Thursday, February 22, 2007

Purim Events!

The Megillah Readings wil be on March 3rd at 7pm and the next morning March 4th at 9am.

It is followed by the Purim Bang! details above-- Get your tickets early! Black Tie Optional or Fabulous costumes. Kids are welcome-- champagne, cheese, dancing, music (for what would dancing be without music? And what would champagne be without:) Chocolate.... Again, see above for details.

The Purim carnival very kidcentric will be the next day from 1-3. Come in costume! Come joyful.

admission: free for BRJC members.
non-members: adults $5, kids $2

Celebrate with us!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Crying of Yishmael

Hagar in the Wilderness by Jean Baptiste Camille-Corot from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In every text, the author makes certain stylistic choices in order to get the reader to identify with the characters. Through this identification, the author can expand the reader, opening them up to whatever message they are trying to send through the characters involved in the story. The Torah utilizes stylistic moves as well, shifting perspectives, creating intriguing omissions, as well as a whole host of others, making the Torah’s message more interesting and more effectively conveyed. These literary devices are often noticed when one encounters a textual oddity such as the one that appears during the narrative of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert.[1]

When the problems between Sarah and Hagar culminate in Yishmael and Yitzchak behaving problematically, Sarah makes Avraham throw Hagar and her son out of the house. They are banished to the desert and when the water they had with them was almost gone, Hagar feared Ishmael would soon die. The Torah states (Gen. 21:15-17a):

"When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. And God heard the cry of the boy….”

The textual oddity is that it was Hagar who had been crying and yet the text reports that God responded to Yishmael's voice.

One of the things that this illustrates is that the Torah simply does not report everything that happened to the characters, even in the midst of an involved and closely observed narrative. This is obviously the case, as has to be, in any story that is told. The narrator makes certain editorial selections in order to tell a compelling story, sometimes leaving out details and letting us fill in the blanks. The Torah rarely tells us that the characters in the Bible are eating or sleeping, but of course they do. We know nothing of how the woman Cain marries was created. We know next to nothing of the early years of Moshe. Sometimes we don't bother to fill in the blanks in the stories because they are irrelevant to the larger narrative. Sometimes, we fill in the blanks with the most obvious conclusions because to do so otherwise would be ludicrous. For example, we know that Rebekah was buried because the text reports this (Gen. 49:31), but the Torah never says that she died (the rabbi's finding allusion to it in the weepings of the oak, aside); we fill in the blank in the obvious way (that she died) because it would be absurd to think that Yizchak buried her alive.

The point is that even though the text does not say that Yishmael was crying, this does not mean necessarily that he wasn't. It is a fair assumption that a boy who was dying in the desert heat would have been crying, and indeed, this follows the Radak who states, “ki gam hu nasah et kolo u'vacha.” He also lifted up his voice and cried." The Radak's comment confirms the fact that a textual oddity exists here, one that needs his clarification. We could also use as proof that Yishmael was crying the fact that God responded-- to his cry.

At least two questions still remain:

1) Why does the Torah decide to report Hagar's crying? Just as it is safe to assume that a dehydrating child would have been crying, isn't it also safe to assume that a mother who is watching her son's death would be crying? Since so, why does the Torah report it explicitly?

2) Why indeed does God answer specifically Yishmael's cry?

The answer to question #2 we get from Rashi. Rashi, citing Bereshit Rabbah 53:17, says that we learn here that the prayers of those who are sick are better than the prayers of others on behalf of a sick person. This would explain why God is said to have answered his prayers and not hers-- he was the praying sick one. And her prayers became redundant after he was saved. Additionally, the same siman in Bereshit Rabbah talks of Yishmael's merit-- that God answered him because at that moment he was praying and that made him righteous. Even though in the future he would act badly according to the Midrashand even though in the past he did wrong by Yitzchak, according to the Torah, at that time he merited assistance because he was acting righteously. God answering his prayer serves a didactic purpose: we learn that we are judged for what we are doing at the moment and not on our history or future transgressions. Of course, given that he was also a son of Avraham, he deserved some assistance, says the Midrash, so family connections do matter.

We are left with the question of why does the text report that she is crying when this too would have been obvious. I believe the answer lies in considering the disparity in reporting Hagar and Yishmael's weeping not as an omission, but as an ingenious literary device employed by the author of the Torah for a particular affect.

By reporting the weeping of Hagar and not the weeping of Yishmael, it makes you hear her cries and not his. Because of the stylistic omission of his crying, you follow her story for just a little while longer, which means that the author wants to emphasize something about her plight during this scene. She has already removed herself a bowshot from where he is; she could do nothing for her son and in her despondency, she runs away. The Midrash (B.R. 53:13) notes that the phrase kimtachavei keshet is written in the plural and so R. Isaac reads her distance as two bowshots away. He further states that two bowshots equals 2000 cubits (approx. 3000 feet, over half a mile). From where she is, she can no longer hear the cries of her son.

