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Envy and the Yetzer Hara

            There’s a Jewish concept called the Yetzer Hara, or the evil inclination, which (along with the Yetzer Hatov, or the good inclination) at first glance seems to be a version of having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, but it’s more complicated than that. As usual.

“Why is everything so complicated?”

            The Yetzer Hara has often been reinterpreted not so much as an inclination to evil, but as an inclination that can lead to evil. The rabbis say that the inclination to reproduce, or to create new things, or to succeed in life all come from this “evil” inclination, and therefore we need some amount of it in life even to survive, let alone to thrive. We need to have ambition and impulsivity and individual drive, but there’s a limit; though they don’t clarify exactly where those limits might be.

            The same rabbis say that if we took the Yetzer Hatov, the inclination for good, to an extreme we’d also have trouble. Because if we were always peaceful and calm, and never ambitious, we wouldn’t bother to grow crops, or have children, or make progress in science or art or philosophy, or even religion. We would be satisfied with whatever we had and peacefully die off. So the ideal is to find a balance between the two inclinations.

            But I’m not sure why the rabbis felt it necessary to call something “evil” that, in itself, isn’t evil at all, and to call something “good” which is more like peacefulness rather than goodness, and I think these names, and therefore these judgements on our inclinations towards creativity or peacefulness, are part of the reason why we struggle so much, both with accepting our ambitions and with accepting our need for rest.

“Rest is essential.”

            I’ve been thinking about this question of what’s really evil, and what is just called evil in our society, because I’ve been feeling a lot of envy for what other people have, or what they look like, or just who they are, and having these feelings has been making me feel like I’m a bad person, and stops me from being able to look at these feelings head on, because I’m afraid I will discover that I really am bad.

The Tenth Commandment says that we shouldn’t covet (or envy) what our neighbors have. The other commandments focus on doing or not doing something, but this one is about what we feel. Our ancestors, I guess, were afraid of their emotions and judged those emotions as if they were equal to bad action. But why?

Research on envy distinguishes between malicious envy and benign envy. Malicious envy is when you want to take something away from someone else, or hurt the person who has what you want, and benign envy is when you see that someone else has something you want and that motivates you to achieve that thing for yourself.       

But what if envy itself is neutral, not positive or negative, just a human emotion that we can feel, and learn from, without having to judge ourselves for having it? What if envy itself isn’t benign or malicious at all, and it’s only what we do with our envy that gets us in trouble. What if we could allow ourselves to feel the envy, and then go on to feel the disappointment or grief of not being able to have what we want, or the determination and passion that helps us keep working for what we want. What if, by allowing ourselves to feel the full weight of our envy, we would realize that we don’t want what someone else has, but we want to feel the way they seem to feel, and then we can start to work on finding a better way to reach that feeling.

            The problem is that most people, including me, have trouble looking at those shadow parts of ourselves without being overwhelmed by crushing guilt and self judgement. And who can sit with that for very long? And therefore we can’t get to all of the important insights that envy, and all of our other difficult and painful emotions, have to offer us.

“What’s guilt?”

The fact is, the danger doesn’t come from envy but from unacknowledged and unprocessed envy. If I can sit with the envy long enough, it can tell me what matters to me and what I want to change in my life or in the world around me.

Envy has been a constant companion for me, so maybe that’s why I take the Tenth Commandment so personally, and feel so judged by it. It feels as if God is leaning down from Mount Sinai and pointing a big finger at me and saying: you, you’re the bad one. But I can’t help feeling envious. I envy people who are healthy, or who grew up feeling safe, or who’ve had better luck in love and in their careers. But feeling envious is not the same as taking an evil or hurtful action towards another person.

            Our fear that our emotions will take over and consume us is clearly old, both ancient in our society and old in our lifetimes, from childhood, when we had so little ability to manage the emotions overwhelming our little bodies.

            But if we, as adults, can’t distinguish between our feelings and our actions, and call both equally evil, then we will forget to distinguish between the people who choose to act in destructive ways and the people who don’t, because we will think we are all the same. And if we stay in that place, then we won’t be able to take any real responsibility for how we react to our emotions, and that space between feeling and action, where we have the opportunity to choose the path we will take, goes unexplored.

            I think what the rabbis were pointing to in the Yetzer Harah and the Yetzer Hatov is that they are inclinations, not acts; having an inclination, or a longing, or even a need, does not determine the action we will take as a result. It informs it, yes, but it doesn’t make anything inevitable. And we are so lucky to have these emotions and inclinations, these little angels (though definitely more than just two extremes, I think) sitting on our shoulders and telling us the more complex picture of what we feel and what we want, so that we can look at our feelings and look at the facts before we choose how to act.

            I just wish we could give these inclinations better names, like, I don’t know, Maude and Henry, so we could treat them like the friends and confidants that they are meant to be, and not as the strangers, called Good and Evil, that they almost never really represent.

“We won’t have to share our chicken treats with Maude and Henry, will we?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

End of the Synagogue School Year

            I need time to stop again. I keep needing time to stop; keep needing a chance to catch up with my life, because it’s running too far ahead of me.

“I’ll catch it for you, Mommy!”

            I’m looking forward to the end of the semester, and the beginning of summer vacation, because I need a break; but it’s sad that this will be the end of working with this particular group of kids, and probably this particular teacher’s aide, all of whom have had so much to teach me. There’s so much more I want them to learn, too.

            I feel pretty good about what my students have learned this year in Judaic Studies – both the ethical lessons from Leviticus and our virtual travels around the world to visit different communities of Jews throughout history. I keep finding more places and more eras where Jews have lived interesting and unexpected lives, and I love that I get to share all of this with the kids, and help them build a wider and deeper and more flexible idea of what it can mean to be Jewish. But their Hebrew needs work, and there are so many lessons I’ve had to cut from my lesson plans in favor of something else – a holiday, a musical event, etc. – and could never find time to add back in.

            But also, I get anxious before each class: worried I’ll leave something out, or miss something that’s going on with them. My expectations of what I should be able to do two afternoons a week, in eight or nine months, is out of whack with what’s truly possible, but still I always feel like I’m falling short.

