The Jewish month we have just entered into, the month of Cheshvan, is known in Jewish tradition as Mar Cheshvan, or “bitter” Cheshvan because it is the only month in the Jewish calendar that has no holidays (aside from our weekly celebration of Shabbat) or special mitzvot. But as the Psalmist writes, “I will turn your mourning into dancing” (Psalm 30:11). Or, as Israeli folksinger Naomi Shemer’s Al Kol Eleh (For All These Things) reminds us: al had’vash v’al ha-oketz, al ha-mar v’hamatok—for the honey and the bee sting, for the bitter and the sweet. With the mar (bitterness) in life, there is also the matok (the sweetness).
Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan this week was filled with both mar and matok, of bitter and sweet, for our Jewish world. On Wednesday afternoon I was shocked to find a message that Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams, one of the g’dolot (great ones), a wonderful rabbi and amazing Talmud teacher and author of this generation, had died unexpectedly at the age of 56. Rabbi Abrams was a Talmud scholar, the founder of Maqom a Houston-based school for Adult Talmud study (www.maqom.com), and the author of more than 20 books. She was also a beautiful soul, a loving wife and mother of three, and a gifted teacher to many, many students. She created a path to the study of Talmud for many men and women who would not have otherwise found a way into this very rich and challenging material. Maqom enabled Jews from all streams of Judaism to swim in the sea of Talmud. From the early days of the internet Rabbi Abrams sent out email digests and class materials to Jews around the world, and in later years her online classes and podcasts enlightened many with her love of Talmud. In person she was witty, passionate, and always engaging. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from her.
Upon hearing the news of her death, one of her fellow teachers asked: How would Rabbi Abrams, z”l want us to respond to her death -- to the sudden death of a Talmud scholar in the prime of her life? She would have wanted us to study Talmud. This is after all, how we traditionally honor great scholars, by studying a piece of text that they have taught us, and teaching it to others b’shem omrah (in her name). One of the passages I remember learning from Rabbi Abrams is from Tractate Berachot, and the teaching is that we say berachot, blessings, for everything that is part of life, the bitter along with the sweet. She explains that even in the moments when we don’t understand and feel the least connected to God and community, the sages teach that we acknowledge God’s presence with us, that is understood only within the totality of creation. Friday morning, Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan, was Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams’ levayah, her funeral.
And then, inexplicably, this Friday morning, Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan was also full of matok, of incredible sweetness. I woke to the news that Women of the Wall had celebrated Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan with a bat mitzvah and an actual Torah reading at the Kotel! Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, had promised Sasha Lutt, the 12 year old bat mitzvah girl that she would read from an actual Sefer Torah scroll for her bat mitzvah. Sasha, and her mother Irina, who emigrated from Russia to Israel when Sasha was just a baby, celebrated with friends and family as she chanted beautifully from the Torah on Rosh Hodesh morning. The path to reading from a Sefer Torah at the Kotel has been fraught with difficulty. Despite the fact that in April 2013, the Jerusalem District court ruled that women have the right to pray freely according to their tradition, Women of the Wall has found this to be impossible. After the Justice Moshe Sobel’s 2013 decision, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation created regulations that forbid anyone from bringing in a Torah scroll to the Kotel. And despite the fact that there are 300 Torah scrolls stored in the men’s section at the Kotel for use during prayer services, and bar mitzvah services, Women of the Wall have been denied use of these scrolls.
On Friday morning, Women of the Wall, tried again to enter the Mughrabi gate at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza, while carrying their Torah scroll. They were stopped by security guards and police. After a long and loud discussion, they reluctantly entered the Kotel plaza without their Torah scroll. But during the prayers, the women brought out a tiny Torah scroll that they had smuggled in for the reading. And Sasha triumphantly read from this 28 centimeter scroll for her bat mitzvah at the Kotel. The scroll is certified kosher by an Orthodox sofer. It belongs to the family of John and Noeleen Cohen from London. In 1880 John Cohen’s great grandfather carried it with him from Lithuania to South Africa and then to London.
And so, this Cheshvan, we are grateful for Rabbi Abrams’ life and her teachings, and we are grateful for Sasha Lutt’s bat mitzvah at the Kotel. Two Jewish women who have inspired the Jewish future immeasurably. Yashar Kochechen! May we go from strength to strength.
Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack