Bonna Haberman, in Memorium

Bonna Haberman’s shloshim
The rumblings of a revolution, we stamp our feet and clap hands. Dance. Sing. In the latter half of the eighties, in Jerusalem, we lived through a cascade of moments of foment and creativity. As feminist, observant Jewish women, we felt that we were at the vanguard – halutzim. And Bonna Devora Haberman was at the head of us all.

I first met Bonna, I mean really met her, on a Shabbat afternoon, after a long walk to East Talpiot with my friend Debbie Cohen (now a Reconstructionist Rabbi). We all belonged (then) to the only happening egalitarian shul in Jerusalem – Kol HaNeshama. We were also part of a Rosh Hodesh group, learning Torah, making new rituals together, dancing & singing. But on this occasion – it must have been the early fall or spring of 1986 – I remember the encounter distinctly for its intimacy. Perhaps I felt a certain delicate curiosity (were we impinging?). I wanted to know how this radiant woman lived! She had arrived recently on Aliyah with Shmuel and little Tiferet, and I think she must have been quite pregnant or perhaps she had just given birth. Were we bringing her a meal? Some of the precise facts elude me; they slip away in the recesses of memory.

They were living out of boxes in the Merkaz Klita (Absorption Center for New Immigrants). I remember the futon on the floor, the story of the famous three-day-long home birth in London, and their plan to have a home birth here. Talk of midwives, breastfeeding, and vegetarianism. This return to body and nature – well we were all going to do mothering differently from now on, embrace our bodies/ourselves. This was integral to our feminism. Later, Bonna founded a women’s Beit Midrash called WITS (remember WITS?) – where we learned the most difficult sections of VaYikra (Leviticus) and the Mishnah, Maseket Kelim, with her. She brought Mary Douglas on tumah and taharah to our understanding of blood and purity. Hard stuff, but it enabled us reclaim traditional practice of family purity. Halakhic practice and new feminist meanings went hand in hand with her.

But for me Bonna meant, even more than her radically embodied Torah, a new kind of mothering. Her passion for her children and her role model as a teacher of Torah resonated with how I wanted to be a mother, not condemned to either/or, mind or body, family or career. We wanted to bring our wombs, our breasts, our embodied loving into everything we did and learned.

She would dance intensely during the Kedusha of Musaf with a child in her arms. This is how she answered the angel’s question: Ayeh meqom kevodo [Where is Your Holy Presence]? Right here in her joyous embrace.

So fast-forward a couple of years to my wedding, June 1988. I had been studying at Pardes (and after a rather tumultuous few months), was celebrating my chuppah surrounded by an incredibly beautiful group of young women, mostly in their twenties and early thirties – a lot of little kids. Several of us were quite visibly pregnant (including yours truly), and Bonna (with Bezalel in utero), and Sandra Ben David (with her third?). At some point during the circle dancing, the bride (that’s me) called out in elation: “Let’s all bump bellies!!!” And so we were drawn towards each other, with centripetal force. I had no sense of shame [bushah] and, of course, that is how it should be.

That force – moving towards this bellied, deeply womanish center – is what Jerusalem and Bonna’s Torah meant to all of us. Those of us who became mothers, watched her mother intently; we were in awe of her mothering and in awe of her graceful relationship with Shmuel.

When I became a single mother of two very young kids, the Haberman-Browns household was also a locus of support, Shabbat meals, a lean-to; thems was hard times. And then we kind of lost touch. She moved to Boston for a number of years, and then came back. But then I moved to Boston (as it happens to Harvard, to the same W.S.R.P. visiting scholars program she had done). Our paths criss-crossed and zig-zagged. Now, when I think of Bonna, I sense how much we are on the brink, the edge of something new, which the nexus between feminism and Zionism brings to the Jewish world. The true, or deepest miracle, “qasheh ke-qri‘at yam suf”, in these Revolutionary Times we are living through is the way we bring (as Bonna did) our bodies, our motherhood, our children together with us in our love of the Land of Israel and Judaism.

I am now delving into her book, Rereading Israel, which brings the rumblings of her role in the Revolution into perspective. May we continue her legacy, le‘ilui nishmatah.

In the Torah, Rosh HaShana is called yom teru‘ah “a day of sounding the shofar” (Num. 29:1) and zikharon teru‘ah “a remembrance of sounding the shofar” (Lev. 23:24), yet no reason is given for why we blow the shofar. If it is a day of remembering what are we compelled to recall? Is the shofar meant to arouse our own memory or God’s? For us, memory is an act of re-collection, reassembling past events in our mind into a new narrative. It works associatively rather than linearly. Just as the Shofar’s bell can be looped and curved, its wail rising from low to high pitch, so memory is curved.

Remembering is a means of re-constructing ourselves as we stand in the present. Is this true for God as well? Can one really speak of God remembering when there is no forgetting for the Omniscient One? As it says in the introduction to the Zikhronot in the Musaf liturgy: “There is no forgetting before Your throne of Glory, nothing is hidden from Your sight [אין שכחה לפני כסא כבודך ואין נסתר מנגד עינך].” When God remembers, it is a calling to Mind, a focus of divine attention. The verb (to remember) refers to the intervention of the Divine Presence in history according to the Zikhronot verses cited from the Torah. It can be a universal re-call, as in the preservation of the world after the Flood (Gen. 8:1), or a particular one, as in the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt (Exod. 2:24); or God “remembers” through forgiveness in aftermath of Divine Wrath, as in the promise of return for the Exiles to their homeland (Lev. 26:42 and 45).

Yet the most striking model for the way God remembers is not cited in these verses, but is found in the Torah and Haftorah readings of the first day. The opening verse reads: “The LORD took note of Sarah [paqad et Sarah] as He had promised, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken” (Gen. 21:1). The term paqad (translated variously as to “take note”, “call to mind”, “remember”, or “visit”) is synonymous with the verb zakhar, specifically in terms of conception, as in “And God remembered Rachel [va-yizkor elohim et Rahel]; God heard her and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22), and “For the LORD took note of Hannah [ki paqad HaShem et Hannah] and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters…” (2 Sam. 2:21). For me, this intimate act of creating a child after years of barrenness speaks more movingly of God’s memory than great sweeps in history. According to the Talmud, Sarah, Hannah, and Rachel were all conceived on Rosh Hashanah (b. Rosh HaShana 11a). Their decades of barrenness came to an end on “Yom Harat ‘Olam – the Day of the World’s Conception.”

In all these three examples of healed barrenness, what happens is the natural conception of a child, but in the Divine Eye, the mind of God, it is the fulfillment of a promise. I think of it metaphorically as the focus of dispersed light into a beam, like a laser, the focal point being the mother through whom the covenant is born, in the case of Sarah, as it says “through Isaac the promise of seed will be fulfilled” (Gen. 21:12). God’s act of remembering, then, is like an arrow, which gathers momentum from the past and directs the promise towards some point in the future, as desire pinned in the conception of a child. Time, for God, does not travel along a linear line, as we humans feel time’s arrow. Rather, God enters time and opens up portals to eternity for us in the fulfillment of the promised future. One such portal is Rosh HaShana. As we stand in the presence of God, hearing the wail of the Shofar on Rosh HaShana, we become the focal point of that beam of light within the Divine Eye – in judgment and in the promise of hope.