“Did you just call me short?”

            Of course, part of my summer vacation will be spent revising lesson plans to see how I can fit more in, and teach things more effectively. I need to work on my ability to teach through games – especially games like Jeopardy, which my teacher’s aide did with the kids twice this year to spectacular effect. And I need to figure out how to repeat lessons more often, but in different ways, until the material really sticks, for most of them rather than just for some of them. And I want to revise my readings to better fit their current reading levels.

            But before I do that, I need a nap. And I need a chance to refocus on my own work and my own learning process and getting my own stories told. I tend to live in a state of high anxiety during the school year, and I need to transition out of that into something more sustainable that allows for more creativity and imagination.

“And you need to take your dogs for more walks.”

            But, I’m worried that my teenage teacher’s aide – a fourteen year old boy with the sense of responsibility of someone much older, and a really lively curiosity and comfort level with the kids, and of course, an endless supply of ideas for how to gamify learning and keep the kids on their toes – won’t come back next year; that he’ll go on to teach his own class, or leave the synagogue school completely in favor of brighter pastures, like, I don’t know, the school play, or an after school tech club, or starting his own business out of his parent’s garage. And I’m worried about all of the unknowns for next year – whether I’ll have a classroom of my own or stay in the cavernous social hall, whether I’ll have a teacher’s aide at all, and what new and unexpected challenges my next group of students will bring with them. And I’m excited that the kids from my first ever class are going into their B’nei Mitzvah year, and every other week I will get to see them coming into their own and claiming their Jewishness, surrounded by their friends and families. And I’m hopeful about our new educational director and all of the energy and ideas and collaborative spirit she will bring with her.

            But right now, I really need a nap. I need to rest and recover from all of the lessons I’ve learned over the past three years. I just need time to stop for a little while, so I can catch up with myself, and feel rested and ready for whatever comes next.

“Ah, nap time.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Choir Rehearsals

            I can’t do choir rehearsals at my synagogue during the school year anymore. I tried.

For the past two years we’ve either had online rehearsals or did recordings on our own, so even if a zoom meeting came up on a day when I had to teach synagogue school, I could still go home, have dinner, unwind for a minute, prep for my next class, maybe even take a shower, and still be in time for the Zoom. But in-person rehearsals are a whole other thing. I have to rush through prep and communicating with parents and dinner then get back in the car, rehearse for an hour and a half, and only get home around ten o’clock at night. When I tried, a few weeks ago, I hit a wall around nine o’clock. I left the rehearsal early, but it still took me days to recover.

“Life is exhausting.”

            And I was frustrated. I’d already committed to singing at the Women’s Seder (a yearly event at my synagogue, a few weeks before Passover, to celebrate the women in the Exodus story and modern religious music by women), and I had to tell the musical director, and the Cantor, that I wouldn’t be able to get to the rehearsals, for that or for anything else during the rest of the school year.

            When I told the musical director that I wouldn’t be able to get to the rehearsals, he sent me the music (four songs we’d done in the past, and only one with two part harmonies) and said he trusted me to be ready on my own, which was both kind and a lot of pressure.

And when I reached out to the Cantor to tell him that I wouldn’t be able to go to choir rehearsals during the school year any more (after almost a week of working up the nerve to write the email), his response came back quickly and with a lot of understanding and compassion.

            But I still felt crummy.

I haven’t been able to go to many in-person Friday night services either. I know I’m not the only one who has fallen out of the habit of going to services in person, but I still feel guilty when I watch the Friday night Zoom and see that only two or three congregants are actually in the sanctuary. And I feel guilty when I choose to attend with my camera off, instead of showing my face on Zoom, even though I know I don’t have the energy to change out of my pajamas or even comb my hair.

“My hair looks perfect.”

I feel guilty when I set limits to protect myself, but I also feel angry, because I’d rather be someone who can do all of these things. I don’t want to be ill.

Hopefully I will be able to manage choir rehearsals over the summer, when I don’t have to teach on the same days, and I’ll be able to prepare for the high holidays and socialize with friends and feel more normal, but we’ll see.

            Even though I can’t get to choir rehearsals, I have been able to bring more music into my classroom. Not only does the Cantor come in to sing with the students, but a visiting teacher gave us an idea for another way to bring in more music. He suggested playing different versions of the same prayer for the kids, to give them a chance to see for themselves how well, or badly, the music fits the meaning of the prayer. He chose Oseh Shalom (He Makes Peace) for his example, because it’s a prayer that has been done in so many different ways, and I followed his example. I found seven versions of the prayer and we all sat together on the floor and listened to one version after the other. The choice of song became even more meaningful after the war in Ukraine began, because the kids have been watching the news, along with the rest of us, and singing about peace, and thinking about peace, gave them a way to feel like they were doing something to help.

Some of the kids danced to the faster versions of the song, and others took notes like the serious musicologists they are, talking about how the changes in language and instruments and voices added to our ideas about what peace might actually be: it isn’t just the slow and mournful kind of peace we’re used to singing about, but also the raucous, complicated, dissonant, fast and faster, loud and louder, one voice and many voices cacophony that can encompass everyone, if we let it.

We may have played the music too loud, because one of the kids came back from the bathroom saying they could hear it down the hall, but I don’t think anyone minded. Music has so much power to make us feel heard, and connected, to each other and to ourselves. I never want to lose that connection from my life, or my teaching.

And, maybe inspired by my students, I was able to practice the songs for the Women’s Seder on my own, and when the day came, I was ready to sing with the female members of the choir without too much anxiety. And it felt really good to be a part of things, and to be able to add my voice, and not have to stay home and watch it all on Zoom. I hope this is a sign that there will be ways for me to adapt to circumstances in the future and always find my way forward, but for now, this was enough.

