Posted by: Emily | 6 March 2015

Heaps of Covenants, Heaps of Blessings: Ki Tisa

This week’s parashah, Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11–34:35) covers a lot of ground: starting off with God’s instructions to take a census of the entire people, through the episode of the Golden Calf, and on towards God’s personal revelation to Moses and the enumeration of God’s attributes and basic commandments.

God orders Moses to take a census of the entire people twenty years and older, by means of collecting a half-shekel in a “head tax”. Why does the parashah, which contains so much else, start here, with this instruction? How is it relevant to the rest of the parashah?

The Gemara brings down a baraita in Tractate Ta’anit (page 8b) that gives us an insight into this question:

תנו רבנן: הנכנס למוד את גרנו אומר: ״יהי רצון מלפניך ה׳ אלוקינו, שתשלך ברכה במעשה ידינו.״
התחיל למוד, אומר: ״ברוך השולח ברכה בכרי הזה.״
מדד ואחר כך בירך, הרי זו תפלת שוא,
לפי שאין הברכה מצויה לא בדבר השקול ולא בדבר המדור ולא בדבר המנוי,
אלא בדבר הסמוי מן העין:

Our Rabbis taught: When one first begins to measure the amount of their new grain, they shall recite: “May it be Your will, Hashem our God, that You send blessing upon the work of our hands.” But one who has already begun to measure says, “Blessed be God, who sends blessing into this heap.” If one first measured the grain and then recited the prayer, it is a prayer in vain, because blessing is not found in something weighed out or measured or counted, but only in something is hidden from plain sight.

This is a fascinating answer to the ancient “paradox of the heap”: the question of how many grains constitutes a heap. The sages’ answer is that even one grain constitutes a heap, once you have counted it. But they caution against reciting a prayer over “something hidden from plain sight”—in other words, something in progress, the totality of whose outcome is unknown. The sages hold that one should bless a deed that will constitute a work in progress at its outset, rather than in its middle.

The parashah resumes and picks up the narrative where it left off, with Moses atop the mountain, receiving more laws and instructions, as well as the Tablets, inscribed by the finger of God, and the people left down below start to worry whether something bad might have happened to Moses, and they feel abandoned both by their leader and by God. They press themselves upon Aaron, the natural successor to Moses, and Aaron goes along with their desires, making a calf out of gold, proclaiming (32:4), Eileh elokecha Yisrael, “this is your god, Israel!”

What is interesting here is that Aaron does not hesitate. He does not question why the Israelites asked him to do this, and he does not challenge them on it. This is in contrast to Moses, who challenges God on many occasions, to say nothing of challenging the people themselves. Moses pleads with God not to destroy the people using two arguments: one is an appeal to the covenant, but the other is an appeal to God’s vanity, for lack of a better word (32:12). “What would the Egyptians say, that You intended to do evil to them by taking them out into the mountains, and to obliterate them from upon the face of the earth?”

But Aaron does not argue back when the people begin to worry about their leader; instead, he goes along with their plan without complaint. Then, to compound his error, he gives two unconvincing, feeble excuses to Moses when he returns. First, he blames the people: “Don’t be angry with me! You know these people, ki ve-ra hu, how they are set on doing wicked things.” Then he blames, in a statement worthy of every six-year-old ever, the world, the universe, nature in general: “I cast the gold into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Moses’s reaction is furious: he grinds the statue to powder and makes the Israelites drink it, and then he leads the Levite army against the people, quite brutally. But then Moses promises the people that he will intercede on their behalf with God and pray for their forgiveness, leading to the famous personal encounter between God and Moses, where Moses is allowed to behold God’s back but not God’s face, and God proclaims the so-called “thirteen attributes”, the identity of which varies depending on how you count words and phrases.

