Tag Archives: God

Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

Lush Pastures and Valleys of Shadows: Psalm 23 from a Jewish Perspective

Dear Josep,

I know you enjoyed that post about King David in which I mentioned the book of Psalms, and I decided to treat you to a whole blog post on¬†something I know is close to your heart: your favorite psalm. ūüôā

But I want to start by telling you about an¬†extraordinary place you should visit next time you are in Jerusalem. It’s called the Museum of Psalms; a tiny little gallery tucked in an alley off of Jaffa Road. The project on display is¬†a collection of paintings, one for each of the 150 psalms, created by artist Moshe Tzvi Berger, a Transylvanian Holocaust survivor.

Berger¬†is a Lubavitcher¬†Hassid well-versed in Kabbalah, and the paintings are rich with symbolism and vibrant with magnificent colors. Here’s a 10-minute video about the museum, in which the artist talks a little about the paintings.

My in-laws discovered this place and brought me there a couple times. They bought a book called “Visions of the Psalms” that features all the paintings alongside the psalms represented by them, in both Hebrew and English, and some commentary by the artist. Here’s your page:

Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

When they first took me to the museum, before E was born, I thought about¬†buying you¬†a print of that painting as a gift for his birth. But they didn’t have Psalm 23 available as a print. What they did have was Psalm 27… which happens to be¬†my favorite.

Psalm 27, Moshe Tzvi Berger
So I bought it for myself!

The similarity between the paintings is no accident. The painting for Psalm 27 is almost a close-up of the painting for Psalm 23. The text that comprises the red goblet in both paintings is the same line from 23.

Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known. It is cherished, sung, and recited by Jews and Christians alike. Jews sing it during the services on Shabbat evening, and traditionally sing it during the third meal of the Sabbath, too.

This melody, performed here by Shuli Nathan, is the most commonly sung. It was composed by Ben Zion Shenker. (You actually heard us singing this in synagogue, but I couldn’t tell you what it was from the women’s section. ūüėČ )

Now that we have these colors and images and sounds in our minds… let’s take a look at the words of this psalm. We’re going to look at each verse from a literary and Biblical perspective, bringing in traditional Jewish commentaries when necessary. This is a typical way for Jews to study and analyze a Biblical text.

I think when we’re¬†done, you’ll appreciate why studying the original¬†Hebrew gives a lot more depth to the Psalmist’s words.

A Song¬†of David…

Jewish tradition holds that these words were written by King David. This may or may not be true, but as I mentioned in the previous post on this topic, I feel that they really capture his spirit.

…God is my shepherd, I will¬†not lack. In lush pastures He lays me down, by¬†tranquil waters He leads me.

What an image this evokes. You can almost hear the gentle murmur of the clear water, smell the fresh scent of the lush green grass, and feel the sun on your face as you bask in its warmth. The Psalmist describes this as a metaphor for God’s presence in his life.

I think the painting of Psalm 23 above beautifully portrays this feeling. The “sun” is in the shape of the letter¬†yud, symbolizing God. We see an island, or an oasis, floating in the midst of the blue–which, the artist points out in the video, is the color of mercy. The “cup” that “overflows” (a metaphor that appears later) is reflected on the tranquil waters. It is surrounded by lush trees–perhaps meant to recall the¬†Tree of Life, a symbol for¬†the¬†Torah, as we have discussed.

The image in the painting reminds me of Ein Gedi, the oasis near Masada where David hid from Saul.

Ein Gedi
Ein Gedi. Photo by yours truly.

Many of the great figures¬†in the Bible started out as shepherds–Jacob, Moses, and David himself. I was taught that the skills and temperament required for that job were what made these men suitable to become leaders.

When you think of a shepherd, you think of someone who is both tender and firm; someone who guides you and provides you with the opportunity to sustain yourself. He doesn’t bring the sheep their feed; he brings the sheep to the pasture, where they must graze themselves. I think this is an apt metaphor for our relationship with God.

He restores my soul; He leads me on paths of justice for the sake of His name.

Here we have moved from a very gentle image to a slightly harsher one, where we are talking about “restoring my soul” and “paths of justice.”¬†We are also turning outward: “for the sake of His name,” and not necessarily for the sake of His love and tenderness towards me.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…

This is the most famous verse from the psalm. We have gone¬†from tranquil, lush pastures to “the valley of the shadow of death”–quite the contrasting image. What comes to my mind is the Jordan Valley, with the stark desert mountains of Judah and Moab towering over¬†either side.

“With me” is not an exact translation of the word that appears in this verse, ◊Ę◊ě◊ď◊ô (imadi). “With me” is ◊Ę◊ě◊ô, imi. The word¬†imadi¬†comes from the root ◊Ę.◊ě.◊ď., which means “to stand.” So the word means more than just “with me.” It means “standing with me,” or “helping me stand up.”

 

…your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

◊Ę.◊ě.◊ď is also the root for the word ◊Ę◊ě◊ē◊ď, which means “pillar” or “spine.” We come across similar imagery in¬†these words: ◊©◊Ď◊ė (shevet), “rod,” and ◊ě◊©◊Ę◊†◊™ (mish’enet), “staff.”

Why are both these words mentioned, though? What’s the difference between a “rod” and a “staff”?

The word¬†shevet¬†implies justice and rebuke–a rod used as punishment. The word¬†mish’enet comes from the root ◊©.◊Ę.◊†, as in ◊ú◊Ē◊ô◊©◊Ę◊ü, “to lean”–something to lean on. A walking cane.

This image may be more subtle than the previous metaphors in this poem, but I think it is just as powerful.

The Psalmist finds both the “rod”–God’s harsh justice and perhaps even His punishment–and the “staff”–God’s mercy–“comforting.”¬†You can understand why he might find the “staff” comforting. But the “rod”?¬†What is comforting about the terrible things that happen to us?

The answer is in the first part of this same verse. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me. I know that even Your “rod” is the result of Your love for me.

You will spread a table before me, in front of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.

The image here is of a man sitting at a table spread with great abundance, while his enemies watch in fury, unable to withhold this bounty from him.

If you’ve ever seen a Middle Eastern table spread, you’ll know that olive oil is a prominent feature.¬†But God did literally anoint David’s head with oil. That’s how they crowned kings in Biblical times. God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David king years before David ascended the throne.

I find it beautiful how this image seamlessly blends in with the previous one, the table spread with goodness, and the one that follows–the overflowing cup.

However. Remember the Hebrew word that means “the anointed one”? Mashiach/Messiah. That is not the word that is used here. The word is ◊ď◊©◊†◊™,¬†dishanta. The root ◊ď.◊©.◊† can just mean “to oil” something, but it can also mean to make something fertile, or full of enjoyment and satisfaction.

The word often translated as “overflows” is ◊®◊ē◊ô◊Ē (revaya), from the root ◊®.◊ē.◊Ē/◊ô, which means “to quench,” or “soaked.” This is along the same lines as the word¬†dishanta.

So this whole verse brings us back to the sense of sustenance and bounty.

May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of God for the length of days.

Here the Psalmist turns to God with a request: let me feel this abundance of goodness all my life. May only goodness and loving kindness follow me.

“The length of days”¬†is a direct translation of¬†◊ú◊ź◊ē◊®◊ö ◊ô◊ě◊ô◊Ě (l’orekh yamim), which has been traditionally translated as “long years” or “a long time.” The King James Bible translates it as “forever.” Perhaps King James read Maimonides on this: Maimonides says that “the house of God” here means the World to Come, and “the length of days” would then mean “eternity.”

The word translated here as “dwell” is ◊©◊Ď◊™◊ô,¬†shavti.¬†But that’s not really the simple meaning of the word. ◊ô◊©◊Ď◊™◊ô (yashavti) would mean “sit” or “dwell.”¬†Shavti would normally be translated as “return.” I think it is traditionally translated as “dwell” because that makes most sense in context. Radak (medieval commentator David Kimhi) suggests that it means “I will be tranquil”–relying on a verse from Isiah that uses the root to mean tranquility (and he also interprets the word I translated as “restore” above,¬†yeshovev, the same way).

But begging pardon from the Sages, I will venture¬†my own suggestion: maybe ◊©◊Ď◊™◊ô is from the root ◊©.◊Ď.◊Ē/◊ô, as in ◊©◊Ď◊ē◊ô (shavui), which means “captive.” “I will be¬†captivated in the house of God for the length of days.”

