in a twin pregnancy. As a friend just reminded me, the zodiac symbol for Adar is two fish, perhaps because Adar is the one month that can fall out twice in a shana meuberet, a leap or "pregnant" year. But the symbol is also pregnant with personal meaning, since I have swam nearly every day these past nine months. “Are you teaching your babies how to swim?” the ladies at the pool always ask me. “Oh no, they are swimming already,” I assure them, imagining my two little fetus-fish awash in their individual sacs of amniotic fluid. At some point the seas will split and they will be cast on to dry land – hopefully long before Pesach, as I exhausted those metaphors in my previous pregnancy.

            Meanwhile, as Purim approaches, I think of Esther enjoining the people to come together in fervent prayer that all should proceed smoothly when she risks her life to approach King Ahaseuerus (the last five letters of whose name, as commonly transliterated, are a near-anagram of uterus). The Talmud in the first chapter of Megillah interprets the verse that describes Esther’s reaction to hearing of the king’s decree to destroy and massacre all the Jews: “Va-tithalhal hamalka meod.” The word “Va-tithalhal,” often translated as “became agitated,” provides fodder for the midrashic imagination: “What is Va-tithalhal? Rav says: She became a menstruant. Rabbi Yirmiya says, “She suffered a miscarriage” (15a). Rashi explains that the cavities of her body dissolved. All these interpreters are playing with the etymological similarity between Va-tithalhal and “halal,” the Hebrew word for cavity or hole and the nomenclatural hallmark of the N’keva, the female. I wonder if maybe Esther heard the news and felt like she was in labor, bearing inside her womb the destiny of the Jewish people.

            Sitting here on Rosh Hodesh Adar, attuned to the first signs of any contractions, I do not know when I will begin to feel changes in the holes and cavities of my body. The megillah is ten chapters, and I am already at the end of my ninth month – but I cannot scroll ahead to find out what happens in chapter ten. We read the megillah in order and live our lives day by day, and as Mordechai tells Esther “who knows” what tomorrow will bring. But as Adar begins, joy increases, and I can only pray that for us, too, it will be so.