Remembering Samuel Mayer Leder, z”l

Samuel Mayer Leder, z”l

In 2003, my new friend and UNC Charlotte colleague Brian Cutler came over to tutor my son, Erik, for his bar mitzvah. At the time, we were both members of a havurah in Charlotte, North Carolina. We had met there during High Holy Days. Since Brian had just moved to Concord, where we both lived, he offered to help teach Erik.

To get to Sunday school or services entailed at least a forty-five-minute drive, if not, at times, a full hour.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to shlepp so far?” Brian asked. “It would be so cool to have our own havurah in Concord.”

“What,” I said, “you, me, and who else?”

I’d been living in Concord for twelve years. Until Brian arrived, I had never heard of any other Jew living in my adopted town.

Still, we agreed to look around. A week later Brian showed up for Erik’s next lesson and announced happily that he had a contact. I was thrilled. We might double our number from two to four right away – I had been given a name, too.

“I’ve heard there is a Jewish accountant somewhere in town,” I said triumphantly.

Brian started laughing. We had both spent a week looking, inquiring, sleuthing… and found exactly the same person: Samuel Leder.

Samuel had grown up in Whiteville, North Carolina. His Jewish upbringing included traveling rabbis and a small group of Jewish families. It was a tiny community, and close-knit. Samuel was intimately familiar with congregational life.

I knew and taught Jewish history; Samuel knew and taught me liturgical practice. When I forgot to give a page number, Samuel would riffle through the pages and kindly announce it, softly, himself. When I neglected to remember to remind everyone to stand, Samuel would rise firmly, signaling others, leading from his seat.

Samuel nourished our every effort; he supported our best hopes. He was invariably kind and gentle when we hit a bump in the road. He helped make a community. In truth, he helped make a rabbi.

I watched as Samuel went from one of Concord’s most respected business people to the first Jewish member of the Concord City Council and mayor pro tem. He became a close friend.

Two weeks ago today, Samuel died suddenly and without any warning from cardiac arrest. He was just fifty-one.

It was an unbearable shock. Unreal, surreal, impossible.

Members wrote me: He knew all the prayers they didn’t know. He helped when one of us was out of a job and went through multiple job searches. He was invariably gentle, kind, a mensch in every respect. How would we do without his booming, open laughter?

The town of Concord knew Samuel in so many ways. He was a respected and ethical leader, someone who cared deeply about the town he chose to live in—and all its people.

We at Temple Or Olam will remember Samuel as the only member who could chant Torah with a southern accent; Samuel’s leyning was both unforgettable and delightful. We will remember how he performed hagbah; when Samuel lifted the Torah, we’d see those three columns high and clear and our own spirits were elevated. We will remember him as the professional we relied on for communal help and advice. Samuel did our congregational taxes. He took care so that we could take care to remain ethical, transparent, and consistent.

As he was, so he helped us be.

Samuel Leder was a person of chesed, of sheer, unmitigated kindness. He was reliable, steadfast, and true.

Last night, our havurah held a separate memorial service of our own for Samuel. Neighbors and family members attended, including Samuel’s open-hearted wife Shannon, and his two teenage sons, Matthew and Bennett.

Whenever I led Shalom Aleychem, Samuel sang with a devoted, full-throated energy. Every Hebrew word was accented Southern, every note unforgettable for the love of God it contained.

In his honor and memory, we called in angels of peace, angels of lovingkindness. We asked them: Come in peace, bless us in peace, depart in peace.

We thanked Samuel for the peace and the lovingkindness he gave to all who knew him.

We will not forget what you gave us, Samuel. We will never forget you.


Healing Wounds of Cruelty and Rage at UNC Charlotte

I had written my students, to ask how they were doing. It was just two days after the April 30th shooting at UNC Charlotte, where I teach in the Department of Religious Studies.

One student in my small seminar class on antisemitism wrote: “I’m feeling very numb to everything. “I’m staying off social media for a bit because students are arguing and it’s exhausting to look at.” She wrote that she had met classmates at the vigil. One had told her that she “was sad because she’s not walking and the last time she’d be in that auditorium would be for the vigil. I don’t know if we have the time or not,” she added, “but I’d like to give her a graduation ceremony with our class during what would be our finals period.”