Here’s my reasoning: in the first part of the verse the Psalmist used the word “pursued” to describe being surrounded by goodness and kindness. Maybe he is finishing off that¬†metaphor here by implying that he has “fallen captive” to the goodness and kindness that pursued him, and here–in the house of God–is where they hold him for eternity.

Just a thought.

Psalm 23 and Psalm 27

I think the reason the paintings are “twin” paintings is that they both discuss similar themes. Here¬†is a quote from¬†Psalm 27¬†for comparison:

“God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God¬†is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened?¬†When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me, they stumbled and fell…¬†One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple…”

A trust in God, a desire to draw closer to him, and a sense that He has provided us with an abundance of blessing… I think these are the things that appeal to us about these psalms.

Any insights to add?

Love,

Daniella

Clinging to Light in the Darkness: On Grappling with Loss and Fear of Loss

Dear Josep,

Last Friday I had the distinct pleasure of exchanging books with a friend of mine who also recently published her book.

me and shira
My arm is too short for good selfies.

Shira Chernoble is a pastoral counselor and massage therapist who has lived in Tekoa for many years. We actually know each other through my mother, because Shira treats clients in a center that is part of the El Halev complex where my mom works, but I got to know her in various settings around Tekoa, especially through her work with DoTerra (an essential oils company).

Her book,¬†Heart 2 Heart Healing, is a collection of stories about individuals and families she has worked with in coping¬†with grief, loss, and chronic illness. ¬†As you can imagine, the stories are sad and painful, but they are also inspiring and uplifting, especially interspersed with Shira’s insights.

Unfortunately, Tekoa has known its share of tragedies in the time Shira has spent here. In 2001, Shira was the one to inform Sherri and Seth Mandell, after a long, harrowing, sleepless night, that the body of their son Koby had been found in a cave in the wadi nearby. You may have heard of the Mandells; they went on to establish the Koby Mandell Foundation, which offers healing retreats and activities to those who have lost family members to terror or illness. Sherri Mandell also penned two books about coping with her loss: The Blessing of a Broken Heart (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and The Road to Resilience (released this past October).

Shira also wrote about three events that occurred during the time I have lived here: the death of Rabbi Menachem Froman, the controversial former rabbi of Tekoa; the murder of Dalya Lemkus in a terror attack in the fall of 2014; and about the sudden death of Hillel Rodich–an event that affected me very deeply, which I mentioned¬†in the post about Jewish mourning customs.

The thing that struck me about the way Shira wrote about these events was her perspective as someone who is not afraid to confront this terrifying and painful subject. I remember in my work with OneFamily (another organization that helps terror victims), seeing what happened to families that were affected by terror, and the isolation they experienced because their friends just didn’t know how to respond, how to stand in the face of something so difficult and painful and be helpful in any way.

But Shira sees grief and loss as part of what gives¬†life its beauty. That we do have this window of opportunity, called¬†life, to touch each other’s lives, to¬†give each other love, to experience the magnificence¬†of God’s world–and the transience makes it that much more potent. It helps to believe as she does (and I do) that death is not an ending, but a transition, and that our loved ones live on and speak to us in various ways.

I want to quote one¬†passage, from the story of Hillel’s family:

As this was occurring, Seth Mandell (father of Koby, described in the previous story); Eliyana, Koby’s sister; and a¬†journalist¬†“happened to be” walking in the wadi as well. They heard¬†Hillel’s children screaming and rushed to the spring. They called an ambulance, and Eliyana took the children back to the Mandell home. Sherri Mandell, for whom it had been so significant that her friends and neighbors had lovingly fed her during her period of mourning, now fed these children, because they said they were hungry. When the children arrived at the Mandells, I also “happened to be” there when Hillel died, and that I, a trained grief counselor “happened to be” at the Mandell’s when a shocked Hadass came to pick up her children was not insignificant. I believe it was what Dr. Kubler-Ross called a “divine coincidence.” I believe that the presence of Seth and Eliyana, and then Sherri, and then me was Gd’s unfathomable way of embracing Hadass and the children immediately in the face of Hillel’s death.

I paused here, during my first reading, wiping away the tears, and stared at that last sentence. “Gd’s unfathomable way of embracing Hadass and the children immediately in the face of Hillel’s death.”

The tantruming toddler in me wanted to throw the book across the room and scream. God had just inflicted an unimaginable pain on this family. The enormity of it still floors me. I remember getting the notice on my phone, shortly before Shabbat, and literally sinking to the floor in shock. This scenario is one of my worst nightmares. How can we speak of God compassionately embracing, bestowing kindness, when He had just cruelly ripped these children from their father and this woman from her husband?

…And I guess we’re back to the allegory of the moon.

I wrote a letter months ago–in fact, it¬†ended up¬†the last chapter of my book, and that was no accident–about the paradox of believing in God’s ultimate goodness while¬†being angry with Him for difficult things He’s put you through. A brief recap in case you¬†couldn’t be bothered¬†to click the link and reread it: The Talmud asks why the Torah requires¬†a sin-offering as part of the Temple service for¬†Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new month). For whose sin is it meant to atone, the Sages ask? The Talmud answers that it is God’s “sin.” God is asking our forgiveness for¬†hiding the moon from us. And as I elaborated in that letter, the darkness of the moon symbolizes the illusion of evil in this world; that beneath everything, all is God, and all is Good, and evil, like the phases of the moon, is a mere trick of the light. God asks our forgiveness because for reasons we don’t entirely understand, He cannot bestow this light on us without illusions and filters–not yet. He must hide it sometimes. And He knows it is painful, and He asks us to forgive Him for inflicting this pain.

But when I thought back on that letter, I realized something else about that allegory. When we look at¬†the moon, don’t only see its dark side. We see its light side, too–usually at the same time. Sometimes the moon is full and we see only light. Sometimes the moon is new, and we don’t see it at all. But for most of the month, there is an ongoing, dynamic interplay between light and darkness. Light and darkness are completely opposite, completely mutually exclusive, and yet they have existed side by side in the night sky since the creation of the world.

Can we be in the midst of darkness and cling to the tiny sliver of light, having faith that it represents the Truth?

moon

I feel that there is a keyword missing here, one that isn’t¬†faith.

The word is trust.

Can we trust God?

Can we trust Him, when we know that at a moment’s notice, He may very well take away everything we hold dear? Can we trust Him, that even if He prescribes¬†death itself, or profound emotional or physical suffering, as part of our fate–this, too, is good? It seems so easy, so comforting, to believe in a God who will always protect you from pain and suffering. But¬†God¬†invented pain and suffering. And He allows it to inflict us no matter how faithful we are.

Thoughtful people¬†of faith must grapple with this difficult truth. And they have–for centuries.

I remember struggling with it¬†when crouching in the “safe corner” of our house during a rocket barrage a couple years ago, trying to figure out what to say to calm my frightened children. I knew it might be comforting to tell them that Hashem would protect us. But I also knew that I couldn’t promise them that. Why would Hashem protect us, and not Koby Mandell? Why would Hashem protect us, and not Dalya Lemkus, or the Fogel family, or Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali?

We don’t know. And in that corner, with the sirens wailing, I had to reaffirm an idea ¬†that is far too complex to communicate to small children. The idea that if of all places those haphazard missiles could have landed, if one lands right here in our living room, there is no way to call that an accident of fate. It must be part¬†of God’s plan. I had to trust Him¬†that whatever He decides about where that missile would land, it would be¬†for the ultimate good. And that He would provide enough light in the darkness for me to find my way–whatever that might be.

This is not easy. Not easy at all.

Anyway. I’m sorry to say that Shira’s book is only available through her. I might try and convince her to let me help her publish it through CreateSpace and/or make an eBook version so a wider audience will have access to it. I really think it’s an important and valuable read for anyone who has ever struggled with grief… which is, pretty much, every single human being on this planet.

IMG_3846

Much love,

Daniella

Zooming In

Dear Josep,

I was walking home from dropping my kids off at preschool the other day, lost in thought, when I bumped into one of my neighbors.¬†I greeted her, but it turned out she was praying as she walked. We’re not allowed to interrupt prayers with speech; I mean, we’re having a conversation with God, it would be rude to interrupt! She was praying the first section of the ShaŠł•arit (morning) prayer, known as “Birkot HaShaŠł•ar,” “the morning blessings.” So to make it clear why she was “ignoring” me, she lifted up the pamphlet she was reading from and said the end of the blessing out loud, and I answered “Amen.” (I wrote about blessings and answering “Amen” here.)¬†Then she asked me if I was in a hurry, or if I would like to answer “amen” for all the rest of the blessings. I said I would be delighted to, and she began to read.