After God produces this theophany for Moses, God establishes a new covenant (33:10): “Behold, I make a covenant: I will do wondrous things before all your people, such as never have been wrought in all the earth and among all the peoples. All the people who surround you will witness the works of God, awesome, which I am about to do with you.” In exchange for which, the Israelites will keep God’s laws and commandments, and God is very specific this time—in contrast to the first set of commandments given at the revelation at Sinai—about not bowing down to, or making a covenant with, any other gods or idols, and not making any images of them.

Why do we need this second covenant? Was the sin of Am Yisrael so great in the episode of the golden calf that God had to reestablish the covenant after atonement had been completed for the people? God had been prepared to make a new covenant with Moses and create a new people out of him, simply wiping away Am Yisrael and replacing them with a new nation. But Moses appealed to the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the founders of the Israelite nation, and God decided to stick with it. The covenant needed to be reaffirmed, not completely remade. This is why we refer to ourselves as b’nai yisrael and not b’nai moshe, am yisrael and not am moshe: even though Moses was our greatest leader, a new covenant was not made with him, but God still honors the covenant that was made with our ancient forebears.

But at the same time, this week’s parashah still marks the beginning of a new chapter in the covenant. The people Israel are not on their own, but they are adrift. Moses has to restart them, reboot them, give them a good swift kick in the rear. That is why Moses asks God to forgive the people and to bless them. He instructs the people (32:29): “Consecrate yourselves today to God, for every man has been against his son and against his brother, that God may also bestow a blessing upon you today.”

We began with a baraita which tells us to bless counting or weighing or measuring things at their outset, because blessing is not to be found except where you cannot foresee the outcome, and while things are in progress one should ask for God to send blessing into the heap that is already there. Moses asks God to bless the people: the people have sinned so greatly that he wants to throw away everything that has happened so far and restart completely, with a clean slate before God.

But that is not how God works. God chooses to move forward with continuity. God does not explicitly bless the people here, in this parashah. God never says, “You are blessed” or “I bless you” or any such thing. Rather, God inserts blessing into the heap that is already there, the heap that is Am Yisrael, a chaotic heap, one with little hope of being put right by any one human being, but only by its collective efforts, with the blessing of God. We are a perpetual work in progress; may we continue to pray that God insert blessing into our heap.

Posted by: Emily | 5 March 2015

I’m On Team Vashti

Why does the Book of Esther start with Chapter 1 instead of Chapter 2? What is the relevance of the story of how King Achashverosh fired Queen Vashti to the rest of the book, which tells the story of Esther’s rise to power and the king’s trust and the salvation of the Jewish people? Vashti doesn’t appear after the very beginning of the book. What gives?

Vashti and Esther are two sides of the same coin. Both are strong women who know how to make things happen. Both rise to an occasion by the means they have at their disposal, and both send strong messages about women’s power. Esther does this, famously, by submitting herself to the king and then using her trust and position to save the Jews. But Vashti also rises to an occasion by exercising her own agency.

While Ahasuerus makes a great feast, Vashti makes one too for the women. And when Vashti is called in before the drunken king and his drunk courtiers, she refuses. She does not abandon the women: she stands with them, refusing to let them become pawns. Indeed, the king’s courtier Memucan fears her influence over the other women in the kingdom enough that he convinces the king to fire her and tighten the grasp of the kingdom’s men over the women. “She was thinking for herself? We can’t have that!”

But the reality is, Memucan and Achashverosh have already lost that battle. Esther comes along and takes up where Vashti left off. Esther’s agency is famous, less so Vashti’s but just as important. Together, they tell a story of strength and power, and I am proud to be a member of Team Vashti.


Posted by: Emily | 16 December 2014

A Hanukkah vort

Menorah One CandleThere are two mitzvot we observe on Hanukkah. Lighting candles is one; the other is reciting Hallel, the collection of Psalms 113–118. Hallel thanks God for our liberation, the candles light the way of liberation to come.

It’s easy to get caught up in triumphalism. Past liberation from oppression is worthy of song, but it is incomplete. True liberation will not come until the path to freedom is lit for all oppressed people everywhere.

It is our duty to light that path, to let our past triumphs guide us where the world is still dark.

