So, first of all, I don’t know if you heard about the crazy wildfire/arson thing last week, but if you did, you probably calculated correctly that there isn’t a whole lot to burn out here and that I was probably okay. Eitan was out hiking with a group on Monday, and one of the foreign firefighting aircraft flew low overhead; it was red and yellow, and he eventually figured out was probably from Spain. Thanks! 😉
Last night, though, a terrible tragedy struck our community. A 10-year-old boy was killed in an accident at the traffic circle down the street. We don’t know the family personally, but in a community like ours, we have multiple connections. Eitan and I attended the funeral this morning.
What can I say? How can I begin to describe what it’s like to watch a family say goodbye to their child?
The mother said that this was God demonstrating to her that it’s impossible to protect our children. He’d been wearing a helmet, crossing at the crosswalk. This is what is so rattling about things like these. We move through our lives thinking we have control and that if we just do everything right, everything will be fine. But it’s not true. That’s not the world God made.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t protect you,” the mother said.
Daggers in the heart.
I started writing the following poem before I left for the funeral, and finished it when I came back. It is a kind of exploration of a phrase Jews say when we hear bad news: barukh dayan haemet, “blessed is the True Judge.”
“Blessed is the True Judge”
We push it out disbelieving lips
We force it past our clenched jaws
“The Lord gave, the Lord took away
May the name of the Lord be blessed”
A child to rest.
Why did You give
Only to take?
Why did You nurture
Only to break
Our hearts into a thousand pieces,
Shattered like the vessels that broke
Because the world You made was too small
To contain You?
Be the True Judge
Perhaps it is not praise
Perhaps it is an accusation
Perhaps it is
Judge of Truth
Who takes a child in the height of his youth
Who forces a mother to bury her son.
Expand Yourself, O Holy One!
Magnify and sanctify Your own great name
In a world doused in tears and engulfed in flame.
Whisper in our ears
That You’re still here
That the pain has a purpose
That will one day be clear
That You do not hide Your face in vain.
Embrace us. Comfort us.
Heal our pain.
Lord full of mercy
Hear our prayer.
Don’t make us carry this.
It’s too much to bear.
So yesterday was Yom Kippur. My in-laws are here, and having more “staff” around to watch the kids made it possible for me to pray at the synagogue significantly more than I am usually able to on the High Holidays. I was so, so grateful for this.
I’ve attempted to describe Yom Kippur in the past, but as I said then, it’s very difficult to put in words what is so powerful about it and why it was so fulfilling for me to be able to take part in the service. Because… I mean… an entire day spent fasting and sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a synagogue (if not standing… and there is a lot of standing) is not exactly most people’s idea of a good time.
It wasn’t mine, either, as a kid or a young teen. I dreaded Yom Kippur! I counted down the pages in the prayer book and the minutes until the fast was over. It was torture.
It was only later that I started to enjoy the service. It was a combination of becoming familiar with the prayers and the general structure of the service, really listening to the words, and developing a personal relationship with God that helped me learn to experience Yom Kippur as a spiritual high.
You have to do it to understand it–and even then, it takes a degree of familiarity with the prayers, because part of it is the sense of community, of singing and chanting these prayers together with the congregation, and you can’t really do that when you’re focused on learning the tunes or the words.
But since my eldest son was born, I hadn’t really been able to participate in the prayers on the High Holidays. The fast is more important than the prayers, and my priority was surviving the fast: not an easy task when you are nursing a small baby! I actually fast pretty well under normal circumstances, but when pregnant or nursing it becomes extremely difficult, even when I am drinking in small amounts throughout the day. I have limited energy reserves in the best of circumstances, and in those times, between the fast and caring for a small child or three, there was no point in even trying to go to synagogue.
I don’t think I really understood how much I missed it.
As per my last post, my relationship with God has taken some major leaps in a positive direction in the past couple weeks.
There is a beautiful rabbinic saying about teshuva (repentance): “The Holy One says: open for me an opening the size of a needle’s eye, and I will open for you an opening the size of a great hall.”
I really felt that this year. I felt like I made one tiny effort at healing this relationship, opening up just a crack, and God opened my heart and my hands to receive His abundance, and then poured a generous dose of that abundance into them, as if to say: “I am here. I am listening. I love you more than you can imagine. And I am sorry for all the times I have to say ‘no.'”
This Yom Kippur, the forgiveness was mutual.
I have written that one of the most difficult things I have been coping with in all the relationships in my life is the presence of anger. I think that now, the major theme is learning to forgive: to forgive myself for my imperfections, to forgive my loved ones for falling short of what I need or want from them, and to forgive God for allowing suffering in the world.
Ironically, one thing that made this easier was a really intense book I read recently about basically the worst human suffering you can imagine. It’s called A Damaged Mirror (though the author tells me they are planning to re-release it under a different name in a few months): a Holocaust memoir with a major twist. And man, if you thought Man’s Search for Meaning was brutal… this book… :-/ It contained some of the most detailed and horrifying descriptions of Auschwitz that I have ever seen. (…And I have read a lot of Holocaust literature, and seen quite a few Holocaust movies, and visited Auschwitz myself.) But the book was actually about a process of repentance. (It’s an amazing book. Mind-blowing. Really. Highly recommended.) Mutual forgiveness between man and God also came up in the book… and the fact that it was at all possible to forgive God after seeing the things that this man saw was somehow comforting to me.
But I’ve learned that this forgiving God business is not a one-off thing. Last year I wrote a post called I Forgave God, and I it was true. But it’s a cycle, and this year I had to forgive Him again. Not unlike how He has to forgive us every year. But what I’ve learned is that that cycle of hurt and reconciliation, moving apart and coming back together, is a natural cycle in any healthy relationship.
Take our friendship, for example! 😉 You know how you and I tend to get on each other’s nerves sometimes? And remember how one time we had an annoying argument about it, and when we had resolved it, I said, “You realize we’re going to have this same conversation a million times, right? In sixty years I’ll be whining at you from my nursing home through whatever technology we’ll have at the time…” That was a result of this realization: that people have different needs, and that sometimes, they just cannot be reconciled… and that that’s okay. It’s just part of the package. It’s something we have learned to accept about each other. Needs don’t always have to be reconciled in a positive relationship. They just have to be navigated. And compassion is the compass. Making the most generous assumption possible about the other is how we find our way.
I feel that until very recently, I have been harsh with God. I’ve been so angry and fearful that I was unable to make that generous assumption that He really is infinitely kind and compassionate and that even human suffering is paradoxically part of His kindness. Sometimes there are things we really cannot understand about the other, and when there is fear of getting hurt, it can be very hard to make a generous assumption. But once I had acknowledged and moved past that anger, I was able to soften… and strange as it may sound, I was able to feel forgiveness and compassion towards God. And my own softening was reflected right back at me.
I know there will be other times of distance, but I am hopeful that this latest experience has taught me how to navigate them better.
Wishing you a year of abundance and compassion and joy.
Next week is Rosh Hashana (starting Monday night), and that Elul vibe is definitely in the air.
Accordingly, I began to think about my relationship with God. And I realized that it was in a pretty bad state. It came to my attention that I had been building resentment, and not allowing myself to express it, because I hate being angry and I have a tendency to try and suppress it or pull away from the object of my anger and grow cold.
There is a wide range of emotions towards God that are expressed in our prayer liturgy. When I’m feeling joy, gratitude, longing, or despair, I can find lots of things to say in the prayer book. Anger, however, is not one of those emotions. I was not really taught how to handle being angry at God. (Other than being told not to be angry, which obviously doesn’t help in the slightest.)
So for the past while… I haven’t really been speaking to Him. Even in various attempts I’ve made to try and get back into establishing a regular connection, I’ve been running away to the prescribed prayers, fulfilling my obligation without really saying what’s on my mind.
After spending Friday morning thinking about this, I was washing dishes, and a friend messaged me with some bad news. And I just got so mad at God. And I knew I had to say so. And all that came out was “I am so angry at You” between clenched teeth, and maybe some more muttering about how she has suffered enough.
And I have to say–even that little moment loosened something. And a day and a half later, on Motzei Shabbat, I got some good news. And the next day–more good news, and more. It felt like God was responding to me. Not giving me what I asked for exactly, but letting me know that He’s there and He’s listening and He does say “yes” sometimes.
I’ve mentioned before that they have a saying about Elul: “HaMelekh BaSadeh”–the King is in the field.
Well, I happen to have a field about a five-minute walk from my front door.
So yesterday morning, and this morning, I went out to the field to have a little chat with the King.
It is Rebbe Nachman of Breslov who recommends praying in the fields. He writes that “every blade of grass has its own song,” and that by listening to the song of the grass, your heart opens and you can join their song and serve God with joy.
