Saturday, April 29, 2017


When is a national dream realized? When does a people's journey reach its destination?
I ask because it's that time of year again, as we confront the string of post-biblical holidays in the spring. The Exodus itself seems to have an ambiguous ending, as for millennia we've debated whether the atzeret (from atzor, stop) of Passover, its finale, is the seventh day (as in the Torah) or the fifty-first day (as in the Talmud). But here's a truly radical suggestion: what if the Exodus actually lasted sixty-nine years?
This is suggested by some of the verses we read yesterday, in the passage discussing house leprosy. Attributed to Rabbi Eleazar b. Shimon (of Lag baOmer fame) is "There never was a leprous house, and never will be. Then why was its law written? That you may study it and receive reward" (Talmud Sanhedrin 71a), so let's expound a bit.
The law of the leprous house is preceded by God's declaration that he will give the Land of Canaan to the Israelites "as a possession" (Lev. 14:33-35). The Talmud (Yoma 12a) says:
As a possession"--until they conquer it. If they have conquered it, but not divided it by tribe; if they have divided by tribe, but not by clan; if they have divided it by clan, but each does not recognize what is theirs, whence do we know [that the law does not yet apply]? "And whosever house it is shall come"--the one to whom it is unique.
Thus, there are four stages of "possession": military, political, communal and personal. Now, how long does each take? The Talmud talks of seven years of conquest and seven of division (Zevahim 118b), which accounts for the first two stages. We can assume that the next two also take seven years each (seven years being the standard agricultural cycle in the Torah), which would jibe with the total given for Joshua's rule: 28 years (Seder Olam Rabbah 12:1).
But when should our count start? Well, we famously talk about four expressions of redemption used by God right before he sends Moses to bring the Ten Plagues on Egypt (Exodus 6), but God also promises "I will bring you to the land" and "I will give it to you as an inheritance." (Hm, "I will give" (ve-natati)--the exact same term used in the verses from Leviticus.) That's about a year before the Jews leave Egypt, so we have 41 years of Moses + 28 of Joshua = 69 years until God's promise is realized. As the latter puts it (23:14): "“Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed."
So here we are, 69 years after Independence. What will Israel be in year 70 and beyond? That's up to each of us, and our unique part of this glorious inheritance. The dreaming is over; time to wake up.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Jewish Thanksgiving

When you go through the Jewish educational system in North America, there are certain stock questions and answers you get used to hearing annually.
Q: Why doesn't our calendar have a day dedicated to this great idea?
A: Because for Jews, every day is Mother's Day/ Father's Day/ Thanksgiving/ St. Patrick's Day!
OK, maybe not the last one. In fact, maybe not the penultimate one either, since there is a Jewish Thanksgiving -- and it's today, 13 Nissan.
In yesterday's Torah portion, we read about the korban toda, the thanksgiving offering, accompanied by leavened loaves, usually a no-no in the Temple. Those who had emerged safely from life-threatening experiences--the classic examples are crossing the desert/ sea, serious illness and incarceration--bring the toda animal along with 40 loaves, ten of which are hametz. Passover is a great time to bring it, as people are making the pilgrimage anyway, but on the holiday itself, you can't offer it. Nor is Passover Eve acceptable, since the prohibition of leaven starts midway through 14 Nisan. "Hence everybody brought it on the thirteenth"  (Talmud Pesahim 13b).
In fact, Jerusalem was so full of stale toda loaves the next morning that they put two on the roof of the Temple portico as a hametz clock: when they were both present, you could keep eating your breakfast bagels; when one was taken away, you had to put down that croissant; and when the second was removed, you'd chuck your muffin into the flames.
It's funny that 13 Nissan in Temple times was a day of thanksgiving, since it's usually the most stressful day in modern Judaism. Frantic cleaning in advance of the search for hametz at dusk, dashing to the store for last-minute purchases before Hurricane Seder makes landfall (I hate to tell you, but they're out of it already, whatever "it" is), arguing with the kids about how they can't have bread anymore but they can't have matza yet... Gratitude is not the emotion that comes to mind.
But maybe it should. Many of our first-world Passover problems are born of privilege. Ugh, we have so much food, so many appliances, so many rooms--what do we do with it all? But this holiday is all about a people that was once so downtrodden we had to save half a slice for later. As one of my congregants in Canada, a Holocaust survivor who was as horrified by the atrocities in Rwanda and Sudan as those she had personally experienced, reprimanded me when I tossed some bread past its expiration date: "Rabbi, bread you don't throw away."
So let's try a little gratitude today. Personally, my family has been going through a very difficult time, and without the help of my parents and of our good friends like Zippy and Daniel -- and Gila & Sarah, who listened to the gory details when we were at our lowest -- I don't know how we would have made it to today.
There is a Jewish Thanksgiving -- what are you grateful for?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Who knows one trillion?

