Saturday, January 29, 2011

D'var Haftarah for Mishpatim

This Shabbat was Sisterhood Shabbat once again at my shul. I was not on the planning committee this year, which meant much less angst for me. The day went very smoothly, and the guest speaker, Galeet Dardarshti, was wonderful. One of my roles was to deliver a "d'var haftarah" - a Haftarah introduction. This one was not easy to write, but I think it came out well in the end. Enjoy!

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This week’s Haftarah is from the book of Jeremiah. Like most Haftarah portions, it was chosen because it echoes some of the themes of the Torah portion. In the Torah portion that we just read, you might recall, there were a number of laws about the treatment of slaves. The Haftarah portion deals with a very specific instance of keeping and freeing slaves.

But let’s back up a little. What is all this about owning and freeing slaves? It is important to understand, first of all, that during biblical times, slavery was something that was accepted as common practice, even though it seems abhorrent to us today. In addition, there were different categories of slaves. Hebrew slaves were treated differently – and better – than non-Hebrew slaves.

So why would a Hebrew become a slave? Sometimes this was legislated through the court, to pay for a crime – or to pay off a debt – or even to escape poverty. In this case, the person would become a slave – really more like an indentured servant – and there was a time limit on this, six years. At the end of six years – in the seventh year – they would become free once more. Again, this practice sounds very strange to us, but clearly was common and acceptable at that time.

The laws in Mishpatim, in the Torah, actually are revolutionary in that they create a system of laws around how a master treats a slave, something that wasn’t found in other cultures.

So now back to the Haftarah. In this Haftarah portion, the upper class Hebrews of Jeremiah’s time were not following these laws we just discussed. They weren’t letting their slaves go after 6 years of service. Also, the city of Jerusalem, ruled by King Zedekiah, was about to be attacked by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. What happens next is very interesting The text reads:
King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were in Jerusalem, to proclaim freedom to them; That every man should let his manservant and every man his maidservant, a Jew and a Jewess go free, that none should hold his Jewish brother as a slave. Now all the princes and all the people who had entered into the covenant hearkened that every one should let his manservant and everyone his maidservant go free, no longer holding them in slavery; then they obeyed and let them go. But afterwards they turned and brought back the manservants and the maidservants whom they had let free, and forcibly made them into manservants and maidservants.
Two questions come to mind here: Why would the king decide to have the people free their slaves? And why would the slave owners then force them back again into slavery?

In my research for this talk, I found two explanations for freeing the slaves. The first explanation is practical: since the Babylonians surrounded Jerusalem, laying siege to the city, King Zedekiah released the slaves in order to increase manpower: the slaves could help defend Jerusalem from the Babylonians. Another explanation – more theological - is that the slaves were released – as they should have been anyway after 6 years - to appease G-d, to persuade G-d to be merciful during the attack by the Babylonians. Once the siege was lifted, however, the slaves were forced back into slavery.

Jeremiah reminded the people that just as they made a covenant with the King Zedekiah to release all of their slaves, God made a covenant with their ancestors after God freed them from slavery in Egypt. By taking their slaves back, the people renege on their covenant with Zedekiah, and on the covenant that their ancestors made with God.

The issue – here – isn’t the fact of slavery. It’s that the people didn’t follow G-d’s law of releasing slaves after 6 years, and that they broke their covenant. The fact that they refused to follow the law, and then went back on their promise is what made G-d so angry. And G-d is really really angry. A litany of bad things – which you can read for yourself in the text - will befall them for what they have done.

This is an interesting Haftarah alongside the Torah portion because it shows that setting down the laws (Mishpatim) are one thing, but actually following the laws is something else. The Torah sometimes shows an idealistic view of things, and we imagine the Jews in biblical times living a very moral life, following all the laws that are presented. In reality, following the laws wasn’t easy. The people in Jeremiah’s time didn’t want to give up their slaves every 6 years. They probably didn’t EVER want to give up their slaves. Jeremiah had to remind them of the covenant they had made, and threaten them with very harsh punishment if they didn’t obey.