I sat at my desk and cried. Then, I got ready.

Over the next days, our graduation plans grew in shape and size. I suggested that other students play the roles of chancellor, provost, the dean. One student was going to call the names of the graduating “class” (I’d learned that we had another student who wasn’t walking, either, though he was also graduating). I sent all the jokes our chancellor tells at every single graduation ceremony to the student taking on his role.

I committed to bringing regalia. The student who’d had the idea said she could make cords in school colors out of yarn and print up mock degrees.

I told my department chair and asked her to play the photographer. I invited all the faculty to join our little class for our graduation ceremony. I invited other students, too.

Most of the class got to our room early. We piled food on one table and students hung decorations for the “class of 2019” on the wall. I stood guard outside.

When the two graduating students were allowed to enter, we all gave a full-throated cheered. We dressed them in the regalia. We took them outside. One student was charged with lining up all two of our graduates; the others took their places. The chancellor-student started her speech.

“Now I want to explain why we don’t have a commencement speaker here today,” she said. “Why am I speaking instead?” She paused for dramatic effect. “Because we cannot release the students into the world if they are not properly sedated.”

Our chancellor gives the commencement speech (using her phone, of course).

“Have you been to graduation?” called my department chair. “How did you know he says that?”

The student who’d had the idea in the first place spoke next. “I was in Dr. Thiede’s office before the shooting,” she said, “and we were talking about how I needed to get loud.” Then she got loud — with joy, with praise, and with hope. She spoke about what students needed to do, who they needed to be in the world. Every word she said landed.

One by one the two students walked the line, shook hands with the “dean,” received their “degrees,” and were told to stop for the requisite picture.

“Throw your caps in the air!” someone shouted.

They did. High.

UNC Charlotte will not be the same. We will have to ask whether to keep the Kennedy Building, where the terror took place, standing or whether to tear it down. We will need to figure out how to get loud ourselves, how to do what we must do to protect the young people who come to learn with us.

Our graduates threw those caps with certainty. We celebrated with all the affection we felt for them, for our class, for our school.

We taught ourselves at UNC Charlotte.

Goodness and kindness can heal wounds of cruelty and rage.

It is two weeks to the day that two UNC Charlotte students, Ellis Parlier and Riley Howell, were shot and killed. Four others were injured. This post is dedicated to Alexandria Osborne, the student who had the idea for our graduation ceremony, as well as all my other students in our class on antisemitism; they are courageous human beings.


Lamentation, April 2019

In the memory of Lori Kay Gilbert, Ellis Parlier, and Riley Howell and all victims of gun violence; in honor of my students and colleagues at UNC Charlotte.

Lonely she sits…
her squares, once teeming,
her buildings, alive with sound.
She is a widow, now,
mourning her dead,
weeping for the injured, the fallen,
whose voices once called out in greeting, in play,
across her pathways, walkways, glens and gardens.

Bitterly she weeps in the night,
her cheek wet with tears.
There is none to comfort her.
“Thoughts and prayers” mean nothing without rage,
without anger so righteous, it rises up to cry out:
Let their wrongdoing come before You.
Let their wrongdoing be named.
For making murder easy, slaughter simple.
For placing pistols and assault rifles in every hand.

Our steps were checked,
we could not walk in our squares.
The breath of our life was captured in their traps.

See how the foe has laid hands on everything dear to us.
Our young, shot at study.
Your supplicants, shot at prayer.

Hear my plea.
Do not shut your ear
to my groan, to my cry.

For these things do I weep.
My eyes flow with tears.
My children are forlorn.
For the foe has prevailed.
See, how abject I have become?

This text includes sections from Lamentations, Chapters 1, 3, and 4.


Who Can Hear Us? The Poway Synagogue and UNC Charlotte

Tuesday, April 30th, my husband, Ralf, and I were driving to campus. It was just three few days after the attack on the Poway synagogue and the murder of Lori Kaye Gilbert.

I was afraid. I was afraid to go and teach, again, the history of antisemitism, the way the Holocaust is marketed, the terrible recurring history of hate.

