Three Prophets, Three Crises, Three Cries

Sometimes I look at a Torah commentary, whether ancient or contemporary or somewhere in between and my main thought is: “Whoa! That’s a lot of weight to put on one word.”

…I think of Humpty Dumpty telling Alice — while she is Through the Looking-Glass — that he always pays words extra when he makes them do a lot of work, like when he uses the word “impenetrability” to mean a full paragraph beginning, “we’ve had enough of that subject…”

As it is, though, words in the Torah regularly work pretty hard, anyway. Numbers Rabbah tells us, after all, that there are 70 modes of expounding every word. And it’s not uncommon for extended commentaries to hinge largely on one word.

Still I find myself hoping that the word “devarim” and colleagues have negotiated extra pay for all the overtime expected in the weeks ahead and that eichah has lots of seasonal bonus pay coming.

I was originally planning to discuss the word davar, which plays such an important role in the Book of Deuteronomy beginning with this week’s portion. (Some early notes on Davar and Devarim here in PDF.)

But I decided to give davar and put the word eichah/how to work instead. Here’s more on the word itself, and here’s a midrash linking three eichah verses: an ancient version, from Eichah Rabbah; one from the 15th Century, Akeidat Yitzchak; and my attempt at less gendered imagery.

Three Eichah Verses

The first verse is from today’s Torah reading. It appears in a passage (Deut. 1:9ff) in which Moses describes feeling beleaguered, stuck in an untenable situation. In the midst of this story, he recalls telling the People: “Eichah/How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?” Using the clunky 1917 JPS here purposely, to highlight the weirdness of the word טֹרַח [torach, cumbrance] which appears only in this verse and in the first chapter of Isaiah. (More on torach here.)

His recollection appears to conflate two previous incidents:

The first is in Exodus 18, when Yitro asks his son-in-law: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Yitro then suggests, and Moses implements, a system of 70 judges to share judicial burden.

The second is in Numbers 11, when the People complain about lacking meat and Moses tells God: “I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me.” God commands a system of 70 elders to receive some of the spirit previously upon Moses, saying: “they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you bear it not yourself alone.”

Here, in Deuteronomy, Moses doesn’t mention either Yitro’s suggestion or God’s command, instead describing a system of captains and officers that appears to be his own invention.

This shift in the cast of characters has many implications, but today I want to hone in on the trouble in the community represented by that one word Moses uses in describing his frustration.

To the ancient Rabbis, the desperate-sounding “eichah” that Moses employs in the desert resonated with later experiences in Isaiah’s time and in Jeremiah’s. The Rabbis arranged three readings, over less than a week in the Jewish calendar, using that same cry.

As the midrash suggests the three eichahs indicate escalating disaster:

  • from the People — and Moses, in his own way — behaving badly enough in the desert that a breaking point threatens,
  • to the People in Jerusalem behaving so badly that God is ready to snap; and finally,
  • to complete loss of the central community institution, with destruction of the Temple and exile of the People, and the related loss of social order.

Although the midrash does not add this, we know that what looks like total destruction is not the end. Destruction of the First Temple resulted in a Judaism built on the experience of Exile, and then, after destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbinic Judaism that we practice today. The eichah in our three texts suggests a “how” of transformation to be learned from each stage — as well as messages for each stage to be found in reading them together.

Escalating Disaster

In Deut 1:12, Moses moves pretty quickly from perception of a problem to solution. But the eichah points to an element of the situation we might otherwise miss: mutual despair, with Moses and the People together in turmoil. Things sound pretty dire, at one point, but there is a turn-around. How? The People and Moses must refocus on basic principles: justice and organizing for sharing of burdens.

Similarly, in the Haftarah, the eichah hints at despair as the community and its systems are in peril. This time God seems to have reached a breaking point, declaring through Isaiah that the People are a rotten mess, harboring thieves and murderers, while rituals have become so empty that God is hurt to the very quick. The remedy, the People are told again, is a refocusing on basic principles: How to avoid disaster? Learn to do good; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, atone for wrongs, clean up the mess.

The eichah of Lamentations however, is a breaking point without apparent remedy. The closest thing to repair we hear is that final plea: “Bring us back to You, HASHEM, and we shall return as in days of old.” How will this occur? On Tisha B’av, we don’t know yet. The author of Lamentations, and its original listeners, had not yet moved on from disaster and mourning to the period of betweenness and then transformation.

By asking us to read all three eichahs in short order — all on one weekend, as it happens, this year [5779] — we prepare for Tisha B’av’s “don’t know yet” with Shabbat Hazon’s “hows” of previous transformations. But it also, I think, warns us to be willing to sit with that “don’t know yet” in the other stages of disaster, outlined in the three-part midrash.

We have the instructional “how” of Deuteronomy and Isaiah in today’s readings, reminders of what we’re supposed to be doing in terms of individual and communal repair. But we can also make use of the desperate element in the “how” — taking time to process the grief and the worry, communities at the breaking point, rituals that don’t seem to serve their purpose any longer. Eichah?!

Transformations and the Grateful Dead

A few years ago, an essay in the Times of Israel suggested that we can also learn about the transformations of Judaism marked with Tisha B’av from the transformation of the Grateful Dead, following Jerry Garcia’s death. (What the Grateful Dead Can Teach Us About Tisha B’av at Times of Israel, 2017)

Then newly minted rabbi, Simeon Cohen, mentions “the Days Between,” from Jerry Garcia’s birthday, August 1, to his yahrzeit, August 9, in his essay and links this period to the Jewish calendar’s Nine Days of mourning at the start of Av.