He is also the Hassidic master who taught his followers to practice hitbodedut, literally “self-seclusion.” It’s a type of meditation that basically involves speaking to God freely and openly as though you are speaking to a friend. Rebbe Nachman recommends this practice in addition to the regular prescribed prayers, and he recommends doing it every single day.
The benefits of speaking to God freely are fairly obvious to people like you and me. But, says Rebbe Nachman, it’s not enough to speak to Him whenever you feel like it. You have to make it a practice–something you do regularly. This establishes a framework for the relationship, and things can happen within that framework that couldn’t happen without it.
I mentioned to you once that I have a sort of “system” of communication with my sister. It started after several years of living very different lives, very far away from each other, and seeing each other rarely. Every time we saw each other, there was so much to catch up on, and not enough time, and we felt like we were totally out of sync and unable to relate to each other’s lives. We would always part feeling frustrated.
So when we discussed this, she had an idea: to establish a weekly “sister update.” But we have to make it doable, she said, not something we’ll put off because it takes too long. Each update must have 5 items, but those items can be as short as “I have no idea what to say” or a silly picture, or as long as several paragraphs–doesn’t matter, there must be 5 of them. These updates would be due every Monday.
We have been doing this almost every week for about 5 years now.
At first it seemed trite and silly. We would tell each other about random things that were on our minds, worries about this or that, or an awesome recipe we had just discovered. (Food is a major topic of discussion in the Sister Updates, as befits any correspondence between a pair of Jewish sisters. 😛 ) But as the contact became regular, it also became familiar, and the e-mails started getting longer, sometimes spilling over into the rest of the week. And in the few times we have seen each other in those five years–I believe there have been three–we didn’t feel that frustration of not being in each other’s lives and having so much to catch up on.
Point is: the sister updates created a framework in which we were able to build a steady, regular communication. They made it possible for us to genuinely be involved in each other’s lives, even though we live on opposite sides of the planet and only see each other once every couple years.
Hitbodedut works the same way. Except that the relationship you’re nurturing is with God. And when you’re in constant dialogue with God, you live your life in a completely different state of awareness. You are able to feel gratitude for the smallest things, and you are able to receive comfort for every difficulty. You can pour out your heart and feel that someone is listening who loves you and wants the best for you. God is the Ultimate Therapist.
All you have to do is show up in His office, for five minutes a day.
…So why is it so hard?!
I’ve been telling myself I need to do this for years. And it is amazing how I’ve managed to weasel out of it. In all fairness, it’s hard to find those five minutes to myself. When I was a teen, I took advantage of my chronic insomnia and spoke to God while lying in bed. These days, though, I’ve got someone else in bed trying to sleep! 😉 And obviously, having little kids around makes it very near impossible.
I really hope I manage to find a way to institute it as a regular practice this time–field or no field.
I probably won’t update again before Rosh Hashana, so let me take the opportunity to wish you and all our readers a very blessed 5777. May the coming year bring us lots of good news and joy and laughter and meaningful connections with God and with our loved ones.
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. 🙂
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:
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.
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. 😉 )
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.
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, עמדי (imadi). “With me” is עמי, imi. The word imadi comes from the root ע.מ.ד., 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.
ע.מ.ד is also the root for the word עמוד, which means “pillar” or “spine.” We come across similar imagery in these words: שבט (shevet), “rod,” and משענת (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 ש.ע.נ, as in להישען, “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 דשנת, dishanta. The root ד.ש.נ 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 רויה (revaya), from the root ר.ו.ה/י, 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 לאורך ימים (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 שבתי, shavti. But that’s not really the simple meaning of the word. ישבתי (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 שבתי is from the root ש.ב.ה/י, as in שבוי (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.
Last Friday I had the distinct pleasure of exchanging books with a friend of mine who also recently published her book.
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?
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.
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.
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?! 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 😛 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.
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 Simḥat 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 Ḥodesh, 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 Ḥodesh, 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 Ḥodesh, 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.
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 Ḥodesh, 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.
If I sound a little muffled, it’s because I’m writing from beneath a huge cloud of dust.
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–אדם–which comes from the word adama, אדמה, 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. 😉 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.
With the big snowstorm of the season brewing as I type this, I wanted to share this piece I wrote about the crazy blizzard we had last year, which I also sent to Josep at the time. Stay warm, everybody!