The conception of the barren matriarchs symbolically represents our return and God’s forgiveness most poignantly in the Haftorah of the Second Day. According to Jeremiah, Rachel cries out from her grave as the Israelites are driven into exile. In her lifetime, she never settled in the Promised Land, never mothered her children to adulthood, dying prematurely in child-birth by the road. From that burial place on the border between the land of Israel and exile, God hears “lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:14). And God answers her cries:
Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer. 31:16-17).

Israel is called, in this passage, “Ephraim” (Joseph’s son; Rachel’s grandson) – the “dandled son,” and God reassures her (and us): “I do remember him still [zakhor ezkarenu ‘od], therefore my womb murmurs [hamu me‘ai] within me. I will surely have compassion [rahem arahmenu] on him, says the Lord” (Jer. 31:20). Memory here is preserved in the murmuring womb, once barren, and then filled with child; that very womb now yearns for the lost child – the banished Ephraim (qua Israel). The emphatic expression of God’s remembering, zakhor ezkarenu ‘od, is aroused through identification with the matriarch, resonant with the doubling “rahem arahmenu” (root: r.h.m.), suggestive of the Hebrew term for womb, rehem. Just as God remembers the barren woman ( and p.q.d.), so God’s memory is stirred through compassion for the lost child, Israel/Ephraim, promising to bring the people back from exile.

Following the sounding of each series of shofar blasts we break out in song, reminding God that this is the Day of the World’s conception (ha-yom harat ‘olam), and that we stand before the Almighty, pleading for mercy – if, as children, for God then to have compassion upon us like a father [rahmenu ka-rahem ’av ‘al banim]. The model for that divine compassion (“like a father”) comes from the barren women, the mothers Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah who were healed, and know the longing within their wombs as the memory of a lost child that must be found and brought home once more. May we merit the return to that divine embrace!
Shana Tova!
Rachel Adelman

Revelation and Rosh HaShana

Next week on Rosh HaShana we’ll usher in the year with the trumpeting of the Shofar. A new year, full of boding and of hope. It marks a moment of renewal in time but also stirs an ancient collective memory. For each one of us, whether by birth or through conversion, stood at Sinai. At that one moment in the past, in history, we were all were mythically transformed, the Earth and Heavens met, and “there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled [וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל הָהָר וְקֹל שֹׁפָר חָזָק מְאֹד וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּחֲנֶה” (Ex. 19:16). “Fear pervades the spectacle” (Levinson, Sinai and Zion, 1985, p. 15). We recall the memory of that first blast of the Shofar, in three verses during during Musaf on Rosh HaShana (Exod. 19:16, 19; and 20:14). Like the experience of Revelation, Rosh HaShana is meant to inspire trepidation as we stand in the Presence of God in Judgment. But I ask: Why stage such an awe-inspiring drama? What are we supposed to hear or rather experience in that moment? In retrospect, that foundational event for the nation is described as a “trial”. Moshe assures them, after the blast of the shofar and the flashes of lightening have faded, and the smoke dissipated: “Fear not, for God has come only in order to test you [la’va’avur nasot etkhem]” (Ex. 20:17). Today I want to explore what exactly that experience at Sinai was meant to imprint upon us and how it is repeated again yearly on Rosh HaShana. What role does trial play in that one moment in time and synchronically, across the boundary of time, for us as Jews today? The question is, as Levinas so eloquently phrased it: “How can we make sense of ‘the exteriority’ of the truths and signs of Revelation, which strike the human faculty known as reason?….[And yet] How can these truths and signs strike our reason if they are not even in this world?”
In the follow-up to the “10 Commandments”, or rather asseret hadibrot, the “ten sayings”, the people’s reaction is described thus:

שמות פרק כ
יד) וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק:
All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.

The expression va’yanu’a is rather intriguing here: [shoresh Nun.Vav.Ayin.); it means to quake, tremble or quaver — a verb that describes the wavering of trees [wave, of trees, sq. l[; Ju 9:9; 9:11; 9:13], as in “their hearts and the hearts of their people trembled as trees of the forest sway before a wind — וַיָּנַע לְבָבוֹ וּלְבַב עַמּוֹ כְּנוֹעַ עֲצֵי יַעַר מִפְּנֵי רוּחַ.” (Isa. 7:2). The Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael [exegetical midrash of the tannaitic era, 2-3rd c., C.E.] asks just how far they were standing from the base of the mountain and describes their movement as a dance, or a “break dance” (if you will):
And Stood Afar Off. Beyond twelve mil.[a mil is about 2000 amot, about 1 km, which constitutes the outer boundary of the desert encampment]. This tells that the Israelites were startled and moved backward twelve mil and then again, returning, moved forward twelve mil—twenty-four mil at each commandment, thus covering two hundred and forty mil on that day [that is 240 kilometers! Quite a marathon!]—. Then God said to the ministering angels: Go down and assist your brothers, as it is said: “The Angels of the Host—they flee! They flee [yidodun, yidodun]!” (Ps. 68.13), [that is they are in headlong flight, staggering after the Israelites] —they hasten after them as they lurch back [yedodun be’halikha], and hasten them to return [yidodun be’hazara]. And not only the ministering angels assisted Israel, but the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself also, as it is said: “His left hand is under my head and His right hand embraces me” (Shir hashirim 2:6).

What is described here is a shuckling dance, drawing forward and leaping back, the flickering of a flame, the passionate to-and-fro motion, the ratzo ve’shov of the the Hayot in Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot (Ezek. 1:14). But it is also a “break dance”, in so far as it expresses the choreography of ambivalence, the desire to hear the word of God, to be privy to prophecy in the direct Revelation at Sinai, and the terror of all that entails. They flee to the limits of the camp, for hearing the word of God moves them to the limits of their very being. In Devarim 4:11-12, the mountain is described, like the burning bush, as being “ablaze with flames”, though not consumed, “dark with the densest clouds”. The Lord spoke to the people out of the fire but they perceived no shape – nothing but a voice.” How could they sustain their position, hold the Word of God within them and not be consumed? They could only maintain their stance by shuckling to and fro, aided by the angles or cradled back and forth in the arms of God. And so we, like those who stood at Sinai, dance like flames too. In a deeply existential way, we are the heart of that flame and yet are not consumed.
As the proverb goes, we all stood at Sinai, bound by fear and trembling. In this week’s Parasha, Nitzavim, we read that “God established this covenant, …both with those who are standing here …and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deut. 29:13-14) – that is the covenant, ha-brit, is binding on all of us, in our ratzo veshov, our flickering to and fro, towards and away from the word of God. I’d like to illustrate this with a final Hassidic tale. There is a rather unusual expression of the people’s response at Sinai that I glossed over (Ex. 20:14). In Hebrew it says: וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת they perceived the voices, or more precisely “they saw the sounds”. In its literal sense, this is an expression of synesthesia [ ‘mixing of the senses’]. Somehow the experience of Revelation struck the senses, mingled sight and sound, crossing the boundary of the rational in touching the transcendent. The following Hassidic story gives us something we can take home with us from Sinai and the sounding of the Shofar on Rosh HaShana:
From Martin Buber Tales of the Hasidim
After the death of Rabbi Yitzhak (the famous Chozeh of Lublin, 1745-1815), many hasidim came to Vorki for the Shavuot. Among them was Rabbi Binyamin of Lublin, who had been a disciple of the Seer but had gone over to the much-maligned Yehudi, the Seer’s disciple, while his first teacher was still alive. Since Rabbi Binyamin was very old and sickly, he had to lie down soon after his arrival. After prayers, Rabbi Yitzchak’s two sons went to see Rabbi Binyamin. “Children,” he said to them, “I wish you’d tell me how we are to interpret the words in the Torah: ‘And all the people saw the voice [ve’khol ha-‘am ro’im et ha-kolot].'” (Ex. 20:15)
Rabbi Yaakov David, the elder son, gave a most perceptive interpretation, but Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the younger, was silent as usual. “And what have you to say?” asked Rabbi Benjamin.
“I say,” answered Menachem Mendel, “that we must take it to mean, they saw and realized that one must take the voice into oneself and make it one’s own.”