In case you’re interested in trying the experiment:

Oseh Shalom by Nurit Hirsch https://youtube.com/watch?v=-ODQuc6PzVk&feature=share
Oseh Shalom (SATB Choir) by John Leavitt https://youtu.be/EzdeEuttarI
Oseh Shalom by Debbie Friedman https://youtu.be/scbPrzCicLk
Oseh Shalom by Elana Jagoda https://youtu.be/MhBtIWGsaCo
Oseh Shalom by - Nefesh Mountain https://youtu.be/IrDDeQxRepU
Oseh Shalom by Nava Tehila https://youtu.be/EFdngngTpqo
Oseh Shalom by Ochs https://youtu.be/1Rw-r6hrCOc
Peace.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

I am Cookie Dough

We started re-reading the Hebrew Bible from the beginning last year in the bible study class at my synagogue. When I first joined the class, eight or nine years ago, they were already deep into the prophets (the really really boring prophets), so it’s been exciting to go back to Genesis, which is chock a block with crazy stories. And right away, with the stories about the creation of the world, I found something I’d never understood before: God doesn’t create the world in Genesis; God looks out at the chaos and begins to separate things out and name them: light from dark, land from sea, male from female. And I realized, that’s what I’ve been trying to do, within myself, since I started therapy so many years ago. I saw myself as chaos, and I started to separate things out and name them, in an effort to make sense of what was already there. I didn’t need to, or want to, create a new self in therapy, I just wanted to organize the self I already had.

            Many theorists have attempted to organize the self in general: like Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego, or Erikson’s Stages of Development, or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There are theories that focus on the structure of the brain: with the reptilian brain running on instincts, and the limbic brain running on emotions and social behavior, and the rational brain/neocortex running on thoughts, language and reflection. And all of these general theories of the mind/self are attempts to acknowledge the multiplicity of the self, while also controlling it.

And yet, most of us don’t fit neatly into any of these paradigms; they are all imperfect and incomplete, and I needed to map out my own chaotic self, in my own way, in order to feel seen.

“I’m here! See me!”

            Mapping out the various aspects of the self is hard enough, but for a survivor of childhood abuse the process of recognizing the different parts of the self is complicated by the dissociation and fragmentation the mind uses to survive the abuse. Some survivors have thick amnestic walls between parts of the self, that in someone who has had no childhood trauma would be much more fluid, and some have endless slivers of self that can’t speak for themselves. Each abusive situation is different, and each survivor survives in his or her own unique way.

“I eat chicken.”

The paradigm of having multiple different parts of the self, without being limited to the ones named by the experts, has helped me to identify many different feelings and internal conflicts within myself, but the further along I get in the work, the more I see the parts blending and blurring at the edges, like sticky slices from a roll of cookie dough. Even after so many years of work, I still feel like there are parts of me that are left unclear or completely unseen, and I believe that my lack of ability to see them, or to tolerate them, is part of what keeps me stuck. It’s possible that I’ve got a handle on eighty percent of who I am, or fifty percent or forty. My best guess is that I’ve mapped out about sixty percent of who I am, and who I was, and what happened to me, and how I felt about it; but I don’t know how to get to the rest of it, and I don’t know if the rest is just blurry or still completely unknown.

            Part of the confusion is that it often feels like I’m starting from scratch each day, going through all of the same internal conflicts and trying to remember how I resolved them yesterday. Sometimes my memory for the work I’ve done in therapy is very clear, and sometimes I have to rely on my notes to remember that I went to the supermarket this morning, but mostly it’s somewhere in between.

“You did not take us out five minutes ago.”

            And yet, strangely, I’m a pretty consistent person in how I act, and in how I seem to other people. No matter how hard I have to fight with myself every day to resolve each internal argument, I tend to answer them all the same way I did yesterday. I exist as the same person every day, seemingly, but sometimes I see myself clearly and sometimes I see myself through a distorted mirror.

There are times when my memories are so richly detailed that I can figure out what time of year something happened, and how I felt, and how the people around me looked and sounded, and I can even remember the furniture in the room; and then there are times when those same memories are trapped behind a thick veil and I’m squinting to make out who’s who or why the memory is even important.

            The study of psychology, is, like me, still cookie dough. We are very early in our understanding of the brain, and in our understanding of how the anatomy of the brain and our life experiences create our individual senses of self. We cannot fully map our brains, yet.

Now that the bible class is (finally) moving from Genesis into Exodus, I’m wondering what new things I will discover, both about ancient ideas of God, and even more important, ancient ideas about people and how they acted, and why. And maybe going through the Exodus from Egypt again, but more slowly than we do it at the Passover Seder, I’ll find more details and clarity in the chaos than I’ve found before. Maybe that’s just how it is: understanding comes with repetition, and with a willingness to look at the same book or the same self over and over again from different perspectives, so that the picture gradually becomes clearer, though maybe never complete.

“You can study me, Mommy!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Speaking Hebrew

            I’m in my third semester of Hebrew classes with the school in Tel Aviv (online), and I’m still loving it. Each semester is ten weeks long, with about a month off in between, and it’s work, but their method lowers the stress level from where it would be in a regular academic class (no tests, short lessons, lots of repetition and variety). And I love that I’m meeting so many different people: from Italy, and Germany, and South Africa, and France, and India, and Australia, and, of course, the United States and Canada. It surprised me, at first, that aside from the fact that we’re speaking Hebrew, and we don’t have class on the Jewish holidays, there’s almost no Jewish content to the class. I don’t even know if all of my classmates are Jewish, because it never comes up. Sometimes I miss the Jewishness I was expecting, but this way I’m getting a real sense of what it must be like to be in a country where Jewishness is so much in the background, and so taken for granted, that it doesn’t need to be discussed.

            My original goal in taking these classes was to overcome my fear of speaking Hebrew, and especially of making mistakes, and I still feel a pinch when I get something wrong in class, or forget something I should have remembered, or lose focus for a second and have to ask for instructions again – but the pinch is so much smaller than it used to be. The accepting, non-judgmental style of the classes seems to be helping to change the wiring in my brain in a way that will, hopefully, translate into the rest of my life as well.

            I keep trying to figure out why I like these classes so much, despite the amount of time and money I’m spending on it that I should be spending on more practical things. I think part of it is that I like getting a chance to meet new people in a controlled environment, where I know what’s expected of me and where the boundaries are. But I’m not sure that that would be enough to push me to take a French or Spanish class, even in the exact same format. There’s a little girl inside of me who fell in love with Hebrew early in life, and she’s reveling in this chance to speak her language.