The reason the text does not report his cry and therefore the reason that we do not hear his cry is because we are with her where she is. We see that she is crying to an enormous silence, made worse by the fact that she cannot even hear the one thing that may still be crying with her. To her, this silence would have signified the death of her son. Following her in the scene, and hearing her cries along with the obvious exclusion of his creates such a powerful realization in the mind of the reader of what that silence means that you cannot help but be exhausted by the space between verse 16 and 17. The caesura makes us re-enter the mind of Hagar in her fright. She is caught between not knowing whether her son is just too far for her to hear his cry or if he had indeed, just then, died. At that moment the reader is meant to be in this terror with Hagar hearing the silence and feeling the collapse of the universe. It is not just the hopeless loneliness of her situation, she also encounters the moment where she cannot discern between alive and dead. As she stumbles away from her son, a walk on which the reader accompanies her, she moves from incredible powerlessness, to extraordinary loneliness and ending in a pain made more massive by its ambiguousness.

How long elapsed between verses 16 and 17? How long did she hear the quiet before God indicates that he heard the cry of the boy and that he would live? This is something we don't know and perhaps would have a better sense of if the text were still understood as an oral text. Perhaps a day went by. Perhaps the teller of this story was supposed to wait a full minute and be with Hagar in the silence for an extended period of time. It is something that I am not sure the answer to, but think the question still furthers the point that the absence of mention of his cry means to underscore her dramatic despair.

The verse following her cry reports that God will remove her from the black hole that she faces and that her son will live. It is perhaps the oldest but still most significant religious message, that even in the moments when it seems our sorrow is permanent, we shouldn’t give up. It suggests also that even if God does not seem to be giving us relief directly, God could be dealing with the causes of our despair, as is the case here. By not reporting Yishmael’s cry, the Torah creates the conditions for our identification with Hagar and, if we read it correctly, opens us up to receive this theological comfort. It is not only the words of this story that must be read, but, as in life, one must also consider the silences.

[1] This was brought to my attention by Joel Silberstein through his close reading of Genesis 21.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Shabbat B'Yachad-- Shabbat Together Friday night dinner

This week is the third Shabbas of the month. So, as usual, we will be davenning (praying) together at 6:30pm Friday night and then eating together in the Ballroom after services. It is a pleasant non-stressful way to begin Shabbas and a nice way to meet and help build the community in Bay Ridge.

We ask that everyone please bring a dairy dish to share with others.

In order not to have everyone bring the same thing, like too much Chumus, we ask that you follow this chart:

If your last name begins with an:

A-F please bring an appetizer
G-M please bring a main dish
N-S please bring a dessert
T-Z please bring a salad

Behold the tortoise who makes progress only when he sticks his neck out!
Hope to see you then!

Friday, February 9, 2007

Over/Under for Kabbalat Shabbat Feb. 9th, 2007

Last week, Feb. 2, 2007 the over/under number was 9, and the over hit.

Why the experts picked 9: It's a little cold today. By the time of services, the air should dip down to around 27 degrees. And on the other hand, a bar-mitzvah is coming up and perhaps he will show up like he did last week with his lovely grandparents in tow. The number may be a little low given that last week the over hit despite the rain, but we'll see.

On the halacha of counting people: In general, one is not supposed to count people. If you must, you do so indirectly. This reminds you that the people are not there for your purpose-- usually when you are counting something, you do so because you want to use it, or claim ownership of it. In the case of counting for a minyan, the idea is that we are all there for the purpose of serving God. Therefore, we do not count directly. Some employ the method of "not"-- i.e. "not one, not two, not three." I assume this reminds people that those that they are counting are more than numbers. Others employ the method of using Psalm 28:9, which has ten words. If you can recite the whole pasuk assigning each person a different word, then you know you have a minyan-- hoshia et amecha uvarech et nachaltecha urayem v'na'asem ad haolam. There is definitely a machloket, a disagreement, about the permissibility of counting people for good purposes. Rashi thinks its best to refrain from doing so, while Abravanel believes it is acceptible. In general we try and refrain from doing so to remind ourselves it's the people that count and not the numbers.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Where We're From

This is a photograph of the grandfather Eliezer Bloshteyn, one of the members at the Bay Ridge Jewish Center. His name is Ze’ev Shleyfer. He was called Wolfe in Yiddish, and Vladimir in Russian. He was born around the year 1870 in the shtetl Ovruch, which is in the center of the Ukraine, close to the shtetl where Rabbi Nachman was born. In 1941, their family had left Odessa and moved to Tashkent where he died. In Odessa, he was a shoemaker and a serious man. In the community, he was considered to be a very dignified person. Eliezer and his family lived on the third floor of the building and his grandparents lived in the basement. His grandparents' apartment was always clean and light. Inside of their apartment there was a big storage cabinet with Kosher plates and forks. They always ate kosher food.

