A Rosh Hashanah Miracle

I’ve often heard stories of miraculous happenings that occur when people are rushing to make it home in time for Shabbos or similar holiday stories.  I did expect that this Rosh Hashanah, we’d have one of our own to share.

Our home was being painted the two days before Rosh Hashanah and Mr. Safek was happy thinking it would be finished by the time we packed up the RV and headed to the Synagogue for services.  Unfortunately, the painting ran long.  He set up the RV and then took our truck back to the house, promising he’d be back by candle lighting, hoping the crew would finish before he had to leave.

Unfortunately, they did not and he was faced with a difficult choice…break the Yom Tov or leave our home unlocked, the back door open, for the entire 3 day Yom Tov, during which we’d be miles away, with no way to check on our home and no access to a phone.

He agonized, but as there was no more time left, he made his choice and joined us in time for candle lighting, leaving our home unsecured.

Soon we were all swept up in Rosh Hashanah services and it was rare our minds had time to drift back to our home.  We knew that theft has really become a problem in our area and there was a good chance that someone would come and take our things.  As I lay down that first night, trying to find sleep, I thought of what we had that would probably be taken if someone took advantage of the situation.  In my mind, there was little that couldn’t be replaced.  I worried about pictures on my laptop that I wasn’t sure I’d backed up.  I worried about the kids’ musical instruments and wondered how hard it would be to quickly replace them.  Beyond that?  I realized that pretty much everything important in my life was already with us…or had very little value to thieves.  Our books would hold little appeal to them and I don’t have any fancy jewelry.  What nice Judaica we have was with us.  Most importantly, though, my family was safe and sound with me.

I let go and left it in Hashem’s hands.  Either our things would be there when we returned or if they were missing, it would be for the best, perhaps to make it easier to pack later?

Amazingly, I didn’t think much further about it, not even enough to remember praying for the safety of our home during my davening, although I prayed for so many other things…it simply did not feel important enough.

The days went by and finally, havdalah came and it was time to pack up and come home.  It was disorienting driving after so many days spent in prayer and study, as if this was some kind of dream world after we’d lived in the real world for the holiday.  I remembered our home and began to worry, not so much that it had been broken into, but about how the kids might take it.  We returned home and I decided not to say anything to them as we carried our pillows and blankets inside.  Mr. Safek was still getting the RV ready to come home.

I walked inside and saw the back door was indeed open and my heart began to sink, but as I looked around…I saw everything was in its place.  Nothing had been touched!  I went from room to room and there was my daughter’s bass, my son’s viola, my laptop with the family pictures stored within it…it was all there just as we had left it!

I thanked Hashem and considered that perhaps He had watched over our home with extra care, realizing the sacrifice we had willingly made.  Our home was spared and even Iggy the cat did not leave through the open door.

And, due to the rain, the paint still isn’t done.

Rosh Hashanah Surprises!

I will not be online until after Saturday night, but I hope everyone has a wonderful Rosh Hashanah and is inscribed for a good new year.  Shanah Tova!

Our family will be coming home to a surprise.  Our home is about halfway painted on the outside and won’t be finished until Thursday or Friday, meaning we won’t see how it really looks until Sunday.  If that doesn’t kind of represent faith and believing that each change our way comes for the good, I’m not sure what does!  I’m excited to see how it all turns out!

When Anti-Semitism Becomes Mundane

We had a meeting with our son’s teachers this morning, just to check in on how he’s doing and he’s doing really well this year.  During the meeting, one of the teachers said to us, “Well, I’m sure he’s told you about the incident that happened in my class…”

My husband and I looked at each other, hoping that he hadn’t done anything wrong, our minds obviously cycling through every possibility.  We didn’t know about any “incident” in Chemistry class, but our son is 13 and while he’s a good, well-behaved kid, you just never know.

“Oh, well,” the teacher began awkwardly, perhaps a bit embarrassed, “we were studying chemical reactions in class and another boy, who really was just being a jerk, wrote something to your son.  It was…”

He paused, looking for the right words, the approved words.

“It was about your culture, you know, the history.”

