Monday, October 21, 2013

Ode to the West Wind: On Learning Shekalim in a Season of Change

It seems appropriate that we begin learning Masekhet Shekalim on the eve of the Jerusalem municipal elections. Indeed Shekalim, the only tractate of the Jerusalem Talmud included in the daf yomi cycle, seems surprisingly relevant to the Jerusalem of today. The tractate, which takes its name from the half-shekel coin that is the Biblically mandated annual donation amount, focuses on the financial organization of the Temple and the administration of Temple affairs. But the contributions collected for the Temple were also used for the general upkeep of the city. Moreover, the Temple officials were responsible not just for the Temple mount, but also for its environs. And so to some extent, the affairs of the Temple and the welfare of Jerusalem were bound up in one another.
The opening Mishnah states that the half shekel tax was collected during the month of Adar. During this daf yomi cycle, we are learning Shekalim not in Adar, but in another season of transition. If Adar marks the end of the wet season and the start of the dry, then Cheshvan marks just the opposite: We began saying the blessing “He Who Causes the Wind to Blow and the Rain to Fall” two weeks ago, and we await—either eagerly or anxiously—the Yoreh, the first rains of the season. The forecast was for rain last Shabbat, and so on Friday afternoon, we dug out our stroller covers and raincoats and told ourselves that we’d take the kids to shul only if it wasn’t pouring. In the end, it was dry run, but now we are prepared. In this season of transition, I always find myself quoting Rilke’s Autumn (“Lord it is time / The summer was immense”) and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“That time of year though mayest in my behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang”) though perhaps the poem that is most relevant to the current political climate is Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” in which the poet salutes the “wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being” and calls for change in more than just the weather: “Be through my lips to unawakened Earth / The trumpet of a prophecy.”
I harbor no illusions that Jerusalem will once again be a city led by prophets, but I hope that the candidates who win tomorrow’s elections care as deeply for the welfare of our city as their prophetic predecessors. There is so much that is in need of their—and our—attention. The first Mishnah in Shekalim teaches that Adar was also the month designated for various public works, including the uprooting of Kilayim (the cross-bred saplings prohibited by the Bible), the repair of roads, the fixing of Mikvaot (ritual baths), and the marking of graves so that individuals would not inadvertently step over a buried body and contract impurity. Granted, the Mishnah is describing a time before pavement and concrete, when the winter rains really did destroy the dirt roads and erode the public buildings, but the call for the repair of our public works seems no less urgent. Every day, as I walk through the streets of Jerusalem with my double stroller, I lament the many streets that do not have sidewalks, or that have sidewalks too narrow for two to walk abreast, let alone for a double stroller. Those sidewalks that are wider often have parking meters or poles stuck right in the middle, so that I have no choice but to wheel my stroller into the street and offer my silent prayer to God that the oncoming traffic in this holy city veers to let me pass. My neighborhood mikvah, too, is in dire need of repair, starting with the moldy peeling walls that look like they are afflicted with tzara’at habayit and more impure than any of the women who come to dunk.
As I was buttonholed this morning with leaflets promoting the various mayoral and city council candidates, I could only hope, like Shelley, that the season of Tikun is upon us.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Beware of Pairs (Pesahim 110)

Today the rabbis of the Talmud get drunk on Seder wine, leading them to engage in several long pages of aggada that take us far afield from the tenth chapter’s halakhic discussion about Seder ritual. It begins with their consideration of the Mishnah’s statement that a person should not have less than four cups of wine at the Seder, even if he is so poor that he has to rely on communal funds. “Four cups of wine?” asks the anonymous voice of the Talmud. “How could the sages legislate something that is so dangerous? After all, we are taught that a person should never eat two of anything, or drink two of anything.” As the Meiri explains, during Talmudic times there were popular beliefs in destructive forces that we today would regard as superstitious. One such belief was the danger of zugot (pairs), that is, that doing things in pairs was hazardous. And if so, how could we possibly be obligated to drink “two times two” cups of wine?
            The sages offer various justifications. Rav Nahman suggests that since the Torah describes Pesach as ליל שימורים a night of watching, we need not worry, because Pesach is guarded from demons and harmful spirits. Rava says that the third cup, used in Birkat HaMazon, is a כוס של ברכה, a “cup of blessing” used in the performance of a mitzvah; and such a cup could never combine for evil purposes. And Ravina posits that since these cups are a symbol of freedom, they do not combine in pairs with one another, but each stands independently in its own right.
            These explanations notwithstanding, the sages remain preoccupied with the danger of doing anything in pairs, and go on to relate several stories about the lengths they would go to avoid such behavior. Whenever Abayey would drink a cup of wine, for instance, his mother would immediately hold out two more cups, one in each hand, lest he inadvertently drink just one more cup and become susceptible to demonic forces. If a person accidentally stopped after two cups, and found himself besieged by demons, the Talmud instructs that he should hold his right thumb in his left hand, and hold his left thumb in his right hand, and say: “You, my two thumbs, and I make three!” But even so, there is no guarantee that he will be protected.
            The Talmud relates a story about a man who fell into danger because he drank in pairs:
There once was a man who divorced his wife. She went off and married a shopkeeper. Each day, the first husband would go to this shop and drink wine. The woman would try to perform witchcraft on him, but she never succeeded, because he would be careful not to drink an even number of cups of wine. But then one day, he drank so much that he lost count. For the first sixteen cups (!!), he could think clearly and take precautions; but after sixteen cups, he could no longer keep count. The woman bewitched him and caused him to go outside after drinking an even number of cups. When he went out on the street, he met an Arab merchant who said to him: This is a dead man. Trembling with fear, the man leaned on the trunk of a palm tree to steady himself. The palm tree dried out, fell over, and killed him.
            This is quite a dramatic tale, and one almost gets the sense that it was the kind of story the rabbis would relate while engaged in their own drunken revelry in a tavern late at night, the wine spilling over the edges of their glasses and the demons growing ever more real. And yet I can’t help thinking that as a mother of twins, I have a very different perspective on zugot.
            Just last week my friend Shira forwarded me an article written by the parents of twins. The article, entitled “25 Tips About the Horrors of Raising Twins That You Will Never Learn From Movies and TV,” reminded me of Pesahim 110 in that it enumerated all the dangers of zugot. The article warned that with twins, the pregnancy is harrowing, the early months of the babies’ lives are more than twice the amount of work, and the first year is so exhausting that the parents don’t even remember any of it. One quote is sufficient to give a sense of the tenor of the article as a whole:
You may think that changing diapers for two babies requires the same amount of effort as changing the diaper of one baby, times two. This is inaccurate. It's actually more than twice the effort, because while you are changing one baby's diaper, you will simultaneously have to keep the other baby occupied so that she will not steal the clean diaper you are about to put on or the poopy diaper you have just removed, or crawl over the head of the baby you are attempting to change, or run screaming through the house pulling wipes out of the wipes box and throwing them on the floor while using your phone to update your facebook status to "e29,28889xmn". (All of these things will happen. Regularly.)
            As I wrote back to Shira, I could not disagree more. Thank God, I was blessed with an easy pregnancy; I swam nearly every morning until the day before I gave birth. The girls were born naturally, one leading the way and the other following suit, and I felt indescribable joy when I sat there in the hospital bed holding one girl in each arm as they looked up at me bewildered and blinking under the harsh fluorescent lights and wondering just what shores they had washed upon. In the early months, I was always nursing, true. But I nursed the girls one at a time and held a book in my other arm, reading aloud to the twin at the breast and the twin in the bassinet in front of me. When one woke up hungry at night, I fed her and then woke her sister, so that I would not be awakened again a few hours later. By three months, they were (more or less) sleeping from 7pm to 6am, with just one “official” overnight feeding. (As my husband loves to point out, there were—and still are—several “unofficial” overnight feedings as well.)
            Perhaps we got lucky and our twins were easier than most. Or perhaps it’s just that my husband does the work of two parents combined. But I think that in many ways, having babies in pairs was inherently easier for me than having a singleton; and it was definitely easier than having two consecutive singletons. I am a person bent on efficiency. I find nothing more aggravating than wasted time. With twins, there is no danger of wasting time, because there are no moments to waste. If one baby doesn’t want to nurse, I simply feed her sister instead; by the time her sister is done, she’s usually worked up an appetite. Now that the girls are eating solid foods, I sit them in their high chairs and position myself between them. If one girl refuses to open her mouth, I hand her a toy and feed the other. There is always someone who wants to eat, even if it’s not the baby whose mouth I am dangling the spoon in front of at that moment.
            I have also found twins to be easier because they can entertain one another. I’ve heard horror stories about women who cannot go to the bathroom when they are home alone with their babies, or women who go days without showering because they have no time alone. This has never happened to me. If I need time to myself, I lay the babies on their stomachs facing one another, with a few toys between them. Tagel amuses herself by trying to catch Liav’s eye and cracking up any time Liav looks in her direction; Liav mostly ignores Tagel because she is intent on moving all the toys onto her section of the mat. Every so often I have to separate them because Liav does not realize that the “toy” she is yanking on with all her might is actually Tagel’s hair. But for the most part, they play together quite nicely, so long as they are well-rested and well-fed.
I would not say that twins are easy. All too often, we are beside ourselves with exhaustion, with food to cook, kids to bathe, diapers to change, and no time to work or sleep – let alone to enjoy a cup of wine. But the joy of observing our own zugot grow and develop and interact with one another remains indescribable, and even if our cup is overflowing, we never doubt for a moment that it is a כוס של ברכה, a cup of blessing.