We have relatives who live in Surfside, Fla., where a high-rise collapsed. Many people are still missing or have died. Although the area around Miami is urban, the town of Surfside is small and close-knit, with fewer than 6,000 residents and a fairly large Jewish population. When we contacted my husband’s first cousin and his family, he told us how their beloved community centre, where they swim and gather every day for afterschool activities and camp, was the reunification centre. He described his job sorting out the kosher and non-kosher food donations for everyone. What stood out most was his comment, “This is all very personal for us.”
There’s little we can do from Canada other than pray and offer moral and financial support. This crisis, where our cousin’s friends, and their children’s friends, are among the injured, lost and missing, is on our minds.
I continue to study my Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud a day) but, I’ll admit, there are times where I study the text and then say, “Well, I’ve done that,” but nothing in particular speaks to me. It’s sometimes a chore. It’s the equivalent of when, in pre-pandemic days, I might organize everything to get the whole family to synagogue for services. By the time I’d gotten everyone fed, dressed up, out the door and through the service without major misbehaviour, I’d count it a big success – even though the prayer part was largely “dialing it in” for me. That is, I hardly had a chance to feel engaged in the prayer, singing or learning. (I’d guess many parents know what I’m talking about here!)
Meanwhile, here on the prairies, it is ridiculously hot now. I’m cruising through Tractate Yoma 83a close to midnight, when the temperature is just cool enough in my non-air-conditioned house to concentrate, and I read this: “… with regard to one upon whom a rockslide fell, and there is uncertainty whether he is there under the debris or whether he is not there; and there is uncertainty whether he is still alive or whether he is dead; and there is uncertainty whether the person under the debris is a gentile or whether he is a Jew, one clears the pile from atop him. One may perform any action necessary to rescue him from beneath the debris. If they found him alive after beginning to clear the debris, they continue to clear the pile until they can extricate him. And if they found him dead, they should leave him, since one may not desecrate Shabbat to preserve the dignity of the dead.” (Yoma 83a)
I gasped. Of course, the rabbis knew the trauma of a rockslide or a building collapse. What they described made me feel even prouder, knowing that the Israeli rescue team was in Surfside. Those Israelis got off the airplane, set up camp at the site and went to work. The search only stopped on Shabbat afternoon so they could start to set up demolition, a week after the collapse, as the building is unstable, and Hurricane Elsa is coming.
In a very raw situation, I could see ancient texts working through some of the awful issues Surfside rescuers have faced.
Oddly, this section of Talmud covered a lot that seemed personal. There is a whole part on how to help a pregnant person with her cravings, even on Yom Kippur. The notion of eating being absolutely necessary to nurture a life (hers and the fetus) was clear to the rabbis and, even on Yom Kippur, one must help a sick or pregnant person to eat if it’s necessary for health. As someone who has been pregnant with twins, I found this powerful and insightful.
Just before this part, in Yoma 82a, there’s a discussion about helping kids learn to fast for Yom Kippur. The rabbis’ advice was clear – help younger kids, a few years before, to wait a bit before meals, or to practise missing a single meal, in preparation for getting ready to fast at age 12 or 13.
I grew up in an actively Jewish Reform family, but I never knew of a family member studying Talmud. I was struck by how this common-sense Jewish teaching was passed down so exactly. When I read it in the text, I was literally seeing how my parents taught me about fasting on Yom Kippur. I first introduced “skipping snack” on Yom Kippur to my twins, as a stepping stone on the way to trying to miss a meal later on. We were following the Babylonian Talmud’s playbook here, even if we hadn’t read it ourselves.
Also part of this discussion is the concept of bulmos, which sounds a little connected to modern food disorders. In Tractate Yoma, bulmos means a person is desperate for food and must eat. As in, they might go blind if they don’t manage to raise their blood sugar. What is this ailment? Maybe a serious drop in blood sugar, or someone who has diabetes, or someone suffering from starvation. In these cases, the person must eat. All normal conventions about paying for food or kashrut are cast aside to help a person regain their health.
In times of stress, like heatwaves, rockslides or building collapses and illness, or even happier (but still stressful) moments like pregnancy or childrearing, we sometimes feel all alone. We struggle with things that are deeply personal. I was surprised at the timing of studying these pages of Talmud. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, because Daf Yomi operates on a seven-and-a-half year cycle. Even so, it was also deeply reassuring to feel less alone while thinking about big issues like health, how we are raising our kids, and the huge loss of life in Surfside.
There’s no sugar-coating it: we must, as adults, face difficult things. However, studying these wise Jewish leaders’ opinions and experiences with those same issues offers some companionship, even across a divide of 2,000 years.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.