On Loan – Rosh Hashana 5778: Rabbinic Intern Hannah Kapnik Ashar
It’s late on Shabbat afternoon and Rebbi Meir is teaching in the beit midrash, the house of learning. Meanwhile back at home, his two sons pass away.Their mother, Beruria, lays them down on their bed and spreads a sheet over them.
As Shabbat is ending, Rebbi Meir comes home from the beit midrash. He says to Beruria, “where are my two sons?” “they went to the beit midrash.” “I expected them at the beit midrash and I didn’t see them.” She hands him a cup for havdala, and he makes the blessings to separate between the holy time of Shabbat and the time of the week. He repeats his question, “where are my two children?’ she says to him: “’הלכו למקום אחר they went to another place”. She continues, “They’re coming presently.”
She brings him food and he eats and then blesses. After he blesses, she says, “Rebbi, I have a question to ask you.” “Tell me your question.”
“Rebbi, before today, a certain person gave me a pikadon, something precious to safeguard. Now he came to collect it back to him. Should we return it to him or no?”
“My dear, the person who has a safeguard in their care, they must return it to its owner.”
“Rebbi, if that weren’t your answer, I wouldn’t have given it over to him.”
Beruria takes Meir’s hand and she guides him up, to the boy’s room. She brings him close to the bed and pulls away the sheet from over the boys. He sees the two of them dead, laid out on the bed. He cries, “My children! My children! My teachers! My teachers! My children in worldly things, my teachers in lighting my face with their torah!”
In that moment, she says to him – to Rebbi Meir – “Rebbi, didn’t you say to me that I needed to return the pikadon, that precious thing we nurtured, to its Owner?”
And here he quotes Job and says, “”ה’ נתן וה’ לקח, יהי שם ה’ מבורך” Hashem gave and Hashem took. Let Hashem’s name be blessed.
That’s the story as it’s told in Midrash Mishlei. Rabbi Meir and Beruria’s two sons die. We hardly see any emotional reaction from Beruria, but we see how she strategically shares the knowledge of that loss with Meir. He talks about the children as ‘my children’, while she never uses the language of ‘my children’ or even ‘our children’ – she describes them something entrusted to her, and returned to their owner.
After several years, I re-encountered this story on this past Tisha B’Av. It left me weeping. Years after my first read of this story, I can now have even a wisp of imagining what it would be to God forbid lose children. To lose what is most precious, what I work the hardest for, what I imagine will live well beyond me, and carry goodness into the next generations. That wisp of imagining makes me ask many questions. Among those questions: would I be insisting on meaning and composed – more Beruria-esque? Would I be a weeping, wailing mess like Rebbi Meir?
Beruria and Meir have such different reactions in this story. Rebbi Meir over and over again uses the language, “my sons”. היכן שני בני? “where are my two sons?” And ‘בני! בני! רבי! רבי! “my child, my child, my teacher, my teacher”. She never calls them ‘my children’, but talks about them as a pikadon – being on loan to them. He sees the children as his own, while she sees them as entrusted to her.
This summer, one of the 17 year olds on the program I teach on in Israel, the Bronfman Fellowship, was at our house for Shabbat lunch and asked Zivi, “Do you like your little sister?” without missing a beat, she said, “we belong to each other.” You can imagine the profound nachus I felt when I heard that.
What is more beautiful than belonging? Than feeling that we belong? Than belonging to one another? I think Beruria’s answer would be, “more beautiful – and more real – than belonging to one another is belonging to the Source of Life, and being in one another’s care while we’re here.”
I’ve been trying to integrate that I don’t own my children. When I think, “I don’t own these girls,” I feel an anxiety in my belly; both reluctance to let go of something I am trying to hold, and relief and eagerness. What would my life look like if I trusted that I am an agent of the Divine in caring for this most precious pikadon? When I care take, I trust and desire that there is Someone beyond me and my child involved in this project of their flourishing. When I think of not ‘owning’ my children, it teaches, “look at the big picture. Not this one moment, when I might think I have the ‘right’ to anger; look at the long term, over the course of which I know I don’t own my children.” It teaches, “you do not control your children – take your ego out of them.” And “you are responsible for something precious and vulnerable, and their well-being fundamentally impacts others beyond you. Do the very best you can in care taking.” One of the Hebrew words for care-taker is mutzna. It comes from the root ‘tzna’, like ‘tzniut’, humility or modesty. There is a humility to strive for in care-taking, where we withhold enough to make space for cultivating another.
This is not only for my children. I, in some way, intuitively feel – in the words of Khalil Gibran, that my children “come through me but not from me.” This borrowed-ness, though, is also applicable to my partner. My partner, who it is so easy to take for granted, to treat in less than ideal ways. Can I pivot my behavior to reflect that he is on loan, too?