 “I’m thinking about the cost of teaching these courses,” I said. “What if someone becomes radicalized, finds our course and its location, comes in to my classroom and starts shooting at me and my students?”

That day, I told the students in my antisemitism class that they might be the last students to take the course. I explained why.

Afterwards, I went to my office to see students. My last student of the day and I spoke about her growing strength, her own awareness that as a woman of color she needs, as she said, “to get loud.” If you only knew her story – if you only knew – then, you would know my pride in her.

Around 5 pm, she and I left the building, and hugged happy goodbyes. I met my husband at his building and we walked toward the garage, got into our car, and left campus.

Just about fifteen minutes later, as I was reading email on the way home, a message flashed on my phone screen. “Run. Hide. Fight.”

Campus was locked down. Frantically, I tried to understand. Kennedy, Kennedy. Every report mentioned the Kennedy Building, the building I see when I look out my office windows in Macy. At first it seemed that someone had shot students in the open gathering space outside Kennedy and outside Macy, too. I kept replaying the minutes when I had been near that space with my student. She is tall. Would she have been easily shot? What would we have done? What would I have done?

I couldn’t stop transposing time, even as I emailed with that same student, who had returned to Macy for an evening class. She and her fellow students had just seen students running from the Kennedy Building, she wrote. One was bleeding from being shot. He had collapsed just at the entrance to Macy.

A colleague who has the office next to mine was still working when the building was locked down. Later that night I learned that when she finally got home the apartment complex was filled with reporters and police. The shooter lived a few floors above her.

For days I have been emailing and texting with my beloved students. For days I have replayed the active shooter training my department had the Monday after the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. I keep putting myself in the actual room where the shooter murdered two of our students and shot four others. I had a training for online teaching in that very room last summer. What would I have done? What would I have done?

One of my students has experienced so much recent violence that I immediately worried about the triggering this would cause. I wrote to ask: How are you? I wrote my classes, multiple times. I sent links to counseling services, help lines. I wrote individual students. I gave out my home number. I heard from students who long-since graduated. From colleagues, from administrators as we untangled what to do about final exams, final projects, finals of any kind. (Forgive it all, let go, give students time to take care of themselves…)

No one who knows me does not know the measure of my love for my students, for my department, for my beloved UNCC campus. Yet I was unable to protect our students, my colleagues, our campus.

On Tuesday, April 30th, just hours before the shooting, one of the students in my course on gender and sexuality in Hebrew Bible was assessing texts of violence we had studied. He said: “Sometimes, the silent scream is the loudest.”

I have been screaming for days without a single sound coming out of my mouth.

In one week right wing radicalism destroyed the peace of a Jewish community and took the life of a woman at prayer. In that same week, two young people – two of UNCC’s beloved students – were murdered. Four more were shot and injured.

There is no one on our campus who has not been assaulted. We are all screaming.

Who can hear us?


Tazria: On Behalf of Seeding Life

We are smack dab in the middle of the Torah. Tazria, “she seeded,” marks the exact halfway point of our fifty-four parshiot.

And it is the kind of parsha that makes readers wish it had no place in Torah at all.

It’s easy to see why. This is the parsha which reads like a medical textbook. We learn in nearly sickening detail how inflammations of the bodies may present: scaly, yellow, white, and otherwise. We read about the various ways skin may appear after a burn. The presence and color of any hair growing out of inflammations or burns are considered and described.

Those whom the priest declares “impure” must remain outside the camp and call out “impure, impure.”

We can do all sorts of things to make Tazria easier for us to read. We can note that words like “impurity” and “purity,” “cleanliness” or “uncleanliness” may appear to encourage judgment and rejection but weren’t actually used that way by Ancient Israelites.

Ancient Israelites didn’t use these terms to describe individuals as inherently evil or sinful. They are using them to describe conditions, not moral states. Being pregnant or giving birth is a state of being. Being intimate with someone else is, too. A skin inflammation alters one’s condition, as does menstruation. Yes, people are being quarantined or kept from the Temple precincts if they aren’t in the appropriate state. But no one is being judged for presumed ethical failings or violations of law.