It never ceases to amaze me how many people think the words “Jew” or “Jewish” are somehow bad words, as if we’d be insulted for him to use them.

“You mean it was antisemitic?” I went right to the point.  It wasn’t hard to draw the lines between who we are and why chemical reactions might be related.  Images of gas chambers probably came to mind.

“Yes.” the teacher seemed relieved that I’d understood without him needing to say the words, “Your son handled it really well.  He was upset, but he stayed calm and he gave the note to me and we’ve handled it.  The other boy has been disciplined and I moved him to another part of the class.”

It’s also odd that my husband and I were relieved at this point.  Oh…it was JUST ordinary antisemitism…and our son handled it well.  That’s all it was.  What a relief.

The meeting continued and another teacher mentioned how glad she was that Ian brought his “culture” into their class discussion of the book Animal Farm, how his “unique background” was really interesting.  I noticed how no one, from guidance counselors to teachers wanted to say, “Jewish.”  My son and husband were sitting there, kippahs showing and yet, the word for what we are, for what makes us different hung heavy in the air, made bigger by the fact it was unsaid.

When I was newer to conversion, I used to wonder at the casual way that my Jewish friends seemed to shrug off antisemitism and how my husband just kind of treated it as a mundane annoyance.  I couldn’t understand how having swastikas spray painted on the synagogue didn’t really provoke outrage so much as annoyance at having to figure out how best to remove them.  I didn’t think I’d ever feel that way, but today I realized I do.

The teacher stressed that my son really doesn’t seem to care if kids pick on him for other things.  He accepts that as just part of the age and maturity level of him and his peers.  This, however, he felt was different and needed to be reported.  I’m proud of him for making that distinction.  He also obviously didn’t feel it was a big enough issue to even tell us.  It’s just part of the color of his world at this point, which does make me a mix of sad and proud of him.

Just everyday mundane antisemitism, the kind that makes you more roll your eyes than clench your fists.

It does make me glad that we’ll be moving and that the kids will be in schools where “Jew” is not a word that isn’t spoken, just hanging there heavily, but one that has the joy attached to it that it deserves.  To me, that was almost more unnerving than something an ignorant teen decided to taunt my son with, the fact that the faculty at his school couldn’t use the proper language to describe what had happened.

3 Day Yom Tovs!

I’m not sure, but I think my first year observing Jewish holidays was one that had several 3 day Yom Tovs in it.  If not, then it was at least when I was still very shaky in observing them.  This oddity happens when a 2 day Yom Tov (holiday) falls either right before or right after Shabbos, which makes it kind of like you have 3 days in which you are restricted in what you can do and how you can do it.  In particular, this often plays out in how you cook because you can’t technically cook on Shabbos and you can’t cook food on a Yom Tov that isn’t meant to be eaten on Shabbos.  The rest of the rules around cooking on Yom Tovs are easier than those on Shabbos, but it all boils (or in this case…maybe it doesn’t!) down to having to plan ahead for three days worth of meals unless you’re lucky enough to be invited out.

Our family rarely is so fortunate, due to a few different issues around conversion candidates and holidays, but this year we are fortunate enough that our Synagogue is hosting several meals, so most of what I need to be concerned with is keeping everyone full for breakfast and dinner, with lunch taken care of.

Oh…and did I mention that this must be done in the Shabbat RV 2.0 and that we still do not have a 50 amp circuit installed, so I’m running off an extension cord that runs across the parking lot into the RV?  Life is full of adventures!

What this comes down to is that I will have 1 crockpot available for all my warming needs.  I’m planning a few meaty meals of chicken in the crockpot, both of which I will prep in crockpot bags tonight or tomorrow night and then swap in and out of the crockpot as needed.  I can just leave the crock pot on over the Yom Tovs and swap the liner in and out.  Beyond that?  Fruits so that we can say the shehechyanu blessing for something new, some salads that contain many of the traditional fruits and vegetables of the holiday, and of course, apple cake, apples, challah, and honey!  In fact, as I look at that list…maybe I don’t even need so much?