So how do we emerge whole and unscathed from the heart of the flame? How do we come to terms with ‘the exteriority’ of the truths and the signs of Revelation, in Levinas’ challenging words, and yet mitigate against the dangers of subjectivism and relativism of in this modern era? We have to somehow do the impossible, to take all the commanding force of those divine words that are foreign and external to us, and make them our own. We do so through Creativity, through the power of hearing and interpreting and transforming those words into our own artistic forms. I would like to bless you, really all of us, with the ability to dance the “to and fro”, the “ratzo ve’shov”, as we stand in fear and trembling, hearing the Shofar on Rosh HaShana, to maintain our own in the heart of the flickering flame of the Divine Presence and not be consumed.
Shana Tova – tikatevu ve’tichatemu be chatima tova!
Rachel Adelman



He binds his son with the leather straps of his shoes –

The knife, placed on a rock nearby, still for now.

The boy turns his face to his father, and says:

“Do not tell my mother

While she is bent over a pit,

Or standing on the roof

Lest she throw herself down and die.”[i]

I am standing in the kitchen early Friday morning with my list, when my son, Eitan, calls.

“Ima, if God asked you to take your daughter, your only one, whom you love, Ariella, and offer her as a burnt offering on one of the Judean hills, would you listen?”

I drop the pen, and press the receiver closer to hear between the lines.

“I don’t know, Eitan.  How could I be sure that it was God’s voice?

It could be a crazy voice in me talking.

No, I don’t think I’d listen.”

“Well, what about me?” His voice cracks.

“I would never listen to a voice that demanded I sacrifice either of my children, whether it was a demon or God, or someone holding a gun to my head.”

It is a tale full of sound and fury –

A demonic or divine voice and the rage of human resistance –

That makes me dizzy.  Radical doubt, would it spare them or send us reeling?

I brace both my elbows now for balance on the counter.

“What happened, Eitan?”

His paratrooper unit was doing a training exercise in the Golan, and the sergeant ordered them to take the hill. “There are enemies on the other side, in trenches and tanks behind them.  They are shooting at our troops.  If you can take the ridge and infiltrate their barracks in the battle, then we’ll have gained a critical stronghold.  You have to run, lay low when they open fire, but cover for each other, and run, run, run.  But half of you will fall.  Know that this is inevitable.”

Eitan continues:  “It was two kilometers uphill, a 45 degree incline, but we did it in just under an hour.  We took the hill and, really, none of us were killed, though we carried the mock slain and wounded back on stretchers.  It was just an exercise.  Afterwards, my buddies and I were talking.  Nadav said, ‘It’s just like Abraham and the Binding.  You listen to the order.  You just have to do it, even though you know that you or your buddy will die.  You just do it.’

Eitan told him:  ‘But we are like Isaac.  We are bound on the altar of the nation.  And who knows if a ram will appear to spare us the knife or not.’

He does not accuse me of binding, but I feel suddenly raw, exposed, as if the knife (hidden somewhere) were found and he was bleeding.  I have to think fast.

“Eitan, when you were eighteen months old, I had to make a special trip to the Ministry of Interior to change your status because you were born in Australia. I made you an Israeli citizen, and you were given a number and placed on my identity card, when you were still in diapers and nursing.  I sat with you and Ariella in that big room, packed with people, and I had one prayer in my heart: Let there be peace by the time he turns eighteen.  Back in ’91 we used to hope like that.  Perhaps there would be successful negotiations, no more standing army, no more reserve duty.  But I knew that even if you had to serve, when the time came, because you were Israeli, even if you had to spend three years of your precious youth in the army, it would not be for sacrifice.  I did not lay you on the altar for death but for life.  The IDF values the life of every one of its soldiers more than anything else.  Eitan, you are not in the army to risk death but to protect lives.  God ultimately sent an angel to stay Abraham’s hand. That is the message of the Binding.”


A year later, on Friday evening, January 7th, 2011, Eitan and Nadav were woken from sleep, their boots still on.  Two terrorists had been spotted on the border, between Gaza and Kissufin.  They piled into a jeep, and Nadav along with two snipers headed towards the fence.  Eitan and his sergeant moved south to set up their machine gun at a distance.  Another commander, from base camp, ordered a mortar to strike the fence.  Nadav and the snipers were only three hundred meters from the target.  They blamed the computer’s GPS, they blamed the split second between crossed-orders.  Nadav’s arm and both his legs were blown off.  Eitan and his sergeant were crouched only 20 meters away.  They ran to the scene. Despite the mayhem, there was no screaming. They tried to stop the bleeding, and then quickly placed him in a jeep to get him to Soroka hospital, but, hell, he must have died instantly.  They call this “friendly fire.”

“Here is the fire and the wood.  But where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”[ii]

So Abraham took Isaac, his son, and led him up hill and down dale, and up to the top of the mountain, and he built an altar and arranged the wood, and took the knife to slaughter him. And were it not for the angel that called out from heaven, he would already have been slaughtered.

Know that it is so, for Isaac then returned to his mother and she said to him,

“Where have you been, my son?”

He answered, “My father took me and led me up hill and down dale….”

She said, “Woe upon the son of the drunken woman! Were it not for the angel, you would already be slaughtered?”

He said, “Yes.”

At that she screamed six times, corresponding to the six Teki’ah notes [of the Shofar].

She had not finished doing this when she died. As it is written, “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her” (Gen. 23:2).[iii]

The next week, we drive to Ramot HaShavim, to visit Nadav’s family at the Shiva.  It is a Friday morning. Nadav’s mother embraces Eitan, and greets me personally as we arrive.  She holds my arms as if to steady me:  You must take care of him.  He saw my son right after the mortar fell.  He saw something no person should ever see in his lifetime.  Take care that he does not suffer trauma.  After all, he was only meters away.

The others are sitting on low stools or standing on solid ground.  But Nadav’s mother and I are bent over the pit – standing on the roof.  I am reeling and weeping because it could have been Eitan who was killed.  And Nadav?  Here is the fire and here is the wood…

I am reeling and weeping, because it could have been my son, and yet it was hers.

I am reeling and weeping because the day after the funeral, Eitan had to get up early and return to Kissufin to patrol the border.  He had to go back there.

And I cannot say, “There but for the grace of God…” for who is to say?

And she steadies me.

She knows there is no Ram,

That this altar is for real,

That the sword (or gun) devours one or another.[iv]

And through that radical doubt, the sense of contingency, she steadies me.

[i] Based on the Tanhuma Va-yera 23.

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת וירא סימן כג

א”ל אבא לא תודיע את אמי כשהיא עומדת על הבור או כשהיא עומדת על הגג שמא תפיל את עצמה ותמות.

[ii] This is the question Isaac poses to his father on the way to Moriah (Gen. 22:7).

[iii] Leviticus Rabbah 20:2, translated by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire (Philadelphia:  The Jewish Publication Society 1995), 126.