“The Days Between” by the way, is celebrated around the world and has no intrinsic relationship to Tisha B’av or Judaism generally. “The Nine Days of Jerry” was launched in an orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem and specifically organized around the season of Av. Cohen’s essay doesn’t mention these details, so here is some background for those interested; meanwhile moving ahead to his punchline…

After the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Yohanan ben Zakkai founded a new learning institution at Yavneh, and, eventually, Cohen writes, “an entirely new, revolutionary form of Judaism was born. It has now far outlasted its predecessor.” He likens this to the survival of Dead-related music after Jerry Garcia died in 1995. (As much as I appreciate the existence and publication of this essay, I find that it focuses more on the commercial success of Dead-related enterprises in the post-1995 years — along with the popularity of that worst of all Dead songs, “Touch of Gray” — rather than on survival of any kind of Deadly essence.)

Then, noting current issues, including tension between Israel and the Diaspora, Cohen concludes:

World Jewry is in the midst of an incredibly fraught moment…Yet I take comfort in the adaptive, evolutionary spirit of Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Grateful Dead. No matter how dark things become, we have always found a way to survive.

This is a comforting message. But I fear that it too quickly jumps toward that big change, skipping over crucial mourning and betweenness. The desire to do this is not unique to Cohen: it’s very common, and quite comforting in some ways, to jump toward solutions in order to avoid having to sit with mourning and betweenness. In doing so, however, we miss crucial lessons.

Another article on the Grateful Dead focuses more on the betweenness. And I don’t think it requires ever having heard two bars of Dead music to consider, as the author says: Grateful Dead music “has always been about listening to the transforming collective experience of the moment.” (See “Tuning In Together” by Granville Ganter)

Isn’t this also an aspect of what we do in group prayer? Through music, speech, and/or silence prayer helps us shape individual gratitude into collective praise, grief into commitment, and disasters into a future we cannot yet imagine. But, like listening to the Grateful Dead, prayer requires experiencing the moment — which sometimes means sitting with pain, anxiety, or uncertainty — and noticing the transformations happening inside it.

Combining Messages

Together the three eichah texts — along with Rabbi Cohen’s Grateful Dead analogy — remind us that nothing stays the same for long, that growth comes with new burdens, that living in community and pursuing a vision is hard work. We have to adapt, learn to do good in changing circumstances, seek justice over and over again.

The calendar is built to remind us:
the three weeks of chastising prophetic readings come every year; followed by the lowest day of the year, Tisha B’av; and then the slow climb up through the seven weeks of comfort, including Elul’s wake-up calls, toward the new year.

Today’s reading from Isaiah, built into that cycle, warns us now that it won’t be enough in the coming holiday season to check off the days — skip a few meals, listen to the shofar, give tzedakah donations, recite the proper words — none of that, by itself, will create change, for us or for the wider world.

Today’s Torah reading, also a part of this cycle, cautions us to take a look at our communities now — before we head into the season of repair and return — to notice if the burdens and spirit and power are balanced in healthful ways, or if we are facing more disaster ahead.

Shabbat Hazon asks us to envision something different for the coming year.

Tisha B’av asks us to sit with mourning and betweenness.

And the combination of the two suggests the possibility of true transformation.


NOTES

More on “eichah

The Hebrew word אֵיךְ [eich, how] — an adverb/interrogative with an incredulous, negative connotation (the Evan Shoshan concordance calls it “question of rebuke”), appears six times in Genesis and Exodus. For example: when Abimelech says to Isaac: “…she’s your wife! so how then did you say ‘she is my sister’!” (Gen 26:9), and when Moses says to God: “…the children of Israel haven’t listened to me, so how will Pharaoh hear me, of uncircumcised lips?” (Exod 6:12).

The word does not appear at all in Leviticus or Numbers. This form (including v’eich, וְאֵיךְ) appears 55 times in the Prophets and Writings.

The form eichah אֵיכָה first appears in Deuteronomy, where it is used five times, beginning with 1:12. This is more than in any other book, even the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), where it appears four times. The use in Isaiah, included in the midrash above, is the only appearance in that book. This form of the word shows up an additional seven times in the Tanakh: in Judges, 2 Kings, Song of Songs (twice in one verse), and Psalms, along with twice in Jeremiah.

In total, the Evan Shoshan Concordance only lists 78 occurrences of eich/eichah, plus four instances of “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah,” which appears twice in the Book of Esther and twice in Song of Songs. (Strong’s lists 82 occurrences, including all three forms — it’s nice when they match!)

“How?!” is not among the rarest words in the Tanakh, but it’s unusual (and IMO interesting.)

Regarding the less usual “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah” form, see also “The World is Like a Poem” by Annabelle Farmelant.”