If I asked you to describe Passover in one sentence, you'd probably say: "God brought plagues on the Egyptians so they would free their Hebrew slaves." That's not really the impression one gets from the verses describing the tenth and ultimate plague, slaying of the firstborn:
And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well.  (Exod. 11:5)
Now it came about at midnight that the LORD struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of cattle. (Ibid. 12:29)
As these verses describe it, the distinction is not between master and slave, but between the Hebrews, all of whose firstborn are spared, and the non-Hebrews, all of whose firstborn are slain.
However, the sages drastically minimize this plague, arguing that many non-Hebrews participated in the Exodus, while many Hebrews perished during the plagues -- specifically, more than 20 million of the former and one trillion of the latter.
603,550 adult, able-bodied Israelite males make it to the end of the Book of Exodus (38:26). Add back in 3,000 golden calf fatalities (32:28) and 8,580 adult Levites counted separately (Num. 4:48). That's 615,130.
But what about all the children (below 20)? The elderly (over 60, Talmud Bava Batra 121b) and infirm? The women? After all, Pharaoh spared the girls.
It is not unreasonable to assume that for every male 20-59, there was, on average, one younger and one older. Double that to account for (probably more than) half of the population which is double-X, and one arrives at 3,690,780. (Indeed Targum Pseudo-Jonathan mentions five dependents for each adult male explicitly, Exod. 13:18).
So we have a nation of about 3.7 million, all told. Well, according to Rabbi (not-Pseudo) Jonathan in Yalkut Shimoni 209, the non-Hebrew "mixed multitude" accompanying the Israelites outnumbered them six-to-one. Hence, 22 million non-Jewish Exoduers.
What about the Jews who perished during the plagues? Rabbi Simai states (Talmud Sanhedrin 111a)
Just as at their entry into the Land there were but two out of 600,000 [Joshua and Caleb], so at their exodus from Egypt there were but two out of 600,000.
This passage posits a 99.99967% fatality rate for the Jews during the plagues. Which means that they had to start out with 300,000 X 3,690,780. 1.1 trillion who were not righteous enough to leave.
I don't mean to take these numbers literally. If you're unfortunate enough to be seated next to someone who does, at the seder or on a flight, you should probably move. But what they do tell us is that the sages adopted a perspective that made the numbers of the slaying of the firstborn a below-the-fold story. Food for thought, along with your matzo ball soup and brisket.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Another D&C day

I'll be spending today in the hospital.
As it's the last full week before Passover, some Israelis will be enjoying vacation, others will be frantically cleaning and most will be desperately trying to figure out how to balance work, home and child care when school's not in session.
But not my wife and me.
We will be headed to the hospital for a D&C. That stands for dilation and curettage, and you can read the details of this gynecological procedure here, if you're so inclined. Personally, we don't need to, because we've been here many, many times before. By my count, this is pregnancy number 18, and if you know we have three children, well... you can do the math.
Eighteen, of course, is a big number in Jewish tradition. Chai, life (more accurately, "living"), has a numerical value of 18, so it's a good omen. But sometimes pregnancy number chai ends with no fetal heartbeat at week 14. But hey, it's not ectopic, so small miracles, right?
So we're farming out the boys to friends and family, then heading out to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem for this procedure, explained by Wikipedia as "a therapeutic gynecological procedure as well as the most often used method of first trimester miscarriage or abortion."
Abortion is a scary word. It scares people so much that even when it's the same procedure to deal with a pregnancy which has self-terminated, people want to wall it off from all other medical practice, from all other women's healthcare, from the world of fertility. Even when it's a matter of some pills, it still scares them.
No one has a D&C for fun. No one enjoys them. And obviously, as a man, it's not my place to discuss the physical pain. But the emotional agony is something I share, and there is only one thing that could make it worse: government intrusion. That is why I react so viscerally to the idea of adding a cleric to the abortion panels in Israel. That is why it sickens me to my core that the man who "would have basically forced women to seek funerary services for a fetus — whether she’d had an abortion or a miscarriage, and no matter how far along the pregnancy was" is now a heartbeat away from the American presidency. Turns out, you can't count on heartbeats.
I don't intend to debate Jewish / Christian / Muslim theology on terminating pregnancies, or even the different policies we've experienced in Canada, America and Israel. Suffice it to say that I take solace and feel pride in the fact that we are going to a hospital for this medical procedure, and that anyone who needs it has the opportunity to do so in the Jewish state (and have it paid for). Not traveling hundreds of miles to wait days for approval. And to all who would have it otherwise, I wonder: is "life" really your priority?
Think about it. For now, I need to be with my wife.