[iv] An allusion to David’s statement after he hears about Uriah’s death (2 Sam. 11:15).

Last year I was living in the Mid-west as a professor at Miami University, in Ohio, and the experience of Christmas there thrust me into deep culture shock.  There was snow on the ground and all my neighbors were gentile, white, middle class Americans, and (for the most part) very Christian – their front doors decked with boughs of holly, their lawns with Santa and reindeer and nativity scenes.  There was even a Christmas tree in the office of the Comparative Religion department.  I keenly felt “a stranger in a strange land.” My experience brought the struggles of the Maccabees in the historical account of Hanukkah to the fore — the struggle against assimilation, the freedom to learn Torah, and to observe the mitzvot, and the dignity to maintain difference in the context of a dominant, alien culture.  It also raised the question about why the historical narrative is not recounted in the Talmud, and replaced, instead, by a perplexing story about a small cruse of oil found in the precincts of the Holy of Holies, whose light lasted a miraculous eight days.   What can we make of this omission of history in the rabbinic sources?  How does our own understanding of the Maccabean revolt  reflect the kind of Jews we are?

As recounted in the Books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, the Hanukkah story begins in the month of Kislev, in 167 BCE, when Antiochus IV plundered the Temple and erected an idol of Zeus in the Sanctuary.  He also issued a series of decrees forbidding circumcision, the keeping of Shabbat, and the study of Torah.  He forced Jews to worship idols and eat pork upon pain of death.  Mattathias’ five sons, led by Judah Maccabeus, instigated an insurgence against the regime.  But the first person killed was a fellow Jew, who had conceded to offer pagan sacrifice on the altar in Modiin (I Maccabees 2:29-41).   So the battle entailed an external as well as an internal struggle for identity.  Who was a Jew?  What was being Jewish?  And the fight is still fought ideologically today.

Mattathias and the Apostate -- Woodcut by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Theodore Herzl Gaster suggests that the Hanukkah story is essentially about the inalienable right to be different.  The festival teaches the value of “the few against the many, of the weak against the strong, of passion against indifference, of the single unpopular voice against the thunder of public opinion.  The struggle was not only against oppression from without but equally against corruption and complacency within.  It was a struggle fought in the wilderness and in the hills; and its symbol is appropriately a small light kindled when the shadows fall.”[1]

On the other hand, David Brooks, in his op-ed in the New York Times (Dec. 10th, 2009), describes Hanukkah as “the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today.”  For Brooks, the story of Hanukkah is a “self-congratulatory morality tale,” commemorating a Civil War, a war in which he may have fought on the side of the Hellenizers.

The Rabbis were also ambivalent about the Maccabean revolt, especially in the wake the Hellenization of the Hasmonean dynasty, and the consequences of the disastrous “Jewish War” (66-70 CE), that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple.  The revolt against Roman rule led by Bar Kokhba (132-136 CE), in which over half the Jews in Israel were decimated, may also have been a factor.  As a result of this last insurrection, the Jewish center shifted to the Diaspora where it remained for almost two thousand years.  The consequences of political zealotry have often proved disastrous for the Jewish people.

What does the Talmudic legend of Hanukkah tell us about the rabbinic response to the vicissitudes of history? The historical events behind the military victory are not told.  There is no mention of insurgencies or despotic decrees.   Instead a little cruse of olive oil, sealed with the stamp of the High Priest, becomes the “hero” of the story.  The discussion of Hanukkah in the Talmud occupies all of three pages, and is found in the context of laws related to lighting Shabbat candles:

What is [the reason for] Hanukkah? Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev the eight days of Hanukkah begin, in which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils there, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed and defeated them, they searched the precincts and found only one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest. It contained sufficient oil for only one day’s light; yet a miracle happened and they lit [the lamp], and it lasted for eight days. The following year these [days] were designated as a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving (b. Shabbat 21b).

There are many perplexing details in this terse account. How could the Greeks have defiled the oil? Why did the cruse need to be sealed with the stamp of the High Priest? Why did the light need to last for eight days?

The legend of the little jug of oil and the eight days of light is not mentioned in the Book of Maccabees, Josephus, or Philo, yet it resonates with a prevalent motif in the Tanakh – the miraculous descent of fire in the consecration of holy space. At Sinai, a fiery cloud descended upon the Mountain (Exod. 24:15-16). At the consecration of the Mishkan, fire spontaneously emerged from the Holy of Holies (Lev. 9:23-24). In the Consecration of the First Temple, a cloud “filled the House of the Lord” (1 Kgs. 8:10), though, in the retelling, it was “fire [that] descended from Heaven and consumed the sacrifices” (2 Chron. 7:1-2). To add to the intrigue, the consecration of Solomon’s Temple took place during a “seven day festival” in the seventh month of Ethanim – most likely Sukkot (1 Kgs. 8:2, 65-66). The Second Temple was also consecrated during Sukkot under Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8). At that time, according to the account in 2 Maccabees, the priests found “the fire” that Jeremiah had hid (thick liquid called “napthar”), which spontaneously ignited the sacrifices at the Dedication of the Second Temple (2 Macc. 1:20-36).

One would then expect the Temple’s re-dedication to be graced by divine fire and eight days of festivities during Sukkot. But the Temple had been defiled and Antiochus had absconded with the Menorah (I Maccabees 1:21-23). The clean-up crew needed time. Only months later, could they celebrate “Sukkot in Kislev” in the consecration of the Temple, hanukkat ha-bayit (2 Macc. 1:9). Instead of the gold wrought lamp stand, they found hollow lances, covered these with wood, and lit them with oil for the next eight days (Megillat Ta‘anit 8b). In the Talmudic legend, we find only vestiges of the historical account. The “little cruse of oil” (sealed with the Cohen’s stamp) is parallel to the divine fire that descended from Heaven in the consecration of the Tabernacle and the First and Second Temple. And the light burned for eight days, reminding us of “Sukkot in Kislev.” This then becomes the central symboly of Hanukkah that we celebrate today.

Menorah outside the Knesset (Israeli Parliament)

Why did the Rabbis repress the historical account, leaving us to piece the puzzle together from ancient Greek texts?  On the one hand, the sages felt a palpable discomfort with military victory in the wake of the Jewish Wars.  Deuteronomy warns the Israelites that, after conquering the Land, they “may say to [themselves]:  ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me [כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת הַחַיִל הַזֶּה].’” And so we are commanded to “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth [הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל]” (Deut. 8:17-18).   Hubris aroused by military victory and wealth  must be checked.  On the other hand,  God’s presence is palpable throughout history — symbolized by the fire that descends from Heaven  at Sinai, as the flame that consecrated the altar of the Tabernacle and First Temple, as a thick, combustible liquid that miraculously ignited the sacrifices in the renewal of the Second Temple, and as a small cruse of oil found in the Holy of Holies.  Sanctification comes not by force, but by the effort of finding that divine spark.  Zechariah’s words, explaining the vision of the Menorah in the Haftarah of Hanukkah, remind us of that hidden force:  “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit לֹא בְחַיִל וְלֹא בְכֹחַ כִּי אִם בְּרוּחִי —said the Lord Hosts” (Zech. 4:7).