Three-Part Eichah Midrash in Three Versions

from Eichah Rabbah:
Three prophesied with the language of eichah: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah.* Moses said, (Deut 1:12), “How (eichah) will I carry alone…” Isaiah said, (Isa 1:21) “How (eichah) she has become a prostitute…” Jeremiah said, (Lam 1:1) “How (eichah) does she dwell…” Said

Rabbi Levi: It is compared to a noble woman who had three friends. One saw her at peace, one saw her in her recklessness, and one saw her in her degradation

  1. So did Moses see Yisrael in their honor, and in their tranquility, [yet] he said, “How will I carry their burden alone?”
  2. Isaiah saw them in their recklessness, and he said “How she has become a prostitute…”
  3. Jeremiah saw them in their degradation, and he said, “How does she dwell…”

Eichah Rabbah 1(Roman Palestine) via sefaria

*NOTE: The assumption here is that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. There are additional uses of “eichah” in the Tanakh, but they are not “prophecies.”
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Akeidat Yitzchak (15th Century CE Spain) offers the same parable with the noble woman first “at the height of her beauty and wealth,” then “committing excesses,” and finally “in disgrace.” — this is based on the older midrash: Eichah Rabbah 1 (Roman Palestine).
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One more version:
It’s hard to de-gender the biblical images, but perhaps we can rethink the midrash as three stages at which the prophets meet Yisrael:

  1. Moses knew them during a carefree period (God and the People are “honeymooning” in the desert) but was still prompted to cry “How…”;
  2. Isaiah knew them when they were treating greater riches carelessly and warned them about power imbalances;
  3. Jeremiah knew them at a time of complete disaster and cried out at their misery, not recognizing their carefree, even careless, past.


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Torach

In addition to sharing the word “eichah” with the only verse in Isaiah to use “eichah,” as discussed above, Deuteronomy 1:12 shares the word “torach” with the only verse in Isaiah (or anywhere else in the Tanakh) to use that word. (“Torach” only appears in these two verses in Tanakh.)

חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי
הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח; נִלְאֵיתִי, נְשֹׂא
Your new moons and your appointed seasons fill Me with loathing;* They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them.
— Isaiah 1:14

אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי,
טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם
How can I bear unaided
the trouble of you, and the burden,
and the bickering!
— Deuteronomy 1:12

*This is the “New JPS” (Jewish Publication Society), 1985. The 1917 “Old JPS” has “My soul hateth,” following KJV (King James Version), for “loathing” here; Alter has “utterly despises,” noting that he incorporated into the verb phrase the intensity of the subject’s added נַפְשִׁי nafshi [my soul].

טָרְחֲכֶם, tarchakhem — the trouble of you. טֹרַח, torach is usually translated in Isaiah 1:14 as “burden,” while the same Hebrew word, as it appears in Deuteronomy here, is translated as “trouble” or “(heavy) load,” or, in the old JPS and the KJV: “cumbrance.”

In the earlier version of Moses’ complaint about the people being too heavy to bear (Numbers 11:11), the Hebrew is מַשָּׂא, massa, regularly translated in that verse — as well as here (following “trouble of you” above) — as “burden.” Massa is a far more common word than torach.


The Nine Days (of Av), The Nine Days of Jerry, and the Days Between

Since 2008 at least, music promoters have been marking what was originally called “Jerry week” (although nine days), between the August 1 birthday and August 9 death date of Jerry Garcia (1942-1995). More recently, fans have been marking what are now called “the Days Between.” Locally, for example, the Hamilton Live venue has been celebrating for three years now. While plenty of Jews celebrate, “the Days Between” don’t have the same Jewish resonance of the “Nine Days of Jerry.”

In 2010, Lorelai Kude, a huge Dead fan with a sense of personal connection to the band and to Jerry, in particular, launched the “Nine Days of Jerry” on her audio streaming program called “Radio Free Nachlaot” (RFN). She had started RFN, named for her Jerusalem neighborhood and using the tagline “Where Shlomo meets Jerry,” the year before.

I met Lorelai at a Jewish Deadhead camp of sorts, “Blues for Challah,” at Camp Isabella Freedman in 2011. It seemed clear that the Nine Days of Jerry were, for her, more than simply a chance to reflect and remember — as Rabbi Cohen describes “the Days Between” in his essay, and as many fans experience the period — but much more of a marking of Jerry’s yahrzeit and an attempt to deal with major loss, both relating to the Jewish calendar and to Jerry’s death and the subsequent changes in the Dead universe.

Many fans, Jewish and not, mark “the Days Between,” wherever they fall in the Jewish calendar. Lorelai and many of her listeners, however, avoid music in observance of the Nine Days (of Av). Depending on how August and Av line up, RFN is frequently shut down entirely, in mourning, while others are celebrating. This year, the Nine Days of Jerry begin August 12.
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World Like a Poem

Annabelle Farmelant, a U.S.-based writer, who published books of Hebrew verse in 1960 and 1961, focused a number of her poems on what words — especially in Hebrew’s gendered language — can and cannot do:

The world is like a poem
in all its glory,
even in the thick of its aches
terrors and cries
its grandeur is reflected.
Man enters the world like a wanderer
Like a wanderer man enters the world
and declares that he will roam
always, always.*
But how — he asks — just how**
— Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha —
does beauty rule a poem
when a line is erased?
How does splendor** shine
when its form is wiped out?
Man is not in these things
for a poem’s beauty is not in a line
an unnamed wanderer
in the world’s splendor***
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores

*lanetzach. Forever or eternally, rather than perpetually.
**Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha. How — he asks — just how.
***tiferet ba-olam. splendor in the world. Tifereth is a feminine word for an attribute of the divine, one right at the center of the Kabbalist tree of life. tiferet ha-olam. splendor of the world

The translation is by Adriana X. Jacobs, from Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016). The notes are mine, and I’m including a few of the original Hebrew words. Additional information on Farmelant, including an article on her work by Jacobs.