We can note, as academics long have, that each of the conditions described in this section of Leviticus deals directly with two alternate states of being: life and death. If you have a wound and bleed, you are not considered “impure.” If you are a menstruating woman, you are. A menstruating woman’s blood loss is the loss of potential life.

As for all those eruptions and inflammations? Skin diseases that look like wasting diseases naturally reminded ancient peoples of something most of us have never seen: the way a decomposing corpse appears.

Still, we cringe reading this parsha, and not only because the descriptions of some of these states elicits a visceral reaction. “This is gross,” one student once told me. And I could understand that reaction; I’ve felt it myself.

I don’t want to pretend that I am not disturbed by the idea that any person has to call out to warn others that he or she is in some altered state. This year, as I read the parsha, I wanted to imagine, with the rabbis, that the whole purpose of calling out is to ask for sympathy and compassion from others.

But it wasn’t good enough. I wanted another way to see the text and I couldn’t find it – not even by relying on my own stock in trade: the historian’s lens. It’s a convenient method of course, since a historian can insist on judging texts solely as products of their own time.

And then I found something that did work for me. I imagined the scene: afflicted person and priest, together.

What does the priest do in this parsha?

He diagnoses the effect of altered states. He must examine and explore and analyze and understand. He will have to get very close to whoever has the skin eruption or burn or inflammation. He does not treat the condition. He observes and figures out what is needed – either by noting that nothing warrants any action at all or that the individual should spend time outside the camp.

The priest doesn’t do this once, but regularly. After seven days, he is once again with the person in question. If the situation has changed, the burn or inflammation subsided, changed color, he can change the situation. The person can come into the camp again.

It’s a position and a responsibility that is rife with possible misuses of power, of course. It is also potentially a place of tenderness and care. This priest is up close and personal; he has to observe, examine, touch the person whose condition he is assessing.

Tazria is a creation word. To bear seed, to create seed – this is a way to offer life to the world. I wonder and I hope: Perhaps priests of old understood every examination of every burn or inflammation to be holy service in returning people to life.

So I will imagine them: Looking closely and carefully for signs of healing. Hoping, always, for the latter. Announcing it with joy. In their own way, seeding life.


Art, History, and Jews: Parsha Vayakhel

“Judaism,” writes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “in sharp contrast to ancient Greece, did not cherish the visual arts. The reason is clear. The biblical prohibition against graven images associates them with idolatry. Historically, images, fetishes, icons and statues were linked in the ancient world with pagan religious practices. The idea that one might worship ‘the work of men’s hands’ was anathema to biblical faith.”

This is what we are told, over and over again – and the narrative comes from some of the most literate, erudite rabbis in the world, a description which most certainly applies to Rabbi Sacks.

We can anticipate what will come next; it is predictable. Tanakh, they will say, demonstrates that our ancient forebears loved beauty. But all such beauty was in the service of God. All such creation supersedes anything the secular artist can create. This week’s parsha, Vayakhel, is a prime example.

In it, we read of Betzalel, designer and craftsman, jeweler, woodcarver, even embroiderer. He is entrusted, together with Oholiab and all other gifted artists and artisans the Israelites can find, to create beauty for the service of God. Under his direction, the Tabernacle would be gorgeous and lush, filled with objects that shone, that glittered, that glowed.

One has to image the scenes – scores, hundreds, maybe thousands of Israelites cutting, sewing, embroidering, carving, forming. Gold and silver, melted and poured into forms, cloth dyed in brilliant hues, the creation of artistry is everywhere. And indeed, this is work with one goal: to make a beautiful residence for the Holy One.

But otherwise, we are told, our forbears eschewed artistry because it could distract from God, rather than serve God.

I want to take those good rabbis on a tour. I want to show them the mosaics of ancient temples with leaping animals and biblical figures. I want to show them the walls of Dura-Europos Synagogue of 244 CE. — walls filled with brilliantly painted scenes from Tanakh, with human beings so alive to their story that one feels the artist telling us everything we could read in the scroll.

Fresco from the Dura Europos Synagogue

I want us to walk by a gallery of spice boxes from the centuries – in the form of castle towers, yes, but also in the shape of almost anything imaginable, from flowers to fish.

