Friday, March 22, 2024

Parashat Vayikra

Is there not a Surrealist painting involving a nose in the sky? There really should be. Think of it, a blue sky, a giant pair of nostrils, some smoke rising toward them, perhaps even a Cheshire cat-like smile floating in the air, appreciating the pleasing odors. 

This week, in Parashat Vayikra, G-d tells the Israelites how to make sacrifices by fire, many of which generate "a pleasing odor to [G-d]." I remember in the days before my conversion to Judaism telling my mother about the notion of G-d appreciating smells. I had also recently been telling her that G-d doesn't have a body. If G-d has no body, G-d has no nose, she responded. I can't argue with that. 

But somehow I find it more possible to believe in a spirit appreciating smells than, say, chowing down on a charred piece of sacrificed animal like--l'havdil!--Santa eating cookies. It's possible to imagine a spiritual being, like G-d, as existing in the air, ethereal. And an odor is just that. Odors and spirits seem compatible. Additionally, smoke from a sacrifice rises, and I tend to think of G-d as being "up there": in the sky, in the Heavens. Even the notion of G-d as being everywhere still puts G-d mostly in the atmosphere, in space.

Why might G-d enjoy pleasing odors? Rashi comments that G-d finds the odors of sacrifices to be "satisfying" not for the smell itself necessarily but as evidence that the people are following the commandments. Perhaps the smell of a sacrifice is like that little strip of color blocks on a potato chip bag that a scanner can check to see that all the colors are printing properly and that hopefully the image, which the scanner can't see, looks okay. A pleasing odor signals that the commandments surrounding sacrifices are being followed--and hopefully the others, too.

Rashi later wonders at the reason for leaving the feathers on a bird being sacrificed: "But surely you will not find even a common sort of man who can smell the odour of burnt feathers without being disgusted with it! Why, then, does Scripture say that it shall be offered with the feathers?" Rashi asks. Does G-d truly think that burnt feathers smell good? The answer Rashi gives is that the offering "makes a finer show" with the feathers on. The parsha later notes that if a person can't afford a sheep for a sin offering, they may offer birds instead. Birds, therefore, are the offering of the poor, Rashi notes, and that's why there's an incentive to make them look as grand as possible--even if the odor of burning feathers is not pleasing to our own noses.

The Hebrew word translated as "pleasing" in the phrase pleasing odor, נִיחֹ֖חַ, is defined as "soothing, quieting, transquillizing." I find that last definition compelling. Imagine, the idea of producing a sort of tranquillizer or anesthesia that G-d would breathe in. In a moment of fear, the Israelites might want to render G-d a little less powerful, to sedate G-d a little bit. In other moments, when G-d seems less frightening, the idea of soothing or pleasing G-d might be more fitting.

What seems to connect most to my life in this parsha at this time is the notion of wanting people to do something (in this case, to burn an offering) less for the outcome of the action itself (the pleasing odor) than as a sign of fidelity. The idea that G-d would be satisfied, as Rashi said, by the odor as a signal that the Israelites were following the commandments reminds me of what my therapist says about requests I make of her. Sometimes, she supposes, I may want her to do certain things, like answer an email or give me a call, not so much because the I need the answer but because her giving me what I asked for would be a sign that she cared. Still cared. And still cared this week too. Why do I need such signals, rather than just having faith or remembering our history?

Maybe G-d, like me, needs a lot of reminders that people still care. Or G-d used to need those reminders. We no longer make sacrifices. Instead, we pray. I can't think of any particular pleasing odors that arise at our services. But we do light candles, which turn into CO2 and smoke (and water and energy). I hope G-d is pleased.

Shabbat Shalom, and have a good Purim!

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Calf v. Mishkan


Mark Morgan via Flickr, CC License 2.0

It was Shabbat, and I had just washed my dishes. Then I started writing this. Soon I’d head out for a date, which I hoped would be fun. “At least I’ll have the dishes washed,” I thought. The date, I couldn’t control; the dishes, I could. So I chose the dishes and the relative solidity of words that I could create and destroy.

I’d say that in washing the dishes, I chose the golden calf. Let me explain. Lately the rabbis at my synagogue have been talking about the distinction between the golden calf, which is solid, literally and figuratively, and the mishkan, the portable house of worship that holds empty space for an invisible god. Many things in life seem to sort themselves into these categories: golden calf or mishkan. 

For anyone who needs a refresher on the golden calf incident: After G-d delivered the 10 Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, Moses went up on the mountain to get further instructions from G-d (and the first set of stone tablets). He was up there 40 days and 40 nights. Meanwhile, the people down below got tired of waiting for Moses, wondering what had happened to him. In their impatience, they melted down jewelry they had brought from Egypt to fashion a golden calf, an idol, which they proceeded to worship. When Moses got back and saw the golden calf, he was so angry at the Israelites that he smashed the tablets that G-d had just given him and destroyed the calf. But in time, he got new tablets and taught the Israelites to build something different: not a golden calf but a mishkan.

I think Shabbat is the mishkan in temporal form. Not empty space but empty time. Keeping Shabbat requires faith in the importance of something that isn't happening, faith in the value of not working. Thinking not “at least I did the dishes” but “at least I didn’t”! 

In going on a date Shabbat afternoon, I chose the mishkan, figuratively speaking. The future is in the mishkan. Hope is in the mishkan. The unknown is in the mishkan. 

Pessimism, on the other hand, is the golden calf. The past is the golden calf. Sabotage is the golden calf. Destruction is the golden calf. These are all things we can be certain about. But it's certainty at the expense of hope.

I include the past in my list of golden calf-like things, but not without hesitation. The past isn't all bad any more than the future will be all good. But the past is solid. Remembering the past and feeling expected emotions, even the negative ones, can be easier than imagining and hoping for an unknown future.

Since I don’t necessarily have a problem with remembering the past, maybe golden calves aren't all bad, either. The issue is not the object, be it a golden calf or a photo album, but how people use it or what it displaces. For the Israelites, the golden calf displaced faith in an invisible god. In more metaphorical cases, golden calf-like behavior and thought can displace hope and a willingness to take a chance on something new. 

Here's another golden calf-like thing I'm slow to condemn: I have a beloved stuffed animal. It's a purple bunny, but with a switch of color and species, it could be a golden calf. A stuffed animal is solid not against the teeth, like gold, but solid as in dependable. You can carry it around and squeeze it as hard you want without hurting it. You don't have to wonder if and when it will come back because it never goes anywhere (and woe to the parents of a child who has misplaced a favorite toy). If I worshipped and put all my hope in my purple bunny, that could cause me some problems, could prevent me from living my (adult!) life. But I don’t do that. My bunny is a delight. Further, I think there's some value in thinking about the golden calf in the framework of child development.

My therapist calls stuffed animals “transitional objects.” Such objects help the child transition from having a parent around all the time, and getting comfort from them, to being able to comfort herself. The American Psychological Association definition of transitional object describes the destination point of this transition in a wonderful way: as the development of an internal representation of the parent that comforts the child. The goal isn't to resign yourself to solitude; it's to feel the comfort of someone who loves you even when they aren't physically there.

Maybe the golden calf was a transitional object for the Israelites. Moses was gone, and they weren't sure that he was coming back. They definitely weren't sure that this newly introduced god could be counted on in absentia. So they made a golden calf to soothe themselves. 

Eventually, though, Moses did come back. And eventually, the Jewish people did learn to find comfort in the empty space of the mishkan. And, perhaps, within ourselves. If the golden calf helped us learn to do that, more power to it.
I recently listened to a podcast about Gazans who are eating animal food to survive. It reminded me of a comment my parents occasionally made that they "aren't eating cat food yet,” meaning that they have enough money to support themselves—and to help me, too. As a journalist looking for stories, I thought: aha. A feature about people eating animal food. When and where has this happened in the past? What distinguishes human and animal food, anyway? Dogs can’t eat chocolate; are there other human foods animals can’t eat? Animal foods people can’t eat? The history of pet food? 

I might be able to get my hands on some of this information. But what I really want is not the history of starvation but for the Gazans, for all people, to have human food. As for how to ensure that, what to write about that? The fighting has to end. But how? What happens next? What’s fair to everyone? There I draw a blank. And my point here is that sometimes, a blank is appropriate. There's hope in that blank space.

I’m not writing a pet food story, whose dismal outlines I can make out. I’m holding out for something unknown and better.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Parashat Vayakhel: The Almond Blossom Menorah

In last week's Torah portion, Vayakhel, Moses instructs the Israelites to keep the Sabbath and then gives them detailed instructions for building the mishkan, the portable house of worship that will allow G-d to live among the people as they wander the desert. 

These instructions sound very familiar, as they’ve already appeared in an earlier Torah portion, Terumah. In that portion, G-d is telling Moses, who is with G-d on Mount Sinai, what to tell the Israelites about how to build the mishkan. Meanwhile, at the base of the mountain, the people get tired of waiting for Moses and make a golden calf to worship. In this week’s portion, after getting angry at the Israelites, smashing the tablets, and going back up the mountain for new tablets, Moses finally gets to convey G-d’s message to the Israelites, and they build the mishkan just as G-d had specified.

The mishkan instructions do not call up an image of a magnificent structure any more than the steps of an Ikea instruction manual, to borrow a reference that Rabbi Matt Green made in a drash about parashat Terumah, would suffice to show you what your chest of drawers should look like. With a chest of drawers, though, you already know what it’s supposed to look like. Not so for the mishkan—at least, not so for me.

I wonder what the purpose of including so many details, and including them twice, was for the writers of the Torah. Were they trying to preserve instructions for building the mishkan in case the Jews ever needed to build it again? Did it not occur to the authors to say “Moses told the Israelites what G-d had told him,” rather than repeating it all? I don’t know and would like to learn know how others have answered this question.

The part that I like best about this parsha is the description of the lampstand—menorah, in Hebrew. Finally, something I can recognize because of the familiar word and also because of the description of a structure with three branches on each side. If the mishkan description gave us the menorah (and this is the first mention of menorah in the Torah, according to My Jewish Learning), maybe it was worth slogging through the less reader-friendly sections. Then again, perhaps other parts of the mishkan resonate with other people or will resonate with me another year.

The text says that the cups of the menorah were shaped like almond flowers, per G’d’s instructions. That’s quite the detail. Interesting that the menorah would have branches and flowers, like a tree. (Makes me think of the burning bush, but that's another subject for another day.)

I Googled “almond flowers” and happened upon something else familiar. What came up first, before photographs or direct references to nature or botany, was an image that is stitched onto a pillow that I see with a turn of my head as I sit here writing of branches and white blossoms against a blue background. It’s Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom, and it can be found patterning all sorts of objects in addition to pillows. The painting itself lives in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

I doubt that Van Gogh had Judaism in mind when painting that work, but my Almond Blossom pillow does relate to my life as a Jew. After I had converted to Judaism, friends of our family sent me the pillow as a gift to celebrate my conversion and to thank me for some baked goods I’d sent them as care packages. They’d heard about the tradition of reclining on pillows during the Passover seder and so sent me a very fine pillow to recline on during my first Passover as a Jew. 