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Devarim and Eichah

Here are some background materials relating to the Torah portion Devarim, the Grateful Dead, and Shabbat Hazon. Also included are a selection from Marge Piercy’s “Nishmat” and an excerpt from Fanny Neuda’s Hours of Devotion to be included in the Shabbat morning service, August 10 at Temple Micah. Handout for August 10.

Here are the full articles excerpted in the handout:

“What the Grateful Dead Can Teach Us About Tisha B’av” (Times of Israel June 2017) by Rabbi Simeon Cohen
“Tuning In Together” by Granville Ganter (1999 article)

Also attached are some notes and quotes from Yoram Hazony’s book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) from the chapter, “Truth and Being in the Hebrew Bible.” He discusses a number of verses from the book of Devarim, several from the opening portion, in the process of outlining his ideas about words, objects and dualism (or, he argues, lack thereof) in the Tanakh. I prepared this PDF for discussion of this Torah portion but then decided to talk about something entirely different this week. Perhaps eventually I’ll write up the notes for the drash I decided not to give; meanwhile, here’s the PDF: “Davar and Devarim: What is a davar and when is it true or false?

Ki Teitzei: Productive Erasing

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NOTE: In conjunction with this dvar torah, I produced a four-page set of background materials. For the purposes of this post, I added hyperlinks to all sources not directly quoted in the dvar proper. But the source sheet was actually designed to stand as its own, so it might prove useful to download the PDF as well: Ki Teitzei sourcesheet (PDF)

I learned something in preparing for this week’s portion that changed my perspective on several things, and I hope I can convey it in a way that at least makes sense and maybe also gives you a new way to look at some things. I prepared a source sheet with bits of Torah, later parts of the Hebrew bible, notes from Talmud, medieval and later writings. We’re not going to follow the material in order, and I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’m hoping you’ll be willing to follow me on a somewhat meandering path. As it says in one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs:

Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.
— Scarlet Begonias, Hunter/Garcia 1974

Ki Teitzei and Commandments

We’ll start with a few words about this week’s portion. It contains a wide range of commandments. Some I think most of us would agree are sensible, kind and just: building houses so as to prevent accidents, returning lost property, and paying promptly for hired work. A few – like not wearing mixtures of linen and wool – are so hard to explain that they’re often put into the category of decrees to follow even if we don’t know why. Several are quite disturbing, like an order to obliterate whole peoples and a commandment to bring a rebellious child to the town elders to be killed.

All these commandments – the worrisome, the crazy-sounding, and the easy to accept – have been the subject of thousands of years of discussion and the source of many ethical directives, as well as mystical teachings, sometimes both woven together. This portion is one that reminds us that

  • A) Jewish tradition rarely, if ever, accepts a text entirely at face value; and
  • B) texts that trouble us today almost certainly troubled our ancestors, too.

It’s a relief to know, for example, how the ancient Rabbis read the verse about the rebellious child: They looked carefully at the language and decided that use of the singular expression, “voice” for two people means that these conditions apply only if a child disobeys two parents who speak identically, at once, and the parents are alike in appearance and stature; this, the Rabbis declared, was so unlikely that such a case never happened and never would. Instead, they said, the verse was put there for study purposes only.

So that is one commandment that no Jewish community observes. But there are others in this portion that many Jews do observe – and that fact can complicate study for Jews who don’t observe in the same way.

After more than a century of distancing itself from all ceremonial and ritual commandments, the Reform movement shifted gears with the 1999 Platform, saying: “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.” See below for a few words from the 18CCAR-logo85 and 1999 platforms and a link to the full texts (and/or p.3 of PDF); I think it’s worthwhile to review these things from time to time.

As the 1999 platform suggests, even if we don’t observe particular commandments, studying them can remind us that our tradition is richer and deeper, and sometimes stranger, than a quick reading or online search might suggest. I say “strange” both in the sense of “not known before” and in the sense of “odd” or “out of place,” because Torah teachings from one Jewish culture can seem quite strange to Jews from another community. This is especially evident when we’re talking about commandments that are carefully observed by some Jews but practically unknown by others.

For Jews who don’t observe family purity laws or kashrut, for example, details of these laws might seem irrelevant, old-fashioned, or preachy. But many Jewish teachings, including most from previous centuries, assume knowledge and interest in these areas. So skipping over all such teaching means missing a lot. There’s a great deal to be learned in foreign Torah territory, and different sets of assumptions are not necessarily meant to be inhospitable. The key, I think, is to do some advance planning to make the most of the trip. And that’s what I hope we can do this morning, as we head into possibly unfamiliar landscape in search of new perspectives on Amalek, on repentance and making changes in the world.

leftfield
Left Field: insurancenewsnet.com

The first bit of background might seem out of left field for exploring Amalek,
Consider, however, that throws from deep in the outfield can have a big impact on the game.

Work and Shabbat

In Genesis 2:2, God ceases God’s melachah, creative work, and rests on the Sabbath. (Verses and more details below and/or page 3 of PDF.)

In Exodus 31, God is giving instructions for building the Tabernacle, and the People are told that melachah, creative work, is forbidden on the Sabbath in imitation of God’s rest.

Later Jewish tradition, beginning with the Talmud, lists 39 categories of melachah – like tying knots, bleaching, spinning, and carrying things –
based on the kind of work that was needed to construct the Tabernacle.

One of the prohibited kinds of melachah is “mocheik al m’nat lichtov” – erasing with the intention to write something new in that same place:

…Erasing merely to blot out what is written is a destructive act, and destructive acts are not forbidden on Shabbat by Torah law. Melachah is constructive activity, similar to God’s creative acts when forming the universe.