I want those rabbis to look at embroidered and painted wimpels, Torah binders made from the cloth used to diaper baby boys at their circumcisions. Medieval women of Ashkenaz let their imagination run riot in their work, producing a plethora of creatures wiggling out of Hebrew letters near scenes of wedding couples, Torah scrolls, symbols of tribal inheritance and affiliation. Look for the flowers, the birds, the priestly hands and the Levite’s jug. Look for folktale characters embroidered across the cloth – if you look late enough, you’ll even find Micky Mouse adorning the cloth.

Detail from an embroidered wimpel of Ashkenaz.

No, the Birds’ Head Haggadah is by no means an exception to a world in which care has been lavished on so much that is so beautiful. In the last thirty years, academic research into Jewish art has demonstrated that fact – in colorful, brilliant reality.

Open the pages of Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts and you will find illuminated versions of machzorim, haggadot, and the Tanakh. But you will also discover art enhancing the Mishneh Torah, rabbinic commentaries, collections of teshuvot, and even a woodcut mapping the world with Jerusalem at the center. Mythological beasts (like the unicorn) and grotesque animals show up in medieval Jewish texts as does God, strangely enough, emerging from a cloud.

Pharaoh's Daughter pulls Moses from the waters.
Illuminated Mishneh Torah

Chagall is not the exception we imagine.

Centuries of Jewish love for beauty has indeed often found its way into our ritual objects. Judaism is a religious culture that relies on objects, on things of beauty to be distributed in our homes as well as our sanctuaries. Who does not possess a favorite hanukkiah, a Passover seder plate, a mezuzah that was bought in significant part because it was beautiful?

Rabbi Sacks notes all this loveliness is the product of hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying the commandment.” We are supposed to fulfill each commandment, each mitzvah, in the most beautiful way we can.

But he insists, like so many rabbis, on making a distinction between this kind of art and secular art. Art for its own sake, he suggests, cannot point to anything beyond itself. Art in the service of God, however, is the kind we find in Vayakhel — the kind that is worth valuing.

I suspect that our forebears loved creating, from the time of the Tabernacle onward. And I wonder: When God creates, we call that holy. When we create, we do so as beings formed betzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Whatever we create, may it be holy. And may it be beautiful, too.


I Promise: An Ethical Will for My Students

Two times a week, I meet with a class of exactly ten students in a small conference room at UNC Charlotte. Those ten students are dealing with the most difficult history I teach – the history of European antisemitism.

It is challenging work because the readings assigned are among the most sophisticated I teach. It is challenging work because my students are almost always unfamiliar with this history, and it is a painful one.

It is likely that my students will be Christian. Some will be devout. These are students who usually came into my world via courses I teach on Hebrew Bible. We forge, in such courses, deep connections around biblical literature. Our learning may include rabbinic midrash as well as academic commentaries. The exposure to ways Jews have read biblical texts sometimes leads them to question what they might have believed about the Jewish relationship with bible. That can lead them to this course.

I am – and this is hardly unusual – the only Jew in the room. I know, from long experience, how much courage my students are bringing to our course of study. After we covered the way John’s Jesus vilifies Jews as children of the father of lies, as offspring of Satan (John 8:44), a student said: “I’ve read this before. Somehow, I passed over the text. It was just a story. I can’t believe I did that, now.”

Sometimes, as we gather, we trade small news. Recently, I told my students about my new glass whiteboard. It’s huge – it takes up a good part of the wall next to my desk at home. There are columns for each realm I work in – one for the course I am currently teaching for ALEPH Ordination Programs, another to cover administrative work in that realm, another for my work as the director of graduate studies for UNCC’s department of Religious Studies, one for the courses I teach for the department, another for the work I do as a spiritual leader of a small havurah, another for the little Etsy business I have making kippot and tallitot. There is a little corner for “personal.”

My students laughed and asked what was put in that corner.

“The first thing on it,” I said, “is ‘ethical will for Serafina.’”

My students know the name of my son and my daughter-in-law. So they knew who I was talking about – but not what I was talking about.

Ethical will,” one asked. “What is that?”