I had been sending baked goods because the husband in the couple was dying. He died on what was the eighth day of Passover that year. (These friends aren’t Jewish, by the way.)  Now the pillow, which sits in a yellow chair in my apartment looking beautiful and occasionally cushioning someone’s back, is a memory of him and of his surviving wife. 
This past Shabbat at CBE, Rabbi Green spoke about our wish to see ourselves mirrored in the world, referencing the women’s mirrors that were built into the mishkan. I wanted to find myself mirrored in the Torah portion and so was thrilled to discover in it not just a menorah but one patterned with blossoms that, it turned out, were sitting right next to me on the Van Gogh pillow. 

Yet the pillow and its blossoms weren’t entirely known to me. I didn’t remember that it depicted almond blossoms. I knew it was Van Gogh, but I just thought of it as showing a flowering tree. I didn’t remember that it was an almond tree or know that almond trees are the first ones to bloom in Israel in the spring. In addition to finding something familiar, I learned something about the pillow, about the world, from studying the parsha. It was more than a mirror. Perhaps next year, I’ll find a connection to, say, dolphin skins.

In a way, just by being Jewish, or maybe even just by being interested (I say to include my former non-Jewish self), we are connected to every parsha. The pillow was there sitting on the chair, and I had a connection to it whether or not I knew that the blossoms on it were from an almond tree. Learning more about the Van Gogh painting just deepened the connection or traced a path for it. The Torah is there “on the chair,” so to speak, for every Jew. Maybe every parsha reflects us, in some way, whether or not we know it. The connections are there for the finding. And chances are, as we seek out familiarity, something we knew, we’ll also find something new.

If this were Shabbat, I would say Shabbat Shalom. As it is, I wish everyone a shavua tov.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Oranges and Art: a Drash Delivered at CBE on August 12, 2022

 In 2022, the subject I found myself wanting to write about was an idea I encountered in parsha study (a discussion of the parsha, or the section of the Torah that is read in synagogues on a given week according to a universal schedule). Congregants at my synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim, occasionally give sermons (also called drashes or divrei Torah), and so with the support of the clergy, I wrote and delivered this. It was my big writing effort of 2022. 

You can watch it in the YouTube video below (starting at about the 31-minute mark) or read it here. Thanks for taking the time!

August 12, 2022, Congregation Beth Elohim, Park Slope (Brooklyn, NY)


Shabbat Shalom. On this August evening, I want to bring us back to the evening of January 19. It wasn't hot! It was winter. We were shaken because the previous Shabbat, a man with a gun had taken a Reform congregation hostage in Colleyville, Texas. In the Torah, the Israelites were at Sinai receiving the 10 commandments. And in Rabbi Timoner's Wednesday night parsha study class, on Zoom, a group of us were studying said commandments and trying to figure out how many there were, really. Also, citrus fruit was in season.


I had taken to buying oranges by the bag. All five pounds or whatever just about fit in the fruit bowl I had on the table. I'd bought them to eat, of course, yet they were beautiful piled in that bowl: uniform, balanced, and abundant. It was almost as if the bowl of oranges were a sculpture, or a still life.


But my oranges were not works of art. They were decidedly real. Within a week or so, I ate them or they began to mold.  Unlike oranges in a painting by Matisse, say, who painted many a fruit bowl, real fruit doesn't stay ripe forever. 


There's another distinction between my bowl of oranges 

and some still life painting, a distinction that, in a general sense, came up in parsha study: While oranges are God's creation, likenesses thereof are prohibited in the 10 commandments. 


“You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth,” Moses says to the people assembled at Sinai in Exodus chapter 20 verse four, transmitting the commandments from God to the people. God-via-Moses later tells us not to worship idols. But God initially says not to make idols, or likenesses, at all. Moses reiterates this commandment in this week's parsha, Vaetchanan.


The commandment against likenesses was news to me that January evening. Bad news. I'm a writer, and my love for art in its various forms is essential to who I am. Here God seemed to be saying that art was immoral. So I asked Rabbi Timoner about it, and she said that, indeed, though abstract art might be okay, likenesses are prohibited in the Torah. These stained glass windows in our sanctuary? Technically against the rules.


Torah commentators have disagreed about just how sweeping the prohibition is. Ramban, a medieval Spanish commentator, says that even images reflected in water are verboten. Italian commentator Sforno, who lived after Ramban, says that making a likeness is prohibited, quote, "even if you do not mean to use it as an object of worship."

But others say that likenesses are only a problem if you worship them. In the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 24b, verse six, the rabbis are discussing a previous teaching, called a baraita, against making likenesses of celestial bodies. "When that baraita is taught,” the rabbis write, “it is in reference to the prohibition against worshiping them. However, there is no prohibition against forming an image in their likeness."


While I'm personally glad to hear that, it's the strict rule against likenesses that grabs my interest. Why would likenesses–art–be a moral issue? Rabbi Timoner told our parsha study class that the supposed wrongdoing, in making a likeness, was breaking off part of the universal oneness. Art certainly does that. It sets things apart, outside of time. I think there's something instructive in using the phrase "still life" to describe a painting of oranges. While actual oranges live and die and decay, the painted oranges are stuck in one moment. Art can preserve oranges at their peak, but at what cost? You can't eat a painting.  


Now let's  substitute "people" for oranges in this analogy. Say I took a selfie right now. What would be the difference between me and my portrait? At first, there would be no difference. But this is also a photo of me (and my dad). It's the 80s, and I'm a toddler. And there will be a time when these photos may remain but we will no longer be alive. That, I think, is the crux of the difference between the real world and likenesses of it. The world changes with time, and living things move through life cycles. Likenesses don't. Photos seem to preserve life because a figure in a photo can't die. But a figure in a photograph doesn't live, either. It's we, with our graying hair and our fleeting smiles, who are alive. The way to preserve life is not to capture or still it but to sustain its forward motion. Maybe God banned images because God doesn't want us to still life. Maybe God wants us instead to engage with it.