Can I act, can I treat myself, as though I am also a precious something on loan? Something to be returned to its owner? This is the project of Rosh Hashana.
The word Beruria uses, pikadon, refers to ‘the precious thing she was given to safeguard’. It’s a legal term for something on loan or given to another person to protect. Pikadon comes from the word, ‘poked’ ‘remember’, ‘account for’. Like in mathematical accounting, this term suggests real attention to detail. A pikadon is something you entrust to someone else, then later return to attend to it, to account for every bit of it, to collect it back into your own care. Poked is used in our torah reading yesterday and throughout the musaf section called ‘zichronot’ – remembrances. Zichronot is filled with verses from the Tanach in which God remembers – zocher or poked – and is moved to compassionate action. As if God owns us and remembers to come back for us. In just a few minutes, we will ask God to remember that God is our ultimate ‘owner’ – the one responsible for us. Please treat us as precious.
We are not asking to be returned to God as Beruria ‘returned’ her sons, but we do hope to return to our Maker. In the story, Beruria asks whether they must return the pikadon נחזיר לו? We don’t want The Big Return, but we do want teshuva. Here and now, in this stretch of days until Yom Kippur, we have the opportunity to do teshuva – to return to our Maker, and to stay within this world! What will you do with that opportunity?
This Beruria and Rebbi Meir story begs us to ask: “How do I shift away from treating this being as if I own them, to seeing this being as one who is on loan before it’s returned to its Maker?”. This story also, though, carries the profound loneliness that afflicts us even within sacred relationships. Beruria and Meir have polar opposite reactions to the same horrible experience. They share a tremendous loss, and are so separate within that. Loneliness lurks even here, even within marriage and shared experience.
Beruria’s name, BaRuR YaH means clear or clarity of God. It could be that she sees the Big Picture and somehow is not destroyed by losing her boys. I imagine, though, that even if she does see the Big Picture, she must have a wild internal world flapping around inside her in the time between the boys dying and telling Rebbi Meir. She brings Rebbi Meir havdala materials, brings him food, tells him opaquely that the boys have gone to Makom acher but they’ll be coming home soon. Makom acher, another Place. Place, of course, is the name we use for God when we wish someone comfort after the death of a loved one: “HaMakom yenachem etchem” “May the Place comfort you” They’ve gone to that Place. She holds the immensity of that and yet doesn’t yet share it with Meir. What kind of island is she on? How could she be physically together with Meir and contain all of that?
When he sees the boys, Meir and Beruria are together and totally apart. He is distraught, weeping and wailing, suffering, bitter, within his own world and separate from Beruria. Her stoicism and his wailing highlight how alone they are. How differently we experience the world; how hard it is to align with the other. Then, bringing him back to the beit midrash-like question and answer of their earlier conversation, she speaks his language and she whispers – cries? – shouts?: (SHOUT) ‘רבי, לא כך אמרת לי – אני צריך להחזיר הפקדון לרבו?’ (WHISPER) Rebbi, didn’t you say to me, “I need to return the pikadon to its owner”?’
Aren’t we on the same page? Don’t we agree that children came through us but they are not of us? How can you be raging and wailing when I am trying to bless God through all of this? Can I be alone in my grief? Can I be alone in my love? All this, couched in legal terms that are the way she knows he interacts with the world.
And suddenly, he sees her. Meir hears who she is, how she told him, how she desperately cared for him through this.
Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” And here we do get to see their solitudes touch. He begins to see her grief. To make eye contact with her, to inquire what is happening in her world. He sees her struggle to live her life in the light of The Ineffable. And he remembers that he shares that vision. And he blesses God, ‘Who gives and Who takes’.
Somehow, their lonelinesses could be relieved. By each coming out to meet the other. She speaks his language of question and answer, he speaks her language of blessing God. They use language the other knows, language the other needs. And they align for a moment. They share a moment in which they both see God as our ultimate owner. When they allow themselves to be part of some grander tapestry, they can be intimate with one another.
How do we know this is ultimately a story of intimacy? This whole midrash – the whole story – appears in rabbinic literature as a midrash, a kind of commentary, on the love song sung on Friday nights, Eshet Chayil mi yimtza? “Who can find a woman of valor?”
My bracha for us is that we recognize a little more that we, and that which is precious to us, belong to the Divine.
That we should have insight into a clearer, broader picture of what it is to belong and to care-take. That in our loneliness, we should reach for the language of those we care for; that we should merit to feel our solitudes “protect and touch and greet each other”.
That we should return ourselves to our Maker through teshuvah before the grand final return; and that we should rejoice in that which is entrusted to us for the time we get to be caretakers.