I explained. “You know how you have a will for your assets, and what you want done with them after you die? An ethical will is a Jewish tradition. It’s a document that might include pragmatic information, like how you want your funeral to go and that sort of thing. But the main thing is writing down what you want to leave your children in the way of wisdom or learning. It’s a way of summing up what you hope your children will take from you that is truly important or good.”

I had long since written such a text for my son, Erik, and I explained that I periodically updated it for him. But it was now over two years since he had married Serafina, and I felt it was time for me to write her one, too.

For Sera has brought a perfect completion to our little family. I can no longer imagine us without her. She and I had become friends, and as much as I was learning from her, I hoped that there would be some learning I could give back to her. When I died, I would want her to have that from me.

“Well,” one of the students said, “we would miss you, too. What about an ethical will for us?”

The other students agreed, though one was afraid that given everything else on the board, adding something might not be the best thing for me.

“I think it’s a good idea,” I said. “I like it.”

I have been teaching for almost four decades. My students have given me life and hope. They sustain me and they teach me. I rely on their generosity, their kindness, the wisdom they bring into every classroom. I do not overstate: My students also complete my life and make it perfect.

I went home late that day and after I took off my coat and put my backpack in the corner of my office, I picked up a marker and drew a line from “Ethical will for Sera” to the word “students.”

And I will write both.

This post is dedicated both to Serafina, on her birthday. If I hadn’t thought about what I want to write to her I wouldn’t have ever been asked whether I would write to my students….


Na’aseh v’nishma: We will do and we will get it!

We have spent half the year with dysfunctional families, tyrannical rulers, great escapes, and dramatic treks through the wilderness. We have learned lessons from tales of sibling rivalry, marital relationships, and conversations with talking animals. Genesis and the first part of Exodus provide no end of learning opportunities.

This week, v’ayleh hamishpatim: These are the rules. Admittedly, some of the verses we read in Mishpatim are challenging. And yet, many resonate and inspire us, offering opportunities to expand our sense of justice and responsibility for the world we live in.

Some examples?

We are responsible. If someone owns an animal who is known to be violent, for example, and the animal kills someone, the owner must make restitution. Where I live, stories of children and adults who are mauled to death by dogs are not so rare as I would wish. Our ancient forbears knew about the problems that afflict human society – and they weren’t so very different from those that afflict us today. How do we make sure animals are protected and safe? How do we make sure humans are, too?

We are responsible. Do not carry false rumors. Our Torah not only warns us against uttering sheker, falsehoods and lies, but also lashon hara, slander. Say negative things about someone to those who have no practical reason to know of a person’s weakness, and you violate Torah. Even r’khilut, truths about a person that are not defamatory but communicated for no good reason constitute gossip. So much communication that goes wrong can go right when we are mindful, careful, open and generous. Why not try to be all those things?

We are responsible. For widows. For orphans. For the poor.  These laws remind us that justice must be meted out equally to poor and rich alike, that we are obligated to care for those in need – weren’t we once slaves in Egypt, Torah asks? “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23: 9).

If we fear the homeless instead of housing them, if we ignore the growing disparity between poor and rich, if we ourselves never imagine what it is to lose our jobs and our sense of worth, to be desperate, to go hungry, then we can hardly understand what we need to do to build a just society. It’s not that hard to ignore real pain and feed apathy, self-indulgence, and disinterest.

When given the chance to take on the law – before they knew every last requirement, every last mitzvot, the Israelites all answered, the Torah says, with one voice: “We will do!” (Ex. 24.7).

Na’aseh v’nishma.

“We will do,” they said. “We will do and then hear, then understand.”

It is in the doing that we understand how to become the holy people God longs for. By noticing in our conversations when we can redirect complaints and concerns so that those who are hurt can benefit from an opportunity to understand – directly – when and why something has gone wrong, from making sure that all we do and all we own – from cars to dogs – are held and used responsibly, by doing the tikkun olam projects waiting for our active affirmation, by saying “we will do” each morning when we wake up and act upon our commitment each day – this is what will lead to our learning to be the kind of people that is, in fact, a holy one.

When our works exceed our wisdom, our wisdom endures.