I say this as a person who looks at my family photo albums every time I go home. 


In addition to oranges my apartment has among its decorations framed photos, and prints, of women I find attractive. I like staring at them. But I think the God I'm envisioning here would rather I go out and meet real people. If I stared too long, unlike with a beautiful person in a painting, I'd have to make a move or turn away. And in real life, the other person could stare back at me, which is another way of saying that I'd be part of the scene. Maybe I do sometimes treat life as a potential work of art, with me, the observer, standing outside it. A more participatory approach might not be such a bad thing. Could it be a mitzvah, even?


Before concluding anything, I have to admit my bias: I couldn’t bear to say that making art is wrong because I love art. If the commandment prohibited all art, I would break the commandment. I’m not sure Judaism could withstand the prohibition either. From the Torah itself to divrei Torah like this one, narrative is central to our religion, and turning life into stories to examine and reexamine is one way of creating likenesses. 


I don’t think that a God who gave us the Torah would want us to take the negative commandment literally. That’s not to say that there aren’t times when what’s right is absolutely to engage with reality and that when art prevents that, it is a problem.


Let me give you an example from my own life. The day of the 2016 presidential election, I dressed up, voted, watched some election returns in a bookstore. And then I went home and watched a chic flick. As history turned a corner, I was in a fantasy world in which movie stars live happily ever after. I don’t think my watching a movie influenced the election. It was just disrespectful. An occasion deserved my attention, and I chose instead to escape. 


Or take me, writing this very drash, which I started thinking about that January night in parsha study class. In the wake of the Colleyville hostage crisis, I chose to write not "What can the 10 Commandments teach us about how to stop gun violence and anti-Semitism?" but "Is art immoral?" I chose this question not because I thought it held the potential to solve the world's problems but because it interested me personally. I wanted this to be a contribution to the community, yes. But I also did it for myself. Working on it has, on several occasions, lifted me out of a bad mood. I guess I escaped into my own art. Is that wrong?


I don't think it is. I think taking refuge in art would only be wrong–an abdication of responsibility and spurning of opportunity–if we left the real world behind altogether. Lucky for us, that's impossible. There is no art-only option. We cannot stand outside our lives and just watch. Nor is there a life-only option. Commandment or no commandment, art is not just going to disappear. Fundamentally, art is here to stay because one concept of art is that it's simply the world viewed through a particular lens, one drawn to beauty and prone to contemplation. That way of seeing things is ingrained in us. 


The bowl of oranges is and will always be beautiful. They’re also delicious. Let us thank God for all of it. Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Going Across

In the year since I’ve started exploring Judaism, my pronouns have for the first time begun to feel complicated.

The question for me is not gender identity and whether to use ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘they,’ or another third-person pronoun.

Religious identity is the complication.

When I write about Jews, is the pronoun ‘we’ or ‘they’? 

I’m not Jewish, so you’d think the answer would be simple, 

but it doesn’t feel that way at all.  

In the Passover haggadah, when children ask the four questions, the ‘wicked child’ asks 'what does this ritual mean to you?' 

What makes him wicked is that he uses the pronoun 'you' rather than 'we,' as if he isn’t also Jewish. 

I don’t want to other the Jews. I want to be one of them. 

One of us? 

It gets particularly complicated when I’m writing about what Jews do, or what some Jews do, from my recent experience of doing the thing, 

like reciting a list of communal sins and trying to atone for them on Yom Kippur.  

It was in a blog post that related to sin and Yom Kippur traditions that I had to make a decision whether to write ‘we’ or ‘they’ to refer to Jews. 

I chose ‘we’ 

because I wanted to. 

Yes, it was in part because I didn’t want to other the Jews, 

but it was mostly because I wanted to be part of the group. 

If I had to choose—and I did, pronouns-wise—I chose the Jewish people. 

Another way to look at it is to say that I was referring not to Jews but to people who observe Yom Kippur. 

Although not yet a Jew, I had recently become a ‘person who observes Jewish holidays.’

I wanted to write 'we' to indicate that I was speaking from experience (although just one Yom Kippur’s worth, to be fair) and not writing about something other people do. 

To imply that observing the High Holy Days was something Jews did and I didn't would be inaccurate  

and would also raise the questions: Why am I talking about this, then, or how do I know this?

Writing ‘we’ also has the potential to be wicked, though, because it could give the impression that I'm Jewish, when I'm not 


I need an in-between pronoun, a pronoun for someone who isn’t Jewish but who does Jewish things. 


How about 'whey'? 

In a writing workshop, I marveled at a person who, during introductions, specified that this person’s pronoun was ‘we.’ 

Now I understand 

identifying as ‘we’ and wanting to express that. 

If I intended to do Jewish things without becoming Jewish, I suppose I could distinguish between doing and being: 

Who I am versus what I do; 

Who I am and who Jews are 

versus what some Jews and I—that is, we—do.  

But I do intend to become Jewish. I’m converting. 

Who I am is changing. 

'We' is a first-person pronoun used to refer to oneself and others in the same group. It requires knowledge of oneself and of the group. 

Am I in a group with these people?  

Answer ‘yes’ and the pronoun is ‘we.’ 

Am I separate from these people? 

Answer ‘yes’ and the pronouns are ‘you’ and ‘they.’  

But what if you answer 'sort of'?

If I ever thought there was anything simple about the pronoun ‘we,’ I renounce it.  

The question: ‘What are your pronouns?’ deals mostly with what others call you, the third person.  

But this is about the first person; this is about what I call myself.  

Comment m'appelle-je? 

What is my name? 

Others can't answer the question for me. 

But then again, they can and do. It's as simple as 'let's go!'  

It's as simple as 'and we say amen.' 

I am turning Jewish, converting.  

