Monday, February 24, 2014
These past few weeks I have been preoccupied with trying to choose a Gan for our daughters for next year. I want to find a place where they will feel loved and stimulated, but it also needs to be a place that is within reasonable walking distance from our home and that allows easy access to the wide double stroller in which I transport our twins all over the city. As I walk from one potential Gan to another, examining the physical spaces and chatting with the various caretakers in charge of each, I listen to shiurim about Masekhet Sukkah in an effort to keep up with daf yomi. As we work (and walk) through the first chapter, which is about the structure of the Sukkah, I find myself thinking about all the ways in which an appropriate Gan is similar to a kosher Sukkah, both in its physical properties and the intangible aspects that are so much more difficult to measure and gauge.
For one, a Sukkah is intended as a temporary home reminiscent of the huts in which the Jews lived during their sojourn in the wilderness. As Rava says on the first page of the tractate, “The Torah says to leave your permanent home for seven days and live in a temporary dwelling place” (2a). As such, a Sukkah should not have the features of a permanent home; it is meant to be something constructed specifically for the purpose of the holiday. Likewise, a Gan is intended to be only temporary, a place where our girls can dwell from 8am-3pm five days a week. It is no substitute for their permanent home; the cribs will not be as comfortable (most likely they will sleep on mattresses on the floor); they won’t have all their favorite books and toys there; and no matter how caring the Ganenet is, she will be no substitute for two loving parents. At the same time, though the Gan is not permanent, it nonetheless must be a place where they are comfortable eating and sleeping, which is true of the Sukkah as well. And so I inquire about where the kids sleep, and for how long, and who cooks the food, and whether the kids are spoonfed or are expected to feed themselves.
Rava’s statement that the Sukkah must be a temporary structure appears in a context of the Talmud’s discussion of the maximum height of the Sukkah, which the Mishnah sets as 20 amot. A Sukkah cannot exceed a certain height, in much the same way that good Gan should not try to involve kids in activities that are beyond their capabilities. I am looking for a Gan which engages the kids with age-appropriate books and games, while also giving them space to move around freely. Like a Sukkah that is less than seven by seven tefachim and hence too small to be kosher, I’d like to find a Gan with a nice yard so that the girls have the space to roam freely. The physical space should keep them secure and enclosed and protected from the elements, like a Sukkah that needs at least two walls and a little bit of a third. But they should also be able to lift their heads up and see all the way to the stars, and to reach for them.
In addition to specifying the Sukkah’s maximum height, the opening Mishnah of tractate Sukkah also stipulates that a Sukkah must have more sun than shade. Although the Sukkah is covered by branches or pieces of wood known as skhakh, the light must still be able to shine through. Fortunately our girls have very sunny dispositions. Often I wake to find them standing up in their cribs playing peek-a-boo with each other, or craning their necks towards the door to watch excitedly as I walk in. They rarely cry unless they are hungry or overtired; as long as we keep them on a tight schedule, feeding them and putting them down for naps at the same time each day, they are generally quite content. I know that no matter where we send them to Gan, inevitably they will have their teary moments. I cannot expect them to leave my arms willingly every morning or to greet me with beaming smiles every afternoon. But I hope that I will find a Gan where there is, on average, more sun than shade, and more smiles than tears.
And finally, a Sukkah is supposed to remind us of the clouds of glory with which God enveloped the Jewish people after we left Egypt. There is a debate in tractate Sukkah about whether the Biblical Sukkot were actual huts, or whether the term is metaphor for God’s protective presence (11b). But there is no doubt that the Sukkot we are commanded to build today are meant to offer both physical shelter and spiritual connection. Wordsworth writes of how all infants are born “trailing clouds of glory” which eventually fade as growing up takes its toll. Our girls are growing up, and they will continue to do so no matter where we send them to Gan next year. May they feel, no matter the physical space in which they find themselves, that they are always enveloped in a protective and loving presence, and may they continue trailing clouds of glory and flashing their beaming smiles for many years to come.
Sunday, February 09, 2014
Yoma, Then and Now
The day I completed Masekhet Yoma, I had my cast taken off. Six weeks ago I broke my arm during the big
winter storm, which began the same day we learned in daf yomi about Hillel’s
ascent to the top of a snowy roof to listen in on Shmaya and Avtalyon’s class
in Talmudic Babylonia (35b). I was heading out to the garbage to deposit a bag
of dirty diapers when I slipped on black ice and tried to block the fall with
my hand. Under ordinary circumstances, this would have been inconvenient; but
with three kids under the age of three, two of whom can’t walk (and one of whom
rarely walks where you want him to), it was nearly impossible. D and I joked
that we had a one-working-arm-to-child ratio. I learned to carry the twins in
the crook of my arm, to cut vegetables with one hand, and to fold laundry with
my elbow. All the while I was following the high priest through the chambers
and courtyards of the Jerusalem ,
observing as he gathered up the incense to take into the holy of holies. He
took a pan in his right hand and a ladle in his left, a task which I could not
have completed without two working arms. Nor could I have performed kemitza,
which involves scooping up the incense underneath the middle three fingers of
the hand while extending the thumb and pinky (47a). The rabbis
describe kemitza as the most difficult part of Temple ritual -- even without a cast
extending from elbow to knuckles. Temple
I have broken two bones in my life, and ironically, the previous injury took place seven and a half years ago, when I learned Masekhet Yoma for the first time. Then it was my foot that I broke, probably from too much running and not enough stretching. I remember receiving the x-ray results just as I was learning the famous story in the Mishnah about the two priests who raced each other up the ramp of the altar to clear away the ashes; one pushed his friend in an effort to get ahead, and his friend stumbled and broke his foot. From this point, they decided to conduct a lottery to determine which priest would perform the various parts of the
Presumably the priest who had broken his foot was then barred from the Temple Temple on account of his injury, whereas I spent the next
few weeks on my couch with my leg propped up and Masekhet Yoma on my lap,
making my way into the holy of holies and then back out to read Torah in the courtyard. Temple
In order to heal, bones have to set, and so I find myself wondering what has set in my life in the time between my two encounters with Masekhet Yoma. The word Yoma is Aramaic for “the day,” and refers, of course, to Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. But in Hebrew the word for “the day,” hayom, is also the word for “today,” which points to a significant difference between my study of Yoma then and now. Seven and half years ago, when I learned Yoma for the first time, I never had any doubts about how I was spending “today.” Each morning I would learn Talmud with a study partner at the Conservative Yeshiva and then head to my job (at the literary agency where I still work) from noon until 7pm. In the evenings I would attend various classes throughout the city – a parsha shiur one night, a discussion on Jewish philosophy the next. Other evenings I would go to my book club, where we read and discussed a different Hebrew novel each month. When I came home late in the evening, I would learn daf yomi and collapse in bed so that I could wake up early to jog the next morning (until I broke my foot, of course). Each day had its own schedule, mapped out like the order of the priest’s activities on Yom Kippur. And each day was full of activities I enjoyed – learning Torah, working with books, exercising, attending classes, spending time with friends.
