100 Teachings On Shemot & Yishayahu

It’s been a year and a half since we started our daily study of Tanakh, and last week we finished Yishayahu (Isaiah) . Our WhatsApp groups have grown to more than 700 members and Yishayahu featured more guest teachers than any other sefer up until now. We have uploaded the recordings on each chapter of Yishayahu as well as for Shemot so that they can be accessed at leisure or as preparation for the parsha each week. The average length of each recording is 5 to 10 minutes but if you’d like some more in-depth ones on then we have those too!

If you’re not a member yet of the WhatsApp group we’d love to have you join as we begin Yirmiyahu!

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600 Questions & Answers

In March 2018 we were stranded in the Bahamas trying to renew our US visa (there are worse places to be stranded). Pesach was around the corner and I felt bad that I was not able to help the community prepare. And so we started a WhatsApp group for halachic questions. Overtime this became two groups of nearly 400 students and alumnae and to my surprise has become probably the largest writing and educational project of my last two years as well as a major organising tool for the community.

With huge gratitude to one student in particular – Joey Baum – who laboured to upload every individual teshuva, I am delighted to share here the nearly 600 questions that have been asked by the students of downtown Manhattan, sorted by category and easily searchable. The group has been a labour of love – allowing me to research topics, develop a writing style and most importantly connect with students through the medium of Torah. More interesting than my own responses are, the variety and depth of questions, providing quite the sociological window into the life of young religious Jews today.

So here we go… https://wp.nyu.edu/ravjoest/

I hope they can be a useful resource for people. I have not been through every question again since first writing them so if there appears to be something strange feel free to reach out for clarification.

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Torah for Tisha B’Av

Torah gives us joy, and as such, is limited on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. Here are two of my own shiurim relevant for Tisha B’Av

Prequel and Postscript: Eikha’s Backstory in Tanakh and Continuation in Midrash.

Chazal & The Shoah: Responding To Catastrophe Across 20 Centuries

Wishing everyone a meaningful fast

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Four Pieces Of Shavuot Torah

A few pieces of mine on various aspects of Shavuot.

  1. Megillat Rut is quiet but revolutionary. This is an essay I wrote that uses various literary techniques to unpack the megilla’s message. For those learning 929 it’s also cool to see how Rut is the bridge from the anarchy and cruelty of Shotfim to the optimism of Shmuel – https://joewolfson.com/2019/06/03/shavuot-1-megillat-ruts-quiet-revolution/
  2. A short article I wrote on how Torah study can bind the Jewish people despite their differences, including one of the most powerful experiences on a plane I ever had. – https://www.thejc.com/judaism/features/you-don-t-have-to-be-frum-to-study-on-shavuot-1.66729
  3. Rav Yitzchak Hutner’s Pahad Yitzchak is one of the most powerful works of Jewish thought. Here are two pieces of his on Shavuot https://www.yutorah.org/sidebar/lecture.cfm/900976/joe-wolfson/pahad-yitzchak-shavuot-4-and-9-/
  4. Shavuot is in some ways the festival of geirut. This shiur considers how the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the story of Rut represent two different models of conversion. https://joewolfson.com/2017/05/26/biblical-paradigms-of-conversion-avot-sinai-and-rut-a-shiur-for-shavuot/

Print out, take a listen, celebrate the Torah

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Shavuot #1 – Megillat Rut’s Quiet Revolution

The academic year is over and I can put a little more effort into the website.
In the run up to Shavuot this I’ll be sharing most days Shavuot themed pieces of Torah spanning a range of themes and genres. To begin, of course, with Tanakh and Megillat Rut, the megilla of Shavuot, and the first piece I ever published on this site.

To download the source sheet click here and to download the article as a pdf click here.

Why Rut?

“I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it… Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” 
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

Why Rut? Why does a story of a widowed woman refusing to leave her mother in law, touching as it is, merit inclusion in the Tanakh? More pointedly, why is it this humble not particularly eventful story that is read on Shavuot, the festival commemorating the most earth shattering event of Jewish history, Matan Torah?

Continue reading
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Nineveh, The Animals – And My Grandmother. Thoughts For Yom Kippur

My grandmother passed away earlier this year aged 97. She had grown up as the youngest child of the Chief Rabbi of Dusselfdorf, a city in Western Germany, and with the rise of Nazism had fled aged twelve to London. Her parents remained until their apartment was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938 after which my great-grandfather was imprisoned for a short while before being able to escape to the UK.