I’m somewhere in between, 

outside of the binary, Jew or non-Jew.  

I'm not Jewish, but… 

I'm not Jewish, yet. 

Abraham was the first Hebrew, and Hebrew, or Ivri, in Hebrew, comes from a verb that means to cross over. 

Transition comes from the Latin trans (across) and ire (to go). 

I am transitioning to a Hebrew identity 

(and by Hebrew I just mean Jewish). 

Is the act of transition inherently Jewish?  

I'd like to think so because it makes me feel as if my converting were somehow meant to be,

that I've put the etymological key in its lock and opened a door, to Judaism, that was waiting for me.

I'm not entirely sure what Abraham crossed over.

The Israelites crossed the Red Sea, and the Jordan.

I think that Abraham crossed over in a religious sense.

He rejected his father and his father’s religion, smashing the idols in his father’s shop, to follow God and God's instructions.

He also left his first home

in search of a new one.

"Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you," (Gen. 12:1) God told Abraham.

I know, or have some idea, where I’m going, 

who I’m becoming, 



I wear the star around my neck 

alongside a pendant the shape of Mount Desert Island, Maine, where I grew up. 

I was raised ‘not Christian’ by parents who rejected the religions of their childhoods.

How Jewish of them, how like Abraham, except that they also rejected the notion of God. 

My mom taught me not use 'God' as an exclamation,

but this was out of respect not for the Lord and commandments but for other people. 

We ate challah on Christmas Eve and, 

at Easter, made Ukrainian eggs (though we weren’t Ukrainian either), 

drawing designs with wax, dying the eggs, melting off the wax,  

and (of course my mom did all the hard stuff) very carefully blowing or sucking out the eggs' raw innards. 

My mom made the challah and also “Czech Christmas Bread” 

using recipes from the New York Cookbook.  

What we didn’t do was go to church. 

The time a babysitter taught me a bedtime prayer about dying, my dad was quite upset,

or so goes the story my mom tells; I was too little to remember.

After her husband died, the Bible’s Ruth had to make a choice between two religions and two groups of people because she had to decide where she was going to live: Moab, with her native people, or Bethlehem, with her mother-in-law Naomi and the Jews.

She couldn’t be between the groups. 

As was the case for Abraham, the question of which religion to follow was tied up with that of parents and whether or not to leave them.

"Turn back, each of you to her mother's house" (Ruth 1:8) Naomi said to Ruth and to Ruth's sister-in-law. 

Indeed the sister-in-law went back "to her people and her gods" (Ruth 1:15).

But Ruth continued on to Bethlehem and in so doing chose the Jews.

Instead of going back, she went across, geographically and spiritually.

Her story became a Biblical example of conversion to Judaism.

Becoming Jewish won’t change (New York!) where I live,

but in Judaism I will have a new 'spiritual home,' as the phrase goes, or maybe just new places for my spirit to venture. 

I'll also get a new name, a Hebrew one.

In it, I’ll be identified as the daughter of Abraham and Sarah, as opposed to the daughter of my own parents. 

How will I call myself? Ashley, daughter of Ben and Sandi 

or Ruth bat Abraham v'Sarah? 

It will be both. 

With two names, I'll be a ‘we’ all on my own.  

But I’m not

on my own.

This year, during my first breadless Passover,

at my parents' house,

I assembled Seder plates and my mom made macaroons dipped in dark chocolate

—my dad is certainly pro-macaroon—

which we all ate.

Note: This piece records how I felt as early as June, 2021, when I first submitted the piece for discussion in my writing group. As time has passed, I've felt more and more like part of the group at my synagogue and beyond. I wouldn't have sat down and written this piece today because I no longer feel like an outsider hoping to be let in. Wait another week and I'll have to change 'one Yom Kippur's worth' to 'two' because I will have observed the High Holy Days for another year. So this piece is a time capsule from mid-conversion. Many pieces of writing are time capsules by the time they are published. It's quite likely that the next time I publish anything else about religion, I will be Jewish.

Friday, May 14, 2021

On Paths


Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Every morning I get up and meditate. 

(Or most mornings, as of last August.)

A rabbi at my synagogue leads a daily meditation on Facebook live. 

Recently, the meditation focused on discipline and limit-setting within humility.

Have the humility to know that you can’t do everything, the rabbi said. 

We often consider limit-setting from the perspective of the actor, the one building the fence or saying no.

Was this the humility to know that life also sets limits on you?

There, meditating, I returned to my lifelong dilemma: How to pursue multiple disciplines, with discipline.

Would a humble perspective say this is impossible? 

Violin, dance, writing, languages, science, running, now Judaism—

Practices all, each with its rituals. 

Perhaps having a practice has become a ritual. 

Now I’m going to services, making challah, reading the Torah portion (usually). 

There was a time when I got up, went to ballet class, went to work, went to bed, and did it all again.

In the dressing room, in my late twenties, I asserted to the ladies changing from leotards into regular clothes that I would one day be one of the old people in ballet class, one of the retirees who dances every day. 

I imagined myself on a decades-long path. Instead, it lasted about a year. 

At a meeting for young members of the synagogue, when asked what I hoped to get out of being a member 

I found myself saying that I hoped in thirty years, when I was an old woman, I would have a community of people I knew and who knew me 

because I’d been there ‘forever.’

I do hope that, but you have to understand, I joined the synagogue two months ago.

The idea that they could continue forever is something I like about rituals. 

My mind flits around the question of how to get my tombstone inscribed with the letters of a Hebrew name 

I haven’t yet chosen. 

I’m early in the process of conversion, and adopting a name is one of the later steps. 

I’m also, I hope, relatively early in the process of living.

I’m on the path to becoming Jewish. I’m studying Judaism. 

