Last week, Jews marked our annual commemoration of the day the Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem set afire, and Israel’s leaders exiled.The text of Lamentations is our assigned reading on Tisha B’Av.
It is a text of anguish.Each of its five poems shatter equanimity; they refuse to offer easy answers.In its opening chapters, Daughter Zion, who represents God’s abused people, accuses God of murderous abandonment.
Years ago, I wrote a lament in honor of women who have been cruelly and brutally mistreated.I dedicated it to a woman who had told me her story, who had crawled out from under the weight of eighteen years of domestic violence.
In the day just before Tisha B’Av, a woman told me of a friend who had been sexually abused by her father.The day of Tisha B’Av, in a small congregational study group, women spoke of suffering they had known.I knew the backstory in each case.
I have grown into my middle aged life hearing laments from too many women, laments that have their source in the emotional and physical and sexual mistreatment they have known from men.
There is much to lament in our world.There is too much to lament in our world.
Yet we must lament, to honor our sorrow and our pain.We must lament in order to have a prayer at healing.
Yet, I longed last week, as I do again and again and again, for a world in which no child is harmed, in which every woman is safe, in which each man is at peace.I want humanity to be simply good.I refuse to lose my childish confusion; I insist that kindness cannot be so very hard. Generosity should be as easy as smiling.
The rabbis say that one good deed so gladdens our souls and spirits that after the doing of a mitzvah, we will want to do another right away.
Ritual. We studied it, we practiced it, we analyzed it. Great ritual, we were taught, creates lasting memories, stories that live for years. Learning to create ritual was part of my rabbinic training, and my teachers were awesome architects of the same.
Naturally, one wants to live up to one’s teachers.
Last week, a young woman in my congregation went before a beit din, a panel of three rabbis to complete her conversion to Judaism. Big ritual. Huge.
I prepared with care for her beit din and for her mikvah, the ritual immersion that formally completes the process. I had a beautiful tallit at the ready, a prayer shawl in all her favorite colors. Between her beit din and the mikvah, we would go out to dinner and before our meal I would lovingly lay the tallit on the table. She and her three witnesses would tie the tzitzit, the ritual fringes at each corner. The tying would be a spiritual practice and gift. We would wind and knot threads with our blessings and hopes. It would be heartfelt, prayerful, lovely.
I imagined myself naming each Hebrew letter of the tetragrammaton, and demonstrating how our loops and knots made it possible for us to tie God’s unpronounceable name into each fringe. “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, YHVH,” I would say. “Each letter is paired with a number, each number breathes a sound. Think it, and you’ll hear it: The unpronounceable name ends in a whisper.”
Then we would travel to a nearby lake, where a family had kindly offered us the use of their dock for the young woman’s mikvah. We would recite blessings I had crafted especially for her. Women supporting each other, co-creating a ritual we would all remember the rest of our lives.
What is it they say about the best laid plans?
One of the women got lost finding the restaurant, which had failed to turn on its neon signs. I talked her back to the right intersection on my cell phone, standing on the corner, jumping up and down and waving both arms frantically. When she got out of her car, a stream of unprintable things emerged from her otherwise calm and pragmatic person. Then I called the last woman who is chronically late to everything.
“ETA?” I asked.
“I don’t know where I am,” she answered.
I repeated my routine, hoping no one would recognize the small, hopping woman on the corner as the rabbi of Temple Or Olam.
Later, I laid out the prayer shawl in the near empty restaurant on an empty table. I began leading us through winding and tying. I asked the women to silently weave their prayers into the tzitzit. Ahh, I said to myself. This will be wonderful. Sweet. Transcendent.
“Whatcha all doing?” asked a curious staff member. “That’s puurrty,” she added, pointing at the tallit. “What’s that?”
While I was explaining, one of the woman got her threads twisted up and started joking about being handicraft challenged. Then the food arrived, and I had to find a way to keep the tallit from getting immersed in balsamic vinaigrette.
Later, we piled into one of the cars to make the drive to the lake. It was only minutes away. We got lost almost immediately – despite Google maps. There were many u-turns and a close encounter with a car with flashing blue lights.
Finally, we found the house. We climbed out of the car and began traipsing over the lawn, which, despite the terrible drought, was both very long and very wet. Sprinklers? Condensation from the lake? Suddenly, the young woman told us in a small voice that she was actually terrified to get into that lake and that she hated nature and that there were bound to be live things, including fish, in the water, and that the lake bottom would be nasty and muddy, and and and.
The other women attempted to comfort her.
“You’ll be all right,” said one.
“It will be fine,” added the other.
Our young woman kept describing the horrors that awaited her. We rounded the house and walked toward the pier, the small flashlight in my hand shedding insufficient light. We were nearly at the water’s edge.
“Omigod!” our young woman squealed. “What is that?”
“Omigod,” whispered someone.
“Omigod,” I said, in utter disbelief.
All of us saw it, despite the dark. Between the small flashlight I was carrying and the lights from the house, we couldn’t miss it.
A bobcat. He stood stock still, staring right at us.
Gingerly, we walked half backwards onto the pier, hoping the thing would go away.
“Is it still there?” one of the women asked.
“I think so,” I said doubtfully. “I can’t quite tell.”
It will go away, I told myself, as we all made our way to the end of the pier. It will go away because we are making a fearsome noise. Dear, Holy One of Blessing, I prayed internally. We’re not so good with this much nature just now…
It has gone away, I told myself, as the young woman climbed into the water.
We heard a splash.
“I saw that!” she cried out. “There was a fish jumping over there!”
She began frantic movements in the water to scare away the fish.
“Go away!” she called out. “Go away!”
She was thinking of the fish. I was thinking of the bobcat.