Blessed

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who opens the eyes of the blind.

eyes of the blind

I thought of my visually impaired son who would have been completely blind had he not undergone surgery as a tiny baby. Amen.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who clothes the naked.

clothes the naked

She looked down at the clothes she was wearing and smiled. Amen.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who releases the bound.

releases the bound

She gave a shake, enjoying the free movement of her body. Amen.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who straightens the bent.

straightens the bent

We both stood up a little straighter. Amen.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who spreads the earth upon the waters.

spreads the earth

I focused on the sensation of my feet on the ground. Amen.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who has provided my every need.

my every need

I thought about the miraculous and healthy functioning of my body. Amen.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who firms man’s footsteps.

firms man's footsteps

I felt grateful for my solid shoes. Amen.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who girds Israel with strength.

girds israel with strength

I thought about wrapping the waistline of my skirt around my hips that morning. Amen.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who crowns Israel with splendor.

crowns Israel with splendor

I recalled the sensation of wrapping my scarf around my hair that morning. Amen.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who gives strength to the weary.

strength to the weary

I remembered how tired I had felt when I first woke up that morning, and how strength and energy had settled into my bones. And especially for me, this is no small matter; I have very low energy and tend to be tired and fatigued, and thanks to God and the medication I take, getting out of bed each morning is no longer a colossal task.

Amen.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. And may it be Your will, Lord, our God, and the God of our forefathers, that You accustom us to the ways of your Torah and attach us to Your commandments, and do not bring us to the power of error, nor to the power of transgression and sin, nor to the power of challenge, nor to the power of scorn, and may the evil inclination have no control over us. And distance us from an evil person and an evil companion. And attach us to the Good Inclination and to good deeds, and compel our nature to be subservient to You. And grant us today and every day grace, and kindness, and mercy in Your eyes, and in the eyes of all who see us, and bestow kindness upon us. Blessed are You, Lord, Who bestows kindness upon His nation, Israel.

Amen, amen, amen.

We say these words every morning. Most of the time I mumble through them, troubled by other thoughts, unable to focus and really experience the profound awareness and gratitude they are meant to bring me. I was so grateful to my neighbor for letting me take part in her prayers that morning. Thanks to her, time slowed down and I was able to really zoom in and focus on each of these simple, everyday miracles that we usually ignore. It flooded me with a sense of blessing and gratitude.

A blessed day to you.

Love,

Daniella

A Preponderance of Evidence

Dear Josep,

On Friday afternoon we were driving to my parents’ house to spend Shabbat there. It’s about an hour’s ride from here–out of the Judean Desert, into the Jerusalem Hills, and down into the coastal plain. We like to listen to music as we drive, and¬†as we were driving, the first song from the movie¬†The Prince of Egypt¬†came¬†on.

You’ve seen The Prince of Egypt, right? The opening sequence shows the Israelites enslaved by the Egyptians. We see Jochebed, Moses’s mother, slipping past the Egyptian soldiers down to the Nile River, where she places baby Moses in a basket and sets him afloat. His sister Miriam watches his progress from the reeds on the riverbank, until the basket floats into to the palace of Pharoah and Moses¬†is taken in by Pharoah’s wife. (In the Bible, it is Pharoah’s daughter who finds him, but¬†given how true the movie stays to the Biblical narrative most of the time, I forgive them.)¬†Here’s a video of the whole sequence with the lyrics in English.

So I was sitting there in the car, listening to the lyrics:

Deliver us
Hear our call
Deliver us
Lord of all
Remember us,
Here in this burning sand
Deliver us
There’s a land You promised us
Deliver us
To the promised land

And I looked out the window of the car, and there it was.

The Promised Land.

The Menachem Begin Highway that cuts through Jerusalem
Ta da!

And all these people driving the cars on this road? The vast majority of them are the descendants, genetic and/or spiritual, of those slaves.

I am one of them.

Screenshot from The Prince of Egypt (c) Dreamworks 1998
Mind. Blown.

I’ve lived here for 19 years now, and most of the time I don’t really think about it. But every once in a while it hits me how completely absurd it is that I am here.

How totally ridiculous it is that the Jewish people still exist at all.

How entirely outrageous it is that a tiny minority such as us has impacted global history the way we have.

How utterly insane it is that we returned from a 2,000-year exile to establish¬†a sovereign state–despite the constant efforts of our neighbors to destroy us–and resurrect¬†our ancient language to become¬†our vernacular.

I grew up with these stories as fact, so it doesn’t sound all that strange to me until I realize that this stuff has never happened before. Ever. In the history of humankind. To anybody.

Except us.

Even if you don’t believe a single word of the Biblical narrative… the story of my people is truly astonishing.

It reminds me of an article I read recently about how science is increasingly making the case for “intelligent design.” Scientists are starting to realize that the odds of any planet in the universe supporting life are less than zero… including this one. In other words, knowing what we know now about the overwhelmingly¬†improbable conditions necessary for a¬†planet to support life, the claim that¬†it happened by chance is now starting to sound crazier than the claim¬†that it happened by design. Like the famous example given by Rabbi Bahya ibn Piquda in 11th century Spain: “If a man were to bring before us a page of orderly script, which could not have been written without a quill, and he says ‘Ink spilled on the page and the script arranged itself,’ we would be quick to declare his words false…” (“Duties of the Heart,” 1:6)

That awkward moment when science says that being an atheist takes a greater leap of faith than being a theist.

But for me, this isn’t¬†about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about those moments when you look around you and you see God everywhere and in everything. Sweet moments that have become a lot rarer as I’ve grown older and my view of the world has become more complex. I still have so many questions why, and they can be suffocating and overwhelming and distancing. But every once in a while He’ll find a way to remind me that there is a preponderance of evidence of His love for me.

Love,

Daniella

My Deal with God

Dear Josep,

So it’s Thursday evening¬†and I haven’t posted in a week. Life has been hectic and there are kids with fevers and tummyaches all over the place and I’ve hardly had a moment to myself for the past couple of weeks. (And for the record, it was my Hebrew birthday on Wednesday. I spent the day washing dishes, proofreading, and dealing with a sick 3-year-old. Whee.) And I was *this* close to Whatsapping you to demand that you ask me a random question because I had no idea what to write about!

But before resorting to such drastic (and probably futile) measures, I decided to try digging around “in the archives” and see if I can find anything interesting that I haven’t posted yet. So I was randomly scanning old¬†e-mails, reading through our conversations about this and that, when I noticed that I referred once to something that happened to me, and wrote that I would tell you about it someday, but I don’t think I ever got around to it.

So, here it is, nine years later!

When I was around seventeen, I began to take driving lessons. Now, in Israel, the process of getting a driver’s license is a ridiculously difficult and extravagantly expensive affair, which involves taking a minimum of 28 lessons in an instructor’s car, a multiple-choice theory test, and a practical test. A¬†vast majority of people fail the first time around, because it’s very strict; you can fail for small, harmless mistakes, and for not following arbitrary rules that no actual driver in his right mind follows anyway. And if the tester so much as touches the brake pedal or the wheel while you’re driving, you have failed for sure.

Now, you met me about two years after this, and it’s probably not hard for you to imagine that learning to drive a car was extremely stressful for me. I am a very cautious person, and suddenly taking control of a massive hunk of metal flying down the highway at 90 kmph was not my idea of a good time. So let’s just say, it took me a very long time to get confident with it.¬†My instructor (God bless his patient heart) never yelled at me, but he did have a tendency to pull me over and give me a hard time: “But… Daniella… why? Why? What do you have against that pedestrian? She doesn’t deserve to die…”

Anyway. After significantly more than 28 lessons, my instructor felt that I was ready to take the test, and so it began. The first test I failed because I crossed a very long crosswalk while a pedestrian had already stepped onto the street. (I never would have hit her, because she was a good two-three meters away, but it was reason enough to fail me.) The second test I failed because I got stuck behind a truck on a narrow two-lane street and I pulled up too close behind it, so in the process of trying to pass it, I almost knocked the side mirror off my car and the tester slammed the brakes.

