Hot Off the Shtender: Becoming Forever Upside-Down

by R’ Hayley Goldstein, SVARA Fellow

I never thought I’d spend Purim day on the phone with Wildlife Rescue trying to save a small, injured bird. On a walk with a friend to a nearby gorge where I live in Ithaca, NY, we silently admired the trees, with their roots somehow afloat, twisted and elegant above the water’s edge, and the icicles latching onto the gorge walls next to the bright green lichen. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed another natural phenomenon. A beautiful black and white bird, injured and struggling to get up from the snow. As we walked over, admiring its beauty and feeling its pain, my mind couldn’t help notice the symbolism of a beautiful bird flailing and struggling on a day that is supposed to be a day of joy, expanse, and freedom and instead marks one year since the pandemic hit the Jewish world, restricting our movement and freedom in ways we then did not know were possible. 

While normally I might have said a few words and walked away, understanding the natural cycles of life and death in the wild, something about this bird and their unrelenting fight to get up from the snow hooked me. I tried walking away, taking a few steps on the slick melting snow, and I was pulled right back. I called Wildlife Rescue and, to my surprise, they came to the site within minutes, gently placing the bird into a little box and transporting it to the wildlife rehabilitation section of the animal hospital. On our walk back up the trail, carefully holding precious life encased in a cardboard box, the vet told me that our bird was called a Nuthatch. “They’re the ones known for eating upside down,” she said. On Purim, the day where we read in Megillat Esther that everything is turned on its head, v’nafoch hu, we were helping rescue a bird that, upon more research I discovered is called “the upside down bird,” as it is the only species of bird that can walk completely head-first down a tree. 

The role of a SVARA Bet Midrash Fairy isn’t so different than that of a Nuthatch. We use our glittery wings to flutter in and out of a hevruta pair’s physical or zoom space. Once in the space, we gently guide them in the right direction. Much like the Nuthatch who evolved to walk upside down in order to gain a different perspective and find hidden seeds for nourishment, our job as fairies is to help turn the hevruta pair’s gaze towards a new and often unexpected direction in order to glean new insights. And, in some ways, our role as fairies in the lives of students is similar to the role of Purim in our souls; to help us see things in a new way, opening us to greater opportunities to be face to face with the world and the text. Read More

Hot Off the Shtender: Knowing and Not Knowing: Celebrating the Expansiveness of Torah

by R’ Lauren Tuchman, SVARA Fellow

Today, I remember. I remember vividly the all-consuming sadness I felt last Purim, as the sun was setting and my celebratory seudah was ending, the last event I attended with a large Jewish community. I remember feeling overcome with the intuitive sense that it would be a long, long time before I would daven with a minyan, learn in a physical bet midrash, and otherwise gather to sing, celebrate, learn, mourn, and grieve with others outside of my small pod. I also distinctly recall not knowing how to explain my sorrow. Last Purim, we knew there was a deadly, dangerous virus looming. I remember the conversation surrounding the question of whether one could attend a virtual Megillah reading. Were the circumstances really that grave that a virtual reading could be sufficient for those for whom in person gatherings took religious precedence? Surely this outbreak will be a few months at most—we’ll be back to “normal” by Shavuot.

As I think back over this turbulent year, I am humbled by my own sense of assumed knowing, on a holiday that is all about not knowing. Purim is, after all, many things. It is a holiday about opposites, reversals, revelations, and concealments. It is also understood to be about knowing and not knowing. Traditionally, one is supposed to drink until they cannot tell the difference between blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman. It should go without saying but I feel absolutely obligated to say that this knowing and not knowing is not only achieved through the use of intoxicating substances. Our sages also teach that the knowing and not knowing is about achieving a mystical union with all that is. For those of us who are spiritually inclined but for whom achieving mystical union with all that exists feels a bit too abstract or out there, we can also think of this idea of knowing and not knowing as related to the Gemara’s famous teaching in Shabbat 88a concerning our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai.

The Gemara cites additional homiletic interpretations on the topic of the revelation at Sinai.

״וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר״, אָמַר רַב אַבְדִּימִי בַּר חָמָא בַּר חַסָּא: מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכָּפָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת הָהָר כְּגִיגִית, וְאָמַר לָהֶם: אִם אַתֶּם מְקַבְּלִים הַתּוֹרָה מוּטָב, וְאִם לָאו — שָׁם תְּהֵא קְבוּרַתְכֶם.

אָמַר רַב אַחָא בַּר יַעֲקֹב: מִכָּאן מוֹדָעָא רַבָּה לְאוֹרָיְיתָא.

אָמַר רָבָא: אַף עַל פִּי כֵן הֲדוּר קַבְּלוּהָ בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, דִּכְתִיב: ״קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים״ — קִיְּימוּ מַה שֶּׁקִּיבְּלוּ כְּבָר.

The Torah says: “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa interprets this verse in the following way: [Because of the language of “lowermost part of the mountain,” the verse implies that the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain], and comes to teach that that the Holy One, blessed be God, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial.”

Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: This would undermine our obligation to fulfill the Torah! The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding.

Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them,” (Esther 9:27). The Jews “ordained” that which they had already “taken upon” themselves through coercion at Sinai. 

We encounter here the famous idea that our acceptance of the covenant through our declaration of we will do, and we will hear, or we will listen was not, in the rabbi’s read done willingly. We were coerced. It was not until the days of Purim that we in fact willingly accepted the Torah upon ourselves. During this time of knowing and not knowing, we are provided here with an interesting juxtaposition. On a day when we tend to be consumed by physical delights and pleasures, we also celebrate our fullest acceptance of Torah. Read More

Hot Off the Shtender: Is the Talmud Really What We Say It Is?

by Laynie Soloman, Associate Rosh Yeshiva

Over this year, as we’ve moved through continued isolation and exile amidst a global pandemic, I have found the bet midrash to be one of the only places that I’ve been able to be fully present, immersed, and in a joyful state of flow. Sometimes I feel this flow when I am swimming in a text that explicitly and easily shows the radical agenda of the Rabbis as they model the creation of a useable past, finding creative and subversive readings of texts and practices that enable them to shape new worlds that meet their current moment. Other times I feel this flow when I sink into the minutiae of a dynamic kra proof, or try to sharpen the structure of a complex amoraic dispute in which, after hours of winding and cracking open the text, I find the Rabbis arguing the point they started with. In those moments it is hard not to ask myself (or find SVARA-niks asking), “Is the Talmud really what we say it is?”

This question shows up for me each time I learn one of my favorite texts with a new group of SVARA-niks, as I’ve done over the past five weeks as the third cohort SVARA’s Teaching Kollel has been digging into one of the most central texts that our learning community returns to again and again: Sanhedrin 17a, which explores the necessary attributes for judges who can be appointed to the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court). While it discusses an ancient judicial system, the text—like all learning, really—serves as a rorschach test, in many ways, revealing to us what we believe is most fundamental to the rabbinic project. After one sage lists a number of attributes for an ideal appointee to the Sanhedrin (like wisdom, status as an elder, stature), Rav Yehuda brings a teaching in the name of his teacher, Rav:

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב אין מושיבין בסנהדרין אלא מי שיודע לטהר את השרץ מה”ת

Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: We place on the Sanhedrin—the highest court—only one who knows how to purify a sheretz (an impure creepy crawly thing), using Torah. 

Rav seems to argue that in order to sit on the Sanhedrin, one needs to be able to do one thing: to find a way, using the Torah, to declare that sheretz—which the Torah tells is impure—is pure. In other words, the rabbi-est of rabbis who sits on the most authoritative governing body of the Jewish people is someone who can be metaher et ha sheretz min hatorah, who can purify the creepy-crawly thing that the Torah says, by definition, is inherently impure. A requirement for Jewish leadership, power, and authority, then, is to use the Torah to declare pure something that the Torah itself defines as fundamentally and unchangeably impure. To embody this kind of relationship with the tradition is, in short, to be able to overturn the Torah itselfeven, or perhaps especially, where the Torah seems least overturn-able. Read More