Today, we are realizing a resonance between legend and history with the awakening of Jewish consciousness  — both as inner light and an assertion of national autonomy. This year, may the  lighting the Hanukkiah and retelling the stories arouse in us a divine spark, in the inner sanctum of our being, “the holy of holies,” resonant with the “external hand of God” in history — “not by [our] own spirit or the might of [our] own hand.”  And may this resonance lead to a true Hanukkat Ha-Bayit, a renewal and re-dedication of the house of Israel.  Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement in the United States, eloquently articulated a vision of the significance of Hanukkah for the contemporary Jew:

If the observance of Hanukkah can awaken in us the determination to reconstruct Jewish life, by informing it with a religious spirit characterized by absolute intellectual integrity, unqualified acceptance of ethical responsibility and the highest degree of aesthetic creativity, it will indeed be a Festival of Dedication.  It will mean a cleansing of the temple of our faith to render it again fit as a habitat for communion with God.  So long as the Jewish people is thus linked in communion with the Eternal, it can look forward to an eternal life for itself.[3]

Hag Urim Sameah (A Happy Holiday of Lights)!

*I originally presented this as a talk at Congregation Beth Israel, in Berkeley Ca, December 2009.

**It was published, recently, in a slightly different version for the MaTan Website:  See

[1] Theodor Herzl Gaster, Hanukkah and Tradition:  Feast of Lights (Henry Shuman Publisher), 85.

[2] The Talmud also alludes to Sukkot,  in the justification for Bet Shammai’s injunction – to light eight candles on the first day, and thereafter gradually reduce by one, corresponding to parei ha-chag (b. Shabbat 21b , see Rashi loc.cit., and  numbering of  bullocks offered on Sukkot, Num. 29:13-32).

[3] Mordecai Kaplan, “In Praise of Active, not Passive Assimilation,” quote in Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre, A Different Light, p. 230.

This period of the Jewish calendar, from the Shabbat following the Ninth of Av to Rosh Hashanah, is characterized as a time of consolation.  Seven Haftarot from Isaiah trace a movement from mourning to comfort, from desolation to joy, over the course of these seven weeks.  The midrash, cited in the Mahzor Vitri, gestures at the shape of that transformation.  These Haftarot…

“…  all speak of comfort…in the way that one comforts (a mourner) slowly by stages, for someone who offers comfort too close to the time of tragedy is like one who predicts the future: “Tomorrow you will be king,” which the bereaved cannot believe… Therefore: “Comfort, O comfort” (Isa. 54:1), “But Zion said, [“The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me]” (Isa. 49:14) – although Zion is destroyed, do not say that she is abandoned [as it says, “O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted]” (54:11). Since the Lord has “comforted” her already in His mercy, He does not call for mercy again. Up until this point the prophets comfort her; from here onwards He comforts her.   And once she has received consolation, we follow with: “Sing, O barren one,” (Isa. 54:1, the fifth); “Arise and shine,” (Isa. 60:1); “I shall rejoice” (Isa. 61:10).

Zion, the personification of Jerusalem, of the Promised Land, of Israel’s hope of return, does not at first accept the words of comfort from the prophets, in particular from Isaiah to whom G-d beckons: “Comfort, O comfort my people” (Isa. 54:1, the first of the Seven Haftarot of consolation).  But Zion, like a tragic figure who refuses to accept that he will one day be king, does not respond to the prophets’ words (Isa. 49:14, the second Haftarah); she is storm-tossed, afflicted, not comforted (Isa. 54:11, the third of the Haftarah), until G-d finally reassures her directly in the fourth Haftarah: “I, I am He who comforts you” (51:12).  From that moment onward, Isaiah’s words are full of jubilation.

In the fifth Haftarah, this transformation is likened to a barren woman who becomes a mother of many children: “Shout, O barren one [‘aqarah], you who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused – said the Lord” (Isa. 54:1, NJPS).  In Pesikta de-Rab Kahana, the author of the midrash adjures the reader not to be surprised by the radical shift:

R. Levi taught: Whenever it is said that “she has no…[’ayn lah]”, it implies that she will have. Thus it says, “Sarai was barren; she had no child [’ayn lah velad]” (Gen. 11:30); afterwards she did: “[Who would have said to Abraham] that Sarah would suckle children!” (Gen. 21:7). Likewise, “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children [ule’Hannah ’ayn yeladim]” (1 Sam. 1:2); afterwards Hannah did have children: “And the Lord took note of Hannah, and she conceived, and bore three sons and two daughters” (1 Sam. 2:21). Finally, “She is Zion, there is no one that cares for her [doresh ’ayn lah]” ( Jer. 30:17); but then one will come who does care: “And a redeemer will come to Zion” (Isa. 59:20). (PRK, Piska 18:3)

From her state of having nothing [’ayn lah], of emptiness, the women are granted children.  They endure decades of barrenness and the irksome presence of a rival, albeit less-loved wife, and eventually conceive and “have” many children.  Sarah, after the birth of Isaac, nursed many at her breasts,[1] and Hannah bore five more children after she had given Samuel, her first, up to service in the Mishkan.  But I am perplexed by the simile which compares Zion to barren women in the Tanakh.  Zion, that is Jerusalem, was hardly “barren” [‘aqarah]; rather prodigious, populated by many, and after the Destruction, Jeremiah lamented: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become” (Lam. 1:1).  Like a widow, or a mother who has been bereaved of her children, she sits as a lone sparrow, hovering over the empty nest on the ramparts of the city.  Yet she was never barren, was never really childless. After the exile, it was as though she had never conceived, as though barren for the duration of the seven decades of her children’s banishment.

The midrash, drawing on the opening line of the fifth Haftarah of consolation (“Sing, O barren one” Isa. 54:1), names seven famous barren women in the Tanakh:  Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, the wife of Manoah (Samson’s mother), Hannah and Zion.  One woman is missing – the Shunamite (2 Kings 4:8-44, to whom Elisha, the prophet, grants a child) – and one woman, who was never overtly described as barren has been added.  Leah, suggests the midrash, must have been barren for it says: When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb” (Gen. 29:21).  If conception for her required divine intervention with the opening of her womb, Leah must have been infertile.  The text, however, states explicitly that “Rachel was barren” (ibid.).  And Rachel becomes the barren woman par excellence who represents, in her lifetime and in her untimely death, the mother of mourning and consolation.  The midrash goes on to engage in word-play on the term ‘aqarah; either it is related to ‘aqurah (uprooted) or, ironically, to its opposite:, ‘iqarah, the essential, primary, rooted one:

R. Abba bar Kahana said: Most of the guests assembled at Boaz’ wedding were descendants of Leah, [yet they blessed Ruth by saying “The Lord make [her] . . . like Rachel and like Leah” (Ruth 4:11), naming Rachel first, for Rachel was held to be first among the wives, as is implied by the verse: “And Rachel was barren [‘aqarah]” (Gen. 29:31). R. Isaac’s reading of this verse, led him to conclude that Rachel was the first among the wives, for he read ‘aqarah not as “barren” but as “essential” (‘iqarah), signifying that she was first. …Because so many significant matters in Israel’s past go back to Rachel, therefore the children of Israel are called by her name: “Rachel weeping for her children” (Jer. 31:15). They are called not only by her name, but also by her son’s name: “It may be that the Lord, the G-d of hosts, will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15). And even by her [grand]-son’s name: “Ephraim is my dear son, the child I delight in…” (Jer. 31:20). “Sing, O barren one who did not bear” (Isa. 54:1). (PRK 20:2).

