My Son and His Passover Sacrifice

One of the things my son was looking forward to most about 8th grade was the Advanced Orchestra trip to Hawaii that the 8th graders in his school take every year.  He had been thrilled when he’d first heard of it during his Junior High orientation and he’d fundraised last year to help send the previous class.  It’s one of the pivotal events of Junior High in his school, something that inspires a lot of kids to stick with Orchestra even as their elective options increase.  For Ian, it was a dream as he’d never been to Hawaii, unlike most Alaskan kids.

This fall, we discovered that the trip had been scheduled over Passover.

His face fell when we got the news of the dates.  Before, we were willing to figure out how to work kosher food, how to adjust travel times around Shabbos, anything so that he could be involved.  With one email confirming the dates were set, his dream was gone.  He smiled bravely to us, but I knew he was heartbroken.  The year went on and he still fundraised so that his classmates could go.  He still practiced the songs they would be playing there along with the orchestra.  He still loved his viola.  I couldn’t have been prouder of him.

This week, his fellow orchestra students are excitedly packing their bags and finalizing their trip plans.  He is helping me clean for Passover.  His classmates are packing sunscreen and talking about swimming with sea turtles.  He is helping me plan Seder menus.

And yet, he remains upbeat, proud, his kippah still on his head at school.

This…this is what it means to be an observant family far from an observant community.  It means living by what you believe even when it’s really hard and my son has really integrated that into himself.  He never once pleaded or bargained with us to make the trip once he found out it was during Passover.  He didn’t complain to his teacher or demand we protest to the school.  Instead, he used it as an opportunity to be a light to his fellow students, to show them that he would stand by his beliefs even when it was hard and that he would still support them even though it might sting.

One fundraiser, he waited tables for a meal he couldn’t eat to raise money for a trip he would never go on.  Later, the parents that sat at his tables came to me to tell me what an amazing young man he is.

I just smiled and said, “I know…we’re very blessed.”

We have promised him, after we settle in our new community, a trip to Israel with us to celebrate all that he has accomplished.  I think it’s time to buy him a travel guide for Israel that he can read over Passover so that he has a picture in his mind of the promised land after all this time in our own desert.

I’m certain that Hashem is also very proud of him.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

I used to be a big U2 fan.  I’ll freely admit that as a child of the 80’s, I was listening to U2 well into the 90’s.  One of their songs that always stuck with me was the song, “Walk On,” particularly the lyrics about “all that you can’t leave behind” and the idea of packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been.  Being a band of Irish Catholics, I have to assume the journey they were talking about, where they were packing for a “place that has to be believed to be seen,” was their version of the afterlife.  That being the case, the song still resonates for me in a different way, particularly this time of year and this year in particular.

We all have places we’re trying to get to, either metaphorically or physically and we all have stuff that holds us back from those journeys.  It may be the marathon we’ve always dreamed of running but never can seem to carve out the time to train for.  It may be the song we’ve always wanted to sing, but are afraid of making a fool of ourselves.  It could be a career move we’re afraid of making, a business we keep putting off starting, a relationship we can’t seem to commit to.  It could even literally be a big move, like making aliyah to Israel or even just moving out of our parents’ house.  It could be finally admitting to those we love who we really are.

All of us have stood at a crossroads and gazed longingly down that road less traveled and far too many of us have then looked at all we’re carrying, all that’s holding us back from that road and then turned back to the well-tread path.

There are always good, comfortable reasons not to take big risks.

Passover is a season of celebrating the courage of casting off all that holds us back and leaving the familiar for the extraordinary.  The Jews left the certainty of the lives they’d known for an uncertain future in the desert, trusting in Hashem and that there was something better for them out there.  They had to let go of everything they’d known before and all the adaptations that had helped them survive slavery.  They could only take what they could carry and they could only move forward once they were prepared to leave everything behind.

It really does us little good to rid our homes of chametz if we’re still allowing ourselves to be held back from being the people we were meant to be by a car payment we shouldn’t have taken on, a fear of failure, or worries about what others think we should do or be.

Last night, I had a crisis of faith over the silliest thing.  I was sitting, taking a break from Passover cleaning when it struck me that we didn’t get the kids to see the northern lights.  Living in Anchorage where there is so much light pollution, it’s tough to see them and this winter one of our goals was to get outside of Anchorage and make sure the kids saw them before we left Alaska.  Doubt came tumbling down on my head like fully packed suitcases stuffed up into a closet will fall down on the first person who opens the door.

Were we making a huge mistake moving?  Would the kids hate us for taking us away from Alaska?