Third test. I’m sitting in the driver’s seat waiting for the tester to get in the car. And I look up at the Heavens and I say, “Look. I know making deals with You is dumb and it’s not really part of how You work. But listen. If You help me pass this time, I will write a ridiculously long, rambling message about how great You are and post it on my class’s Internet forum.” I glanced at the back seat, where another student was waiting, and I added, “Hey, and let him pass it, too.” It was his third test as well.

Kind like in Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel." Only without Jesus.
Kinda like Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel.” Only without Jesus.

Test starts. Everything’s going fine. I’m switching lanes like a pro, all is running smoothly. And then I¬†stop at a red light… and forget to switch to first gear. So when the light turns green, the car stalls.

Now, I knew perfectly well what to do in this situation. But the tester didn’t give me a chance. Before I could move, he had slammed the brakes and the clutch, turned the key, shifted to first,¬†and restarted the car.

I continued the test knowing with absolute certainty that I would fail. I was really upset, but I continued to pray that at least my comrade would pass, and he did quite well. They don’t give you the results on the spot; your instructor calls you later that day to tell you if you passed or failed. But I knew I didn’t need his phone call. There was no way I could have passed.

But… I decided to write my rambling message of praise anyway.

Because God is still awesome, even if He¬†drives me insane and says “no” when I ask for things.

So I wrote it and posted it on the forum. And then I opened up my personal blog and started to spew my dismay… and as I sat there typing, the phone rang.

It was my driving instructor.

“Nu?” he said.

“I know, I know…” I said.

“Daniella, you passed.”

“…What?”

“You passed.”

What?!¬†But… but… I… there’s no way… are you sure?!”

“Would I lie to you?! It’s written right here in front of me.”

“But… how can that be?!”

“What, are you complaining?! Should I tell them to reverse their decision?!”

But it was true.¬†I guess, by some miracle, the tester reasoned that he had acted quickly so that we wouldn’t hold up traffic, and didn’t give me a chance to correct the situation, and figured that if he had given me a chance, I would have handled it. This sort of fair-mindedness is basically unheard of in this industry.¬†(And for the record–my comrade passed, too.)

In Judaism we have a concept called¬†lifnim mishurat hadin. It translates literally as “inside¬†the line of justice,” and what it means is to act “beyond the letter of the law”; to act with extra mercy and kindness even when it is not required of us to do so. When Christians talk about¬†God bestowing unmerited blessing on the world, they call it “grace,” and that’s probably the closest I’m going to get to a parallel term. So what I felt happened here, was that I kind of made a deal with God, and when He didn’t “fill His end” (which admittedly, He never agreed to, but shhh), I accepted what happened¬†with grace; I¬†decided to fill my end anyway, lifnim mishurat hadin.

And I felt that when I acted this way with God… He¬†returned the favor.

He knew I was angry and disappointed, and that nonetheless, I chose to do something positive, to take a step towards Him and express my love for Him instead of turning away. So even though by every law of nature I really should not have passed that test… somehow, He made a little miracle for me, and granted my wish.

This was not the only time in my life I have felt that God presented me with a great challenge or disappointment, and that once I rose to the occasion and embraced the challenge¬†with love and faith in Him, the challenge disappeared like a mirage.¬†I wrote about an even more powerful experience like this for the JewishMom.com blog¬†for a “Chanukah miracle” story contest a few years ago. (I think I actually told you that story when it happened. We were in touch during that period; you kindly consulted an expert you knew to try and help us out before the situation was resolved.)

It’s not my birthday anymore, so my special “blessing powers” have “expired” (don’t know what I’m talking about? Click here and scroll to the bottom) but they seem to work pretty well nonetheless ūüėõ so here goes: may¬†you always¬†find it within yourself to act with extra kindness and grace towards others and towards God; and may He always return the favor.

Much love,

Daniella

I Forgave God

Dear Josep,

As you and I have discussed recently, I have been experiencing a¬†struggle in my relationship with God in the last number of¬†years. There are many factors that played into this. Some were related to my own maturation and the deepening of the complexity in my understanding of what He is and isn’t. Some were the¬†result of encounters with life situations, or with issues directly related to the Torah¬†that sent me into¬†something of a tailspin–having explanations that satisfied me intellectually, but not emotionally. As you can imagine, current events have brought that struggle to the forefront, and I find myself asking that same question, that ultimate question all people of faith struggle with again and again, phrased by Abraham when facing the destruction of Sodom: “Shall the Judge of all the Earth not act justly?” Why do good people suffer?¬†Why does the all-powerful God choose not to intervene to protect the innocent?

If there is one thing I have been consistently learning in the past few years, it is how much of the distance and suffering I have felt in all relationships in my life come from suppressing and denying anger I feel towards the other. And how much can be repaired by simply giving space to that anger, and forgiving myself for having it and the other for triggering it (whether it was their fault or not).

You see, it is not that hard for me to acknowledge my anger and¬†forgive someone who has hurt me, either intentionally or unintentionally, when he or she¬†did something wrong. It is much harder for me to give space to my anger when it feels unjustified. Because what do I want from them? It wasn’t their fault, what right do I have to be angry? I am learning, however, that feelings don’t work that way. They are not rational and don’t respond to reason. I can’t make my anger go away by simply telling it that it doesn’t make sense. So it’s all right to feel anger even when the object of my anger truly did nothing wrong. You can’t choose what you feel. You can only choose how to respond. And when I choose to respond by suppressing and denying anger, it doesn’t actually disappear; it expresses itself in other, less healthy ways. It’s a question of how the anger can be given space in a¬†way that is healthy, with trust on both ends that it won’t¬†spell the destruction of the relationship. We get angry, we forgive each other, and we move on.

And the truth is that I get angry at God. I get furious with Him. Yes, I believe everything He does is for the ultimate good… but why does it have to hurt so much? God is all-powerful; couldn’t He have created a world where suffering was¬†not necessary? Yes, yes, I’ve studied all the well-known Jewish sources that address this deep question; I know that God created the world as an act of His love, and that love is about giving, and God wanted to bestow the ultimate good on the world, and that that ultimate good is God himself, and in order for Him to do this, He needed to give us free will, and there can be no free will without the existence of evil to choose against. But He is still all-powerful and this arrangement of the spiritual universe is all His creation; couldn’t He have changed it so suffering wasn’t necessary?

There is a debate in the Talmud between the two great schools, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, on whether it was easier for man to have been¬†created, or not to have been created at all. They both agree in the end that it would have been¬†easier for man not to have been created. From my vantage point, here in the Middle East in these days of instability, violence and despair, this conclusion seems clear. Thanks a bunch, God, for all this ultimate goodness stuff, but really, I’d rather have nothing than to have to tolerate and witness so much suffering.

And that kind of thinking made me feel so ashamed of my lack of gratitude. God gave me so much, blessed me with so many wonderful things, and this is how I thank Him, by wishing He’d never created the world in the first place? Don’t I believe He knows what He’s doing? How could I possibly be angry at Him?

Something in that magic, soul-cleansing power of the High Holiday season, however, opened up a path for me. I realized that I needed to accept that it was okay for me to be angry. God may have made the world to bestow His ultimate goodness on it, but He also made us with a limited capacity to see and understand His plan, precisely so we would not remain complacent in the face of injustice. Didn’t God name our forefather Jacob, and our entire nation after him, “Israel”–“He who struggles with God“?

So I started letting myself be angry–and expressing that anger. For many years, I haven’t really been speaking to Him freely the way I used to. I was¬†brogez, to use the childish term from Israeli kindergartens for not being on speaking terms. I understood that my silence was not constructive; that it was better to spew anger at Him than to say nothing at all. So I started¬†speaking my mind. Even when all I could say was, “Why are You doing this to me?” Even when whatever it was was something petty and inconsequential. I know that God cares about everything more deeply than I could possibly understand. There is no such thing as pain so small that it doesn’t matter to Him.

On a¬†Thursday night during Succot,¬†we received the tragic news of that horrible terror attack in Samaria in which a young Jewish couple was murdered by terrorists right in front of their four little children. It was especially difficult because the couple was pretty well-known in the religious community, and I know several people who knew them personally. After Shabbat, we received more awful news–two Jews¬†stabbed to death in the Old City of Jerusalem, the wife and two-year-old child of one of them injured and in the hospital. (As I’ve mentioned, the situation has only deteriorated since.) Naturally, I was very upset about these things, and started to feel the crushing fear of yet another escalation in violence and what it might mean for us.¬†I wrote in a previous entry about the concept of “chosenness”; I felt anger and despair over the persecution that seemed to be built in to that role.¬†Why, why, why? Why does being Jewish have to entail such constant suffering?