MICHELANGELO Buonarroti “Rachel and Leah”

1545  Marble  San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Though she is ‘aqeret ha-bayit, the first chosen wife of Jacob, she suffers inexorably in her lifetime – waiting seven years before marriage, displaced by her sister on her wedding night, only to endure years of infertility while her sister bears son after son.  Though loved, she is misunderstood by her husband, whom she confronts with the desperation of her barren state:  “Give me children, or else I shall die! [lit. if nothing,’ayin, I die!]’” (Gen. 30:2). As Avivah Zornberg suggests, Rachel “absent on her wedding night,” is the “one who is not there” (Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, p. 304). Elusive as beauty, she cannot bear easily, and faces the interminable emptiness, the ’ayin of her existence.  Through the interstices of Rachel’s pain, G-d hears her and responds, though the Torah never records her prayer:  “Now G-d remembered Rachel; G-d heard her and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22).

In the end, she dies prematurely in no-man’s land. Yet, precisely because she faces that nothingness, she becomes the paragon intercessor, after her death, for her children as they are sent into exile.  She is buried on the road to Ephrath, on the border of the land of Canaan; she is not buried in the ancestral Double Cave in Hebron (see Gen. 35:19 and 48:7, op.cit. Rashi).    The purpose for her burial in the hinterland, according to Jeremiah, is for her to leap from her grave as her children are driven into exile.  At that point, G-d hears her cries again:

Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more [’aynenu]. Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.” (Jer. 31:15-17).

All the children of Israel are called Rachel’s children, and in the kabalistic sources, she becomes “a code word for Knesset Yisrael, the principle of cohesion in a dispersed people” (Zornberg, ibid., p. 305).[2] Though in her lifetime, Rachel never “settled” in the Promised Land, never mothered her children to adulthood, in her weeping, her refusal to be comforted from the grave, she holds out the possibility of ingathering, drawing in her dispersed children.

The Haftarot of consolation then take us on a journey from mourning to consolation, culminating in Jeremiah, chapter 31, read on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah.  According to the Talmud, Sarah, Hannah, and Rachel all conceived on Rosh Hashanah (b. Rosh HaShana 10b).– Their decades of barrenness came to an end on “Yom Harat ‘Olam – the Day of the World’s Conception” – the day of Re-creation.[3] So too Zion conceives, after a period of barrenness of seven weeks of years, from Tisha Be’Av to the return of the exiles, which according to Jeremiah spanned seven decades (Jer. 25:11-12, 29:10 and 2 Chron.29:10).  And we read on Rosh Hashanah of G-d’s promise to restore the children of Israel to their Homeland.

Today, after two thousand years of exile, we hear again “the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride” filling Jerusalem and its hills (Jer. 33:11).[4] The seven Haftarot of consolation from Isaiah trace a transformation through the arc of history from Destruction to Return.  Over this same arc stretches Rachel’s fate in her struggles against ‘ayin, and her plea for the return of her children from exile.  She had the power to make those prophecies felt as most palpable.  May we merit seeing their fulfillment in our day.

[1] This is based on the odd plural form in Gen. 21:7:   “And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children [banim]?”  See Gen. Rab. 53:9.

[2] See the Gur Arye (Maharal) on Gen. 48:7 and Tg.-Ps.Jon. on Jer. 31:15

[3] See Miriam Udel-Lambert’s moving article on the piyut, Hayom Harat Olam, — Rosh Hashanah: Day of Judgment, Day of (Re-)Creation,

[4] This a reversal of the silence to which Jerusalem was condemned, cf. Jer. 7:34, 16:9, and 25:10)

The Bones of Independence (‘Atzmot ha-‘atzma’ut)

Today we celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, Yom ha-‘Atzma’ut.  In this essay, I explore one central symbol of independence in the Tanakh – bones, ‘atzamot, signifying the transition towards independence for the nation.  Opening the Ibn Shoshan dictionary to the word ‘atzma’ut, one finds the following definition: “ability to stand on one’s own; independence from others; autonomy.”  At the root of ‘atzma’ut lies the word ‘etzem – bone.  The hardest material within the tender flesh of our human substance, bones enable us to stand upright.   Through our bones, our skeleton, we owe allegiance to the vertebrate kingdom – being warm-blooded, enabling homeostasis, the development of an immune system and complex metabolism.  That is, our bones grant us greater physiological independence from the environment.

Yet, the first time the word bone appears in the Tanakh, we find an admixture of both independence, ‘atzma’ut, and dependence.  To create woman, God took the “side” of Adam and built it up, after inducing a deep sleep (the first general anesthetic).  When God presented her to him, the man declared:

This [zot] now [ha-pa‘am]  is bone of my bones [‘etzem me‘atzamai]

And flesh of my flesh

This [zot] shall be called ‘woman’

For from ‘man’ this [zot] was taken (Gen. 2:23, my trans.)

At that moment, he recognized that “this one” was both from him, “bone of [his] bone, flesh of [his] flesh,” and yet independent of him.  Using the demonstrative pronoun “this” [zot] emphatically three times to punctuate his speech, he signified (like the pointing finger) otherness, separation from himself.  Yet he also recognized her as his own, of his substance, of his bone-being [mi‘atzmo].  Her sense of difference or independence derived from her emergence as other than him while, at the same time, she was similar; she mirrored him in bone, in flesh, and in name (isha/ish, woman/man).

Similarly, in the identification of kinship, the term “bone” is evoked to connote identity with another.   Laban identifies his affiliation to Jacob in terms of being “of [his] bone” and “of [his] flesh” (Gen. 29:14); Abimelech reminds the people of Shechem that he is of “[their] bone and [their] flesh,” in proclaiming his right to rule over them as king (Judg. 9:2); and the Israelites (of the northern tribes), identify themselves with David as being “of [his] bones and [his] flesh” (2 Sam. 5:1) when they express their desire that he rule over them as well, extending beyond his tribal affiliation with Judah.  The expression “of [one’s] bone” and “of [one’s] flesh” sets up a dialectic between, on the one hand, independence, difference, the emergence of one from another as in the birth of woman out of man, Eve from Adam, or child from parent.  On the other hand, it harks back to filial ties, tribal alliances, and national identification.

The story of the exhumation of Joseph’s bones upon the Exodus from Egypt presents us with a paradigmatic narrative.  In the concluding scene of the Book of Genesis, Joseph exacts an oath from his brothers: “When God surely takes note of you [paqod yifqod etkhem], you shall bring my bones up from here” (Gen. 5:25). The oath is fulfilled on the eve of the Exodus, when Moses takes up the bones of Joseph “who had exacted an oath of the children of Israel saying, ‘God will surely take note of you [paqod yifqod etkhem]: then shall you carry up my bones from here with you” (Exod. 13:19).   The repetition of Joseph’s oath, almost verbatim in Exodus, suggests that it is part of the providential plan.  This is the last thing Moses does, implying that had he not done so the Israelites might never have been able to leave.  The Mekhilta suggests that the Egyptians deliberately hid the burial site of Joseph’s body (ensconced among the mummies of the Egyptian Kings or sunk to the bottom of the Nile in an iron casket), because their sorcerers had predicted that, upon the departure of Joseph’s remains, Egypt would be physically devastated.  Yet the Egyptian effort to undermine the oracle was thwarted.  And Joseph’s bones rose from the bottom Nile, or were disinterred from ancient tombs, while the mother country writhed.  And the Israelite nation emerged as a people from the womb of another people [goy mi-qerev goy] (Deut. 4:34).  Ultimately, the oath was fulfilled by Joshua, his descendant (of the tribe of Ephraim), and the bones were buried at Shechem, the ancestral land granted to Joseph before his father’s death (Josh. 24:32; cf. Gen. 48:22).  Just as the raising of Joseph’s remains marks a pivotal moment in the nation’s Exodus from Egypt, so the final settlement of his weary bones confirms the nation’s establishment in the Land.  Joseph’s bones then represent both the separation from another nation, mother Egypt, and kinship to his own nation, through a link to the ancestral promise, embodied in the flesh-and-bone of peoplehood.

