Monday, August 24, 2009

Woke up way too early this morning to a strange noise. After a moment I realized it was a shofar. Makes sense, as the shofar is blown every morning during the month of Elul to help us prepare for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Or perhaps it’s to help the One Upstairs prep? Who knows? As there is a little shteibl shul in the basement of my Jerusalem apartment building I assume I will be waking up to the shofar every morning. A bit earlier than I’m used to rising but perhaps that’s not a bad things.

I’ve been promising to write a blog – this is as good a time as any to start. The last month of the Jewish year, the last week of summer… seems like a promising time to begin something new. This is also the time of the Jewish year when we assess our old habits and patterns and determine which to keep, which to “reconstruct” and which to toss out completely. Oversleeping is definitely a habit that bears tossing, evaluating one’s life is a habit to cultivate. Habits to reconstruct… I’ll talk about that in another post.

Haven’t done a great job of letting people know what I’ve been up to here in the Holy Land. So here is a brief summary of my time thus far. I arrived on July 17th and since then:

~ I’ve settled in to this amazing apartment that’s at the junction of Mercaz ha’eyr (city center), Rechavia and Nachalot.

~ I’ve also become an unwilling cohabitant with a million little ants that are all over Jerusalem and just LOVE our apartment. Ants, in Hebrew, are called n’ma’lim in case you were wondering.

~ I’ve spent time learning amazing and some not so amazing things in Talmud (laws of mourning and somehow their relationship to who can shave on Chol Hamoed – don’t ask), Halacha (kisui rosh a.k.a. why does a married woman cover her head – again don’t ask) and Torah (daily Hallel – that you can ask about);

~ I’ve explored the streets of Jerusalem;

~ I’ve made friends with people from all over the world and even with one or two Greater Washington folks that I had to go all the way to Jerusalem to meet!

~ I spent an evening with a good friend and teacher as she met with a group of secular Israelis and planned to open a Beit Midrash to enhance their knowledge and embrace of Jewish tradition and learning.

~ I listened to the aching lament of Eicha (Lamentations) while sitting amongst the ruins of the Temple by Robinson’s Arch (also known as the Conservative or Egalitarian part of the Wall).

~ I spent a Shabbos with a friend that I hadn’t seen in nearly 25 years and tried to explain to one of the daughters in this observant family what it means to be a Reconstructionist and to envision a Judaism where Halacha is followed by choice and not obligation.

My favorite time is Shabbos. Shabbos in Jerusalem – stillness, quiet, no (or very few) cars, smiling people, the sound of prayer and song in the air, walks, naps, food – lots of food, visiting with friends. It’s special. Shabbos is special everywhere but here… it’s truly something else.

I spend Friday mornings at Machane Yehuda (the open air market or shuk in Jerusalem) shopping for Shabbos and Friday afternoons rushing around to get everything done in time (or napping... depends on the weekJ). I listen for the siren that tells us that Shabbos is about to start, light my candles with my housemates Amy and Karen and then walk to this hippie Carlebach-y type shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. Dinner isn’t until 9ish and most weeks finds guests at our dining room table.

I’ve been going to a different shul each Shabbos to sample the various flavors of davenning, liturgy and spirituality. The afternoon is rounded out with my Shabbos nap, of course, and schmoozing with friends until Havdalah. Then it’s time to watch Jerusalem awaken from its Shabbos slumber as the shops and restaurants open and the weekend takes shape. You’d never know from the late Saturday nights that most people are up early Sunday morning to begin another week of work or school.

So that’s my life so far in Israel. I will try to write regularly - sharing thoughts, excerpts from whatever I’m reading or writing at the moment, pictures I’ve taken, whatever comes to mind. One thing I won’t be discussing is politics – but I have a sneaking suspicion that religion will be discussed on a regular basis.

To end this first post I will append a copy of the dvar that I gave at shul the Shabbos before I left home. Those who know me won’t be surprised at the topic – journeys, Torah, the future of Judaism, and my favorite figure in Midrash, Serach bat Asher. Oh, and if you happen to have been in my Parshanut class last semester you will likely recognize the bulk of this talk.

Chodesh Tov.

And a question….Is a blog still a blog if no one reads it? Write me – I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to share thoughts.

Kol Tuv –


Dvar Torah for Parashat Pinchas, 11 July 2009

This week’s parasha, Pinchas, is, as all of our parashat just chock full of interesting… well… stuff. There’s

>a census for the mathematically inclined;

>women’s rights issues regarding inheritance for the feminists and/or lawyers among us;

>some good old fashioned romance and blood and guts when Pinchas runs through a pair of lovers with a sword (okay, so maybe that happened last week, but it's a good story); and

>we have politics as Moses lays hands on his successor Joshua.

>then, to calm things down a bit, we end with a detailed and lovely recounting of the sacrifices to be given on regular days, holy days and all those lovely times in between.

>And (last one)… in case we forget any of this sacrificial detail, we get to reread these parts on the various holidays as well during the Torah services.