But then, on SimŠł•at Torah, I stood in front of the ark (the cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept), and read out the passages we recite¬†before taking the Torah scrolls out and dancing with them. And I remembered that as much as being Jewish entails constant suffering, it also entails so much of the deepest joy. As I danced with the Torah scroll, hugging it to my heart, offering it to my kids to kiss, I felt the profoundest sense of purpose and mission, and that brought me such elation. And I looked into my heart and suddenly saw something there I hadn’t seen in a long time. I did not feel that I was struggling against¬†God. I felt that I was struggling¬†with Him–together with Him.¬†That even these terrible tragedies and this awful suffering was part of His plan for ultimate good, and that it was really for my good too, even if I couldn’t see it. And that by taking part in this mission He gave to the Jewish people, I was partnering with Him in the act of bringing the world to a place where He will one day be able to bestow His ultimate good.

And I realized that I had forgiven Him for the pain He causes me.

Months ago, I read an intriguing article by Rabbi Ari Kahn about the period between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israeli Independence Day (or, as I call it,¬†Israeli Emotional Roller Coaster Week), in which he talks about the Talmudic commentary on God’s instructions for the Temple sacrifices on Rosh Šł§odesh, the first day of the new month. He writes that we are commanded to bring what the Torah calls a “sin-offering” (hata’at) on Rosh Šł§odesh, but unlike every other time we are commanded to bring this type of offering, there is no sin listed that we are atoning for. The Talmud explains that God asks for a sin-offering on Rosh Šł§odesh, not as an atonement for a sin of ours, but a “sin” of¬†His–the “sin” of diminishing the moon.

Now obviously, this is not literal. God does not commit sins, and diminishing the moon seems to be a silly thing to be “apologizing” for. But there is a deep allegory here. The Jewish people is often compared to the moon, its phases representing the ups and downs we have experienced throughout our turbulent history. In Judaism we talk about God “hiding His face,” referring to times of great darkness and evil, where His goodness is not easily found. In contrast, there are times of “revelation,” when it is much easier to see His hand in the events that are transpiring around us. The thing about the phases of the moon is that it¬†looks like the moon is waxing and waning, growing and shrinking, appearing and disappearing. But it isn’t. The moon remains exactly the same. The phases are an illusion, a trick of the light.

"And the light of the moon shall be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold as the light of the seven days, on the day the Lord shall bind the fracture of His people, and the stroke of their wound He shall heal."--Isaiah 30:26
“And the light of the moon shall be like the light of the sun…¬†on the day the Lord shall mend¬†the brokenness¬†of His people”–Isaiah 30:26

What the Talmud is saying is that God created the world exactly the way He wanted in exactly the ideal way. And He knows that the moon is always there. On Rosh¬†Šł§odesh, He¬†apologizes for the trick of the light, for the illusion that we humans perceive as¬†the waxing and waning of the¬†moon. He is asking us to forgive Him for hiding Himself from us without helping us understand why He does this. He does it because it is really for our ultimate good, but He knows we can’t know or experience that. So He asks our forgiveness for the pain of the illusion of¬†darkness.

When I read that article I was floored. The concept of “forgiving God” seemed crazy and radical. We are the ones who are supposed to be asking for forgiveness! We are the ones who are imperfect and are constantly falling short of our potential and making bad choices! God is just doing His job! He is¬†the very definition of all that is right and true!¬†How on earth could we have the arrogance to think there was any need “forgive” him?

But now I understand. It is not God who needs our forgiveness. It is we who need to allow ourselves to forgive Him. And to forgive ourselves for feeling anger and despair when He hides His face.

And when I remembered that article, I realized that God was hearing my anger, and asking me to forgive Him. I still don’t understand, and the darkness still hurts. But knowing He knows my pain and “wishes” it was not necessary helps me feel that we are on the same page.

So I forgave God. And He forgave me. And something, some wound that has been festering in my soul for years, seems to have started to heal.

Love,

Daniella

Rain in Its Time

Dear Josep,

I awoke to the sound of a thunderclap this morning, followed shortly thereafter by the drumming of hail and the shouts of the neighbors frantically trying to bring their furniture back in from their succah so they wouldn’t get ruined by the rain. I couldn’t help but smile.

Yesterday was Shmini Atzeret, and one of the special things that happens on Shmini Atzeret is that we begin to mention rain in our daily prayers. We will continue to pray for rain until the second day of Passover, in the spring. You might be wondering, why bother changing the wording of the prayer twice a year? Why not just pray for rain all year? The answer has to do with the unique climate in Israel.

During the dry, brutal heat of a Middle Eastern August, many among us (especially those of us who grew up in cooler climates) begin to ask ourselves why God had to promise us this land of all places, and not, say, Switzerland.

"I shall bring them to a land flowing with cheese and chocolate..."
“I shall bring you¬†to a land flowing with cheese and chocolate…”

Or if it’s gotta be in the middle of a godforsaken desert, couldn’t it be one with some oil?

Like these guys. Sorry, am I giving you nightmares?
Like these guys.¬†(I hope this skyline doesn’t give you PTSD…)1

In all seriousness, though, the question of the location of the Promised Land is a good one, and has been discussed and debated by the Sages. One suggestion is that Israel is located right smack in the center of the map, on the crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe.

I shall call them Israel, and they shall be Mine, and I shall put them riiiiiiiiight.... here.
“I shall call them Israel, and they shall be Mine, and I shall put them riiiiiiiiight…. here.”

One of the reasons it’s such a war-torn piece of real estate is that it’s an important point along all the trade routes between those continents.

Why is this important?

Because, the Sages say, God wanted us located somewhere where we would come in contact with all these civilizations, influencing them with our culture. We have discussed (including in my previous post) how Jews have impacted the world astronomically out of proportion to our numbers, and the central location of our land may have something to do with that.

Another reason given for God having chosen this spot, is that at least up until a very few years ago, the area¬†was completely, 100% dependent on rainfall for successful¬†agriculture.¬†We don’t have major rivers like the Nile, the Tigris¬†or the Euphrates, and the only major freshwater lake is the Sea of Galilee.¬†“What about the Jordan River?”¬†you may ask. You didn’t get a chance to see it when you were here, did you?

...It's not particularly impressive. "Yarden 034PAN2" by Original uploader was Beivushtang at en.wikipedia - http://www.pbase.com/beivushtang. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
…It’s not particularly impressive.
Yarden 034PAN2” by ¬†Beivushtang¬†[CC BY-SA 3.0]
We get most of our water from underground springs or from the Sea of Galilee. So droughts due to little rainfall were a constant concern for thousands of years. I remember observing¬†a public fast day while I was in middle school because of a severe drought we were having, and growing up always fretting¬†about saving water and “red lines” in the levels of the Sea of Galilee.

Why would God purposely give us a land where our survival, until only very recently, was so dependent on the whims of nature?

Well,¬†it’s not really the “whims of nature” we are dependent on; it is Him, and His will. And being dependent on rain makes us turn to Him constantly for sustenance. It’s the difference between someone leaving¬†a coffee machine on the counter so you can make yourself a cup, and someone you love bringing you a cup of coffee¬†because you asked for it. It facilitates the kind of intimacy God wanted to have with us. “The Egyptians can have the Nile,” He said. “I want you to talk to Me about your needs.”

In recent years, the government finally solved the problem once and for all by building desalination plants along the Mediterranean and through wide-scale water recycling programs. We no longer live under the constant threat of water shortage. (Here is an article in the Times of Israel from February 2013 called “How Israel Beat the Drought.”) I am, of course, very happy and grateful about this, but there is something in me that laments the loss of that particular aspect of the relationship, and the sense of hope and blessing that would come with a year of good rainfall.

The climate in Israel is characterized by¬†hot, dry summers with no rainfall at all–from around May until September–and cool, rainy winters (well, rainy by Middle Eastern standards…), from around December until March. The months in between are the transitional seasons, which are usually characterized by temperate weather interspersed with dramatic ups-and-downs–heat waves and sandstorms that last a few days and then “break,” often with a cool wind¬†and some rainfall.