So what form of erasing is prohibited on the Sabbath? “Mocheik al m’nat lichtov” — erasing with the intention of writing again. One’s intention must be to clean the surface in order to write over the original letters. This type of erasing is a positive, constructive activity, and therefore is incompatible with the special rest of the Sabbath day.
— “True Erasing” from Rav Kook on parashat Ki Teitzei
(See also Language Note below; source #17 on PDF)

infieldThis is where that throw from left field reaches the infield, as Rav (Rabbi Abraham Isaac) Kook explains that this is the kind of erasing required to obliterate Amalek’s name.

Remembering Amalek

So, now let’s take a few moments to remember Amalek, as we’re told to do
at the close of this week’s portion.

There are five biblical texts dealing with Amalek on the source sheet (sources 1-5 and below). Amalek appears a few more times in the Torah and later in the Tanach, but these are the most important ones for our story this morning.

We recall that Amalek is the grandson of Esau and great-great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Esau is the one who was tricked out of the first-born’s blessing by his twin brother, Jacob, who becomes Israel. That makes him our family, too, however thoroughly estranged.

In Exodus, Amalek launches an unprovoked attack on the Israelites in the wilderness, and God declares war with Amalek from generation to generation. In this week’s portion, we learn new information about that incident: that Amalek had attacked the weakest stragglers and that Amalek did not fear God.

Later, the Book of Samuel and the Book of Esther each reference more generations of Amalek and Israel as enemies – we are becoming more and more distant cousins, but still family. Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman suggest that we view the two peoples as “connected to each other like conjoined twins. If I assault my twin, I am wounding myself….”

And that brings us to “My Brother Esau.” This song captures an important idea, shared by many Jewish teachers, about the relationship between Israel and Esau, and by extension, Amalek. The lines “the more my brother looks like me,” and “though he gave me all his cards,” in particular, touch on the thread of Jewish teaching that sees Esau and Amalek as other aspects of ourselves, like Jacob and Yisrael are sometimes understood as two aspects of one individual.

Obliterating Amalek

Returning to this week’s portion, we are told:

  • to remember זָכוֹר
    Remember what Amalek did to the Jewish people;
  • to blot out the remembrance תִּמְחֶה
    Wipe out the descendants of Amalek from under heaven
    תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; and
  • to not forget לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח
    Not to forget Amalek’s atrocities/ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert.

These are usually understood as three separate commandments, following Maimonides.

Over the centuries, Jews of many different belief systems have struggled with whether, and how, those commandments – especially the one to wipe out a whole people – still apply. See, for a really helpful and accessible summary,  “Are Jews Still Commanded to Blot Out the Memory of Amalek?”

Professor Golinkin, like Nechama Leibowitz and others before him, focuses on the two new statements in this week’s portion: that Amalek did not fear God, and that he attacked the vulnerable. (See below for excerpt and link to the full article; p.2, PDF.)

Many teachers see the joining of these in the text as evidence that failing to care for the weak is a failure to fear God, and vice versa.

plateFinally, now, that throw from left field makes it all the way to the plate.

In Exodus 17, there are two odd spellings that caught the attention of commentators: “Throne” is spelled with two letters instead of the usual three – that is, keis, instead of kisei – and God’s name is spelled with only two letters – yud-hey, instead of the four-letter name. (p.1 PDF or below)

Completing God’s Name

In many different readings, Amalek represents attempts to erase God’s name, either by unethical behavior that harms the image of God in others or by trying to remove “Yisrael,” a nation which contains God’s name. The latter is Rav Kook’s view:

We are charged to replace Amalek with the holy letters of God’s complete Name. We must restore God’s complete throne – i.e., God’s Presence in the world – through the special holiness of the Jewish people, who transmit God’s message to the world.

Rav Kook says we can see from these shortened words that all is not right with God’s name in the world after the encounter with Amalek. And this means that simply erasing Amalek’s name won’t put things right.

Returning to the concept of melachah, some erasing is just destructive.
And, even though it might seem contrary to the spirit of Shabbat,
destruction is not actually among the 39 categories of prohibited action.
Only creative acts.

Similarly, Rav Kook explains, the mitzvah is not simply to obliterate Amalek so that there will no longer be any more Amalekites in the world. That would be a purely destructive act.

The destruction of Amalek must have a productive goal. We must obliterate Amalek, with the intention of ‘transforming the world into a kingdom of the Almighty.’

Rav Kook, in The Moral Principles, tells us that Amalek’s name is to be erased only from under heaven. Meaning that somewhere, however twisted, there was a good intention in Amalek that should be recognized and not destroyed. This effort requires a “lofty state of purity,” which Rav Kook doesn’t think too common. But the aspiration is still instructive, especially, for Elul. (See source #9 below; p.1, PDF)

Elul Thoughts

So much of the advice around teshuva focuses on one-way apologies and single-handed attempts to change our behavior. One-way changes are important for our souls and, no doubt, to those whom we’ve wronged. But we live in relationships and community. And Rav Kook’s two teachings on Amalek together suggest that it’s not enough to beat down evil urges or repair individual wrongs. What we need to do is to approach places where we, as individuals or groups, have allowed the non-God-fearer’s name to appear and erase it with the intention of writing something better. Destruction – even of an evil, in ourselves, or in a relationship, with a brother or an enemy – is only half the task. The real God-imitating work is in destroying in order to rebuild something better in ourselves, in our relationships and in the wider world.