Naaseh v’nishma.


Va’era–An Amphibian’s Song

The Second Plague (Frogs)

The Torah will not admit one answer – not for anything.  Every part of the biblical scripture before us is filled with questions, metaphors, double meanings.  The name Yitzhak means laughter in one verb form.  But it can suggest mocking in an intensified form.  When Sarah looks out and sees Ishmael and Yitzhak playing in Genesis 21:9, she calls it just as she sees it, overlapping and punning on her own son’s name.  Ishmael, Sarah says, is “Isaacing.”  He is not only mocking my son, she says, he is impersonating him, he is usurping his place.

A generation later, just after Ya’akov has stolen his twin brother’s blessing, Esav queries his father, resentment and rage permeating his every word: Did you know that Ya’akov was going to grow up to be a trickster and a deceiver?  Is that why you named him Yaakov, sneak thief?  Esav is punning, albeit bitterly.  For indeed, the etymology of Ya’akov’s name can suggest that the boy is what his name seems to suggest: A trickster and a deceiver.

What hidden meanings are found in Va’era?  Among them, one is the matter of the frogs.

Why frogs in the first place?

The writer is assuming we are familiar with the mythologies of neighboring cultures – after all, the ancient Israelites were.  They would have known that the Egyptian pantheon included the frog-headed goddess Hepat, who was believed to assist women at childbirth. 

Let’s take a moment to recall the opening of Shemot, of Exodus?  Pharaoh, appalled at Israelites’ prolific birthrate, summoned the midwives to him.  Then he decreed that those whose business it is to help children come into the world assist not in the creation of life but in its very opposite: Pharaoh demands that the midwives kill male Israelite babies at birth. 

Is the appearance of the frogs designed to make Pharaoh face what he himself has tried to do to the forces of creativity and life?  Frogs, for Egyptians, symbolize fertility and birth.  Here the scripture tells us, they become the frightening specter of death and destruction.  No wonder some rabbis say the frogs were the worst plague.  The world has been turned upside down.  Lightness is darkness, love is hate, birth is death.

More conundrums.  God threatens a plague of frogs.  They shall sharatz, teem and swarm over the country, God says.  Frogs will swarm in the bedchambers, in the ovens and in the kneading bowls.  But when Aharon raises his arm, scripture announces the arrival of one: both noun and verb are singular.  God threatens a plague of frogs.  But only one stands on the banks of the Nile; only one covers the land.

The sages explain, of course.  Rabbi Eleazar says that this one frog bred prolifically and filled the land. The original frog called upon its brethren to join him (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 67b.)

Are there other explanations?  Let’s reconsider: One frog, one representative of what was, for the Egyptians, the symbol of fertility, the symbol of birth.  This one frog arrives, symbolizing the opposite, the destructive potential.

When we represent the positive, we are unified, joined together in common purpose.  When we become resentful and destructive, we split apart.  The land teems and swarms with hatred, ill-feeling is everywhere.  Our multiplying resentments crowd us at night, sit down with us at our meals, give us neither rest nor relief.  The creature representing hope becomes the spreading specter of terror.

Scientists tell us that this little creature is the very sign of the survival of ecosystems – if frogs disappear, beware.

Interestingly enough, our ancient commentaries and legends suggest that even the sages knew that the frog was a very particular gift from God.  Indeed, the “beautiful singing” of the frog silenced the psalmist, King David himself.  The story goes that when King David finished the book of Psalms, he became boastful, saying to The Holy One: Master of the universe, is there any other creature You created in Your world that utters more songs and paeans of praise than I?  In that instant, so the tale tells us, a frog happened upon the king: “David,” the frog said, “don’t be so boastful.  I utter far more songs and praises than you.”

According to Perek Shira, an ancient text which lists eighty-four elements of the natural world, the song of that selfsame frog was then revealed to David.  What song does the frog sing?  Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.   Blessed is the glorious Name of God, God’s is forever.  This line appears between the first sentence of Sh’ma, which declares the unity of God, and the first paragraph which reminds us to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and resources. 