May this be our sacred duty this Hanukkah.
Posted by: Emily | 3 October 2014

Kol Nidrei — All vows

All vows I have made thoughtlessly,
all promises I have made carelessly,
all times I swore to God, up and down, on a stack of bibles,
all expectations I have set, knowing I would probably not be able to fulfill them,
all times I said “No problem” when I should have laid down a boundary,
all times I tried too hard to please others when I should have taken care of myself,
all times I swore without meaning it,
all oaths I took, using foul language when it was not warranted,
all times I poured out my wrath on undeserving people,
all times I exploded with rage and let innocent bystanders get hurt by the splash damage,
all times I spoke recklessly and without heed for the consequences of my words—
—may I be forgiven to You,
but even more, may I also be able to forgive myself.

Posted by: Emily | 21 September 2014

You don’t have to forgive your abuser

For Jews, the beginning of the New Year is the season of repentance and forgiveness. Judaism tends to make a big deal of teaching that forgiveness can only come once you have reconciled with the person who wronged you. I have seen this often translate into pressure on people who have been abused, in many different fashions, to forgive their abusers.

Let me make this clear: You absolutely do not need to forgive your abuser.

The rhetoric of forgiveness in this world today is such that it can be employed as a bludgeon against victims of abuse. “You need to forgive your abuser so you can both move on with your lives.” “You’ll feel better about yourself if you forgive them.” “You’re too invested in your victimhood to see the bigger picture.” “Your abuser is a human being too, with feelings.”

Otherwise well-meaning people easily fall into this “both sides” trap, which warps and inverts the actual nature of abuse and victimization. I’ve seen this happen more times than I can remember. It’s insidious, and abuse victims aren’t immune to it—or to pontificating about it to others: Charles Blow valorizes this attitude in an otherwise decent New York Times article in today’s Sunday review: “I had to stop hating Chester to start loving myself. Forgiveness was freedom. I simply had to let go of my past so that I could step into my future.” As a victim of abuse myself, these words are incredibly chilling to me.

If you achieve personal liberation or wholeness some clearer sense of being right with the world through forgiving your abuser, that’s fantastic, and I, honestly and sincerely, am really happy for you. However, I cannot get behind the ideology that says that this is the way you must be in order to be a good right-thinking human being. That perspective does victims of abuse a disservice: it tells us that our feelings are not real, that our abusers’ feelings are more important than the pain and destruction they caused. It tells us that we are without worth on our own, outside of reference to our abusers. It tells us that we will always be victims, and then berates us for “desiring victimhood”. It tells us that we are incomplete, that we are fundamentally broken people, that we deserved to be abused because we are not good enough to be the kind of person who would forgive their abuser!

This attitude subverts healing. It turns victimhood on its head. It is toxic, harmful, and destructive. Victims of abuse are valid, and their feelings and experiences are real. You are not required to forgive your abuser. Period. Full stop. End of story.

Judaism traditionally divides wrongdoings into two categories: bein adam la-makom “between a human being and God”, and bein adam le-ḥaveiro, “between a human being and their fellow”. The Mishnah famously states that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, grants forgiveness for wrongdoings that are of the first category, but as for wrongdoings that are of the second category, you cannot be right with God until you are right with the other person.

On the face of it, this sounds good, because it seems to shift the responsibility to the person who has wronged another to make things right. But it is too often subverted to shift the responsibility the other way: it makes the wronged party responsible for absolving the person who wronged them. With abuse, when you shift responsibility for forgiveness to the abused person, you place them in an untenable situation, and you make an already bad situation worse.

Again, if this is your path to fulfillment, more power to you. But if you valorize it or exalt it or hold it up as an example to be followed or make it a mandatory requirement for people who have been abused to forgive their abusers, you might think you are doing good, but you are in fact doing harm.

May this season of repentance and forgiveness bring us closer to truth with ourselves. May those of us who have been abused find healing in whatever way is right for us, and may we all have the equanimity to not force our particular way upon others.