Dec. 15th, 2013
As those of you who live in the Middle East know, we had some seriously crazy weather over the weekend. And this time the title “Snowpocalypse” is not nearly as ironic and silly as it was when we used it to describe the snowstorm in January. This one was the worst and coldest storm in modern Israeli history. We’re talking over half a meter of snow (about two feet) in Jerusalem, and even more in higher elevations, in Judea, Samaria and the North. Haifa got snow for the first time in 22 years. This part of the country was in total lockdown, and to make matters worse, damage from the winds caused a lot of disruptions in electricity so tens of thousands of people were without power during the coldest nights of the year. Thousands of people had to be rescued and evacuated, emergency shelters were set up, the Israel Electric Company declared a state of national emergency… total chaos.
And if that doesn’t sound bad enough, the worst of it had to be on Friday evening. We had no power for two and a half hours before Shabbat, making Shabbat preparation difficult to say the least; the power mercifully came back on very low tension juuust long enough before Shabbat for me to take a warm shower and for us to enjoy a warm and well-lit evening meal with our neighbors. Shortly after we came back upstairs to put the little one to bed, the power went out again, and stayed off for about 18 hours.
Did I mention that all our heating devices run on electricity? And that we are not allowed to light fires or turn on any electric devices (including battery-powered ones) on Shabbat–except in life-threatening situations?
If you’re wondering how cold it was, let’s just say our milk didn’t spoil even though the refrigerator was off for 36 hours.
We were okay overall, and the kids were mostly happy in several layers of clothing, though they kept waking up during the night because of the dark and cold and forcing us to climb out from under all our blankets to calm them. I was the most miserable of all of us. What can I do, I am used to Shabbat being about festivity and warm food and good company and good cheer. All four were significantly missing during the day as we struggled to stay warm and keep the kids from going crazy. We were supposed to have a guest over for lunch but she understandably stayed under her blankets. Eitan delivered some food to her when we finished eating, for which she was very grateful.
We didn’t even get to play in the measly inch or so of snow we got out here by the desert because we had no way to get warm afterwards!
Concerning the commandment to keep the Sabbath, God said, “Between Me and the People of Israel it shall be an eternal sign” (Exodus 31:17). Lighting the candles to signify the beginning of Shabbat always gives me the sense of “handing it all over to him”, knowing that now He is taking over, I have no more control, and I am keeping Shabbat as a sign of my love for Him and trust in Him. This Friday I was strongly reminded of the sense of extreme vulnerability–and helpless sort of hope–that I felt when I lit the candles through the cracked open, chained door to the balcony in the youth hostel in Barcelona seven years ago. The same sense of “Well, I have no idea how this is going to turn out, but God, I’m just going to have to trust You”. The electricity was still on at the time but we knew it might turn off any moment, and I just felt so grateful to have my shower and warm food waiting for us. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched the snow flutter down outside the window where our candles glowed. My four-year-old asked me what I was doing. I said I was watching the snow. He asked why. I said, “Because it’s beautiful.” I put my arm around him said, “You know… Hashem is always telling us that He loves us. He tells us all the time, by constantly giving to us. Keeping Shabbat is our way of telling Him that we love Him back.”
On the list of Most Challenging Shabbatot Ever, this one definitely outranks the one in Barcelona (for goodness’ sake, maybe I was hungry and upset, but at least I was warm, there was Ben & Jerry’s involved, and I didn’t have screaming kids to deal with!). I spent most of the time without power being cold, desperate and miserable. You know what? Being a Jew is hard. It means being totally committed to an intense and sometimes very demanding relationship with Someone whose communication with you is often very hard to interpret or even notice, and who very often doesn’t answer your requests in the way you would like or ultimately think is “right”. But at the end of the day, I know that it is worth it. I know that He knows what He is doing better than I do. And I know He’s really looking out for me, and giving me what I need–just enough pain and suffering for me to learn and grow, and more nurturing and abundance and goodness than I sometimes know what to do with. I don’t always get it, and sometimes I get angry, but as with all the relationships I’ve been reflecting on in the last couple of years, I’m learning that anger and disappointment are inherent and indispensable parts of a deep and meaningful relationship with someone, and not only do they not destroy everything, sometimes they can even have constructive power.