One of the reasons I enjoy learning Torah so much is that I always (or almost always) find something new or interesting in it. So… I leave all the aforementioned fascinating topics for you to peruse at your leisure and in honor of this week’s Parasha, and my upcoming journey to Israel, I’d like to introduce you to someone from the Torah who just happens to be mentioned in this week’s Parasha (Chapter 26:46) and who has, over the years, become a good friend of mine.

Her name is Serach bat Asher, the granddaughter of our forefather Jacob. I became intrigued with Serach when I was fairly young, well, I guess obsessed would be a more accurate word, when I realized that the Rabbis had capitalized on this woman who was mentioned only twice in the whole Torah and decided to make her the center of a rash of midrashim. Not only that, but they made her a heroine. How cool is that? But who exactly was Serach bat Asher? Why was she mentioned at all?

Let’s look at the verses in which Serach is mentioned. Her first appearance is in Genesis Chapter 46 where there is a nearly column long listing of the original Israelites who went down to Egypt. Verse 17 states: “And the sons of Asher; Yimnah, and Ishvah, and Ishvi, and Beriah, and Serah their sister…” Serach is the ONLY woman listed here by name who is counted among the original 70 Israelites who went down to Egypt – neither Jacob’s wives nor his daughter Dinah are counted in this census. Given the fact that the Torah is not very liberal in its mention of women, especially in genealogies, why is Serach listed here?

We meet Serach for a second and final time in Torah in the Book of Numbers, shortly after the Exodus has taken place, as part of a census of those who came out of Egypt – which, according to the Rabbis occurs approximately 400 years after the Israelites first arrived in Egypt. Numbers, Chapter 26 contains a detailed listing of families who leave and who are to inherit land in Israel. In the middle of this list is the verse: “From the sons of Asher according to their families; from Jimnah, the family of the Jimnites; from Ishvi, the family of the Ishvites; … and so on. We then encounter, two verses later, a short sentence set off by itself: “And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.” (26:46) Again, why is she the only woman in the list? But more importantly, how is she still alive after 4 centuries? Yes, you heard correctly – how is she still alive after nearly 400 years?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I want to share with you the comments of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, more familiarly known as Nachmanides or the RambaN. RambaN was a 13th century Spanish philosopher, Torah scholar, Kabbalist, Jewish leader – as well as a physician. His comments on the Torah are thoughtful; he seeks to find the deeper meaning of the texts, often using the paradigm of the 4 levels of Pardes that go from the Peshat or simple explanation, to the Sod, or the secret meaning.

What does RambaN think of Serach? He begins by explaining that the reason Serach is listed here in the census in Numbers is because, well, because she is still alive after all this time! And, as she is still alive and because she is one of the original 70 who went down to Egypt – then she has the status to be counted in the census and also to inherit in the land of Israel.

The situation presented, in which Serach inherits land, runs counter to the general practice in Israelite society at that time where only male offspring were the inheritors. In the next chapter in Numbers we are presented with the Daughters of Zelophechad who set the precedent of daughters inheriting when a man dies with no male offspring. RambaN makes a case that this precedent applies to Serach by referring to the use of language. The verse in Genesis lists the names of Asher’s sons and ends abruptly with “and Serach their sister.”

Why Serach their sister and not simply Serach Asher’s daughter? According to RambaN, Serach’s primary relationship is with Asher’s sons, not with Asher. Serach is in fact Half sister to Asher’s sons – in other words, Asher’s stepdaughter. The story goes that this is a second marriage for Asher’s wife - that Serach is in actuality the daughter of the wife’s first husband, a man who died without male issue. Therefore Serach, as his only child, stands to inherit his portion in the Land of Israel. If she were truly Asher’s daughter, it would be impossible for her to inherit because Asher had sons. I must admit here that while there are other commentators that discuss this idea of a first husband for Asher’s wife, I haven’t been able to figure out where the idea originates. But I’m working on that and I’ll let you know what I find.

We’ve seen that few details are given in relation to Serach. The Etz Hayyim Chumash notes that the mention of a person in this manner, with no other information given, implies that he or she was once a well-known personage (Etz hayyim, note on Gen 4:22).

RambaN appears to agree with this and finds inspiration in the formatting of the verses in Numbers. There we encounter an extensive listing of names in the format of “From the sons of So and So according to their families: from Ploni, the family of the Ploni-ites and so on. Serach shows up somewhere near the end of list , in her own verse, as “And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.” Her reference does not follow the format of all the rest.

RambaN reasons that according to the peshat, or simple meaning of text, Serach had a large family that was known by her name and should be among the families of the sons of Asher who would inherit. However Scripture did not want to trace the family’s ancestry back to a woman and therefore did not want to say “from Serach, the family of the Serachites” – so they truncated the matter by listing her as “And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.” And left it at that.

I began by explaining that I wanted to introduce you to a good friend of mine, Serach bat Asher. Like all people who like a good mystery I was fascinated early on by this woman who was mentioned only twice in the Torah – with centuries elapsing between the mentions. And like all 21st century women for whom multiple roles and multi-tasking are second nature, I became intrigued by the various roles that Serach played and the story lines that were given to her by the Rabbis.