If there is one thing that spending so much time in the Shabbat RV 2.0 has taught me, it’s that we really don’t always need all the things we think we need.  All summer long, we did fine with cold salads and simple food.  We slept just fine without our big comfy beds.  We actually enjoyed time spent in the park or walking Sam or just playing games.  Now that winter is almost upon us, we’re finding the RV cozier than we had thought it would be and a simple crockpot of warm food and snuggly blankets really make things comfortable.  While it’s nice to have more space and comforts, it really is amazing how little we really need.

Occasionally we daydream about living someplace where you can count on kosher hamburger being available one week to the next or where kosher hot dog buns are a possibility, but for now, we simply work around whatever challenges we find and we still are able to find the joy in simple things, like a sunny Shabbos afternoon and walk with the smell of wood fires on the wind.  I hope we can hang on to that spirit of adventure and gratitude even when we live someplace where “doing frum” is a bit easier.

Until then, we’re really looking forward to celebrating Rosh Hashanah in our own unique way.

And yeah, the picture for this post is one of my favorite crock pot chicken recipes, chicken and 40 cloves of garlic.  I’ll be making it again for the holidays!  Just be sure to sub in your favorite pareve margarine where needed.

An Unexpected Sacrifice

I have covered my hair for many years now, but underneath, was always a long, full head of hair.  My husband asked me to keep it, even if only he saw it.  He enjoyed running his fingers through it after I took off my wig or scarf and let it down at night.  It was his secret garden, a delight for him alone.  Keeping it was pretty high maintenance, particularly as I moved from scarves to wigs.  Every morning, I had to wrap it and curl it up onto my head and secure it there with pins, then put on a wig cap, then a wig.  I was limited in what wigs I could buy because I needed such a large cap to contain it all, but it was worth it to see his happiness when I would let it down and my hair would tumble down my back.

Today, he chose to cut it for me.  With wigs, it’s generally easiest to have either long enough hair so that you can pull it easily up onto your head and secure it…or completely cropped close to the head.  After watching me wrestle with my hair this Shabbos, he told me he was ready, that he wanted to try my hair cropped short, to see if he could learn to love it that way and if it would be easier and more pleasant for me.

And so, I met him in our backyard, my hair freshly washed and tied in a low ponytail.  He waited, with scissors and his beard clippers.  As he cut the pony tail off, I half-expected it to hurt, for that hair to have feeling.  Instead, it cut off easily and painlessly, my head suddenly lighter.  Then, he asked me to lean over and he began, very gently, tenderly, trimming my hair close to my head, being so careful not to pinch.

As the fluffy clouds of my hair fell I realized the weight of this.  This was more than just my hair, which of course could always be grown back.  This was him making a sacrifice, him surrendering to his faith.  This was something that would at least take years to undo, if we chose to.  Even more so, this was making a very conscious choice.  Up until now, if I’d wanted to, I could have taken off my wig or scarf and walked out as anyone else.  Now, it wouldn’t really be possible.  This was making a even stronger commitment to our lives together as an Orthodox Jewish couple.

The clouds of hair that fell to our feet were grayer than I expected, grayer than they would have been years ago when we first began this journey.  I began to feel the cool morning breeze on my neck, on my scalp.  As he finished, he tenderly placed a hand on my head, pulling me to him and I leaned into him and we both just breathed deeply.  It wasn’t sadness…it was a weight of significance we both felt.  There was very much a feeling of him making a sacrifice and commitment to our path in a way he hadn’t been ready to before.  There was a feeling of lightness, like during a fast, a feeling of having let go of something at last that was weighing us both down.  Whether I grow my hair back or not, there was a feeling that this changed something deep and integral and the way he had lovingly and carefully done it himself was moving.

It felt right to do this the week before Rosh Hashanah, the morning after we first said Selichos.  It felt like this was his way of affirming Hashem’s Kingship and showing that he’s ready to take the next step forward.  For me, it felt like he was showing me that he loves me, hair or not that there is a kind of unconditional acceptance of me that is awe inspiring and in return, I was showing my willingness to follow him, hair or no hair.

I am proud to be married to such a man and so grateful to be walking this path alongside him.  I sometimes wonder how many men would have the faith to undergo what he has, but I also wonder if what he has had to go through has in part strengthened that faith, like iron in a fire.