So the reason we only pray for rain from around September to around April is because, as we read in Ecclesiastes this past Shabbat, “for everything there is a season.” Rain in its time is a great blessing. Unusual weather–even rain in the summer–can damage crops and upset the delicate balance of Israel’s ecosystem. I should note that this does not only apply to Jewish prayers in Israel; Jews all over the world follow this same prayer pattern. We have been praying for the fertility of the Land of Israel for thousands of years, even on the rare occasion when not a single Jew lived in the Holy Land.

The lack of rain from May to September makes it that much more precious when it returns. There is nothing quite like the first rain of the season here in Israel, and Israelis celebrate it¬†with the same childlike delight you see around the first snowfall in colder countries. I am no exception. ūüėČ

I began to really appreciate rain¬†around the time of the first rainfall in the year 2001. Yes, this was shortly after September 11th, and a¬†particularly meaningful and “cleansing” Yom Kippur I experienced as a 14-year-old. It was around that time that I began to develop a close and personal relationship with God, and¬†as I opened my window and breathed in the scent of the¬†soil drinking in the rain for the first time in months, I looked up at the sky and felt that each raindrop was sent directly to me as a gift from Him. I would go outside barefoot, laughing in pure pleasure and welcoming the shower as I waded through the puddles. I would sit in my parents’ car outside, listening to the rain¬†drum on the roof and watching it drip down the windows all around, feeling safe and warm and loved. Each raindrop felt like a kiss from God… and, well, I would kiss Him¬†back. To this day, I instinctively kiss every raindrop that falls on my lips.

rain

I wrote in a previous entry that I have a habit of looking for God in the weather. I most often find Him in the rain.

I will leave you with a song I love by Yonatan Razel (brother of Aaron Razel, of Krembo Song fame, and the more celebrated of the two for¬†his appeal to a general audience and not just a religious one). It’s the first song on his latest album, “Bein HaTzlilim” (“Between the Sounds”), called “Tikun HaGeshem,” the “Prayer for Rain.” It is adapted from the traditional prayer for rain recited in Sephardi synagogues on Shmini Atzeret. Something about what Razel does with the music really captures the magic of the beginning of the rainy season here.

This is my translation of the lyrics:

Prayer for Rain

The living Lord shall open the treasuries of the skies
He shall blow His wind, and water shall pour down

With the rains of Your will, bless the nation
Trapped like a bird in the snares of despair
In the merit of the Father of Many, who prepared a feast
And said, “Please let a little water be taken”2

Remember Your mercy, Creator of the celestial lights
Command Your clouds to scatter light
In the merit of the Sweet Singer King
Who said, “Oh, if one would give me water to drink”3

The living Lord shall open the treasuries of the skies
He shall blow His wind, and water shall pour down

With the rains of blessing, bless the earth
With the rains of song, prune the earth

With the rains of life
With the rains of blessing
With the rains of redemption…

The living Lord shall open the treasuries of the skies
He shall blow His wind, and water shall pour down

Wishing us all a year of abundance and many, many God-kisses. ūüôā

Love,

Daniella


1. That’s the skyline of Dubai, a city in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates,¬†where Josep has spent more time than anyone should ever have to.‚Ü©

2. This is a reference to Genesis 18:4, when Abraham was visited by three “strangers” (who turned out to be angels), and offered them “a little water” and “a morsel of bread,” and when they agreed, prepared a whole feast for them. From this story, we learn about Abraham’s exemplary hospitality, and the principle of “say little, do much.”‚Ü©

3. A reference to Samuel II 23:15, the story about when King David was doing battle with the Philistines near Bethlehem, and expressed a desire to drink from the well of Bethlehem. Three “mighty men” went and broke through the Philistine camp to fetch the water for their king, but when they brought it, he refused to drink it and spilled it on the ground as an offering to God, in regret over having his men risk their lives to get it for him.‚Ü©

Dusty Divinity

Dear Josep,

If I sound a little muffled, it’s because I’m writing from beneath a huge cloud of dust.

Epic sandstorm. Photo courtesy of NASA.
Yeah, we’re in¬†there somewhere. Photo courtesy of NASA.

On Tuesday we awoke to yellow skies. This is not too unusual for the transitional seasons, but usually the dust storm lasts maybe a day, and then the heat “breaks” with a muddy rainfall, and the weather moves on with its topsy-turvy unpredictable transitional-season self.

Not this week, though. It’s Thursday, and though the skies are more gray than yellow now, the sand is still here. And it’s hot as all heck out there. This weather is dangerous for people with breathing difficulties, so they are advised to stay inside, and the Ministry of Education issued a directive to keep kids indoors during the school day. We’ve had the windows closed and the A/C on pretty much all day since Tuesday.

I have a habit of looking for God in the weather. I dunno; the weather is one of those things that is so beyond our control, something that feels like¬†the direct result of His will.¬†Therefore,¬†when we have unusual weather, I tend to feel that God is speaking to me through it somehow. So I find myself asking, what’s with this dust, so soon before Rosh Hashana–which begins¬†on¬†Sunday night?

I thought about dust, and references to dust in the Rosh Hashana prayer services. It is mentioned in the context of our humility before God; “I am like dust in my lifetime…” And then it occurred to me: in Genesis 2:7, the Torah describes the creation of Man. “The Lord God created man, dust from the earth, and He blew¬†into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul.” (The Hebrew word for “man” or “human” is Adam–◊ź◊ď◊Ě–which comes from the word¬†adama, ◊ź◊ď◊ě◊Ē, which means “earth.”)

According to our tradition, Rosh Hashana is the birthday of the first man, Adam. The story described in Genesis is not necessarily meant to be taken literally, but I think what it is showing us is that as humans, we are a synthesis between the most tangible¬†of matter–“dust of the earth”–and the highest of “spiritual matter”, “the breath of God.”¬†This tension also represents what I am always saying is one of the most important¬†tasks¬†the Torah assigns: to take the material and elevate it into something spiritual.

In the previous chapter of Genesis, 1:26, we find a passage that is curious in its use of the plural: “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image…'” Us? Our?

The Bible critics would jump on this and say it proves that whoever wrote the Bible believed in multiple gods, or something. The traditional commentaries would roll their eyes and say, “Sit down, you pretentious¬†cynics. It’s a ‘royal we’.” Others say He was speaking to the angels, to teach us the lesson of humility, that we should always consult with those “lesser” than us and not see ourselves above asking their advice.

But there is one interpretation of the use of the plural form in this passage that I have always found particularly inspiring. [And I can’t find its source, so if anyone reading knows it, please tell me!]

God isn’t speaking to the angels or to other gods or to Himself with the royal ‘we’.

He is speaking to you.

He is saying, “Let us make man–you and Me. I’ll give you the raw materials–the dust–and you will breathe in My spirit. I’ll give you a body and free will, and you will use those to make good choices, to¬†refine yourself and become all that you can be, and to elevate My world to its fullest spiritual potential.”

And that’s what Rosh Hashana is all about. What are we doing with our dust? Are we simply clumps¬†of dust, coming from dust, returning to dust? Or are we drawing in God’s spirit with every breath we take, infusing our dust with Divinity?

So obviously, I have no idea why God kicked up this epic sandstorm at this particular point in time. But there is something that feels appropriate about it, being surrounded by these metaphorical particles that form what we are in this life, that create the veil of this material world behind which the infinite spiritual universe resides.

And those are my dusty thoughts for the day. ūüėČ I will take this opportunity to wish you a sweet and happy new year, full of new beginnings, and personal fulfillment, and love, and joy, and everything your heart desires. May we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life.

Shana Tova,

Daniella

Prayer, Part I: Why Pray?

Dear Josep,

So I was going to write a post about prayer. But then, as often happens, I found out I was writing two posts. The first one is about the concept of prayer in Jewish thought, and the second will be about the formal Jewish prayers and the structure of Jewish prayer services.

We’re going to define prayer as the act of speaking to God. In Judaism, we have formal prayers that we are required to recite daily and/or in various situations (blessings, for example). But there is also “spontaneous” prayer–speaking to God whenever you like, asking Him for things you want or need, thanking Him for good things that have happened to you, or generally sharing your thoughts and desires with Him. In Judaism we divide prayer into three elements:¬†shevaŠł•¬†(praise),¬†bakasha¬†(request), and¬†hodaya¬†(thanksgiving). Jewish prayers usually contain all three of these elements, and usually in that order. Spontaneous prayer can be in whatever language you like, but all formal prayers, across the globe, are conducted in Hebrew (or sometimes Aramaic), for reasons we have already discussed. In Judaism, you have to really speak the words to pray. Intention, or thinking the words, is not enough. Even during “silent” prayers, we must whisper the words to ourselves loud enough so that we can hear ourselves.