I became intrigued -

With Serach the mystery: one who is mentioned only twice in the Torah and both times only in relation to her male relatives;

With Serach the woman: one of the gender that is rarely mentioned in the Torah without a good story line and certainly not as part of an official census;

With Serach who lived forever: Midrash looks at the verses about Serach and decides that Serach was blessed with eternal life. She is one of the few who enter Paradise alive – instead of having to die first!

And lastly, With Serach the heroine: the star of nearly a dozen Midrashic tales spun by the rabbis to answer such questions as who told Jacob that Joseph was still alive and who showed Moses where Joseph’s bones were.

Let me share my favorite midrash with you:

From the teachers seat R. Johanan sought to explain just how the waters of the Red Sea become a wall for Israel [Exodus 14:22]. Even as R. Johanan was explaining that the wall of water looked like a lattice, Serach, daughter of Asher, looked down and said: I was there. The waters rising up like a wall for Israel were shining because the radiance [of such personages as Moses and Aaron, who had drunk deep of Torah’s waters], made the waters shine. (Source: Pesikta de-Rab Kahana, a 5th/6th century book of aggadic midrash)

Here we find a woman who, in the 3rd century, was already a feminist and set the Rabbis straight on what the walls of water looked like as the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds – because she was there! This is heady stuff!

In 3 days I head off to Israel to learn for 6 months as part of my Rabbinical studies (tho I will be home briefly during the chagim). While I readily admit I’m a bit apprehensive about leaving my family for so long a period, I also feel amazingly privileged to be able to go and study sacred text in the holy land of Israel, in that holiest of cities, Jerusalem.

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few years about the role that Torah plays in our lives. The Rabbis saw the Torah as their guidebook and through study, interpretation and story attempted to understand and incorporate it into their daily lives. Serach provides a wonderful example of the various ways the Rabbis dealt with what they found –or did not find - in the Torah. And RambaN, himself a man of multiple roles, illustrates how a seemingly innocuous detail, like the format of a list, can exercise our imagination.

We, today, hold the Torah as an ancient document whose lessons and stories provide us with guidelines for living an ethical and godly life. Our responsibility, as modern Jews, is to keep the Torah relevant in whatever way seems most meaningful to each of us. In that way we embody the living Torah, we continue in the tradition of writing midrash through our lives. One of my goals is to continue to write about Serach, in both English and Hebrew. I’ve been doing a considerable amount of research about her and the midrashim written about her. The end result will be a modern midrash about Serach that I’ve just started to write. I’m fascinated by this concept that there could be someone who has witnessed the evolution of Judaism and Jewish practice. Imagine being able to see what makes Judaism relevant to different people at different points throughout history. That’s why I’ve been studying these past 3 years and will continue to study for 3 more years to become a rabbi – in order to better understand what people are seeking in Judaism and spirituality and to figure out how to help them find it.

There is the well-known midrash that all Jewish souls, including those that are not born Jewish but convert to Judaism, were at Sinai for revelation – the receiving of the Torah. And if we believe what the Torah states and what the RambaN explains – then Serach – our Serach in all her multiple roles– was there too. And she might be here among us today.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. So, if I'm the first follower, does that make me a leader of followers?

    I'm not sure how you're going to find time to do this...but your efforts should pay off well.

    Y'asher koach!

  2. Arlene -

    Good to hear your voice! And yes, it does count as a blog even if no one writes a comment.

    Your d'var reads as well as it sounded when you delivered it.

    Looking forward to reading/hearing more....

  3. Arlene,

    Enjoyed reading your first post live from Jerusalem. I look forward to seeing pictures and hearing more about your adventures.

    Take care,

  4. Hi Arlene! Great to read your stories from Israel, sounds like you're having a great time. Is the hippie-shul you're going to called Kol Rina? That's in Nachlaot, it was my favorite for Friday nights in Jerusalem...Enjoy, Leslie

  5. Thanks for the comments and support from my chevre!
    Leslie - the shul isn't Kol Rina but one of the other ones. I'd like to get to Kol Rina one of these days as well. We live right near Nachalot so it's very convenient.

  6. lovely to hear your take on J-lem. Excited to join you there after the hagim :)

  7. Arlene, fabulous! Welcome to the blogosphere. Am putting a link to your blog from mine -- your is much more stimulating!

  8. Very impressive Arlene. Looking forward to seeing you soon, chatting some more, learning and cathcing up. Linda

  9. A blog is still a blog if no one reads it, but luckily in your case, people are reading! Glad to have the chance to hear about your journey this way.

  10. Very interesting. Sounds like you're having a wonderful time.

    And of course its a blog if no one reads - although clearly folks are reading it - writing isn't always for the audience.

    Please keep writing. You paint a beautiful picture of Jerusalem (expect for the ants) and make me more determined to get there soon.

    Shabbat Shalom (and look forward to having you back in teh rotation on the Hill)