G’mar ḥatimah tovah—may we be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Posted by: Emily | 6 August 2014

Living with autism: no owner’s manual

When allistic (i.e. not autistic) people ask me to describe what it’s like to live in my brain, the brain of this one particular autistic person that I am, I often respond in the following way:

I didn’t get the owner’s manual, so I don’t have what to fall back on when I don’t know what to do.

Everyone else got the owner’s manual. Other people know how to look things up in it to discover things or check things or reassure themselves they’re doing things right. Other people know how to answer the persistent voices in the back of their mind that question their social interactions. “Did I shake that person’s hand too long?” “Did I say ‘hi’ when I should have said ‘hello’?” “Did I say ‘goodbye’ enough times before hanging up the phone?” They might not know the answers, but they know how to find out.

I don’t, by default, know how to find out. I haven’t got the owner’s manual. I have had to learn, by memorization and rote, what the answers are. And when I don’t know them, I have no backup plan. So I often shut down, because it’s the only option left to me.

If you had to learn social skills consciously, by memorization and rote, and are locked in constant battle with the voices in the back of your mind that question your every move, my heart goes out to you. I have been there; I am still there; I will always be there. Some days, things come more naturally. Some days, my fear gets the better of me, and I lose that battle.

I haven’t got an owner’s manual, and my brain is always in a constant low-level state of heightened anxiety over that fact. “Did I do that right just now?” it usually wonders. If I am functioning well at a given time, my brain will try to be a step ahead: “What do I want to do next? How do I do that right?” And I had to consciously memorize, often by trial and error, the answers to these questions. But if I’m not functioning as well, my brain will be reactive rather than proactive, and I will panic, I will become less verbal (this includes signing), I will start to shut down.

I am faking it. Some days I fake it better than others. We’re all like this, to some extent. But for me, when I can’t fake it, I don’t have the same recourse everyone else has got. I haven’t got the owner’s manual.

Posted by: Emily | 1 August 2014

Too long have we lingered at the mountain

When you’re at a fireworks show, and it ends, do you immediately leave? No, you stare at the sky for a few more moments, watching the trailing ends of the pieces of the explosions dissipate and fall. When you’re at a sports game, and your team wins, at the end of the game, do you immediately turn around and leave (assuming you didn’t bug out early to beat the traffic)? No, you watch the field for a few more moments, and then you leave, hoping a player or two will come out and wave to the crowd. When you’re at a concert, and the music ends, do you pick up and walk away? No, you applaud, and you hope that the performer will come back for a curtain call, or maybe, if you’re lucky, a virtuoso encore.

Part of what your mind is doing in these situations is making sure that what you thought you saw is real. The reason we go to watch things like fireworks and sports and concerts is that they impress us with feats that are beyond the abilities of ordinary folks and ordinary events. They are experiences that transcends what is an ordinary part of our lives.

Jebel Musa, often identified as Mount Sinai

Turn back the clock thousands of years. The most important, most impressive fireworks display, sports match, concert in history is happening at Har Sinai: headlined by an appearance of none other than the one, the only God. Fire and thunder and the blast of trumpets and God speaking out of the clouds surrounding the mountain. Now, if you had been standing with Am Yisra’el—the Israelite people—there, when the spectacle was finally over, would you have ever wanted to leave?

Sefer Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy, which we start this Shabbat, begins with exactly this situation. The awe-inspiring theophany is over, and God finally calls it closing time: “God spoke to us at Ḥoreb, saying: Long enough you have been dwelling at this mountain. Turn away, and take your journey” (1:6–7), going through all these different places, until you finally get to the promised land.

We didn’t want to leave. Indeed, how could we have? What the Torah is saying here is: “You’ve been here long enough; it’s time to move on to what’s next.” Which means wandering through the desert for forty years, followed by entry into an uncertain land, war, and the establishment of a stable, society and government.