“Shalom!”

            But maybe my favorite thing about these zoom classes, especially since in-person gatherings have required face masks for so long now, is that my facial expressions are visible. There’s so much of who I am that comes through on my face and it’s been such a relief to be  seen again and to have people say – oh, Rachel doesn’t like that – without my having to say a word!

“Hmm.”

            I’m still – three semesters later – finding stores of vocabulary and grammar that I haven’t accessed in decades. The more I practice, the less time I have to spend rifling through the dusty attic of my brain, with its sticky closets and creaky drawers, for each word I want to say. But I still get anxious when I first log onto the zoom class and the teacher asks each of us how we’re doing and I have to think of a simple, polite answer to the question, in Hebrew. Even in English I would struggle to eke out an everything’s fine, but in Hebrew I feel even more tongue tied.

And yet, given how awkward these opening conversations are for me, it’s ironic, or perfectly reasonable, that I decided to teach my synagogue school students how to have a simple opening conversation in Hebrew. Person one: Hi, how are you. Person two: choose from everything’s fine, very good, and terrible. The kids love saying Al HaPanim (I feel terrible) so that’s been a hit. I love that the kids giggle and smirk when they say it, because that means it will stick with them. And I know from my own experience that there’s such relief in being allowed to say, “I feel terrible,” if only because we are usually expected to say we’re fine when someone asks. And when I explained to them that the literal translation of Al HaPanim is “on the face,” as in “I’m falling on my face,” or “I’m covering my face with my hands because it’s so bad,” they loved it even more. For me, just saying, “it’s on my face,” when my emotions often are right on my face, resonates.

            We’ve also started watching Israeli TV shows for homework between Zoom classes, and it’s exciting to see how much I’ve been able to understand (because even the subtitles are in Hebrew!). The first show we watched was a romantic comedy about the fashion business, and now we’re watching a drama about a group of army buddies with PTSD getting back together to solve a mystery. The TV shows are much more my speed than a lot of the Israeli movies I’ve been able to find, and it’s giving me a better sense of what Israelis themselves might choose to watch.

She has it/The Stylist
When Heroes Fly

            And, as a result, it’s getting more real to me that I may, eventually, be able to visit Israel. Even a few years ago it felt like a dream, or something for my bucket list, but now it feels inevitable. I feel like these classes are giving me the solid ground under my feet that I will need on the trip, in order to really appreciate the experience and not feel unmoored and overwhelmed. I still worry that Israelis won’t like me, because I am too soft, too American, but I’m learning more and more with each class about how Israelis, at least in Tel Aviv, think and speak in real life, and I’m finding that, just like Americans, they are all different, almost like real people.

            In the meantime, I keep practicing my Hebrew, reading slowly through My Hebrew copy of Harry Potter, watching Israeli TV shows and movies, and speaking Hebrew at home, at least with the dogs. They really seem to understand what I’m saying, though they might just be humoring me. It’s hard to tell. They can be especially inscrutable when they’re overdue for a visit to the groomer.

“We don’t need haircuts, and we understand every word you say.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

A Day of Rest

The defining story of the Jewish people is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The children of Israel were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and when they finally escaped one of the first things they did (at Mount Sinai) was to proclaim that there would have to be a rest day every week. And, yes, the way the Hebrew Bible is written, it’s God who tells them what the Ten Commandments are, including the commandment to keep the Sabbath day as a day of rest, but even if we believe that it’s coming directly from God and not from the people themselves, the people had a choice, to embrace the new rules or forgo them, and they chose to take them on. Imagine what having a full day of rest every week would have meant to a people who had only known life as slaves? Setting aside a full day of rest meant that, for at least one day each week, their time and their priorities were their own. We think of a day of rest as a logical necessity, because of the body’s need for rest, but that day off also creates more space in our own minds, for our hopes and dreams and plans, instead of just thoughts related to work and getting by.

I like to think of Shabbat as a time to sit and listen carefully to those quiet voices inside of us, the ones we can barely hear during the busy work week, so that we can put ourselves back together and bring our full selves back with us into our daily lives. Shabbat is a chance to heal the wounds of the week, especially the times when we’ve pushed through, despite hunger or exhaustion or pain, and never bothered to apologize to ourselves for the harm done.

“How dare you!”

But even in the United States, where we supposedly have a five day work week, with two days off, many people still work on the weekends, or set that time aside for chores and errands. Maybe they go to a prayer service, or have a family dinner, but they don’t spend a full day (and certainly not two days) napping or reading or taking nature walks; instead, they spend the time ticking things off their to-do lists. I’ve found that most people find the idea of rest, especially for a whole day, uncomfortable. Which means that the ancient Israelites knew what they were up to; they knew that rest is essential to living a full life, and that we would have to be commanded to do it.

“You need to be commanded to nap? Humans are weird.”

But even with my deep appreciation for rest, I still don’t feel like I make enough use of Shabbat each week. Part of the problem is that creating a day of rest takes effort. Shabbat is supposed to be a mini holiday every week – a mini Chanukah or Christmas or Passover – and that means a lot of planning, and cooking, and inviting, and cleaning, and dressing up. It sounds crazy to say that I am too tired for Shabbat; too tired to rest. But I am too tired to create the right circumstances for my soul to rest and recharge, instead of just my body.

            Another block to making the most of Shabbat is that I don’t really feel like I deserve a special day of rest each week, given the amount of rest I need, and take, during the work week. I feel like I should be making up for all of that laziness by doing chores on the weekend.

            And then there’s the biggest block of all: my memories of celebrating Shabbat as a kid. Before my father became more religious, when I was four, five, six, and seven, Shabbat was a good day. My brother and I went to Junior Congregation – an hour of Bible trivia and songs and prayers with the rest of the kids and with one not-so-grown up adult – and then, if we could sneak into the Social Hall after the maintenance guys had set up the tables, we could steal brownies while the adults were busy praying in the big sanctuary. And then I’d go to gymnastics with my best friend, and then me and Mom and my brother would get meatball heroes from the tiny Italian sub shop on the way home. It was pretty great.