But… why talk to God at all? If you think about this a little, it’s actually a pretty good question. If we believe that God is Ultimate Good, and that everything that happens in the world–even things that seem terrible–is for the ultimate good of all existence, why bother asking God to intervene? He’s going to do what’s best for us anyway, isn’t He? And doesn’t God know our thoughts? Why do I need to verbalize for Him what I want? He’s supposed to know them¬†already.

To be honest, I still struggle with this question, but¬†my struggle is more personal than theological. It is very difficult for me to ask for something when I know the answer might be no. And as you know from knowing me personally, it is very difficult for me to send a question, request, or sensitive¬†statement out into the void and get no response. Even wanting something I know I might not be able to have can be very painful for me. So putting that desire into words, and offering it up to this invisible, omniscient, omnipresent Being who will never give me a clear and obvious response, puts me in an extremely vulnerable position. And Judaism–as you will see in Part II–requires us to ask for things we probably can’t have¬†every day,¬†several times a day. Every single day we pray for the redemption and the coming of the Messiah, not just “eventually”, but “mehera“–“speedily”; “b’karov, beyamenu“,¬†“soon, in our days”.¬†And though we are supposed to believe it is possible He will come any minute, realistically many of us don’t think the world is ready for it yet. There have been times in my life that I simply could not say these words anymore. I couldn’t say them with intention and really open myself up to wanting God to answer, when I knew that He probably wouldn’t. I couldn’t take the constant sense of rejection and disappointment, feeling like I was pleading in vain and repeatedly banging on the proverbial gates of Heaven, with no answer.

Well, to address the¬†theological question, we will need…. a little Hebrew grammar lesson! ūüėČ

The word “to pray” in Hebrew is ◊ú◊Ē◊™◊§◊ú◊ú (lehitpalel). Hebrew has a number of verbal conjugations that can give the same root¬†different meanings. For instance, using the root ◊†.◊ß.◊Ē., you can say “◊ú◊†◊ß◊ē◊™” (lenakot), “to clean”, or “◊ú◊Ē◊™◊†◊ß◊ē◊™” (lehitnakot), “to be cleansed”. The latter conjugation is reflexive, meaning that the object and the subject of the verb are the same (“to ___ oneself”), much like one of the uses for the¬†se¬†pronoun in Spanish (going with the example above:¬†lavar vs.¬†lavarse).

The conjugation used in the word ◊ú◊Ē◊™◊§◊ú◊ú is reflexive. “To make oneself pray”;¬†orarse.

What does this mean?

The idea is that praying is not something you do to God. It is something you do to yourself. It is something that affects, changes, and refines you spiritually. And maybe, in so doing, you can change your part in the situation enough that God will change how He chooses to conduct matters in a way that is easier for you.

Sometimes this is a vague theoretical idea, but sometimes it is very real. How many times have you prayed for strength, only to discover that the very act of praying¬†gave you strength? I don’t know about you, but this has happened to me a lot. In my elevating myself spiritually, by connecting to God in this very personal and–for me–vulnerable way,¬†sometimes I can make myself worthy of an easier path to wherever He has been leading me. And sometimes, prayer gives me the strength to handle it when God’s answer is “no.”sunset-585334_1920

In Judaism we believe that every single prayer makes an impact, but we don’t always know what the impact is. Sometimes we are disappointed because He doesn’t answer our prayers the way we would have liked. Sometimes it feels like He’s not listening. But we believe that He¬†is¬†always listening, and He always answers–sometimes with “revealed good”, and sometimes with “hidden good” (which may look like evil or hardship to us).

Many people have experienced crises of faith because of disasters that happened to them despite their prayers. But seeing God this way is limiting Him. He is not a soda machine where if you punch¬†in the right code, He’ll give you exactly what you asked for. God doesn’t always give us what we ask for, but He always gives us what we need. Sometimes what we need is terribly hard and excruciatingly painful. True faith in God is believing that He always gives us what is truly best for us on a cosmic and spiritual level, even if our limited human capacity for understanding cannot fathom the purpose of some things that happen.

As I mentioned briefly in this post, there is an idea in Judaism that the strength of one’s prayers increases during key moments of joy in their lives, such as on one’s wedding day, during childbirth, on a birthday, etc. These moments are also moments of spiritual transformation and renewal. There is also an idea¬†that people who are closer to God spiritually have greater “spiritual power”, so their prayers are more likely to be answered; and that when you pray for someone else, your own prayers for yourself are answered first. All these¬†strengthen the idea that it is not the request itself that can make an impact, but the¬†spiritual process happening within the person making the request, and the impact that spiritual change has on the rest of the world.

Prayer is sometimes referred to as “avodah” in Hebrew, which means “work”. Sometimes prayer is as easy as telling your son “I love you”. Sometimes it’s as hard as asking someone you have hurt deeply to forgive you. Either way, in the moments that we connect and open ourselves up to Him–we allow Him into our lives, and that helps us grow and inch closer to our potential and our purpose in the world.

May all your prayers be answered with revealed good.

Lots of love,

Daniella

Passover, Part II: Seder Night 101

Dear Josep,

In Part I, I mentioned that the Seder (and Passover in general) are all about interactive and experiential learning that is usually directed towards the next generation: the kids. This actually does not begin on Seder night, but on the night before, with a special ritual we call bedikat chametz.

Bedikat Chametz

In the weeks and days before Passover, as mentioned in Part I, we thoroughly clean and check our homes for any recognizable traces of chametz (leavened products; see part I for explanation). On the evening before Passover, we hold a special ritual to symbolically finish this task, called¬†bedikat chametz, “checking for chametz”. We make a blessing, and then turn off all the lights in the house, and by the light of candles and flashlights, search for little pieces of chametz that were intentionally hidden by one of the family members (traditionally it’s 10 pieces). Obviously, this would be an extremely inefficient way to¬†actually check for chametz; this is more symbolic than anything else, and it’s a fun game for the kids, kind of like a treasure hunt in the dark! When all the pieces of chametz have been found, we recite a passage in Aramaic that effectively nullifies any chametz that we have missed in our search. We declare that if there is any chametz left, to us it will be like “the dust of the earth”.

The following day, any remaining chametz (that will not be sold) must be burned or otherwise destroyed in a way that makes it unusable (such as pouring bleach all over it).

(True story: I cleaned, searched, vacuumed, and scrubbed my house top to bottom, and first day of Passover this year, I discovered two granola bars of dust in my purse. Thanks to the above declaration, it’s all good–I simply destroyed the evidence and removed it from the premises. ūüėõ )

The Seder

The holiday begins with lighting candles at sundown, as with every other Biblical holiday. A service is held at the synagogue, and then all families return to their homes to begin the Seder. It is a very strong tradition to have the Seder with lots of people, generally with one’s extended family, and/or lots of guests. When an Israeli asks me what I’m doing for Seder this year and I say, “Just the five of us,” s/he gives me a look that is halfway between pity and horror. Even Jews with very little connection to tradition and halakha tend to attend some kind of Seder. I guess the parallel would be like how Christmas is celebrated so widely even by people who don’t really consider themselves Christian. We like to have quiet, intimate Seders, so there is room for discussion but things don’t drag out too long, and especially when our kids got old enough to participate, we really want to keep their attention as long as possible. Back in the USA, we generally had our Seders with my dad’s parents in New York and whatever aunts and uncles were around.

The word “Seder” means “order”, referring to the ten steps to the ritual meal that must be carried out in order. The Haggadah, briefly mentioned in the entry about the Jewish holy books, guides us through these steps, which mostly involve reading the passages aloud¬†and eating symbolic foods that help us commemorate¬†those events. The symbolic foods are arranged at the center of the table on the Seder plate:

Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.
Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.

We also set three matzot on the table in a pile and covered by a cloth.