My grandmother loved animals and for as long as I can remember always owned a cat who she spoilt terribly. She did not spend much time with religious texts and so I was struck when she once remarked to me that her favorite verse in the Bible was the final one of the book of Yonah:

ואני לא אחוס על־נינוה העיר הגדולה אשר יש־בה הרבה משתים־עשרה רבו אדם אשר לא־ידע בין־ימינו לשמאלו ובהמה רבה

And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well!”

God argues with Yonah – how can He not care for a city with so many inhabitants? He cannot see them destroyed! They are simple people who do not know the difference between left and right! And moreover – and with this book ends – there are so many there animals too. It was the animals that, for my grandmother, summed up the pathos of the book. She loved animals and apparently God did too – so much so, that they would be a factor in the decision to save the city from destruction.

I’d like to explore this idea and make the argument that the animals play a key role in the book of Yonah and capture one of its most radical ideas, an idea that the prophet Yonah himself is unable to entertain.

Yonah has an argument with God. Only at the end of the book – after having seen Nineveh saved from destruction – does what is really on Yonah’s mind come to the fore. ‘And he said O God, isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country, this is why I ran away and fled to Tarshish’: He continues:

…כי ידעתי כי אתה אל־חנון ורחום ארך אפים ורב־חסד ונחם על־הרעה. ועתה יהוה קח־נא את־נפשי ממני כי טוב מותי מחיי

… for I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, forgiving of evil.  And now, please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

Although Jews throughout history have said words to this effect as praise of God, requesting His mercy, Yonah uses them not as prayer, but as bitter, biting critique. Enumerating God’s attributes of mercy, is not a petition, but rather an accusation. God – you are too merciful. You do not treat the wicked as they deserve to be treated – instead you are compassionate. You do not punish injustice – instead you abound in kindness.

The original account of God’s attributes of mercy – given to Mosheh in the aftermath of the golden calf episode in Shemot ch.33 – speaks of the Almighty being slow to anger, abounding in kindness and in truth, erech apayim, rav hesed v’emet. Yonah consciously changes this: ‘slow to anger, abounding in kindness, forgiving of evilerech apayim, rav hesed, v’nichem al hara’. God forgives evil and this is nothing to be happy about. God is not truthful. Truth would be to punish evil. Falsehood is to let Nineveh live. Who in fact is truth? Yonah. The son of Amitai. Yonah the son of truth.

So angry is Yonah that the prayer (‘And Yonah prayed…’) is in fact a death wish (‘please take my life from me’). Because if being Your emissary o God means inaction in the face of evil, then I wish to have no part in it. If You won’t let me run away, then kill me now.

Yet was Yonah correct? Great crimes had indeed been committed in Nineveh but hadn’t its inhabitants repented? It is the quality of this teshuva, or lack of it, which lies at the heart of Yonah’s argument with God. To unpack the dispute a full reading of Nineveh’s response to Yonah in ch.3 is required:

ויחל יונה לבוא בעיר מהלך יום אחד ויקרא ויאמר עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת

Jonah started out and made his way into the city the distance of one day’s walk, and proclaimed: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

ויאמינו אנשי נינוה באלהים ויקראו־צום וילבשו שקים מגדולם ועד־קטנם

The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth.

ויגע הדבר אל־מלך נינוה ויקם מכסאו ויעבר אדרתו מעליו ויכס שק וישב על־האפר

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

ויזעק ויאמר בנינוה מטעם המלך וגדליו לאמר האדם והבהמה הבקר והצאן אל־יטעמו מאומה אל־ירעו ומים אל־ישתו

And he had the word cried through Nineveh: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water!

ויתכסו שקים האדם והבהמה ויקראו אל־אלהים בחזקה וישבו איש מדרכו הרעה ומן־החמס אשר בכפיהם. מי־יודע ישוב ונחם האלהים ושב מחרון אפו ולא נאבד

They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish.”


What is to be made of this description? Briefly read, it seems like a perfect turning around.

They believed fully in God, they publically demonstrate through fasting and proclamations the decision to mend their ways. It is not one strata of society that experiences the transformation, rather it runs from the people on the street all the way to the royal court. An explicit articulation of the change they intend, ‘Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty’. A perfect teshuva. No wonder then that the passage concludes with God’s decision to drop all charges:

וַיַּ֤רְא הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶֽת־מַ֣עֲשֵׂיהֶ֔ם כִּי־שָׁ֖בוּ מִדַּרְכָּ֣ם הָרָעָ֑ה וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם הָאֱלֹהִ֗ים עַל־הָרָעָ֛ה אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר לַעֲשׂוֹת־לָהֶ֖ם וְלֹ֥א עָשָֽׂה׃

God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.