“Meatball heroes, yes. Bible trivia? Not so much.”

            But then my father became more religious, starting when I was about eight years old, and instead of meatball heroes and gymnastics, my brother and I went from Junior Congregation in the little sanctuary straight into the big sanctuary with the adults, and then to the Kiddish in the Social Hall, where the adults drank Slivovitz and ate gefilte fish and herring and talked for what seemed like hours. We were able to eat a few more brownies, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. And when we finally got home, we weren’t allowed to watch TV for the rest of the day, or even get homework done. The boredom was mind numbing, except for the times when we played Trivial Pursuit as a family, which were brutal. At that point in my life, the best part of Shabbat was the end.

            I gave up on celebrating Shabbat entirely in my twenties, going to therapy and writing workshops and shopping trips on Saturdays, because it was easier to think of it as just another day than to wrestle with the fish hooks of the past, the memories that cut so deep into my skin that it’s hard to pull them out without damaging my internal organs. And even after joining our current synagogue, nine years ago, and consistently going to Friday night services each week, I still couldn’t find a comfortable way to bring Shabbat home with me.

            But I want to be able to find some peace each week. I want there to be a day set aside where I can put down my big bag of anxieties and truly rest and recharge. But while I know people who are good at dissociating from their feelings, who can even be specific in which of their feelings and memories to “put on a shelf” and out of their minds, for a time, I can’t do it. My internal shelves are not well constructed, so the nasty things keep falling back into consciousness, often in dreams or nightmares, or just in triggers throughout the day that I can’t control or ignore.

“The shelves are falling! The shelves are falling!”

So I’m left with all of my memories and emotions and internal conflicts, even on Shabbat, and no amount of challah, or grape juice, or matzah ball soup, seems to be able to overcome that. Except, if I look back at the beginning of this essay, the purpose for Shabbat that I came up with wasn’t to be happy and carefree, it was to take the time to put your whole self back together, to take ownership of your time, and your internal life, so that when you go back to your daily working life you can bring your whole self with you. Maybe, on those terms, I’m doing Shabbat pretty well after all. Maybe the real problem is that I expect my version of Shabbat to match what I’ve seen in other people’s homes. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m flawed and broken beyond repair, but that my expectations of myself just don’t fit me. And maybe, my goal for Shabbat each week should be to gradually change my expectations of myself until they match the person I actually am. Maybe if I can do that, some peace will follow.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?         

Baking Bread Again

            I don’t know if the new dose of the antidepressant kicked in, or if it was just because of the cold weather, but the other day I finally felt like baking again. Mom and I looked through cookie recipes and cake recipes and then we settled on a Buttermilk Seed Bread, because it just sounded right. There’s something about the way bread dough needs to rest, and rest again, that resonates with me.

Ellie too.

            I didn’t knead the dough myself (that’s what Kitchenaid mixers and dough hooks are for, it turns out), but I helped mix in the ingredients (whole wheat flour, titular Buttermilk, cranberries, dates, poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.), and helped punch down the dough after the first rise (so satisfying!), and put it into the loaf pans to rise again. I fell asleep before the bread was ready to go into the oven, but at least it was a start.

Despite the mass baking on social media (sourdough and banana bread especially) that occurred during the stay at home orders and boredom of Covid, I haven’t done much baking, or even cooking for the past two years. I made cookies once or twice, from a mix, and I chopped vegetables here and there, but mostly I reheated frozen dinners and opened cans of soup and smeared peanut butter on almost everything, while Mom did the actual cooking.

“Where’s the peanut butter?

            I used to cook every day, and bake a lot too, but I’ve been so tired, for so long, that I’ve gotten used to not wanting to do things, especially in the kitchen, where standing on the hard floor and leaning over the sink or the counter or the dishwasher leaves me feeling like I’ve been stabbed in the back with a cleaver. But for some reason, the other day, I felt like baking, so that’s what we did.

            Each day this past week we lit our Chanukah candles – either with our congregation on Zoom or just me and Mom and the dogs – and even though it often felt like a chore, like something I just had to get done, sometimes the sparks of light reached me and made a difference.

Day 4

            There’s something about the way the fire grows by one candle each night of Chanukah that makes sense to me. It fits the way I live my life, growing slowly each day, doing a little bit more and a little bit more, until seemingly out of nowhere, I’ve achieved something I didn’t know I could do. The way the Chanukah candles grow brighter each day of the holiday, instead of dimmer, makes me feel like it’s okay to pace myself, and to make the most of each day in whatever way works for me (naps, snacks, more naps, repeat), allowing me to focus on letting the fire grow instead of dim as I go forward.

Day 7

            I’m not suddenly cooking every day, but I’m noticing that I want to do more. I want to go to the Costco near us and buy…something, and I want to take a trip…somewhere. I’m not up to it yet, but for now it’s enough to know that I want to do these things; that they even sound like fun.

            After a few days of making sandwiches with the new bread (pastrami with mustard), I found a recipe for marzipan filled rugelach. I haven’t made them yet, but I bought all of the ingredients, so those Chanukah candles are adding up to something. I’m not setting the world on fire yet, but I’m wondering what else might start to sound good again, and I’m looking forward to finding out.

“We’re ready!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Everyday Miracles

            This year at synagogue school we’re focusing on miracles for Hanukah (last year we focused on the lights from the candles), and I’m doing a writing workshop with the kids based on Walt Whitman’s poem Miracles (https://poets.org/poem/miracles), to help them see the everyday miracles in their own lives.

            There have been times in my life when I was able to feel the level of wonder Walt Whitman felt at the miracles all around him, but I haven’t been in that state of mind lately. My first thoughts are of what I don’t have, or what’s wrong, or what I’m failing at. My hope is that by actively pushing myself to think about the daily miraculous things, I might be able to regenerate my sense of wonder: like the miracle of Ellie running through the leaves, or the miracle of Cricket giving a five minute diatribe, in the form of an Aria, about why I shouldn’t be allowed to leave the apartment, or the miracle of packages arriving at my door just because I typed a few things into my phone.