The same promise of the resurrection and interment of lost bones characterizes Ezekiel’s prophecy over the “Valley of the Dry Bones.”  While there is debate in the Talmud as to which bones remain scattered, unburied in the Valley (clearly a cursed status), R. Yehuda argues that the prophecy must be read as a parable (b. Sanhedrin 92b).  His reading seems closest to the plain meaning, as Ezekiel concludes his prophecy with an exhortation to the community in exile:

Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord (Ezek. 37:12-14, NRSV).

The prophet no longer invokes the image of dry bones in a valley, assembling as sinews and flesh accrue, sewn with new skin, imbued with the spirit/breath/wind (ru’ah) of God like Adam when first enlivened with divine breath (Ezek. 37:9; cf. Gen. 2:7).  Here, instead, he calls to the bones lying in open graves.  These are the people scattered throughout the Babylonian empire.  To them, God promises return to the land of Israel.  As Ezekiel draws the stick of Joseph (representing the Northern Kingdom), and places it with the stick of Judah (representing the Southern Kingdom), the two merge, being bone of the same bone, flesh of the same flesh.  And God promises to make them, once again, “a single nation in the land, on the hills of Israel…Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms” (Ezek. 37:21, NRSV).

Today we are witnessing the assembly of the dry bones out of the valley of the shadow of death and out of the open graves – out of the Crusades and the banishment from foreign lands, in the wake of pogrom upon pogrom and the Holocaust.  Our people, bone-of-our-bone, flesh-of-our-flesh, are returning to the land.    It is an amazing vision.  And yet it is no longer just a prophetic vision.

There are thirty three bones in the vertebral column.  Each of those small bones is critical to the body’s ability to stand upright and each one of us holds the position of one of those small bones.  The emergence of Eve from Adam, the birth of the Israelite nation from Egypt, and the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian exile, all involved both separation and identification in linking one bone to another.  Today, may each of us contribute to the assembly of the bones of independence, ‘atzmot ha-‘atzma’ut, individually in our own way, vertebrae by vertebrae.

Over the course of the next few shabbatot, we will be reading about the Exodus from Egypt – the transformation of the Israelites from a motley family of twelve brothers to a nation six-hundred-thousand strong (two million if one counts the women and children).  Yet, according to Rabbi Avira, it was only “by the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt” (b. Sota 11b).  The first two chapters of Exodus are full of heroic women — some named, some anonymous; some Jewish, some gentile.  From the midwives, Shifra and Puah, to the daughter of Levi and the daughter of Pharaoh (Moses’ birth mother and the princess who raised him), there is a cohort of women who rise up in conscientious objection against the Egyptian tyranny over the Israelite people.   Serah bat Asher, though often neglected, should be included in that cohort of “righteous women.”  Mentioned by name in the list of those who left Canaan (Gen. 46:17) and in the census at the end of the Israelites’ desert sojourn (Num. 26:46), the narrative about Serah only appears in midrash.  As a girl, she was the one to tell Jacob that Joseph was still alive and thriving in Egypt.  The patriarch then blessed her, saying: “The mouth that told me the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death.”  So Serah bat Asher entered Paradise alive (Otzar ha-Midrashim; cf. Tg.Ps-Jon. on Gen. 46:17).  Like Elijah the prophet, she never died, but went on to play a critical role in the transition of the Jewish people from a conglomeration of families to a mighty nation.

Because of her longevity, she embodies a living Jewish memory, becoming the sole link to the generation of the patriarchs, lost to the Israelite slaves in Egypt.  The beginning of Exodus (the book of Shemot, lit. names), ironically, is marked by a radical discontinuity, represented by the nation’s descent into anonymity, as they became “fertile and prolific, and multiplied and increased very, very greatly” (Exod. 1:7).  With the exception of the midwives, there is a distinct absence of names after the twelve brothers pass away – symptomatic of the dehumanization of the enslavement.  According to the Zohar, the oppression is also marked by an “exile of the word” [galut ha-dibur].  At the end of chapter two, the people can only groan under their slavery, moan and cry for help (there are four different Hebrew expressions of their wordless anguish – va-ye’anhu, va-yiza‘aqu, shav‘atam, na’akatam – appear in Exod. 2:23-24), while God hears their inarticulate cries.  Language itself goes into quiescence, into exile.    Both Moses and Serah bat Asher are pivotal in bringing the word back – she as the agent of living memory, bearer of the oral (mouth-to-mouth) tradition, and he as the messenger of divine revelation.

The critical meeting between Moses and Serah bat Asher occurs in the presence of the elders.  Prior to this, at the burning bush, Moses was seized with doubt that the Israelites would not believe he had been sent by God as their redeemer.  God answered the prophet’s anxiety by giving him a set of signs [otot] – the staff turns into a snake, Moses’ hand becomes leprous, and water turns to blood.  But He also gave him words, embodied in letters [otiot]: “Tell them, the Lord, God of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, appeared to you and said, ‘I have taken note of you [paqod paqadeti etkhem] and of what is being done to you in Egypt…’” (Exod. 3:16).  These words echo the promise Joseph had uttered when he made his brothers swear to take his bones out of Egypt: “God will surely take note of you [paqod yiphqod etkhem] and bring you up from this land…” (Gen. 50:24-25).  “After Moses performs the signs and Aaron reiterates all the words God had said: ‘when they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites…’ the elders believed Moses and bowed low in homage” (Exod. 4:31).  Who makes the connection between God’s promise to Moses and Joseph’s oath?  Serah bat Asher of course, the sole survivor of the generation that left Canaan.

The midrash, Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer, presents this meeting in the light of an oral tradition that revolves around the five “letters of redemption,” which appear twice in significant expressions of God’s providence: kaf-kaf, mem-mem, nun-nun, peh-peh, and tzadi-tzadi.  These letters differ graphically when they appear at the end of a word, pointing to the telos – the ultimate End – that they signify.

The letters (pehpeh) were delivered to our father, Abraham.  Our father Abraham delivered them to Isaac, and Isaac [delivered them] to Jacob, and Jacob delivered the mystery of the redemption to Joseph, as it is said, “But God will surely take notice of you (paqod yiphqod etkhem)” (Gen. 50:24).  Joseph his son delivered the secret of the redemption to his brothers.  Asher, the son of Jacob, delivered the mystery of the redemption to Serah, his daughter.  When Moses and Aaron came to the elders of Israel and performed the signs in their sight, the elders of Israel went to Serah bat Asher, and said to her: “A certain man has come, and he has performed a set of miraculous signs [otot] before our very eyes.”  She said to them: “There is no significance to these signs.”  They said to her: “He said ‘I have take note of you [paqod paqadeti etkhem]” (Exod. 3:16).  She said to them: “He is the man who will redeem Israel from Egypt in the future, for so I heard from my father, pehpeh, ‘God will surely take note of you [paqod yiphqod etkhem]…’” (Gen. 50:24).  The people then believed in their God and in Moses, as it is said, “And the people believed when they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites” (Exod. 4:31).  [Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer 48, my translation]

Serah bat Asher grants Moses authority, endorses his claim to be the redeemer of Israel, not on the basis of the miraculous signs [otot], but on the basis of the letters [otiot], pehpeh, embedded in the critical words: “God has surely taken note of you [paqod paqadeti etkhem].”  Significantly, the term paqad, to take note or remember, first occurs in the Bible in the context of Isaac’s conception:  “And the Lord took note of Sarah [paqad et Sarah] as He had promised…” (Gen. 21:1).   Paqad does not imply God had forgotten but, rather, the time had now come to fulfill the divine promise – in Genesis, the birth of Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, as heir to the covenant, and in Exodus, in the birth of the nation, Israel.  God’s act of remembering, paqad, is like the focus of dispersed light into a beam, the focal point being Sarah, and later her descendants.