I’m also making Jewish practices part of my routine, treading a path that isn’t just on the way to Jewish; it is Jewish.

For a young person, studying ballet is called ‘training.’ 

As a runner trains for a marathon, so a ballerina trains to be a swan, all thirty-two fouettés.

But dance training isn’t just about endurance.

It’s teaching a young body to develop a certain way, like a plant growing along a trellis. 

It’s encouraging and developing turnout, teaching those knees and hips to point sideways. 

It’s making ballet ‘second nature.’

Like a bean that’s climbed a string, the dancer and her training are inseparable. 

Even if the bean could just walk away, if the trellis were removed, the plant would bear its shape.

Training distinguishes someone who studied ballet as a child from one who took it up as an adult

and any dancer from everyone else.

In the dressing room after class, amateur adult dancers transform into gorgeous long-necked people, regal in their clogs.

Just walking down the street, a dancer moves differently 

than someone without that training. 

Why are trains called trains? Is it because they follow tracks? 

They are well trained. 

Being derailed is disaster for a train. 

The train follows tracks—but does it also leave them?

The word for Jewish law is ‘halakha,’ which means ‘the way’ or ‘the path.’ 

The word reminds me of “L’Chah Dodi,” one of the Friday night Shabbat prayers, and with good reason. 

Both “L’Chah Dodi’ and ‘halakha’ relate to a Hebrew verb that means ‘to walk’ or ‘to go.’

When I’m Jewish, will I walk the walk?

Will I follow the paths left by Jewish people over the course of 2,000 years?

(‘Course’ being another movement-path metaphor.)

Halakha is not just a metaphor; it’s a real thing. It can provide guidance to those who seek it.

Likewise, for some people, violating Jewish law is a serious matter.

For me, now, though, halakha is mostly an idea. 

It’s the idea of a path that’s comforting,

and the consequences of straying from a metaphorical path are for me to imagine. 

Nobody is going to cast me out from my kin—an oft-mentioned biblical threat—for breaking a rule.

I don’t believe a Big Bad Wolf is there waiting for me to stray. 

But I may want to follow the path. 

It’s nice to have a path, a well-trodden, clear path, especially when you feel lost 

and every step, every decision, every minute lived feels like hacking through brambles or blazing a trail. 

When life feels like that, there’s something appealing about a trellis. 

And when you’re scared, you’ll try anything to protect yourself, and your loved ones, from wolves.

“Little Red Riding Hood” is a story parents tell their children to teach them, literally, to stay on the path in order to protect them from the dangers of the woods. 

To stay on the path, in the Red Riding Hood story, is to obey your mother, first because the mother told Little Red Riding Hood to stay on the path 

and also because parents’ instructions are the life paths they offer their children, a kind of halakha. 

The Big Bad Wolf, embodiment of parental fear, is at once overblown and tame.

Getting eaten by a wolf on the way to Grandma’s house is pretty unlikely,

but the idea that threats are Obvious, Predictable, and Avoidable isn’t realistic either. 

In the story, the Big Bad Wolf hangs out near the path and targets disobedient children. 

In the wilderness outside the story, all sorts of dangers—cancer, terrorism, coronavirus, rape—threaten people all the time, and doing what’s recommended, while it may reduce your risk, doesn’t guarantee safety.

It may comfort some Jews to believe that being righteous and following the rules will protect them the way that obeying God protected the characters in the Torah, the ancestors, literal or figurative, of the Jewish people. 

I don’t think it will, necessarily. Protection is never guaranteed.

But trying to live a good life is, if nothing else, a way to live a good life.

It’s also an alternative to nihilism and fear.

Hungry animals and people with guns and lethal contagions and genocide will be out there whether or not you’re afraid. Maybe the idea of a safe path offers emotional protection. 

The actual work of following the rules could also serve as distraction from fear and despair, as something to do when you’re not sure what to do. 

I know that’s not the most resounding endorsement.

The Torah cycle is another kind of path. I’ve written before about scrolls and the motion of scrolling, 

on a phone or at the bimah. 

A metaphor that occurs to me now is Torah as treadmill. 

The Torah cycle moves forward through the ages, curling up at one end and unrolling at the other. 

Also like a treadmill, it never stops. It’s easy to fall behind.

I wanted to say that it’s always moving forward, but that’s not exactly true. 

Once a year, during the same service when you read the end of the Torah, you also go back to Genesis, in some cases literally rewinding the entire Torah to get back to the Beginning.

Moses dies, leads the Israelites out of Egypt, waits in a basket; Jacob wrestles with God; Abraham doesn’t kill Isaac, leaves his father’s house; there’s a flood; Adam and Eve eat the apple; and then the apple is whole; and the earth is “unformed and void.”

Jews get to return to the beginning of time and start again, through the Torah reading, every year. 

This is wonderfully appealing

because a metaphorical path requires a metaphorical destination.

Where does the halakha lead? 

When I think about the destination of my life, I think about death. 

My dad once told me that he used to think about time as a conveyor belt carrying him closer and closer to his death.

Life as treadmill, moving one direction only. 

Or does it move in a circle, like a model train, like the hands on a clock?

Judaism likes to talk about birth and death as ‘life cycle events.’

Although the idea of life as a cycle isn’t unique to Judaism. Biology is full of circular diagrams in which egg leads to offspring leads to egg leads to offspring. 

I personally haven’t done what it takes for life to feel cyclical. I haven’t had a child, ensuring that some part of me will start again from the beginning and, hopefully, live on after I die. 

I haven’t transformed from child into mother, passing on the wisdom my mother gave me about wolves and manners and responsibility and love. Nor do I teach kids or young adults. 

It would be nice if future generations read and learned from my writing, but I’d rather the meaning of my actions didn’t hinge on something so grandiose 

and out of my control. 