Now, let’s return for a moment to the wider concept of melachah and Shabbat. Like most of us here today, I observe Shabbat in a way that does not involve understanding details of the 39 different categories of melachah associated with building the Tabernacle, and avoiding them on Shabbat. So, I don’t usually worry about whether a particular kind of writing or erasing is allowed on Shabbat. And I know I’m not alone in this.

Looking at Rav Kook’s very specific teaching, however, shifted my understanding of Shabbat. For a long time, I’ve endeavored to avoid computer and internet, work-related calls, and money-related talk on Shabbat. This helps me separate the Sabbath from the six days and also to explain what I do and don’t do on Saturdays to other people. But I don’t avoid kindling, travel beyond my neighborhood, or many other forms of melachah, including many kinds of creation.

And I realized just a few days ago that I had really missed the main point here. There’s powerful value in making Shabbat with my husband, in our own way. But I am now paying more attention to the concept of ceasing to create because even God took a day off from essential, productive, maybe enjoyable, activities –rather than because it suits me in some ways to take a break.

…That brings me to this short story by Sharon Strassfeld, and to this note: What-, who-, or however we envision God — or even if we don’t really think of God at all — it’s important to consider, especially as we enter the high holidays season, that we’re not God. (Story also in plain text below for those who don’t do graphics; p.4, PDF in graphic form.)

bow_Strassfeld

Erasing and Learning

Finally, consider this verse from Pirkei Avot, mentioning “machok,” blotting:

לִישָׁע בֶּן אֲבוּיָה אוֹמֵר, הַלּוֹמֵד יֶלֶד לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לִדְיוֹ כְתוּבָה עַל נְיָר חָדָשׁ.
וְהַלּוֹמֵד זָקֵן לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לִדְיוֹ כְתוּבָה עַל נְיָר מָחוּק
Elisha ben Abuya said: When you learn as a child, what is it like? Like ink written on clean paper.
When you learn in old age, what is it like? Like ink written on blotted paper [a sheet from which the original writing has been erased]
– Avot 4:25 (or 4:20)

Until a few days ago I thought this was the saddest Mishnah I’d ever seen. This is the only place where Elisha Ben Abuya‘s name appears. Everywhere else in the Talmud, he’s referred to as Acher, “the Other,” for complicated reasons, relating to this week’s portion, that led to his becoming a heretic and a symbol of rabbinic failure.

I kept thinking about Elisha Ben Abuya’s struggles with community and faith. And the idea that he saw adult learning as such a difficult, messy process – like trying to write on parchment that was already used and scraped off – broke my heart.

But then, in studying this portion and Rav Kook’s teachings, I had a new idea:
Maybe all he’s really saying is that anyone who is trying to learn something and is not a small child – whether we’re 12 or 13 or 55 or 85 – is probably erasing some previous, maybe erroneous or partial, understanding of the world. And that is not sad at all. In fact, as I just learned: writing, as well as erasing with the intention to write something new, are both understood as creative work that imitates God. This is what I think we have to keep in mind as we move through Elul and into the Days of Awe.

Our job is not to aim for a clean slate – apologies for mixing metaphors with all that parchment scraping – but to work with what is already written, to make corrections where need be, and to keep trying to write a better story for this new year and beyond.

I hope this made some sense.
Please feel free to contact me if anything was unclear.
With best wishes for a productive Elul and high holiday season.

NOTE: The text above is a dvar torah given at Temple Micah (DC) on August 25. Micah live streams and archives services, so video can be found at Temple Micah (dvar torah about about 50 minutes after the service began). As mentioned above, the four-page source sheet is meant to accompany this drash but also stand on its own. Ki Teitzei source sheet (PDF).

BACKGROUND SOURCES

Amalek in Biblical Text

[1] Amalek is great-great grandson of Abraham and Sarah:

And these are the generations of Esau the father of a the Edomites in the mountain-land of Seir….And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek….
–Gen 36:9-12

[2] In the wilderness, Amalek attacks Israel, who prevails; God declares war against Amalek, “from generation to generation”:

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim….And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’
כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה
אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם
And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi. And he said: ‘The hand upon the throne of the LORD: the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’
וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-יָד
עַל-כֵּס יָהּ, [throne of the LORD]
מִלְחָמָה לַיהוָה, בַּעֲמָלֵק–מִדֹּר, דֹּר –Exodus 17:8, 13-16

See also Language Note below.

[3] Two details about the Exodus story appear in this week’s portion:

…how he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God…–Deut 25:18

[4] Enmity between Amalek and Israel persists:

Thus saith the LORD of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not…

And Saul smote the Amalekites…. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. –1 Sam 2-3, 7-8

[5] Agag’s survival, contrary to instruction, led to the Purim story:

After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him. –Esther 3:1

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[8] THRONE and NAME
“Why is the word for ‘throne’ shortened, and even God’s Name is abbreviated? God swore that His Name and His Throne are not complete until Amalek’s name will be totally obliterated.” – from Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 11; Rashi

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim….And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’
כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם.
And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi. And he said: ‘The hand upon the throne of the LORD: the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’
וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-יָד
עַל-כֵּס יָהּ, [throne of the LORD]
מִלְחָמָה לַיהוָה, בַּעֲמָלֵק–מִדֹּר, דֹּר –Exodus 17:8, 13-16

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[9] from The Moral Principles