Wherever life takes us and whatever happens to my hair, I will never forget that moment, his loving care cutting it all and his embrace after that told me that I am loved beyond anything external, that I am accepted no matter what form this world gives me, and that we are together, both just as committed to not just conversion, but a life of Torah after.

I can’t think of any better way to prepare for this Rosh Hashanah.

 

Crowning the King and Knowing Your “Why”

I have been sick and away from my blog while I recovered, but I feel like it is such a huge blessing that I was made to slow down and rest before the High Holidays are here.  I’m coming out of the fog at just the right time now to finish preparing and I was gifted with an amazingly insightful Tanya class this morning that was so timely and so answered questions I’ve been having.

In this class, we compared the story of Channah and her prayers, which are the example of prayer that Jews follow.  Channah was a woman during the prophet Eli’s time who did not have children of her own.  She was deeply sorrowful at her lack, to the point where she was barely eating and so she went to the Beis Hamikdash to daven there.  When Eli saw her davening, she was crying and swaying and he heard no sound and only her lips were moving.  He approached her and essentially asked if she was drunk and she replied that no, she was pouring out her soul and his response was that her prayers would be answered.  As the story goes, her prayers were answered and she conceived and bore a son who she named Samuel and dedicated to the service of Hashem and who, of course, went on to greatness.  In our class, we dug deeper into Eli’s words, which are a little unusual since if he really believed she was drunk, he simply would have had her removed from the Temple.

Digging deeper, we see that it is more that Eli was asking Channah if she was simply davening from her heart, from her own wants and desires.  Her answer is that, no, she is davening from her soul, pouring out her soul.

So…what is the difference?

When we daven for our wants and needs from our soul rather than our heart, following Channah’s example, it isn’t for our own selfish desires, but only so that we should receive those blessings in order to return them to the service of Hashem.  When Channah eventually did bear a son, she immediately prepared him and handed him over to the service of Hashem.  It’s like a person who davened for great wealth, but only so that they could give it all up to great charity or a person who davened for great health only so that they could run to volunteer to help others.  Channah is the perfect example of Jewish prayer not just because of her complete faith that she could trust Hashem to hear her heartfelt prayers and answer them, but also because her ultimate goal was to elevate whatever she was given and return it back to the Creator.  She asked to be trusted to do Hashem’s work in the world.

So, to bring this back to the more mundane world I live in…

I have a friend who is struggling in her conversion process.  She’s a lovely, kind woman who wishes to be a Jew very badly and the conversion process has been difficult for her to understand.  Most often, when I speak with her, she expresses a fear of what the Rabbis think of her.  She speaks of, “Oh, I’d better do this, or I’ll get in ‘trouble.'”  She has been unable to move to a place where she can walk to shul and yet is frustrated that her conversion process seems to have stalled.  She is a mature, lovely older woman, but yet her relationship with Judaism seems to be like a girl wanting to please a stern father and that father is not Hashem, but Rabbis.

I have had trouble articulating what seems amiss with this until today.  The most I’ve done is to ask her, when she was particularly frustrated, “Who are you doing this for?”

The class this morning brought into much stronger relief why her words have troubled me so much.  I can’t say what her reasons for desiring conversion are, but knowing that she is a good person, I assume that they are sincere, but it really does not seem like her reasons for desiring conversion are for the mitzvos alone.  It seems more to be coming from her heart, not her soul.  If it was from her soul, then her focus would likely be much more on how she could do more mitzvos or perfect her observance of the mitzvos she is keeping and less on what a Rabbi may or may not think and being in “trouble.”

To be clear, I don’t mean to sound that I’m in judgment of her.  In fact, I can see where I was in that place earlier in my own process.  I didn’t know exactly “why” I wanted to be Jewish and each year when I was in that space, I probably would have given a different answer depending on what part of Judaism my heart was drawn to.  One year, it might have been the beautiful traditions of Judaism.  Another, it might have been the warmth of Jewish community.  Another year, it might have been the strong, supportive structure that mitzvos make for family life.  This morning, learning more about Channah’s prayers, I realized that it’s only in this year that a very deep shift has happened where I can see that those “why’s” I had before were actually more superficial than I originally thought.  They weren’t reasons that would sustain me through the really tough times.