Though there are things within my control that affect future generations. 

There’s something to be said for not littering on the path, even if you don’t set a little one down at beginning of it. 

You could say that my interests take me from one path to another,

In ninth grade, I cut down on my dancing in hopes of getting further along on the violin.

Rather than taking two paths at once, I thought I’d travel twice as fast along one.

But I didn’t become a professional violinist, nor did I try to when the time came:

I studied biology in college.

You could say that I never get very far along any path because I keep switching.

You could say that if I’m trying to get somewhere, I should go straight, make a beeline. 

But you could also say that I’m making my own path through life

And that because my journey defines the path, of course I’m on it.

(‘Of course.’)

As for going straight and “getting somewhere,” well,

If death is the destination, I’m in no hurry to arrive.   

And yet death preoccupies me.

as does old age. What will I be doing in my sixties?

Will I be dancing? Will I be writing books? Will I be able to retire, if I want?

Or will I be struggling to pay rent writing articles for fees whose value decreases with the passage of time?

Will I feel part of a community? Will I be Jewish? Will I have a partner? 

When I die, will someone be there to witness it? To write the obituary and order the tombstone?

There’s a fear of being found dead, days later.

When I die, will anyone care? Will the people who care know?

I hope these questions communicate something.

It may be all well and good to make your own path, 

but that doesn’t mean ‘everything will be okay.’

It might be. It could be.


If it’s any consolation, if and when I’m in my sixties, it will be the present tense, a continuation of now, 

And I have agency, now. I can walk, ‘take steps,’ as they say 

(though I remember a friend praising me for ‘taking steps’ to reduce my stress by stopping violin lessons, and I’m not so sure those were the right steps to have taken)

to try to answer my questions for myself, the way I’d like them answered. 

Time does pass. The earth does convey us, round and round. But we aren’t passive, not just passengers.

A path is something you can follow or that you can make. But for the path to be worn, for it to look like a path, it has to be walked more than once, likely by multiple creatures. Merriam-Webster’s defines path as “a trodden way.” 

It’s not one or the other, leaving or following. 

A person on a path isn’t alone 

even if, at a given moment, there is nobody beside them.

They are likely following in someone’s footsteps, and they are definitely leaving footsteps behind.  

I’m bad at physics, but I remember that 

an object moving in a circle, orbiting, isn’t moving in a circular direction. 

The direction is always an arrow, straight ahead, it’s just that the force at the center of the orbit 


constantly changes the object’s direction so that a series of straight paths becomes a circle. 

Maybe we living things are not trying to move in circles, or go straight, necessarily; we’re just moving forward

and at the same time life pulls on us

and we go where we go.

There’s humility in that.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

On Names and Shame

Black-and-white drawing an altar where a sacrificed goat is billowing smoke. A man in a turban stands in front.
Illustrator of Henry Davenport Northrop's "Treasures of the Bible," 1894, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


In the Torah portion Vayikra, God is telling the Israelites that if they do something wrong, they should make a guilt offering called an 'asham' (‪אָשָׁם). This involves sacrificing a goat andif the asham is similar to other offerings describedburning its fat in the temple. According to God's instructions, if someone inadvertently breaks one of the 613 rules described in the Torah, once they discover their mistake or 'realize their guilt,' they should make a guilt offering. The word 'asham' is used for both guilt and guilt offering. Once that happens, God says, the guilty party "shall be forgiven" (Leviticus 5:18).

The verb to forgive, 'slicha' (סָלַח) is related to the modern Hebrew way of saying "excuse me" or "I'm sorry." If only life were that simple.  

In the liturgy of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 'ashamnu,' meaning we have trespassed or we are guilty, is first on the long list of wrongs to which everyone in the synagogue confesses, aloud, together, and for which we ask forgiveness. The list itself is called the Ashamnu. In preparation for Yom Kippur, people traditionally apologize to others we've wronged. Also traditionally, though I doubt that people's emotions follow traditions or rules, if a person apologizes sincerely three times, you have to forgive them; otherwise, the sin, whatever it was, that they committed against you becomes yours. After taking those measures, hopefully, we're forgiven and can try again. 


It's no surprise that a word for guilt caught my attention in the Torah. I often feel guilty and wonder if I am guilty. In particular, I worry about cases where I might have done something wrong without meaning to. This is actually the sort of sin this portion is talking about. The language gets quite convoluted describing unwitting sins. For example, "Or when a person utters an oath [. . .] and, though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later he realizes his guilt in any of these matters—" (Leviticus 5:4) A person makes a mistake and has known it and it escapes him and he realizes it again . . .  The portion also talks about cases where people don't necessarily "realize their guilt" but "the sin of which [they are] guilty is brought to [their] knowledge" (Leviticus 4:23). This part sticks out to me because it brings another person into the matter of sin identification. 

What really gets me is when I hurt someone unintentionally and they think I did it on purpose. For example, last summer, my therapist thought I said something intended to "poke them," to rub salt in a wound of theirs, and so reacted with a flash of anger. But I hadn't been trying to hurt them. If I poked the therapist, it was inadvertent, more like bumping into someone. I was sorry that I'd hurt this person, and I apologized. I did what I could to make amends, yet I still felt ashamed, guilty. What if, as the therapist suggested, I was at some level being aggressive but couldn't acknowledge it or even consider the possibility? Was the therapist then bringing the sin to my knowledge? Who do you trust—yourself to 'realize your guilt' or someone else to bring it to your attention?

That this was a therapist-patient situation makes it complicated. But I can't think of an uncomplicated situation. 