He was religious, but in private, as you were forced to be in the Soviet Union at the time. In 1937, Stalin had taken a lot of people and put them in jail, not because they were Jewish, but because they believed in God. So few people prayed in the synagogues out of fear and eventually they were closed. The Jewish newspapers and other institutions were closed down as well. So, Ze’ev would put his siddur on the window ledge, put on his tefillin and davin facing the light. Eliezer remembers him putting his talis on his shoulders and making Eliezer say prayers. He remembers distinctly the words “Modeh Ani Lifanecha.” (“I acknowledge that you are before me.”)

Eliezer loved sleeping at his grandfathers house, in part because he liked that his grandfather would let him get up early and go and play with his friends. His mother would say, “No Zorik, don’t go outside” and she would make him wash and do the things he needed to do in the morning—practice the piano, eat breakfast, study. But at his grandfathers house, he could indulge his childhood wishes and go out to play at 630 in the morning. It was summer time and he didn’t have to school.

Ze’ev died in Uzbekistan near Tashkent in Karasu, which is a village in the Yangul region. He was approximately 71 years old. They had moved from Odessa, all together. Sadly, Eliezer’s grandmother, Shifra Shleyfer, had died of cancer in 1936. There were five of them: Eliezer, his parents, his sister and his grandfather. In Nov. 1941, when his grandfather died, he was 9 years old and Eliezer remembers a little about his grandfather and a little from those days. They all lived in one medium sized room and he was able to sleep on a bed, but his blanket was a tablecloth. At that time, Eliezer was sick and he contracted arthritis (but you wouldn’t know it given how strong his handshake is.)

He remembers watching the ceiling where there was a drip from the rain. In their family tradition, the children would not go to the cemetery if their parents were still alive, and he remembers vividly seeing his parents leave the room where they all lived to go and bury Ze’ev.

Tashkent, where they moved after Odessa, was known as a breadbasket and so many people came from all over the Soviet Union to live there. But that was not the case, especially with the 10,000 or more refugees who flooded the area. There was not enough food for everyone. It is likely that his grandfather died of mal-nutritition, of hunger. The main source of their food at that time came from food stamps (katigke) that they got for bread. Each person could get 200 grams of bread a day, which is hardly enough.

The other source of food came from a field across from the apartment. There was a big water channel, the Arik, the depth of which was 5 and a half feet and 7 feet wide. He and his sister, Amelia (Malka in Yiddish) who was ten years older than he, would cross the channel to a big field on the other side. There they would collect scallions and they would eat them on the thin bread that their food stamps bought them (laypushka). It was like round Matza, only thicker. And they would cut it into five pieces, for their breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was their meals all day for a long time.

When they left Odessa, they were a happy family. Before the war there were 600,000 people in Odessa. Half of them were Jewish: Lawyers, doctors, shoemakers,etc. but a refugee problem was created, when an influx of people came from Moldova fleeing the war. Life became hard in the city.

Before Oct. 16, 1941, people who wanted to leave Odessa, would have to get a permit—a propisk and for that you would have to pay lots of money. Eliezer’s family left because the Germans and the Romaninans were coming. They knew that they were coming because Eliezer’s father had read Mein Kampf and listed to the radio. According to Eliezer, there were some Jewish people who wanted to invite the German and Romanian troops. But his father knew that if they stayed in Odessa, they would be killed. He knew about fascism and racism.

When they wanted to leave Odessa from Mariupul, they couldn’t get a permit. But their neighbors, who lived on the second floor, were their friends and their son had a high rank in the navy of the Soviet Union. He was the head of the Navy in the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II. His name was Leibl Granovsky. He supported his parents and he sent from Moscow permission for his parents and his sister to leave. They, in turn, added the names of all of Eliezer’s family in the same permit. Because of this, they were able to board the ship, the Georgia, and leave from Mariupul and go to Tashkent.

Eliezer’s grandfather kept Tsarist coins and saved them, thinking that maybe they would be used again. It seems that he did not have so much faith in the Communist Revolution. He also kept an album with pictures. Eliezer used to like look at them and he remembers his grandfather standing over him and watching him to see what he would do. The picture above is his passport picture.