The table is set, the kids and guests are seated, and we begin:

Kadesh (Sanctification)

The leader of the Seder (usually the head of the household) recites the¬†kiddush over a cup of wine. This is the same kind of “declaration” of the sanctity of the day that we perform on Shabbat and other holidays. If the Seder falls on a Friday night (as it did this year), the¬†kiddush for Shabbat is recited as well. Then, we all drink our first cup of wine while reclining. This¬†is symbolic of our freedom, as royals used to eat while reclining. (Yes, I said “first” cup of wine. There are four. It’s gonna be a long night. ūüėČ ) (Grape juice is okay for those of us who would rather remain sober…)

Urchatz (Washing)

We wash our hands as though for bread, but without the blessing. We are not about to eat bread, but there is a custom to wash our hands this way before eating a food that is dipped in liquid.

Karpas (Green Vegetable)

We eat a green vegetable, usually parsley or celery, dipped in salt water. The green vegetable symbolizes spring, and the salt water symbolizes the tears we shed under the oppression of slavery. The Polish tradition is to do this with potato, which is not a green vegetable, but good luck finding anything green in Poland at this time of year ūüėõ

Yachatz (Splitting in Half)

The leader of the Seder takes the middle matza from the pile and breaks it in half. The bigger half is hidden away as the afikoman, which will be eaten later.

Maggid (Retelling)

Maggid is the centerpiece¬†of the Haggadah; the section¬†that actually contains the retelling of the story of the Exodus.¬†There is no way I’m going to cover all its contents here. For that, you’ll have to actually read a Haggadah. (Conveniently, Chabad has a full English version here.)¬†You’ll notice that it doesn’t really follow the narrative the way you would expect. To understand why… well, you’ll just have to come to our Seder someday, and we can discuss it long into the night–as per the tradition. ūüôā

So by this point in the evening, if you have never been to a Seder before, you are going to be really confused. What is going on? Why are we eating these weird things? Why is this holiday so different from other holidays?

Well, that’s how Maggid kicks off the story. The smallest child at the table recites the Four Questions:¬†Why is this night different from all the other nights–that on all other nights, we eat chametz and matza, but on this night, only matza? That on all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night, we eat bitter herbs? That on all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, but on this night, we dip it twice? That¬†on all other nights, we eat sitting or reclining, but on this night, we all recline?

The idea of the Seder is to make the children curious so they will ask questions like these.

The answer to those questions comes right away: Once, our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and God saved us from their hands. The text then dwells a little on the concept of retelling the story and educating our children about the Exodus, and then goes on to describe the story of the Exodus and interpretations of the passages and events by various sages. (Remember, the Haggadah is an extremely old text that was written around the time of the Talmud, so the passages reflect rabbinic discourse of that period.)

The most poignant part of the Seder, in my view, is the following passage, recited in the middle of Maggid: “And it is [that promise] that has stood for our fathers and for us, for not only one has arisen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they arise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” This line, written so many centuries ago, has rung true at every single Seder since. This is a beautiful version composed by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Yonatan Razel, who here changes some of the lyrics to present and future tense to emphasize how relevant this ancient passage still feels.

Rachtza (Washing)

We wash our hands again, this time actually for bread–that is, for…

Motzi Matza

That first word refers to the blessing we make over bread,¬†hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, “…who brings bread out of the ground”. We make two¬†blessings over the matza–one for the enjoyment of food, and one for the mitzva–and eat the proscribed amount of it while reclining.

Maror (Bitter Herbs)

These are eaten to represent the bitterness of slavery. We usually eat either romaine lettuce or horseradish or some mixture of both. (The horseradish on the plate is that purple stuff. It’s purple because it’s mixed with… la remolatxa1. ūüėõ That is how it’s usually served with the famous (or is it infamous…?) gefilte fish.) We first dip the lettuce or horseradish into that brown mush, which is called¬†charoset, and represents the mortar used by the slaves to make the bricks. It is traditionally made with apples, wine, nuts, and/or dates, and is supposed to be sweet, so it sweetens the bitterness of the herb representing slavery.

Apparently Ben & Jerry’s produced a charoset-flavored ice cream this year. o.O

Korech (Sandwich)

Now we follow a tradition established by Hillel the Elder in the days of the Second Temple. Tradition has it that Hillel sandwiched all the symbolic foods of Passover–the matza, the maror, the¬†charoset, and the Passover sacrifice (a lamb)–and ate them together. Since we have no Temple, we cannot make the sacrifice, so we leave out the lamb. BTW, if you’re still wondering about the shankbone and the egg on the plate–the bone represents the Passover sacrifice, and the egg represents the Chagiga (holiday) sacrifice.

Shulchan Orech (Setting the Table)

This is where we have the feast! Everybody’s favorite part. ūüėõ Traditional foods include¬†knaidlach, or matza balls, dumplings made of ground matza, in chicken soup; the aforementioned gefilte fish, which are balls of ground fish, usually carp; and lamb, in commemoration of the sacrifice. (I happen to dislike lamb. So, beef or chicken it is. As to gefilte fish, usually I can take it or leave it, but I enjoy it as a special Passover thing.)

Tzafun (Hidden)

So remember the piece of matza the leader of the Seder¬†hid away way back before Maggid? Now is the time to find it: it’s the¬†afikoman¬†(that word apparently comes from the ancient Greek for “dessert”). We are required to have¬†a proscribed amount of it as the last thing we eat. But first, the kids have to find it! Another treasure hunt. ūüôā This is a great way to keep them awake and engaged. Another tradition developed out of this that the children then hold the¬†afikoman¬†“captive”, thereby indefinitely delaying the end of the Seder, and “bargaining” to give it back in return for a gift or a treat.

Barech (Bless)

Now we recite Grace After Meals, over a third cup of wine (the second was drunk at the end of Maggid), and then drink that cup and recite the blessing after drinking wine. The final cup of wine is poured.

Hallel (Praise)

Hallel is a special prayer recited on holidays, comprised of Psalms 113-118. The first part of Hallel is recited at the synagogue, and it is continued here, and then we go on to read additional Psalms along the same general theme of God being awesome. The final cup of wine is now drunk. (And if it’s really wine, so are we. ūüėõ )

Nirtzah (Acceptance)

The name is referring to God accepting¬†our completion of the Seder. This is when the Seder officially ends. (There are opinions that this is not a distinct section of the Seder, but that this and the previous are one section–“Hallel Nirtza”.) We sing¬†l’shana haba’ah b’yirushalayim habnuya–next year in rebuilt Jerusalem! Then there are a few more traditional Passover songs, which are generally fun and lively and get everybody’s energy up for the final leg of the Seder. (Great for keeping the kids awake, too.)

The very last song of the Seder, at least in Ashkenazi tradition… you’d think it would be something profound, about freedom, or the purpose of the Jewish people, or maybe even about the holiday itself. But it’s this:

A cumulative song in Aramaic about a little goat that Dad bought for two zuzim (units of money), which gets eaten by a cat, which gets bit by a dog, which gets hit by a stick, which gets burned by a fire, which gets doused by water, which gets drunk by an ox, which gets slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer), who gets killed by the Angel of Death, who gets destroyed by the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

(And you betcha we sing it with sound effects. ūüėõ )

…I know. Why on earth are we ending the Seder with this silly little ditty?

Obviously, as with everything in the Seder, because it is has important¬†symbolism. The idea of the song is that there is justice in the world, even if we don’t see it at the time; that every action has a consequence, and that, as the Talmud says: “There is justice and there is a Judge“.

Believe it or not, this silly animal song contains the deepest, most fundamental message of the Seder.

Why is it so important for us to remember that God freed us from slavery and brought us out of Egypt?

Because we must remember that there is justice, and there is a Judge, and even when the world seems unjust and terrible things are happening to good people, there is a reason for everything, and it’s all for the ultimate good. Even when we’re at the profoundest¬†depths of despair, God’s redemption can occur in the blink of an eye.

That is the message of the Seder, and that is why the tradition of the Seder¬†has carried us through many other “Egypts” throughout history.

So… that’s the Seder, in a nutshell. Outside of Israel, you “get” to do the whole thing all over again the following night. (I’m sure there are advantages to this, but to me it just sounds exhausting and I am grateful to be here!)

A blessed and happy Passover!

Love,

Daniella


1. La remolatxa is “beet” in Catalan. The only reason I know this word is because I served a Moroccan beet salad to Josep when he was here for Shabbat, and he asked me what it was, but we did not have a common language in which we both knew the word for this vegetable. ūüėõ After Shabbat I Googled it, and now I’ll never forget. (When I clarified, he was like, “Not something I eat every day!” Was that a polite way to tell me he hated it? ūüėõ I decided not to press the issue.)‚Ü©