The frog, we know, sings twice daily, morning and night.  It knows just when to begin its chant, and it sings that which we whisper during our recitation of God’s oneness, God’s is-ness.  The frog knows creation and knows to praise it. 

The frog makes each sound deep in its throat.  The Hebrew word nefesh, the word so often translated as soul, life force, means, originally: throat.  Our is-ness comes from our throat.  In the first cry of each child born into the world we hear the raw sound of life.

One last mystery; one last possibility.  In verse eight, the text reads that Moses cried out “in the matter of the fogs”.  But the text reads vayitzak Moshe el Adonai al d’var hatzfard’im.  Read this literally, and you will read these words: Moses cried out to the Lord upon the word of the frogs.  The frogs spoke, says Exodus Rabbah 25:27.

What did they say?

With one voice, they reminded us: Blessed is God.  God is forever.  Sing with purpose, with one voice, with the hopeful force that leads you to create life, not destroy it.

Keyn y’hi ratzon.


Update: The State of the War on Christmas

“You know,” I said to my husband, Ralf, “the war against Christmas is not going well.”

After all, where I live, Christmas ornaments and decorations fill the stores after Halloween. Christmas music sounds from every store speaker after Thanksgiving. Even a few days before the New Year, folks at stores are still so attached to the past that they invariably ask me how my Christmas went.

Obviously, I tell myself, these are folks who don’t know I am Jewish.

I suppose any one of them could say, with some justice, that I don’t “look Jewish,” though that would cause all sorts of internal discombobulation in my head. But no matter. This is about the war against Christmas.

It’s going badly.

Ralf went shopping just before Christmas. This is a dangerous thing to do. Folks start casing the aisles, desperately looking for items on their shopping list that they never otherwise buy. This is due to mad attempts to make some new kind of cookie. The recipes discovered in the newspaper or online almost always require exotic, unknown ingredients which might be located in the baking aisle but could just as well be found in the “international” aisle. The stress makes folk a bit emotional.

Be that as it may, Ralf remained calm. He found all the items on our list. At checkout, he met an old student of his working at the grocery store. (This happens to both of us, which is worrisome, of course. One prefers to imagine one’s students being gainfully employed after graduation and not struggling to make their own ends meet in the produce section.)

“Merry Christmas!” the student said.

Sometimes, we don’t bother, but since Ralf knew the person in question, he did.

“We celebrate Hanukkah,” he said as his student continued stacking spinach. The two then chatted about various items of interest. We like talking to sales people; they are invariably the most cheerful folk we get to meet out in public. That’s the nature of capitalism: Make sure all your underpaid employees behave like happy underpaid employees.

“Merry Christmas!” the student said again as Ralf wheeled away the cart.

“Crazy,” Ralf told me later. “Like, I had just told him we were Jewish…”

But I can top Ralf’s experience easy.

On my desk are those stickers we all get as freebies when people want our donations. You know, the one with your name and your address next to some cute design? Animals, if you donate to wildlife groups, flowers and fields for environmental one,… you get the idea.

The ones on my desk feature Christmas ornaments, poinsettias, and other wintery motifs. And this is what the text reads: “Rabbi Barbara Thiede….(plus address).”

Everyone celebrates Christmas. Jews, too, are celebrating Christmas. Even ordained rabbis are celebrating Christmas.

Look, I get it. The vast majority of Americans are Christian. Add up Jews (1.9%), Muslims (.9%), Buddhists (.7%), Hindus (.7%) and “other world religions” and “other faiths” you get a grand total, according to the grand Pew-ba, of 5.9% non-Christians. (See “Religions” at )

No one ever actually says who is waging the war against Christmas. I’m guessing it’s not the tiny 5.9% of folk who are representing minorities who are so minor that you can hardly tell they are there.  Nor am I sure that the war is being waged by the “nones” who likely have Christmas trees just because they are sparkly and fun.

Obviously, the war isn’t going well.

That’s fine, really. It’s not New Year’s Day just yet, and there were still Christmas melodies playing on one public place I visited yesterday. I can listen to another rendition of “Let is Snow” or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Or other Christmas classics authored by nice Jewish boys. Why not?

Rabbi Thiede wishes (most of America) a Merry Christmas.


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