Rabbinic tradition refers to Sefer Devarim as mishneh Torah, which means something like “the restatement of the Law” or “the recapitulation of the Torah”. The English name for Devarim, “Deuteronomy”, derives from the Greek version of this name as well: deutero- “second” + nomos “law”. Biblical scholarship has been fairly clear for several centuries that this book was not composed by the same minds that wrote the first four books of the Torah, but by a completely different person or school of people. We refer to the composer or composers of Deuteronomy as D. D is also almost certainly responsible for the composition and redaction of the Book of Joshua as well, making it common in scholarly circles to refer not to the Pentateuch but to the Tetrateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) and the Hexateuch (the Tetrateuch but including Deuteronomy and Joshua).

Sefer Devarim is structured as Moshe’s farewell oration to Am Yisra’el: Moshe is nearing the end of his days, and he recapitulates the story of the people’s journeys through the wilderness. But this speech, somewhat remarkably, does not start with the story of the revelation at Sinai, but of what happens immediately after that. The first thing Moses says is “God says: You’ve been here long enough, now start going.” Then, for the rest of the parashah, this week’s Torah portion, we get the story of the spies sent to check out the land and long summaries of several battles and wars the Israelites fought against other tribes. This parashah has a military focus, plain and simple. We don’t even get to the recapitulation of the Aseret Ha-Dib’rot, the Ten Statements given during the theophany at Sinai, until next week’s parashah. What does this mean?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe answers this question by returning to the theme with which we began. He asks what the Torah means when God instructs the Israelites to leave the mountain which they have stayed “too long” at. “In our lives,” he says, “we also have moments, days or years of revelation, times when we learn and grow and are enriched. But the purpose must always be to move on, move away, and carry the enlightenment and enrichment to someplace else—some corner of creation that awaits redemption.”

The journey may not necessarily be the reward, but it can be as important as what came before it and what came after. Sefer Devarim is, at its core, about the transition of the Israelite people from a state of unreadiness to one of readiness: readiness to enter the land, to form a civilization, to behave in a way governed by law intended for goodness. Too long, God reminds us, have we lingered at the mountain; the time has come for us to take steps away from it and grow.

We are currently in the midst of the Nine Days before Tisha B’Av, the fast day when we commemorate the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mik’dash, the Temple in Jerusalem two and a half thousand years ago. Jewish tradition teaches us that the Beit Ha-Mik’dash was destroyed because of sin’at ḥinam, baseless hatred. Right now, with the war and destruction going on in Gaza and Israel, it seems especially appropriate to recall the seductive and destructive power of baseless hatred. Too long have we lingered at the mountain of complacency, in a state of spiritual and moral unreadiness. Let us take this lesson to heart and take a step away from that mountain, to renew our spiritual growth on the journey towards liberation and peace.

Posted by: Emily | 20 July 2014

Do not say “I am still a boy.”


Wisdom from my brother Reuven.

Originally posted on eish zarah:

The first haftarah of Admonition
The haftarah of Mattot

I was at Shabbat morning services holding the torah during the reading of the haftarah and this is what formed in my mind.

Jeremiah 1:6-7

I replied
O sovereign god!
I do not know how to speak,
For I am still a boy.
And The Name said to me:
Do not say “I am still a boy.”

And behold,
The Name who formed me in the womb
Formed me anew,
The ה of the sacred name
Was added to me.
And I was no longer na’ar,
But a na’arah.
I could no longer say “I am still a boy,”
For I was a girl.

For my sister, Emily Aviva, because she is a prophetess and my Rabbah.

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Posted by: Emily | 17 July 2014

On world events and powerlessness

As I write this, another day is breaking in the Middle East. The conflict in between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is looking more and more like a full-fledged war with every passing hour. And I feel powerless.

Like many folks, I’m sure, I have had to avoid talking too much about what’s going on in Gaza because of an overwhelming sense of futility. Discussing it, by and large, seems to be a losing proposition.