The Jewish Study Bible
The Women's Haftarah Commentary
and others

Friday, January 21, 2011

25 years ago

An article in today's paper reminded me that 25 years ago, on January 28, 1986, the Challenger Shuttle exploded and Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, lost her life.

This happened half my life ago, and I can remember that moment exactly.

I was a working at the New England Telephone building in downtown Boston. I was fresh out of grad school (the first time) and I couldn't find a job in my field, so I was temping to bring in some money. Turns out that my typing skills were more valuable (job-wise) than any of the other skills I gained during college and grad school.

So I was typing, at my temp job, and suddenly the news spread that the shuttle had exploded. Televisions were turned on, and everyone was watching the news on TV. It was true. That lovely teacher with the small children at home had died. It was horrible.

Also around that same time, my mother called to inform me that she had breast cancer and that she was having a mastectomy. The winter of 1986. My mother was 47, just about to turn 48, the same age that I was when I was diagnosed breast cancer. I remember getting permission to call her from work to find out how she was doing after her surgery. Waiting to hear if her lymph nodes were clear (they were). That's about all she ever said about her cancer. The case was closed after that.

1986. Half my life ago. A lot happened that year.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Yesterday was the official Delurking Day 2011, and I missed it by one day. Lurking, in the blogging world (for those who don't know), means those who read blogs but don't comment on them. I don't mind, really, if you read but don't comment. I do it myself. On the other hand, I'd love to hear from you! If you are so inclined, please post in the comments!

Friday, January 14, 2011


I won't bore you with the details of last Friday's mammogram. It was pretty much the same as the other times. Lean into the machine. Lean more. More. That's it. Relax. Don't breathe. Hold it. Hold it. Okay, now you can breathe.

The only thing different this time is that after my mammogram, they kept me waiting in the waiting room (watching Nate Berkus, and then The View) for over an hour. Still not sure why that was. And I had an appointment at the surgeon's after-wards. It made for a very long morning in the hospital. I'm still a bit cranky about that.

Anyway: here is the official result from the radiologist:
INDICATION: History of right breast cancer.
COMPARISON: July 2008, January 2010, and January 2009.
The breasts are extremely dense and nodular, severely limiting sensitivity of mammogram for detection of masses. A focal area of architectural distortion is noted in the right retroareolar region, consistent with prior surgery. This is marked with overlying scar marker. Surgical clips are noted in the lumpectomy bed. There are multiple microcalcifications seen scattered in both breasts which remain stable. Microcalcifications scattered in the right lumpectomy bed also remain stable since January 2010. Microcalcifications in the right upper-outer breast, posterior to the lumpectomy bed, remain stable dating back to 2009.
No spiculated masses or unexplained areas of architectural distortion.
IMPRESSION: No evidence of new or recurrent malignancy. Findings discussed with the patient.
BI-RADS 2 - benign findings.
So, believe it or not, this is a good report. She didn't find anything in particular that concerns her. Although this is the part that kills me: "the breasts are extremely dense and nodular, severely limiting sensitivity of mammogram for detection of masses." What this means is: we really can't see anything.

Dense breasts are a risk factor for breast cancer. So far, no one has been able to tell me how to make your breasts less dense. I think as you get older, the become less dense. One good thing about aging...

What's ironic is that yesterday, I received a report on this mammogram in the mail. This is what it said:
The mammogram you had on JAN 07, 2001 was NORMAL. That is, the mammogram did not show any evidence of cancer...Mammograms are useful in detecting breast cancer but will not find all breast cancers.
So first they tell you that it's normal. Then they tell you that it didn't show any evidence of cancer (but could the cancer be there without evidence?) and then they tell you that mammograms don't find all breast cancers.


Today, just to add to all the fun, I had a follow-up visit with the radiation oncologist. That's where I had my radiation treatments 1-1/2 years ago. I saw the nurse, who is lovely, and one of the radiation techs. Everyone there is very kind.

The radiation onc checked me, asked a few questions. Everything looks good. See you in a year.

I actually said to her: "so the radiation is supposed to prevent a recurrence in my right breast, and the Tamoxifen is supposed to prevent a new primary cancer in the left breast. Is there anything else I should be doing, except waiting?"

The reply: "that's all you can do."

So that about sums it up.