“Where’s MY iPhone?

            I want bigger miracles, though. I want to stop feeling so hungry – for food or love or success or whatever else. I want to feel less pain, physical and emotional. I want all of my hard work to kick in so I can finally feel successful and capable and healthy, and safe. It’s hard to be satisfied with the little miracles when I want so much more.

The fact is, I’m struggling. My psychiatrist upped my dose of antidepressants, because my lows have been more persistent lately, even prior to my father’s death. It feels like exhaustion, but I don’t know if there’s a medical cause or a psychological one, or a mix of both. All of the research being done on Long Covid (which I don’t have, because I never got Covid, thank God) promises to offer some insight for those of us who have other long term pain disorders, but I’m not optimistic, honestly.

            My latest experiments with Intuitive Eating have led me to look into self-care more deeply, to see if there are things I could be doing to help lift my mood that I haven’t tried yet, or haven’t tried enough; things, especially, that would take the place of extra food, because I’ve been relying on food as self-care too much lately. My current project has been about collecting good memories (times when I’ve felt cared for, safe, and accepted as I am), so that when I find myself wanting to eat beyond physical hunger I can fill the space with a good memory instead.

            Some of the memories I’ve been working with are: when I was four years old and my grandfather bought me a stuffed panda that was as tall as me and he walked me and the panda, hand in hand, down the driveway to the car; and the time when my brother and I sat on the lawn during a rainstorm with a towel over our heads; and the time we stayed over at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and they took us to Lickety Split for ice cream (I probably had mint chocolate chip) and then we were allowed to choose whichever candies we wanted, and my brother and I sat in the guest room, next to the cuckoo clock, sharing our candy dots and ingesting enormous amounts of paper along the way.

“Yum, paper!”

            I’ve also been collecting songs and TV shows and movies and books that have relieved anxiety or depression in the past, so that if the sweet memories don’t help enough I can move on to visiting YouTube or Spotify mid-meal, or I could even act out a scene from Harry Potter with the dogs if nothing else works.

            I just want to feel better, but it’s all trial and error and lately I’ve been feeling like I’m treading water. I remember this feeling from summer camp, when we had to do a Buddy Call at free swim in the lake. The water was deep and opaque, so we had to go in as pairs, with each pair given a number, and midway through the session we had to call out our numbers, to make sure we were all still alive. If you weren’t at the dock when the whistles blew then you had to tread water through the whole Buddy Call, which could take a while. Under the water I was kicking my legs furiously, but above the water I had to pay close attention to the numbers being called out, so I wouldn’t miss our turn. It was exhausting, and panic inducing. I worried that I’d forget my number, or forget how to count in Hebrew letters, but most of all I worried that my legs would give out and I’d fall under the water and the lifeguards would have to dive in to search for me and they’d be pissed off at me for the rest of the summer. I didn’t have faith that my buddy would remember our number, or call it out, or save me if I started to drown. I didn’t have much faith in other people, period.

“I would save you, Mommy!”
“Yeah, sure. Me too.”

            So this writing workshop on miracles is coming at the right time, and maybe when the kids tap into their own ideas of what’s miraculous in their lives I will remember my own miracles too. My hope is, always, that if I keep trying, keep working at this process of healing, good things will come. I just wish they’d come a little bit faster.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

My Father Died

            I found out that my father had died by listening to Mom’s side of a phone call. It took a while for me to figure out that she was talking to my brother, and then even longer to figure out that he was telling her my father had died. I had to wait until the call was over to get the details – that my father had been in and out of nursing homes and hospitals for the past three years (which we sort of knew, from clues but not from direct information), that he didn’t have dementia (which is what Mom had assumed), and that there was drama around when and where the funeral would take place.

            I wrote to four people after I found out – two good friends, my therapist, and my rabbi. And my rabbi rushed out of a committee meeting (reluctantly?) to call me and see what I might need from him. He already knew the backstory, about the sexual abuse and the estrangement (I hadn’t seen my father in 23 years), and he said something that really stuck with me. He said that the commandment to Honor your father and mother is often misinterpreted. The word in Hebrew is Kaved, which actually means weight or weigh, not respect or honor. It means that you should weigh the role of your parents in your life when you decide what you owe them in return; you are not required to blindly honor or respect a parent simply because they are your parent, but because they acted as a parent should and raised you with love and respect and guided and protected you. The commandment to Honor your father and mother is not meant to be a get out of jail free card for any parent who abuses or neglects their children.

            I am not orthodox, like my brother and his family, and I don’t believe that my rabbi is the final word on what I can and can’t do as a Jewish woman, but it helped to have validation and support, both from a person I trust and from the tradition of my ancestors.

            I made sure to tell my rabbi not to put out an announcement that my father had died or to add my father’s name to the list for the Mourner’s Kaddish at our synagogue at Friday night services. I didn’t want to receive messages from people who care about me but don’t know my situation, telling me that they are sorry for my loss and may my father’s memory be a blessing. It isn’t a blessing. He wasn’t a blessing in my life.

“Grr.”

            Jewish funerals are required to take place as soon as possible after the death, but I did not go (though Mom watched it on Zoom to support my brother and his children). And I didn’t go to sit Shiva at my brother’s house, though Mom went to visit and to offer support, avoiding discussions about what did and did not happen in the past.

            I stayed home and sought comfort from my friends and my dogs and my therapist, but I was jealous of my brother’s ability to mourn our father, and all of the Jewish rituals that would support him through that process. I found myself feeling jealous of anyone who could find comfort in hearing their lost loved one’s name read out each week before the Mourner’s Kaddish, or who found comfort in saying the Mourner’s Kaddish and praising God in the memory of their lost loved one. I’m jealous of people for whom the traditional rituals work – like giving nostalgic eulogies and having friends and family over to reminisce and tell stories and share food for a week. Those mourning rituals are so beautiful and powerful, but only when thinking about the lost loved one is a comfort.

“Oy.”