Powerlessness in the face of destruction, in the face of death, in the face of a seemingly uncaring world that is too big for us to change, is not new; it has existed as long as there has been a world bigger than our own selves. Daniel, revered as a prophet by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, was carried into captivity in Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar, and in 586 BCE Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed. In the Biblical book which bears his name, Daniel laments his own powerlessness, and that of humanity in general, and in the form of a prayer asks God to take action:

God, incline Your ear and hear, open Your eyes and see our anguish and the desolation of the city which You have called by Your name. For we do not make our supplication to You relying on our own merit, but on Your great mercy. God, hear! God, forgive! God, listen without delay! For Your sake, my God; for it is Your name by which Your people and Your city are known. (Daniel 9:18–19)

I think this is a fascinating theological conceit. I see it in a similar tradition to how Abraham and Moses talked to God, bargaining with God, appealing not to their own merit but to why God might want to act: because all of the horrible stuff going on down below on earth reflects poorly on God above. After all, it was God who caused God’s own name to be called in the same breath as God’s creation—God’s city, God’s world, and the inhabitants of that world who call upon God for their deliverance.

It is frustrating for people like me to be sitting where we are now: in privilege and comfort in our homes, with roofs over our heads and reliable supplies of water and electricity, the sounds of gunfire and bombs not keeping us awake at night, with our families not being threatened and injured and killed, seemingly for no reason, with no way to stop it, no recourse. For us, we feel powerless, and we feel impotent. We may not be able to affect change in the Middle East except very, very distantly and indirectly: does anyone really think that, say, if I refrain from buying a SodaStream it will save the life of people in Gaza, or if I write a postcard to Israeli soldiers it will help somehow, or if I stay up until four o’clock in the morning arguing on the Internet with friends and strangers I will actually convince anyone else? And if I did, what would it avail us?

Where I find hope is in our own lives, our own communities, our own souls. The best we can do, I feel, is to channel our frustration into something productive. We may not be able to do much about the world writ large, but we can do something about our world. Give homeless folks some money instead of storming past them and averting their eyes. Put in a few hours volunteering at the food bank. Pick up some trash from the street. Gather in community. Make some art, write a poem, sing a song. Turn off your mobile phone for a while and sit in silence.

The great rabbi and social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel says that Shabbat—the Sabbath—is an island in time. He doesn’t mean that it is isolated from time; it is not something you can step out of this world to go to. The temporal world still exists, and it still affects our lives. We still have to live in that world even as we try to take a step back from it on Shabbat. What Heschel means is that in the sacred space of Shabbat we can find each other and ourselves, and we can take the energy and the spirit and the beauty that we create by our presence together on Shabbat back out into the world after Shabbat.

That’s where I find hope for us: not in screaming matches on social media, not in guns or bombs, and not in wallowing in our own powerlessness. but in community, in the redemptive power of the self and the soul. We may not be able to change the world writ large, but we can do our best to change our world. It’s a thankless task, and the overwhelming chance is that we will only see small, incremental change—if any—in our own lifetimes. But it is holy work, sacred work. It is not our duty to finish the task, as the rabbinic ethical text Pirkei Avot says, but we are not free to refrain from trying. Doing that work, changing our world—that is how peace begins.

Posted by: Emily | 30 April 2014

guest post: ableism in kedoshim

Originally posted on no power in the 'verse:

july4My first guest post: a d’var Torah by the awesome Emily Fishman!

The oft-quoted Leviticus 19:18, “וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ– love thy neighbor as thyself,” literarily comes to summarize a list of how to set up your world to be a just one, where the vulnerable are protected and the powerful have their privilege checked.

One of the specifics in the section is לֹא-תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ–וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל, “Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling-block before the blind,” verse 14. This verse, especially the bit about the stumbling block and the blind, is quote frequently in halakhic literature as a shorthand for entrapment, luring someone into sin. For example, an adult is forbidden to hit their parent, that is a matter of law. The parent, though, should not hit their adult child lest the child be tempted to hit back — that is a matter of lifnei iver…

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