We raised a towel, the young woman took off her bathing suit, and I pulled out laminated sheets with our brachot. Three of us crouched around the laminated sheet and the little flashlight. One of us stood with her paper copy illuminated by her cell phone. (Later she told me that she was stealing herself to kick the bobcat into the water if it attacked. I don’t know what she was thinking. This is a woman with weak ankles, and I am not sure she could kick a nerf ball, much less a snarling, though smallish, beast. And another thing: How do cats feel about water?)
I asked everyone to breathe deeply. Somehow, we regained our sense of place and, after nervous giggles and anxious interjections from our young woman, we read our blessings in turn.
Before her final immersion, we blessed her with the fearlessness of Ruth. “Our people is your people,” the women read together. “Our God is your God. We are standing together at the mountain of Sinai, ready to receive the gift of Torah.”
She slipped back into the water a last time. She emerged. We chanted the Shema and the Shehechiyanu softly in the moonlight, and wrapped her in the towel and the tallit. We walked back down the pier and sighed with relief; we did not see the bobcat.
We got lost all over again going back to the restaurant parking lot. We laughed and mazeltoved and drove home.
There was, I admit, some residual anxiety on my part. When I got home it was nearly midnight. Nevertheless, I asked my husband, Ralf, to google pictures of bobcats. “Yes, it looked like that nasty, scary one right there!” I said.
“Were its ears forward?” he asked.
“I… I think so,” I answered.
“Then you were fine,” he said comfortingly. “When you don’t see their ears, that’s when you have reason to be on your guard.”
“But I was already scared!!!” I protested.
Our son, Erik, gave advice from his survival training course. Everyone should group together so you look like one large entity to animal in question. Spread out your clothing so you look bigger, and back away slowly…
“At least,” he concluded, “I’m pretty sure that works with elephants.”
The next morning we all received this email from the young woman we love:
“Don’t worry everyone, found out this morning it was simply a statue in the backyard to SCARE THE GEESE!!!
Out of control!
Thanks again for being there last night. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
I had dreamed of this beit din for a long time. For weeks, I had imagined us at the pier in sweet darkness, women alone and prayerful, conscious of our strength and our joy.
The real world played tricks on my dreams. There were so many emotions I never imagined. Aggravation and impatience at getting lost again and again. Unexpected and unknown fears. Giggly and giddy lightness.
“This is one crazy mikvah story,” one of the women said.
It was late last night. I passed by my son’s bedroom.
“Hey, Mom,” Erik said. “Did you know that some men can breastfeed?”
“Naaah,” I said. “Come on.”
Erik pointed to his computer screen. He was reading an article on male lactation.
“Good grief!” I said. “Talmud was right!”
“There’s a story in Talmud about a man who breastfeeds,” I said.
Erik scanned the screen. “Yes, it mentions that here.” He began reading: ‘There have been countless literary descriptions of men miraculously breast-feeding, from The Talmud to Tolstoy, where, in Anna Karenina, there is a short anecdote of a baby suckling an Englishman…’”
“Nice!” I said. “Talmud gets a passing mention and Tolstoy gets a whole paragraph! Talmud is far more interesting than Tolstoy!”
At this point my husband, Ralf, turned round the corner and speculated on whether I had been drinking something I shouldn’t have. I admit it: My congregation gives me grape juice for leading Kiddush, as I will get quite silly after consuming two tablespoons of Manischewitz. And yes, I know that Manischewitz is not wine. But it does count as alcohol. Really. Well, at least for small children and me.
The Talmudic text in question (Shabbat 53b) makes for interesting reading. In it, a poor man’s wife dies, leaving him with a nursing child. He can’t afford a wet nurse. A miracle occurs and his breasts “open,” allowing him to nurse his own child.
The rabbis, as always, proceed to discuss the matter. Rabbi Yosef exclaims that the poor man must be a great guy, a real mensch. That explains the miracle. Rabbi Abaye is of the contrary opinion. The fellow must be a real schlemiel. Otherwise, divine intervention would have focused on helping him find a job so he could afford to pay a wet nurse. Instead, he got slammed with a solution that did the humane thing by keeping the kid alive but could only have afforded major embarrassment. (Men are not encouraged to be women in the Talmud…).
Rabbi Yehuda insists that it’s pretty hard for heaven to change the fate of a man when it comes to job searches and a lousy economy. Rabbi Nachman concludes the discussion by stating firmly that a miracle did occur no matter how you shake it, but that one must admit that the guy did not get gainfully employed. Lack of employment isn’t so good in any age.
You gotta love Talmud. You really do.
You can find more about male lactation in rabbinic texts. Genesis Rabbah (30:8) features the rabbis speculating on the weaning of Queen Esther after both parents died. Mordecai is a prime candidate for male lactation and the survival of his niece. It’s good to have a loving family.
There is a scientific explanation for male lactation. You can read all about the hormones that can cause men to get happy and produce milk. I have also learned that extreme stress combined with strenuous physical activity and a shortage of food can cause male lactation.
Hmmm…. Poor guy + hungry baby = extreme stress. Tada!!! Male milk! I mean, why not? That’s exactly what happens to women!
“I kinda wish more men would lactate,” I told Erik and Ralf. “Some of these rabbis seemed to approve of the idea – why didn’t they pray for more such miracles? Then women could have gotten to do all those men things so much earlier in history. Women rabbis in the Middle Ages! I can see it!”
“I am not sure there’s a direct correlation,” Erik said slowly. “Lactating men doesn’t lead inevitably to women on the bima. And we’ve had women in the pulpit for years and their menfolk have not been bursting out with milk. At least I am sure I haven’t. Dad?”
Ralf had left the room. Probably, he had better things to do.
You learned something from all this, I am sure. Put War and Peace away. For entertainment, just read the Talmud.