The degree of love in the soul of the righteous embraces all creatures, it excludes nothing, and no people or tongue. Even the wicked Amalek’s name is to be erased by biblical injunction only “from under the heavens” (Ex 17:14). But through “cleansing” he may be raised to the source of the good,* which is above the heavens, and is then included in the higher love. But one needs great strength and a lofty state of purity for this exalted kind of unification.
– Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), The Moral Principles.
Ben Zion Bokser, trans. Paulist Press, 1978, p.137

*Kook believed that an evil deed is an impulse that at its highest source of origin was good but became distorted and went astray. The first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in pre-state Israel, he published on ethics and mystical teachings.
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[11]

Amalek and Jews Today

Over the centuries, Jews have argued about whether, and how, those commandments still apply. Many interpreters have identified Amalek with one real life enemy or another, historical or contemporary, from ancient Rome to the Soviets or Nazis; Jews have called other Jews “Amalek,” and some Christians have seen themselves as “Israel” and their enemies, including Jews, as “Amalek.” Others have said that Amalek no longer exists or taken a metaphorical view. – Summarized from Golinkin (citation below).

The 20th Century teacher Nechama Leibowitz explores Deut 25:18 in the context of Torah passages mentioning fear of God, or lack thereof. She notes that each passage focuses on caring for the most vulnerable among us, or failing to do that. Therefore, she writes:

“Amalek” against whom the Almighty declared eternal war is not any more an ethnic or racial concept but is the archetype of the wanton aggressor who smites the weak and defenseless in every generation.

Golinkin quotes Leibowitz and concludes:

In our day, this is perhaps the most important message of the Amalek story — not hatred of Amalek but aversion to their actions. In the State of Israel, there are many strangers and stragglers — new immigrants, foreign workers, as well as innocent Arabs and Palestinians. Some Jews learn from the story of Amalek that we should hate certain groups. We must emphasize the opposite message. We must protect “the stragglers” so that we may say of the State of Israel: “surely there is fear of God in this place”.
“Are Jews Still Commanded to Blot Out the Memory of Amalek?”

Prof. David Golinkin is president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem; highly recommend this thorough, readable article.
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[12]

“My Brother Esau”

Words by John Perry Barlow; music by Bob Weir.
First performed by Grateful Dead in 1983:

Esau holds a blessing;
Brother Esau bears a curse.
I would say that the blame is mine
But I suspect it’s something worse.
The more my brother looks like me,
The less I understand
The silent war that bloodied both our hands.
Sometimes at night, I think I understand.
…It’s brother to brother and it’s man to man
And it’s face to face and it’s hand to hand…
We shadowdance the silent war within.

These words are alternative wording, maybe Bob Weir forgetting lyrics as written or creating new ones, March 1983:

Esau tried to move away
A marvelous disguise
Where every street is easy
and, there’s nothing to deny
Though he gave me all his cards
I could not play his hand
Made a choice
Soon became a stand

Full lyrics and annotations here.
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[13]

Work and Shabbat

Work/Service/Worship = Avodah. (Creative) Work= Melachah:
וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה; וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
And on the seventh day God finished His work [melachto] which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. – Gen 2:2

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ
You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy unto you; every one that profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever does any work [melachah] therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, מוֹת יוּמָת
Six days shall work [melachah] be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever does any work [melachah] in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם, בְּרִית עוֹלָם
Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.

בֵּינִי, וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–אוֹת הִוא, לְעֹלָם:  כִּי-שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ,
וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ
It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.’ – Ex 31:14-17

Later Jewish tradition, beginning with the Talmud, lists “forty minus one” categories of melachah – like tying knots, bleaching, spinning, and carrying things – related to building the Tabernacle, as prohibited on Shabbat. (There’s a 40th category, which is Creation with a capital “C,” but people cannot imitate God in that way, so that’s not included among the prohibitions.)

Very nice resource on this can be found at Ask Moses.
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[14]

Reform Movement and Commandments

1885 Pittsburgh Platform
…We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only the moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization….

1999 Platform
…We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modem, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times….

…We bring Torah into the world when we seek to sanctify the times and places of our lives through regular home and congregational observance. Shabbat calls us to bring the highest moral values to our daily labor and to culminate the workweek with kedushah, holiness, menuchah, rest and oneg, joy….
Full text at Reform Platforms at CCAR
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[16] Strassfeld’s short story:

When I was a teenager, I began reading philosophical works. I concluded that God did not rule the world that in fact we and God were partners. One Yom Kippur in consonance with my new thinking I decided not to “fall korim” (prostrate myself) for the aleinu prayer. My zaydee, who had eagle eyes even for the upstairs women’s balcony, asked me to take a walk with him during the break in services. He wondered, he told me, why I hadn’t fallen korim. I explained that it was a “neue velt” (literally, a “new world”) now and the old-fashioned ideas of God ruling everything and people scurrying around to do God’s command no longer made sense. Zaydee listened and then asked thoughtfully, “Sherreleh, tell me more about this neue velt. I did, telling him all about the things I had been reading and thinking. When I finished, my grandfather said to me, “This new world you speak about I understand. But there is one thing I don’t understand. In this new world, if you don’t bow before God, before whom will you bow?”
– Sharon Strassfeld. Everything I Know: Basic Life Rules from a Jewish Mother. NY: Scribner, 1998