            My situation doesn’t fit into the traditional framework. My father sexually abused me, and others. He was a pedophile and a narcissist and a manipulator, and he denied what he’d done and denied the significance of the things he couldn’t dispute having done, and never made any attempt to make amends. If anything, he continued to try to convince important people in my life that I was lying and he was a victim. The fact is, I still live in a world that doesn’t want to reckon with the reality that abuse and neglect are everywhere, and that they destroy lives every day.

            This was brought home to me, vividly, that night, when, after writing my emails and texts and making my phone calls, I tried to distract myself with an episode of New Amsterdam on NBC. It’s a hospital show with an idealistic bent, often too simplistic, but still hopeful about making the world a better place. It’s not my favorite show, but I watch it regularly and often find it comforting and/or interesting. But for whatever reason, that night, out of nowhere, the writers chose to go down a rabbit hole about Recovered Memories.

            Recovered Memories is a somewhat generic term that people often use to describe traumatic memories that have been forgotten at some point and then remembered later. A lot of how you define the term Recovered Memories depends on what your intentions are: if you want to debunk the idea that it’s even possible for memories to return after a period of forgetting, you will probably define Recovered Memories as wholly forgotten and then remembered only with the help of a therapist or a drug; if you believe that trauma can cause memories to fragment or be blocked for some period of time, you’ll probably define Recovered Memories more generally, as partial forgetting and partial remembering over time, often triggered by events in the present that remind you of the past trauma (like your own child reaching the age you were at when you were abused).

            On this episode of New Amsterdam, the writers decided to take the loveable psychiatrist on the show, who is more often than not empathetic and kind, and have him testify in court that all Recovered Memories, of any kind, are unreliable. They even had him quote a study about The Shopping Mall Experiment, where the researchers said they were able to “implant” memories in susceptible adults of having been lost in a mall in childhood. The study has been debunked for any number of reasons, but the biggest reason is that traumatic memory and “normal” memory are not the same, and while being lost in a mall might be scary, it would not qualify as a traumatic memory unless something traumatic happened while you were lost.

            But still, I wanted to believe that the writers on the show were going to handle the issue sensitively, and in the next scene they gave me hope when the psychiatrist’s female colleague confronted him with her own recovered memory (though not of abuse), and with the terrible impact his testimony would have on millions of women and children who had been abused and tried to testify to that in court. But then the psychiatrist doubled down on his belief that not only Recovered Memories, but ALL memories, are unreliable. He went on to specifically attack the legitimacy of his female colleague’s memories, by researching the probable season and location where the memory would have taken place, disputing her memories of the weather on that day in order to prove to her that it could not have happened the way she remembered it. He was relentless and wildly inappropriate, and the writers gave no explanation for why he would feel so strongly about this particular issue or why he would be willing to be so cruel to his friend.

By the end of the episode it seemed to me that the writers’ intention was to use this whole storyline as a way to question the female colleague’s memories of how her father had left her when she was little, so she could reassess her feelings towards her still living mother and therefore change her plans to move to London, which threatened the status quo at the hospital; but they could have found hundreds of other ways to change her mind without invalidating millions of people.

            I was in shock. The violence of the psychiatrist’s attack on his friend seemed to come out of nowhere, and the female colleague’s willingness to forgive him right away was out of character and bizarre. But more than that, the way the writers were misrepresenting the research was horrifying, especially because it is well known in the field that traumatic memories often have missing or distorted nonessential details, like the time of day, or the weather, or the clothes you were wearing, and those mistaken details have no bearing on whether or not the crux of the memory is true.

            The emotions I couldn’t produce in response to the news of my father’s death came roaring up as I watched this show and felt invalidated and manipulated all over again. You can’t prove it and therefore it didn’t happen. You have no pictures and I don’t want to believe you and therefore it didn’t happen. Your memories, your symptoms, your feelings, are nothing in the face of what I want to believe.

            But I’ve done the reading that the writers on New Amsterdam clearly did not bother to do, and I’ve done the listening, to many people who have been abused, and I know that the brain often tries to protect us from knowing things we are not ready to deal with. I just felt so let down that a show that had seemed thoughtful and kind was no longer trustworthy.

“Oh no!”

            I am still processing my father’s death, and trying to figure out how it changes things, if it changes things. I am safer now than I was as a child. I am loved and supported and listened to and believed; and I cherish the people who have brought me comfort and made my world a better place. But the mourning process is still ongoing, for the loss of the childhood and the father I could have had, and for the years spent trying to recover, and I wish there could be established rituals to help me through this kind of mourning. There are so many of us in similar situations, trying to cobble together the support we need to move forward. I can’t be the only one who struggles to create those rituals on my own, and I can’t be the only one who feels let down by a world that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness and validity of the need for those rituals.

“Would hugging a puppy help?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Sodom and Gomorrah

            This year I was asked to teach a few extra classes in the synagogue school, on Saturday mornings, focusing on the week’s Torah portion (the chapter of the Hebrew Bible that is read by Jews around the world at the same time). I was nervous and excited about the opportunity, because it was new to me, but also because I’ve never really had the chance to teach the stories from the first and second books of the Hebrew bible. I usually teach the book of Leviticus, which is full of laws and holiness, but not many plotlines or characters or dramatic scenes. And then I found out which Torah portion I’d be teaching the kids, and I thought, when it rains it pours, because I would be teaching the Torah portion that contains Sodom and Gomorrah, The banishing of Ishmael, and The Binding (and almost sacrificing) of Isaac. You know, the light stuff.

“Eek!”

            I could, almost, imagine how to teach the drama of a parent who is willing to risk the life of his child on the say-so of God (kids sort of feel like this is what happens every day of their lives when their parents insist on sending them to school against their will), but Sodom and Gomorrah, with its themes of unforgivable evil and sexual violence, and God turning two whole towns into rubble? Not so much.

            I wrote up my lesson plan, tap dancing and editing and omitting my way to a version of the Torah portion that would be interesting to the kids, without giving them too many nightmares. But I still found myself thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah, and how hard this story is to reckon with, and why.