What if, I had converted when my reason was beautiful traditions and I happened upon a time when I felt separated from those traditions or they lost their luster for me?  What if I’d converted when my reason was the warmth of Jewish community and I wound up in a community that was struggling to show that warmth?  Or, what might have happened if my reason for conversion was family life…and my children had grown up and moved far from me or tragedy had struck my family?  Each of these reasons resonated more with my heart than my soul, even if they hinted at a much deeper reason that my soul kept bringing me back.

Ultimately, I really think the reason my soul wants conversion is simply…to be able to do more mitzvos.  It sounds absurdly simple, but in all honesty, to me that feels like the only reason that makes sense now.  I could exist as a non-Jew and find almost everything else in that list in some other way and those desires are all more about making my life more pleasurable.  Being able to do more mitzvos, though…comes back to wanting to be trusted to partner with Hashem in a way that is unique to Jews, to come before Him as Channah did, davening from my soul for something, but only so that I can return it back to Him.  I’m asking to be trusted to do the Jewish work in this world.

From that perspective, it matters so much less what the Rabbis think than it does that I’m doing my very best to be the best Jew I can be and to keep growing and learning to be better at observing the mitzvos.  If I’m doing that, then the Rabbi is no one to fear, but someone who can help me grow and if He is delaying me, it’s for my good so that I will be ready when I finally am obligated.  He’s not someone I need to impress…it’s Hashem I need to impress and if I’m focused on that, the Rabbi is someone who is absolutely on my side, trying to help make sure I’m ready for the heavy obligations I’m asking for.

It’s a small but huge shift to me and I think it applies to more than just converts, but could apply to anyone preparing for Rosh Hashanah, to again ask Hashem to be our King and to judge this world worthy of another year.  What is our “why” behind this request?  Is it from our heart…or are we, like Channah, pouring out our very souls, asking more to be given more opportunities to do His work in this world?

 

Parshas Nitzavim-Vayelech: Choices and a Life of Happiness vs. a Life of Meaning

In this week’s double dose parsha, Moses completes telling the Jewish people the laws of the Torah and all the blessings and curses they will receive depending on whether they choose to follow it or abandon it.  He reassures them that keeping the mitzvos really isn’t impossible.

“For the mitzvah which I command you this day, it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven . . . It is not across the sea . . . Rather, it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it.”

Then, he reminds them that it is their choice which path they will take, that they have the freedom to choose.  He is confident that they’ll make the right choice.

“I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil: in that I command you this day to love G‑d, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments . . . Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life.”

In this way, the Jews at this point face the same choice we all have.  There is a saying that every day, you are a single choice away from a completely different life and every day each of us makes choices that shape the direction our lives will go.  We often forget the power we have and frame these choices as if we had no free will at all.

“I have to go to work.”
“I wish I had more time, but I have to do these chores.”
“I’d rather live someplace else, but I have a mortgage and a job here.”

The fact is, there is very little in our lives that we don’t have the freedom to choose.  We can even choose to break the law and suffer the consequences or not pay our bills and have our house foreclosed on or not go in to work and lose our jobs.  There are consequences to our choices, but we still have the freedom to choose.  Similarly, we have a choice to follow the Torah and receive its blessings or to ignore the mitzvos and suffer the curses and this choice is still very much as open to us now as it was when Moses reminded the Jewish people of it.

As usual, I began studying this week’s parsha at a time where it really seemed hand picked for me.  I had just finished watching a TED talk about meaning and how meaning is actually more important for a fulfilling life than happiness.  To me, this talk fits so well with the message of Nitzavim.

Often, the choice to avoid a positive mitzvah or break a negative one comes with it the promise of happiness.  If I give in to eating at that non-kosher restaurant with friends, I know the food will probably be delicious.  My friends will enjoy spending time with me without my religious beliefs getting between us.  I will feel more connected to the community around me, more “normal.”  I may even experience quite a bit of warmth and happiness from the experience, at least while I am there.

The Torah asks me to consider the idea that there is more to life than this happiness in the moment, that there is something deeper and more fulfilling.