And yet, a slower, more deliberate reading gives a clear insight into where Yonah was coming from.

After a single day in Nineveh, Yonah has already produced quite the reaction: V’ya’aminu anshei Nineveh b’Elokim – and the people of Nineveh believed in God. The bell that that this verse rings takes us back to Shemot. Post the splitting of the sea and the exodus from Egypt we read, ‘v’yaminu b’Hashem u’vMoshe avdo – and they (the Jewish people) believed in God and His servant Moshe’. Both the immediacy and the extremity are befuddling. Are we really to conclude that the greatest moment of Israel’s faith, having witnessed the destruction of Egyptian tyranny at God’s hand, is paralleled by a city of pagan sinners who have a brief encounter with a reluctant Israelite prophet who utters five words in a language they most likely don’t understand? I struggle to believe in their belief.

Moreover the seeming superficiality of the repentance also provides us with pause for thought. Public fasts, proclamations and sackcloth? My personal preference for sincere teshuva would be the words of the prophet Yoel (Yoel 2:2):

קרעו לבבכם ואל קרעו בגדיכם Tear your hearts and not your clothes

Yet the real clincher lies with the animals of Nineveh. Read the proclamation again: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water!


The animals had to fast?! What had they done wrong?! And if this sounds extreme, the continuation moves from the sublime to the ridiculous: They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God.


Animals fasting and in sackcloth. This, God, says Yonah, is what You call teshuvah?! Is God a cultural-relativist with no objective yardstick? Is the Almighty trolling Yonah? Yonah leaves the city ‘… until he should see what happened to the city’ (4:5) – in other words to watch from the outside just how long it would take (days? hours?) for Nineveh’s superficial and hypocritical repentance to dissolve itself back into unembarrassed evil.


On the balance of the evidence many objective readers would be inclined to agree that Yonah is right and God is wrong. Nineveh is wicked and the city’s apparent repentance does not convince. Soon enough they will be back to their old ways.

And yet God will have the final word. The book concludes with story of a tree called a kikayon. Kikyoni in modern Hebrew means, ephemeral or fleeting.


In the heat of the day Yonah rejoices at finding shade under this tree that God has caused to sprout above him. But then ‘God assigned a worm at the beginning of the following day, and it attacked the kikayon so that it withered’ (4:7). Yonah is deeply grieved over the loss of the kikayon and again requests for his life to be taken from him. And with this Yonah has lost the argument.


וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה אַתָּ֥ה חַ֙סְתָּ֙ עַל־הַקִּ֣יקָי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָמַ֥לְתָּ בּ֖וֹ וְלֹ֣א גִדַּלְתּ֑וֹ שֶׁבִּן־לַ֥יְלָה הָיָ֖ה וּבִן־לַ֥יְלָה אָבָֽד

The LORD said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight


You tell Me, says God to Yonah, that you don’t believe in the power of that which is temporary. That a momentary, superficial repentance on the part of Nineveh is not enough to satisfy you. And yet here you are, lamenting the loss of your kikayon which was here one day and gone the next.


And if that is so ‘Should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, as well as many animals?’ (4:11). Yes, those very same animals who were dressed up in ridiculous sackcloth and made to fast. They are simple and helpless – how can I not care for them? And so the animals have their role too says God, – even if they represent the height of Nineveh’s superficiality – and partly on their account will I forgive this city.




In her final years, the old age home my grandmother lived in had a small farmyard of animals in the garden – rabbits, goats, a huge pig and others – which gave her great joy[1].  She had seen the whole world she knew destroyed by Hitler. In some small unarticulated way, the love and the home that she gave to animals may have been her own response to those who had vandalised her parents’ apartment on the night of Kristallnacht. Love and care for those who would otherwise perish. No wonder the final verse of the book of Yonah spoke to her across the millenia. For God too loves both humans and animals in their simplicity and helplessness and values their genuine expressions even when those expressions are fleeting and arrive clothed in superficiality.

Perhaps we should read Yonah on Yom Kippur with the following in mind. Our own resolutions for change may be closer to those of Nineveh than we would hope. Sincerity and heartfelt prayer is easier in the middle of Neilah than it is on a dreary day in March six months later. Genuine resolutions may give way to easy comfort and carelessness. Our teshuva may be kikyoni. May it be Your will, Hashem, to be as generous to us as You were to the residents of Nineveh.