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LANGUAGE NOTES

כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה
אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם (Ex 17:8)
[6] נִמְחָה – to be obliterated, forgotten, destroyed, or eliminated
מָחָה – to erase [or wipe, as dishes], to obliterate, to blot out the memory of ; (literary) to wipe away, to dry (tears, sweat)

[7] OED: “Erase” is a newer (17th Century) than “blot” (15th Century). “Erase” may have come from older word “arace,” to uproot. A “blot” in backgammon is a lone, vulnerable piece. BACK to Exodus 17

[17]“Mocheik al m’nat lichtov”
to erase, to delete ; to blot out – מָחַק
eraser, rubber – מַחַק
BACK to Rav Kook on erasingBACK to Elisha Ben Abuya

Citations:
Waskow, Rabbi Arthur O. and Rabbi Phyllis O. Berman. Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2011. p.155 BACK

More on Acher [Aher, “The Other”], Elisha Ben Abuya:
“A Path to Follow” Ki Teitzei, note on how a verse this portion led is said to have led to Acher’s heresy.

Different stories about Elisha Ben Abuya from the midrash. Much more in the Fabrangen blog on related topics.

A warning about dualism as the four enter Pardes

See also “Daughter of Acher
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Prayers, Advocacy, and #RippleEffect

Continuing the discussion, at “If a corpse be found…”, about the need for new approaches to meeting our communal responsibilities.

Some possible responses to the trauma and tragedy of multiple murders, particularly in Washington, DC —

Prayer

Residents in some of the most affected neighborhoods of the District are asking for prayers, calling on everyone in and around the city to #Pray4DC, as one united town. If you know others who engage in intercessory prayer, please pass along this prayer concern. And, however you approach such requests yourself, please keep the need for “one DC” in mind.

Also, if you know members or clergy in other congregations who might be willing to prayerfully acknowledge DC’s losses to homicide — as Temple Micah has begun to do — please ask them to sign up for #SayThisName.

Learn and Advocate

Learn a little about child trauma and how it affects learning and then advocate for trauma-sensitive schools – particularly in Washington, DC. The District also needs trauma-response units to help young people on the scene cope with the violence they too often face.

You will find more background and links to several pertinent resources in this recent feature report from the Education Town Hall.)

For DC residents, please note particularly, that the DC Council held a roundtable on this topic in June and should be poised to act.

Playing for Change

This one involves the Grateful Dead — some Temple Micah (DC) people know I hate to let a summer pass without somehow bringing in the Dead. And those who follow such things know this summer is the Dead’s 50th anniversary….

Ripple Effect Campaign

As we began the Standing Prayer, I mentioned the idea of ripples of pain moving outward from a bomb or a bullet and how kindness and prayer can also have a ripple effect. (See “Prayer in the Midst of Bullets and Bombs“)

The #RippleEffect Campaign — named for the Grateful Dead son, “Ripple” — simply involves engaging in acts of kindness or telling about a how an act of kindness affected you… and then encouraging others to do so as well, creating a kindness ripple.

Part of the effort involves social media, for those interested. But it’s certainly not required for the spreading of kindness, or for doing so with the intention of helping to heal all that is broken in DC and beyond.

Playing for Change Day

2015-bnr-PFC_squareA second goal of the Ripple Effect Campaign is to raise awareness and funds for a project called “Playing for Change” that teaches music and dance to young people around the world, including in the U.S. Playing for Change (PFC) helps youth use music for everything from improving education to resolving conflicts, preserving cultural heritage, and building community, locally, and connections worldwide.

PFC Day — with activities in 61 countries last year — is an annual effort, scheduled this year during the Days of Awe.

Organizers say

This day of music, peace, and change keeps instruments, music instruction, and inspiration flowing to children around the world, … and contributes to positive vibration that connects and inspires us all.

Justice, Justice you shall pursue

The related dvar Torah, “If a corpse be found…”, continues the discussion of ripples — ones of pain, outward from bullets and bombs, and ones of healing.

Is anyone else interested in pursuing a Playing for Change activity in DC and/or the Jewish world?

Grateful Thanksgivakkah

In honor of this odd confluence of holidays — 30 Days of Dead, Chanukah, and Thanksgiving — I offer these thoughts on Jewish worship, text study and the Grateful Dead. It is not necessary to know anything about the (Grateful) Dead or to like them, musically or culturally, to explore this analogy. I’ve been told by fans and non-fans that it is helpful. I hope you enjoy and find it useful and welcome comments.

The material was originally shared at Temple Micah (DC) for Shabbat Shelach in 2011. Here’s the introduction from that dvar torah.

Not Just for Dead Fans

How the Grateful Dead, Jewish Text and Worship Explain One Another and Raise Interesting Questions.”

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You Didn’t Have to Be There: Prayer, Sinai and the Grateful Dead

There’s a great scene in a fairly silly movie, called Must Love Dogs: The struggling divorced man played by John Cusack is obsessed with the movie Doctor Zhivago. He watches it over and over at home and then drags the young woman he is dating to a revival house to see it. Leaving the theater, the dating couple runs into the romantic lead, played by Diane Lane, who declares that she too loves Doctor Zhivago. She watches it over and over again hoping, she says, “that once Lara and Yuri will get together again…in the springtime preferably. And wear shorts.” The young date responds, “OK, but they can’t because it’s just a movie.”

Of course, Diane Lane and John Cusack do get together, even though things still don’t look so good for Yuri and Lara. And I believe the Must Love Dogs view of Doctor Zhivago has a lot to say about this week’s Torah portion Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and about our prayers.
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