If I avoid giving tzedekah, I will have more money to spend on myself and my family.  I could buy my kids things that they like or we could spend that extra money on a family trip.  It would ease some of my husband’s financial worries and strains.  For a while at least, this choice looks like the one that would lead to more happiness for myself and those I love.

And again, as I consider a choice like this, I’m asked to really think about what is more important…happiness or meaning?

In her TED talk and book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness author Emily Esfahani Smith breaks down meaning into 4 pillars.  To her, meaning is comprised of belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendance.  Belonging refers to a feeling of being connected to others, that we have relationships that are important and give us a reason to much of what we do.  Purpose is comprised of feeling like we have a calling or some goal greater than ourselves and often involves serving others or making the world a better place.  Storytelling involves the way we frame the events in our lives and how we consider them to have shaped who we are as a person.  Transcendance is those moments where we glimpse something greater than ourselves and are inspired by it.

I would say that Torah gives us all of these things, fulfilling each of the pillars of meaning that can form a meaningful life.

Living a Torah filled life connects a person to a larger tribe, to the Jewish people.  It sets a person apart from the world, marking them outwardly by mitzvos like tzitzits, kippahs, hair covering, and tznius and marking them by their behavior in so many ways and it also connects them to others who are striving after the same goals.  Orthodox Jews by the very nature of their observance need to live together in communities and bonds between Jews are strengthened both from within and, all too sadly, from the outside world as well.  Even an atheist Jew will still often consider themselves part of the Jewish people and are considered Jewish by most Jews as well.

Living a Torah life is a wonderful way to find a greater purpose in life.  Whether it’s engaging in Torah study, raising and educating Jewish children, participating in Chesed activities to help the community, fundraising, fighting antisemitism, or even just trying to be the best Jew you can be, Jews are very focused on bringing positive change to the world around them.  We can see a very tangible example of this in the US right now as Chabad houses work to feed and shelter people in both Texas and Florida following hurricanes and the Orthodox Union works to raise funds for rebuilding.  From every corner of the Jewish community, there is an outpouring of support when tragedy strikes or a need is seen.  One can’t help but find a basis for this spirit of giving and helping in the pages of the Torah.

Storytelling is central to the identity of a Jew, the Torah itself is the story of how the Jewish people became a Nation and it is through these stories, being told and retold over and over again that the Jewish nation was able to hold onto a cohesive identity despite being scattered throughout other nations for so much of their history.  As individuals, Jews also tend to have a rich tradition of storytelling with stories of survival and spirits that could not be dimmed at the forefront of each family’s story.  Jews who believe deeply in Torah are often shaped by it to be people who view the events of their lives as having some positive outcome, even if that outcome can’t be readily seen in the moment.

Finally, we come to transcendance.  Many Jews find transcendence within the walls of the Synagogue in the cries and songs of prayer.  Particularly this time of year, it is difficult not to feel moved.  Others, though, find those experiences in holding a grandchild, hiking a mountain, creating art or music, studying Torah, or even just in the simple candlelight of Shabbos.  Orthodox Judaism is filled with rich sights, sounds, and even smells like the scent of baking challah that engage the senses and bring us out of the ordinary world.  There are endless opportunities even within an ordinary week to step outside of our everyday lives and connect with something deeper.

In her work, Esfahani Smith, argues that Western culture’s over emphasis on the pursuit of happiness is actually getting in the way of us living deeper, more fulfilling lives.  She argues that because happiness is just an emotional state that comes and goes, basing a life on it means that fulfillment is fleeting as well.  We begin to worry that something is wrong if we aren’t happy all the time, if we can’t simply sit serenely, basking in this peaceful happiness we’re supposed to be finding through work, success, material goods…something.  Her argument is that it is really meaning that makes life worthwhile and satisfying and leads to greater long term happiness and that really it is the pursuit of meaning that we should be occupied with.

As I listened to her words, I found myself agreeing, but also thinking that this was simply the same argument that Moses was making, thousands of years ago when he told the Jewish people to choose life and goodness by following the Torah’s path to a life of meaning, not just pursuing happiness.