Even so, I could not have told you where my life was heading – and it wasn’t just because I had one broken foot. I did not know if I would ever advance in my job, or fall in love again, or become a mother, or stay in
All the big questions were still unanswered. I enjoyed how I spent each day,
but I had no idea what life would look like someday in the future. Indeed, part
of the reason I began learning daf yomi in 2006 was an attempt to shore up
against a terrifying future in which nothing seemed certain except that I was
getting older. If I learned a page of Talmud each day, I thought, then with
each passing day I would not just be one day older, but also one day wiser. By
the time I finished the cycle, I’d be 35. This seemed terribly old to my
27-year-old self. If I hadn’t had children by then, I thought, then surely I
never would. And if I hadn’t reached a satisfying place in my career, I
thought, then surely it was all over for me professionally. All future Yom
Kippur observances would be full of regret at missed opportunities, and I would
never be able to forgive myself. Israel
Returning to Yoma for the second time, after seven Yom Kippur holidays have elapsed in the interim, I see it all in a very different light. The night before Yom Kippur the young priests were responsible for ensuring that the high priest did not fall asleep, lest he become impure from a seminal emission. If he started to drift off, they would beat him with their fingers and tell him to stand up and then lie himself down on the cold floor so as to jolt himself awake (19b). This is not unlike what Matan does when he wakes up before dawn and wants us to come play with him. D taught him that he is not allowed to wake up until the sun rises, and we leave his shade open a crack at night so that he can make this determination for himself. In this sense, Matan is like the high priests charged with determining exactly when the sun rises on Yom Kippur morning, at which point they would announce “Barkai,” the sun is shining (28a). Matan bounds into our room in his furry one-piece pajamas and announces, “Sun is up! Time to play! Get up, Imma” And before I can look at my watch or even open my eyes, he is tapping with his fingers on my forehead, encouraging me to come help him with a puzzle. The rest of the morning unfolds in a tired blur of diaper changing, nursing, dressing the girls in their pink (Liav) and purple (Tagel) outfits, and reheating the French toast that I fried in a pan the night before by dipping leftover challah in egg and milk and scooping in some cinnamon with my middle three fingers.
These days I have significant doubts and insecurities about how I spend each “today.” Rarely do I feel like I am using my unique talents to make a contribution to the world, nor do I feel a sense of satisfaction when I look back at any given day. When we drop off the three kids at their various Ganim at 8am, I feel guilty about the time I am not with them and concerned about whether I am doing what is best for them. I wish I could say that I forget about the kids entirely and immerse myself in writing and studying until 3pm pickup. But I continue to think about them as I edit articles, translate books, and proofread translations before submitting them to the original authors. I enjoy my work, but I would not say that I have discovered my true calling in life, or that I am engaged in divine service. From the moment the high priest immerses himself in the mikvah for the first time on Yom Kippur morning until the people of
accompany him to his home at
the end of the day, the Talmud details every single step he takes. As such,
Masekhet Yoma is a model for what it means for all our steps to be directed
towards the service of heaven. In this sense I have a long way to go. Israel
On the other hand (and I’m grateful to have just received that other hand back), while I can’t say I’m satisfied or proud with how I spend each and every “today,” many of the larger questions of “someday” seem to have resolved themselves. There is no doubt in my mind that when I married Daniel, I won the lottery. I could not imagine a kinder, wiser, more loving person with whom to spend my life – even if I rarely have time to tell him that anymore. Our children are beautiful and beaming and seem to be healthy, though not a day passes when I don’t worry about the one who refuses to feed himself, or the one who still won’t crawl. We have made a home in
where, from our back window, we can see the
where the high priests once performed the Yom Kippur service. If given the
opportunity to enter the Holy of Holies and offer only a short prayer, as the
high priest was instructed on Yom Kippur (53b), I would use those precious
moments to thank God for all these blessings. It took two cycles of daf yomi,
but I feel that I have finally learned the lesson of this masekhet, namely that
Yoma is about the convergence of both meanings of hayom. It is about the
day that “today” is “the day,” the most important day on the Jewish calendar.
But it is also about realizing that this convergence happens every day– that
our lives at this moment are not a prelude to a future someday, but that this
is it, Barkai, the sun is up, Imma! No sooner does this realization dawn on me
than I get out of bed, extend my arms to embrace my son, and step forwards into
the rest of my life. Temple Mount