Like the matriarch, Serah bat Asher becomes the bearer of a promise.  While Sarah carries the promise in her body, Serah carries it through her lucidity.  She uniquely presents the possibility of continuity with a lost generation as bearer of the oral tradition, mouth-to-mouth (peh-el-peh). Moses, on the other hand, engages with God face-to-face (panim-el-panim), as the conduit of direct revelation.  Both Serah bat Asher and Moses revive the possibility of language, stir the return of the word after a period of exile.  Serah, as her name signifies (cf. Exod. 26:12-13), does so by “overlapping” the generations, carrying over the remnants of a promise.  Moses, like the bush itself, burns without being consumed; he becomes the vessel of Torah, carrying the divine words of black-fire-on-white-fire to the people.

In our generation, we appear to be at a loss for both figures.  Yet we can find models of continuity in the wizened story tellers of a lost generation and in the brilliant scholars of the Beit Midrash.  Perhaps the likes of Serah and Moses continue to stir words, calling for a return from exile.

A version of this article was published in the “Kol Isha” column of the Jerusalem Post, Jan. 22nd 2010, and on the website of Matan as the Rosh Hodesh Shvat essay in memory of Edythe Benjamin: A longer version of this essay appears as “Serah bat Asher:  Songstress, Poet, Woman of Wisdom” in Torah of the Mothers, ed. Susan Handelman and Ora Wiskind-Elper (Jerusalem: Urim 2000), 218-243.

In my last post, I suggested that Rebecca’s veiling after first seeing Isaac, her future husband, set in motion a chain of deceptions:  Jacob dons goatskins as he steals his brother’s blessing and his own sons dupe him with a cloak dipped in goat’s blood.  It is the veiling of women, though, that strikes the deepest inter-generational resonance – between Rebecca before the conception of her son, Jacob, and Tamar, in her encounter with Judah, Jacob’s son.  The midrash teases out the parallel threads, but remains mysteriously terse:  “There were two women who covered themselves with veils and bore twins: Rebecca and Tamar:  Rebecca – ‘so she took her veil and covered herself’ (Gen. 24:65) and Tamar – ‘[So she took off her widow’s garb] and covered her face with a veil…’ (Gen. 38:24)” (Genesis Rabbah 60:15). How are veiling and the conception of twins connected?

Jews are known for answering a question with another question.  Following this tradition, I’d like to address this midrash with another midrash:  “While the brothers were occupied with the sale of Joseph, Jacob with his sackcloth and fasting, and Judah with taking a wife, the Holy One, blessed be He, was creating the light of the Messiah… “Before she was in labor, she gave birth” (Isaiah 66:7)…“It happened at that time” (Gen. 38:1)” (Genesis Rabbah 85:1).

The midrash addresses the connection between the two chapters (37 and 38) of Genesis.  Judah’s descent immediately follows the sale of Joseph into slavery and the presentation of the cloak dipped in goat’s blood, with the telling words to his father, “This we found, discern [haker na] whether this is your son’s cloak or not”  (Gen. 37:32).   Jacob’s diagnosis, “A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is torn, torn apart,” rends a deep tear in the fabric of the family.  The brothers disband – Judah the first to initiate the rupture; their presence for each other would stir pangs of conscience they could not bear.  Jacob withdraws into his sackcloth and fasting, the brothers greedily divvy up the profits of the sale, and Judah turns towards assimilation, through marriage to a Canaanite woman.

The midrash concludes with a peculiar metaphor of a child born even before the mother is seized with pangs of labor.  Conceived in the Great Mind, God lays out a plot to undermine Judah’s plan to assimilate, by thwarting his marriage and continuity through his wayward sons.  As Robert Burns penned: “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gone aft agley” [go often askew].  God’s meta-plot trumps them.  Who is the agent of Judah’s return?  The veiled daughter-in-law, Tamar.  She re-aligns Judah on his path, diverts him from his “descent from the presence of his brothers” (Gen. 38:1).

After years of waiting to be married to Judah’s third son, Tamar sets herself up at the entrance to Enaim (Petah ‘Enayim, lit. “opening of the eyes”), dressed as a harlot.  She has heard that Judah’s wife passed away and he is on his way to Timnah for the sheep-shearing festivities.  She, like Rebecca, covers her face with a veil.  The woman sees, seduces, conceives knowingly, and the man, not seeing, unknowing, concedes to her demand for a pledge, promising to pay for services rendered with a goat from his flock.  He hands over his signet ring, cord, and staff  (tantamount to his car keys, driver’s license, and credit card, all marked indelibly with his identity).  The promised payment – a goat from the flock – evokes the goat slaughtered to stain Joseph’s cloak.  The goat serves as the “cover story” in the case of Joseph’s sale into slavery; here the promised goat is the catalyst for the “uncover story”.  Because the supposed harlot is never found and the goat never paid, Tamar can use the pledge as the ultimate source of revelation, the real “opening of the eyes” that will occur three months later.

Judah and Tamar

Judah and Tamar, from “the School of Rembrandt” – attributed to a number of painters, including Gerbrand van den Eeckhout and Aert van der Gelder (circa 1650-1660)

Unveiled, back in her widow’s garb, Tamar is accused of being pregnant through “whoredom”, and Judah orders her to be burned.  The apocalypse, the “unveiling”, happens when Tamar presents the pledge and utters the words: “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant…discern, please [haker na], whose these are, the signet and the cord and staff” (Gen. 38:25).  The words “haker na” resonate with the words the brothers used in presenting the bloodied cloak before their father.  Judah experiences a double entendre, which awakens him not only to his transgression with regard to Tamar – “She is more righteous than me, insofar as I did not give her to my son, Shelah” (v. 26) – but also to his responsibility towards his father.  Tamar serves as the catalyst for Judah’s teshuvah (repentance), and he finds a new inner strength, an integrity which enables him to stand as guarantor on behalf of Benjamin (cf. Gen.43:8-10 and 44:32-34).  His heroism before the supposed Egyptian viceroy in offering himself up as a pledge for his brother, Benjamin, ultimately mends the traumatic seam that rent the family apart.  Tamar facilitates this transformation.

Let us return to the image of veiling, the conception of twins, the discrepancy between vision of women and men in the Book of Genesis.  Tamar also gives birth to twins, as Rebecca did, both sets of twins born from a womb of double-sowing.   In both stories, the inner consciousness of the woman, what the midrash calls the creation of the Messianic light, must penetrate the obtuse sight of man.    It is a process not of jarring confrontation but, rather, of subtle shifts of cloth and skin, of donning and doffing.  And sometimes it is precisely through that stubborn darkness, stumbling down the wrong path, absent of insight, that God will redirect a man (with a little help from the better half).