There is an old saying that more than the Jews keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps the Jews. I used to understand this to mean that the magical atmosphere and time to focus on what’s important–our relationships with God, our families and our friends–is what gave us strength to face each difficult week throughout the centuries. But I think it is more than that. Some Shabbatot are neither magical nor joyous. Some mitzvot (commandments) are very hard to follow. Ultimately, our willingness to stay committed despite how difficult it is can bring us closer to Him, and Him closer to us. It is an eternal sign between us. Most times, it is a bed of petals. Occasionally, it is a bed of thorns. Ultimately, it is all roses.
This is a compilation of passages from a few e-mails sent about a week after Josep and I met eight years ago. In it, I am answering his question about what it means, practically, to be an observant Jew.
The meaning of life for a Jew is pretty much exactly as you phrased it. To serve God by making his world a better place, in improving ourselves and in helping the rest of the world improve. Judaism is about life in this world, not about life in the next world, contrary to many other religions. We do have a whole philosophy about the next world, but it is not a major part of the religion and there are many different opinions about what happens after you die.
You want to know more about my lifestyle? There’s something that would fill a good library. 😉 You saw a little of it in Barcelona–about keeping kosher and the Sabbath. Let’s see. Jews pray three times a day, but women (considered, on the whole, more spiritual than men) are not required to say all three formal prayers, so I start off my day with the morning prayers and continue to talk to God freely throughout the day as I please (and everyone else thinks I talk to myself. 😉 ). I feel I have a close and comfortable relationship with God. I feel that He is more than my Father and my King, He is also my closest Friend. Whenever something good or bad happens to me I immediately offer a few words to Him letting Him know how I feel. They say about King David that he used to lie in his bed and talk to God at night, and when I read that I got quite a shock, because that’s what I do, too. I feel He laughs with me at all the silly, ironic things that happen in life and cries with me when things are not so good, and showers me with love in every imaginable way.
But we must not get me started on my relationship with God, because this e-mail will never end. 😉
Before we eat something we make a blessing. This is not only to thank God for giving us food to eat, but also to remember the origin of the food and think about where it came from–for instance, before I eat an apple, I say in Hebrew, “Blessed are You, Lord of the Universe, who created the fruit of the tree.” The apple comes from a tree, and the tree comes from God.
Women wear modest clothing–skirts below the knee and shirts with sleeves, usually to the elbow, and a neckline that isn’t too low. I prefer to be thought of as a person, not a sex object, and not have men’s thoughts skittering around things they shouldn’t be thinking about when they talk to me. Of course I can’t testify to the truth of this, but I’ve had male friends tell me that even a little inch of skin makes a difference. So I feel much more comfortable in modest clothing. Why skirts and not pants? I personally don’t think there’s a problem with pants (my mother wears them all the time), but there are those who do because of laws against cross-dressing and modesty and whatever. I prefer skirts because I find them more comfortable (and prettier. 😀 ).
I also mentioned about physical contact between men and women. A handshake is not a problem, or any kind of formal greeting (which is why I had no problem with the Catalonian kiss-on-the-cheek greeting), but beyond that–not unless they’re married or related by first degree (meaning I can beat up my little brothers as much as I want. 😀 ). I tend to be lenient about this with strangers, but once a person gets to be a friend I find it important. Sometimes one thing can lead to another and it’s important to set down a boundary that you simply don’t cross, in my opinion.
[Concerning Shabbat, I quoted a long passage from an excellent and highly relevant book called “Letters to Talia“, which I can’t post here for copyright reasons. The gist of it was that the actions that are forbidden on the Sabbath are those that express man’s creative power in the world, and that Shabbat is about giving up our role as creator and partners in creation with God, and returning the world to its Owner, remembering that we, too, are creations and not just creators. In this way, Shabbat is another expression of what the author sees as the purpose of halakha–to develop discipline, humility self-refinement, and awareness of one’s purpose in life. Here is a later entry where I elaborate on Shabbat.]
I think Dov’s explanation digs deep into the heart of why I love being Jewish, and things you asked about–how we make ordinary things holy. By choosing when we will or will not eat something or do something, we are making it holy. By making the conscious choice to act on our desires or not to, we are putting our God-given ability to make free choices into our lives, and thus putting God into our lives. I decide when I eat. I decide what I eat. I decide when I go on the computer and when I turn on the light. I decide these things not according to my instincts and desires, but according to what makes me as a human different from all other animals–my ability to act despite those instincts and desires. And I choose to live my life the way God commanded my ancestors and me through His Torah, believing that sticking with Him every step of the way and channeling my desires to fulfill His will is the best way to fulfill my purpose on this earth.
Blog readers: What do you do to charge your own life with a sense of purpose?