It's so clear, like on TV, that people often do things to hurt others. Yet they insist that their intentions are good. In the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere," a main character, Elena, leaves her husband and children during a difficult time to drive to New York and dig up dirt about Mia, the woman to whom she's renting a house and whom she's hired to cook dinner for her daily. Also in New York, she has dinner with an old lover and invites him to her hotel room. Elena's husband has repeatedly told her that if she has a problem with Mia, she should just cut ties. But Elena prefers to get in closer to Mia because she's obsessed and curious. The more embroiled with Mia she gets, and her family gets by extension, the more reasons she has to justify the satisfaction of her personal curiosity. Elena claims that she's investigating Mia for the good of her family.

To the viewer, Elena's motives are obvious. She is doing what she wants to do because she wants to do it, not acting out of obligation. Yet Elena is blind to that, or chooses to be. More generally, to people outside a situation, the motives of the guilty party are often obvious. But I'm not 'the viewer' in my life; I'm me. I might miss something. I suppose the therapist whose feelings I hurt isn't 'the viewer' either.

I think it's important to be able to judge oneself. Given that different people have different opinions based on different experiences, relying on outside opinions to determine when you've done wrong is likely to trigger flip-flopping emotions and a constant need for feedback. Plus, it's far too easy to solicit opinions until you find the one that matches your own, then claim that you've been absolved by a wonderfully objective outside party. That's the worst of both worlds. 

Yet when others doubt me, or refuse to affirm my view, it's hard to bear. No, I didn't mean to poke my therapist, as far as I know. But what if I don't know? What if I did mean to? What if I am guilty? The whole thought process produces a feeling of shame.

And the Torah hasn't even gotten to intentional wrongdoing (or I haven't gotten there in it). 


A Google search for 'asham' pulls up this definition of guilt: "Feeling responsible or regretful for a perceived offense, real or imaginary." Real or imaginary. Maybe that explains why I feel bad even though I don't know exactly what category of wrongdoing—intentional or accidental—I've committed. Maybe I'd even feel guilty about an imaginary sin. According to this definition, that's possible.  


On Yom Kippur, everybody confesses to everything in the first person plural according to the notion that because we are all part of the same society our sins are communal. What one person has done, we have done. After consulting the High Holy Days prayer book my synagogue used this year, I see that the Ashamnu is a short version of the confession. The longer version has a different name, Al Chet, and includes the line translated as "We have sinned against you on purpose and by mistake." The word for 'by mistake' is 'shegagah' (‪‫שְׁגָגָה‬‬), a word for inadvertent sin that I recognize from Parashat Vayikra. ‬‬As for 'on purpose,' the Hebrew seems to be "בּזדונ." The "בּ" part means "by" or "through" or "with." Oh here we go: "זָדוֹן" (zadon) is a word meaning "pride, insolence, arrogance."  We have sinned against you inadvertently or arrogantly, I guess. Shamelessly.


No etymological reference I've found connects the English word 'ashamed' to 'asham' and 'ashamnu.' The actual etymology of ashamed is not enlightening. 

In a different Torah portion, I learn that a word that looks like ash (אֵשׁ) means fire in Hebrew. (It's pronounced 'aysh,' according to the Blue Letter Bible.) Most if not all of the offerings described in this part of the Torah, guilt offering included, are 'by fire.' Perhaps that is the root of asham, then? That doesn't really make sense, given that not all burnt offerings relate to sin. And it turns out that the Hebrew words 'ash,' and 'asham' aren't related. But in English 'ash' is the remains of a fire. Could Hebrew fire be its origin?

The question of what 'ash' might mean in Hebrew interests me because of my name. I'll never forget the time a teacher made a dance out of our names and decided to represent me by the tapping of an imaginary cigarette. I hate that smoking is what my name evokes. Fire, on the other hand—that's sexy. 

But the English word ash does not relate to Hebrew according to etymological sources. Nor is the ash tree one of the first to emerge after a fire, like a phoenix. I wish it were that, but it's not. 

Ashley, according to Wikipedia, is "an English unisex given name, originally a place name and surname. It is derived from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) words æsc (ash) and lēah (meadow, forest clearing)." Though in Hebrew, the Biblical name Leah means 'weary' or maybe also 'cow.' As someone posted on a word forum with regard to the name Leah, "If you don't like the meaning 'weary,' you can always go with 'meadow.'" 

"If you don't like the meaning […] you can always go with 'meadow.'" It has an aphoristic ring to it. When considering words, I certainly have a tendency to go with meanings and word histories that appeal to me in some way. An elaborate etymology, confirmed by multiple sources, that relates to nothing in my mental web just isn't very meaningful to me, with my particular language background and interests. On the other hand, word associations that have no basis in etymology, like that between 'ashamed' and 'asham,' fascinate me. If someone were paying me to investigate etymology, I'd have to be more disciplined. But I don't do this for money, and I'm not really investigating etymology, anyway. I'm looking for personal meaning, connection, between words and my life. I sometimes find that sense of connection in etymology or in what I'm reading, which at the moment happens to be the Torah.  


The question of what a name means, especially when the literal meanings are unappealing, is not unrelated to self-esteem or shame. I don't want to be a cigarette or a weary tree lacking phoenix potential. I don't want to be an ash meadow, either, or Ashley Wilkes, or a soap opera character named Ashley. I'd rather be me. 

And of course that is who I am, like it or not. When a person dies, what remains of them is their name. Not the literal name but what that name means to those who remember a person. That's something I think about when I hear the names of people who've died, recently or during that week in a year past, read aloud at the end of a Jewish service. The name is all that's said, not anything else about the person. What follows is the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer that praises God and says nothing about death or those who've died. People say Kaddish 'for' those they remember, and I think, though I don't speak from my own experience on this, that saying Kaddish for someone can connect a mourner to God and to the loved one they're remembering. Yet the prayer is not 'about' the person who died. That person is represented by the few syllables of their name. What that name means is a question answered in the minds of those who hear it.