Nancy Hannah Wolfson nee Eschelbacher. Born Dusseldorf, Germany 1921. Died Birmingham, UK 2018

[1] On the positive effects experienced by the elderly from living in proximity to animals see Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, ch.5 and www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4248608/

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Rosh Hashana’s Hidden Theme – Infertility

The major themes of Rosh Hashana? Teshuva? Kingship? Creation of the world? Or infertility. And although I’ve called it a hidden theme, it’s really hiding in broad daylight. It’s not spoken about much at all. After I wrote this post originally on Facebook a number of women who have firsthand experience of the topic messaged me to say that in none of their conversations or shul derashot had they heard it spoken about. The Facebook post received a lot of positive responses as did the Rosh Hashana derasha at Sixth St Synagogue in Manhattan that I gave on the topic. It should be spoken about more. Here goes.

Consider the readings: The first day’s Torah portion, Bereishit ch.21 – has God remembering Sara after so many years of pain of not having children and giving her a son. The haftara meanwhile, from Shmuel ch.1 – features the great sorrow of Hannah unable to have children, a husband Elkana who doesn’t understand her, and a co-wife who is both fertile and cruel

On the second day: we read Bereishit ch.22 – the akeida and the almost loss of the child Sara and Avraham had yearned for. This is followed by the Haftara from Yirmiyahu depicting Rachel, many years after her death, speaking from the mountains: a voice is heard in the heights, a bitter cry, Rachel is crying for her children, refusing to be comforted for them, for they are not’. Rachel, who in her lifetime, is the ultimate figure who struggles to have children, competes with her sister and is misunderstood by her husband and eventually dies in childbirth, becomes in her afterlife, the ultimate petitioner on behalf of her children.

I noticed this many years ago – you really have to be blind to miss it – when I first started to get into the Tanakh’s literary themes. Unfortunately this long preceded my emotional understanding. This was a cool piece of Biblical artistry but it didn’t touch real people that I knew. Only in recent years, watching too many of our closest friends struggling with infertility and miscarriage has it become clear to me that this is as relevant today as it was in ancient Canaan.

It doesn’t seem right that there is still something of a taboo around the subject. A couple of years ago, colleagues of ours ran a Friday night discussion for our students about infertility. Feedback from students was lukewarm – it wasn’t deemed relevant. But one day, not so far off, it will be relevant – if not for them personally, then for their close friends and family.

One of the most glorious things about the Jewish community is its love of family and children. And the flip-side of this is that one of the toughest experiences is being single in a community where most everyone else is married, or to be struggling to have children while everyone around seems abundantly fertile.

Not every message of the Yamim Noraim needs to be intensely spiritual. The fact that Chazal chose to center all four of Rosh Hashanna’s readings to a single topic should speak for itself.

If all people take from the Torah readings is a greater awareness and sensitivity – considering what to say and what not to say, understanding that not all people’s experiences are alike, that innocuous questions can cause pain, and knowing when to give friends some extra love and support – well, that would be no bad thing.

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Va’era: Religion, Politics, and Deciphering A Lineage List

Is Mosheh’s goal of liberating Israel from Egypt a religious one or a political one? And why is there a huge and highly detailed lineage list dumped in the middle of the exciting narrative? And what do these questions have to do with each other? A synthesis of Torah from a number of my great teachers – Rav Yair Kahn, Rav Alex Israel and in particular, Dr Yonatan Grossman.

The shiur and source sheet are here


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Shemot, Mosheh, And The Strangest Story Of All

There is currently a state of emergency in New York with a snow blizzard keeping everyone in doors. So here are three shiurim on Parshat Shemot to help you all pass the time learning Torah.

1. Introducing Shemot – What’s In A Name – An introd uction to the book of Shemot, focusing on both the first chapter and the themes and structure of the sefer as a whole.

2. Introducing Mosheh – The First 80 Years – Who is the young Mosheh? Why does Hashem choose him of all people? And why is his impatient radicalism in ch.2 replaced by such hesitancy in ch.3?

3. The Time God Tried To Kill Mosheh – 4:24-26 are some of the strangest verses in all of Tanakh. Having finally convinced Mosheh to return to Egypt, Hashem tries to kill Mosheh (or his son). And if that’s strange then Tzipora’s successful solution is even stranger. Rashbam, R Yoel bin Nun and R Shmuel Klitsner help us to find a brilliantly satisfying solution.

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When Did Shlomo Write What He Wrote? A Thought On Kohelet, Sukkot And Life

On Shabbat Hol HaMoed of Sukkot, tradition holds that we read Megillat Kohelet. I’ve always loved the sense of pedagogic irony that our Sages had when they instructed that the festival which has a greater emphasis on joyfulness than any other occasion in the calendar should also be the time when we enter King Solomon’s pessimistic world that declares havel havalim hakol havel – all is nothingness, vanity, futility. 