            The biggest problem, for me, is that the English word “Sodomy,” clearly based on the town of Sodom, has come to refer to homosexual acts, and many religious people have decided that this story is meant to teach us that God will punish you with death and destruction for engaging in homosexual acts, or allowing/supporting others to engage in those acts. Now, I know that the Hebrew Bible is often brutal, and I know that there is a biblical law against homosexual behavior (it’s in Leviticus, so I see it a lot), but it still felt unreasonable that God (and/or my ancestors) would see homosexuality as such a heinous crime that it should earn the destruction of whole towns, whole families, including children. So I decided to re-read the story to see what I was missing.

            In Genesis 18-19, three men come to Abraham in the plains of Mamre, two angels and God in disguise, to tell him that the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah will be judged and punished for their grievous sins (unspecified). Abraham tries to bargain with God, because his nephew Lot lives there, and he says, if there are fifty righteous people, or forty, or thirty, will you save the town? And God agrees to save the town even if there are only ten righteous people, but there aren’t even ten, so God tells Abraham that he will have to destroy the towns after all. But he sends his angels to warn Lot ahead of time, so he can save himself and his family.

            The two angels, in disguise, then go to the main square in the town of Sodom, and Lot invites the strangers into his home, without knowing who they are, and serves them a meal. The men of Sodom then surround Lot’s house and tell Lot to bring the two strangers outside so they can know them (to “know” is sometimes a euphemism for sex in the Hebrew Bible). Lot refuses to hand over his guests and instead offers up his two virgin daughters to the crowd. The men of Sodomrefuse his offer and try to break down Lot’s door.

            The angels then blind the men of Sodom and tell Lot about their mission to destroy the city. They command Lot to gather his family and leave, and not to look back. And then the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed with fire and brimstone, and Lot’s wife looks back at the destruction and becomes a pillar of salt (I could do a whole essay on Lot’s wife, and how looking back at what you’ve lost is natural and not a crime, but I’ll save that for another time).

            Israelite prophets, in later books of the Hebrew Bible, named the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as adultery, pridefulness, and un-charitable behavior. Many Rabbinic commentators have focused mostly on the lack of hospitality to the stranger as the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, hospitality being the one Mitzvah (commandment) that Lot performs in the story, by inviting the strangers into his home.

“Strangers? In my house?!”

            The habit of blaming homosexuality for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is much more recent. No Jewish literature, until the writings of Philo in the first century of the Common Era, actually mentioned same-sex behavior as a possible cause for the destruction of the towns. And the term Sodomy wasn’t coined until the 11th century of the Common Era, and even then it was widely used to refer to all non-procreative sexual acts (including heterosexual acts) rather than specifically to same sex relationships.

            There is a strikingly similar story to Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter 19 of the book of Judges. An unnamed man from the tribe of Levi is traveling with his concubine and his servant. He arrives in the town of Gibeah and plans to spend the night in the town square. A local man, from the tribe of Ephraim and therefore not a native of the town (like Lot wasn’t a native of Sodom), offers the Levite and his concubine and his servant shelter in his home. Soon the men of the city surround the house and demand that the owner send out the Levite “so that we may know him.” The owner, like Lot, offers up his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead, and the crowd rejects the offer, just like the men of Sodom did. Except, in this version there are no angels to intervene, and to save himself the Levite forces his concubine out the door, and the men of Gibeah rape her to death. There is no response from God, no fire and brimstone, instead the Levite carries his dead concubine home and cuts her corpse into twelve pieces, sending one piece to each of the twelve tribes, showing them the results of their baseless hatred of strangers.

            It’s a brutal way to send such a message, and the Levite doesn’t seem like the best messenger, since he offered up his concubine to save his own life, but the message in this version of the story is clear: If you don’t wise up and learn how to treat the strangers in your midst, destruction will come to you. If only because, at some point in your life, you yourself will be the stranger.

“I was a stranger once.”

            The mitzvah of hospitality to strangers was very important in the ancient Middle East, where traveling on arid land was a life or death venture. The conventions of hospitality were created to protect both the traveler, who would die without food and water, and the host, who could easily be killed by a traveler in need. These were basic codes of behavior that were meant to keep everyone safe, so when the Sodomites tried to attack the two men in Lot’s house simply for being strangers, it threatened the moral code of the area, and the safety of everyone.

            Sodom and Gomorrah feels like a lesson we keep having to learn, and a lesson we keep choosing to learn incorrectly. If you recognize rape as a weapon, rather than as a variety of sexual behavior (heterosexual or homosexual), then you can see Sodom and Gomorrah for what it is: a story about how selfishness, and violence, and baseless hatred of the stranger ultimately leads to the destruction of the people who commit these sins. The punishment doesn’t have to come from an outside force, like God, because it is already an inevitable result of making enemies out of everyone around you. If you send your daughters out to be raped by a crowd, they will die, or they will come back to you full of rage; either way you have destroyed the future of your family. If you treat strangers as enemies and abuse them, you will not receive any help from future strangers; in fact, they may strike out at you first, to protect themselves, knowing your reputation.

            If we read Sodom and Gomorrah through the lens of its sister story, the evil here, the “sodomy,” is clearly the baseless hatred of people who are not like us, and has nothing in particular to do with homosexuality. At some point the story was turned inside out, but that doesn’t have to be the last word. We can re-read the story and turn it right side out again to see the power of hospitality and welcoming the stranger to save all of our lives.

            By the way, when I taught my students about the banishing of Ishmael from his home, after the birth of his half-brother Isaac, they said that Ishmael should have been allowed to stay so that he and Isaac could have grown up together. And if Ishmael had been able to stay, then the descendants of Ishmael (commonly seen as today’s Arabs) and the descendants of Isaac (the Jews) would have been one family, one people. We are so quick to see each other as strangers, imagining that our differences are unbridgeable oceans, but maybe we are all half-brothers and sisters, feuding over our birthrights and our parents’ love, fighting over resources that don’t have to be scarce if we can heal the wounds of the past. Maybe, if we re-read our own stories, we can find a way forward that makes all of us safer and better off.

“Harrumph.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?