I’d like to explore this tense relationship between joy and sadness, optimism and depression, through the prism of a deceptively simple midrash found in the collection known as Kohelet Rabba. The question that bothers the rabbis is the order in which Shlomo Hamelech wrote his three works. The question is an interesting one because of the great difference between the books. Kohelet, as mentioned, is dark and gloomy. The world is full of injustice and there is little to be done about it. Any achievement is only fleeting. The memory of great works will fade quickly. Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) is a love song. Fervent, passionate, sensuous – the relationship between the two lovers, the dod and the raya, is so powerful and full of emotion that it has always been viewed as the ultimate metaphor for describing the relationship between God and Israel (side-note: this is a radical and daring idea, not a conservative kill-joy one as many people wrongly assume). Mishlei (Proverbs), in contrast to both of the other works, is practically minded. It contains aphorisms for how to best deal with this world and make a practical success of this life. A soft answer turns away wrath – is my mother’s personal favourite.

How fascinating that one person could have written three such different works! And so, to return to the question, in what order did Shlomo write his works? The Midrash presents us with two answers:

רבי יונתן אמר: שיר השירים כתב תחילה, ואחר כך משלי, ואחר כך קהלת – ומייתי לה מדרך ארץ: כשאדם נער – אומר דברי זמר, הגדיל – אומר משלות, הזקין אומר: הבל הבלים

רבי יוסי אמר: לעת זקנה, סמוך למיתתו, שרתה עליו רוח הקודש ואמר שלשה ספרים הללו: משלי, שיר השירים וקהל 

Rebbi Yonatan said: Shir HaShirim he wrote first, after that Mishlei, and after that Kohelet – and he derived this from derech eretz – when a man is young, he writes songs, when he grows up he writes parables/advice (Mishle) and when he is old he says, all is vanity.

Rebbi Yossi said: as an old man, close to death, divine inspiration came to Shlomo and he wrote these three works: Mishlei, Shir HaShirim and Kohelet.

For Rebbi Yonatan, Shlomo wrote the books throughout his life – each one corresponding to the age he was passing through at that time. For Rebbi Yossi, Shlomo, as an old man, wrote the books simultaneously with one another.

What is to be made of this disagreement? It seems to be that both suggestions convey important messages about growth, development and experience – messages that I seek to convey on a regular basis to my students. I’d like to share them here.

From Rebbi Yonatan I learn that each stage of our life is to be treated as distinct from each other stage – each has its own challenges and potential achievements – and that we may be doing ourselves a disservice if we are held hostage to expectations and assumptions about ourselves that come from a different period of our life. One of the most damaging lessons that I find many students have absorbed during their time in Israel is the idea one’s spiritual and religious life goes downhill from aged 19. The best one can hope to do is to tread water and not stray too far from one’s time in yeshiva or midrasha. I miss the yeshiva every day and there is no place that I have more gratitude towards for my own development than the yeshiva. But a young man or woman finishing their Torah studies in Israel has another 101 years to live and will be left with a sense of guilt, lack of fulfillment or apathy if they think that the rest of their life won’t provide them with meaningful challenges and areas for growth. Shlomo may have written Shir HaShirim by the time he was 19 but he still had a lot more left in him.  Rebbi Yonatan teaches us that each stage of life has its own book of Tanakh that needs to be written.

And what is to be learned from Rebbi Yossi’s claim that Shlomo wrote all three books in the same period of his life? Perhaps that it’s OK to have multiple and conflicting emotions and experiences at any one time. That it’s legitimate to hold different and even contradictory values simultaneously and to find meaning in very different pastimes and commitments. Maybe this is true wisdom, and it’s probably easier to achieve as we get older. I like the idea that it’s OK to be a Kohelet person and a Shir HaShirim person at the same time! And that not only is this combination of contradictions legitimate, it’s the well-spring of creativity and even ru’ach hakodesh.

And possibly Rebbi Yossi teaches us something even more important. That we shouldn’t feel strait-jacketed into feeling a certain thing at a certain point in our lives just because that’s what is expected of us. It’s ok to be a young person and to be depressed and pessimistic even though everyone around you is incessantly positive and expects you to be too. Better still, it’s ok to be elderly and frail, but nevertheless be head over heels in love with the partner you’ve been with for sixty years, singing ‘let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine’ (Shir HaShirim 1:1)





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