I think the cleaning products might have gotten to my head because this morning, these fears seem silly, but last night, they were pressing.  What if the kids never see the Aurora Borealis?!  What kind of mother am I if I didn’t make sure they saw that?!  My kids also never went out on a sailboat when we were in Florida, never went fishing for marlin, never went snorkeling, etc, but for some reason, I felt this heavy guilt descend on me over the northern lights, nevermind that I myself have only seen them once or twice.  Nevermind that the kids could conceivably go on a trip just to see the northern lights one day if they’re so inclined.

It would be easier to stay in Alaska.  We wouldn’t have to sell our home, which is proving tougher than our realtor imagined.  We wouldn’t have to start over someplace new.  I wouldn’t have to manage working remote.  We could keep all our stuff and the kids could stay with the friends they know.  Still, staying here would mean that we wouldn’t be able to complete our conversions and observance would remain a difficult uphill battle every year.  The well trodden path that direction goes uphill, both ways, through the snow.  The path out is a huge leap off a cliff, but there’s a nice flat plateau down there once we land.

Some journeys require that we leave everything behind except that which we can’t.

This journey is one of those.  As we sift through our stuff another time, it becomes more, “What can we absolutely not do without or replace?”  Only that makes the cut.  Similarly, though, we still have to keep sifting through our own hearts and minds, too.  To become the people we’re meant to be means leaving behind fears, grudges, bad habits, limiting mindsets.  It’s a process of constantly decluttering what I carry around in my head and my heart.  It means facing my own fears of whether or not we’ll fit in where we land, whether or not the kids will do well in Day School, whether or not we’ll be happy in a landscape a little more ordinary.

When a conversion candidate prepares for the mikvah, it’s important to remove every barrier from the water.  You scrub under your fingernails and trim them short, detangle all your hair, remove your contacts, even brush and floss your teeth very carefully.  The idea is that there should be as little as possible separating you from the waters and, in fact, an immersion can be rendered invalid if there was too much of a barrier.  In a similar way, I feel like this process of moving is one of stripping off the layers of what has built up between us and Hashem, both materially and spiritually.

Bare and naked of our possessions, left with only that which we can’t leave behind, we’ll take our first steps into a new life, unsure of what awaits, but trusting and hopeful that when we emerge, it will be to a world that is warm and welcoming and that embraces us.

The Non-Gebrokts Non-Jews

Passover is an interesting holiday.  It’s one where traditions and customs really seem to come to the forefront in a way they don’t always the rest of the year.  From how stringent each family is about their cleaning and prep to what they will and won’t eat on the holiday, there is so much variation, even among Orthodox Jews.

My husband comes from a Lubavitch family, which, for us, means that we try to follow Lubavitch minhagim, or customs, particularly on major holidays.  So, that means that our Passover preparations and menus are even stricter than many other Orthodox Jews.  For years, I cooked according to more mainstream Ashkenazic customs for Passover.  Our Rabbis didn’t really mind and encouraged us to make the holiday easy for ourselves since his obligation was questionable and the rest of the family’s obligation was non-existent.  While this did mean that I had to still do a lot of cooking, it wasn’t so difficult because there is actually a lot you can do with matzah and there are a ton of recipes out there.

Last year, though, we decided to take the step of no longer eating gebrokts, which is really anything that involves soaking matzah to kind of simulate bread or pasta.  We do eat it on the last day of Passover, but the rest of the holiday, we do not.  We also peel most vegetables and don’t use many spices.

We’re probably crazy for taking it on before we have to, but I wanted to have some practice with it and some good recipes up my sleeve for the day when it’s all for real, so there we are.

What I found last year was that almond chocolate chip passover cookies really are the bomb and that limiting my ingredients this much really made me appreciate even more how much I normally have to work with, even in Alaska.  We still ate well and healthy and you can pretty much do anything for a week.  That final day I don’t think I’ve had anything as wonderful as the matzah lasagna we could finally have and it was nice to ease back into eating all our usual foods that way.

This year, I have a few more recipes to try, but I like that doing Passover this way is such a big change from how we eat the rest of the year.  We really get to eat simply, with very basic recipes and ingredients and it is a time to step back a bit and think about all the deeper themes of Passover.  I love how Jewish holidays are an immersive experience and how the food of our holidays connects us to every other aspect.

Now if only I could find the same inspiration in cleaning out my cupboards!

The Season of Letting Go

Passover must always fall in the spring.  It’s a rule of the Jewish calendar and a whole leap month will be added to the calendar to make sure this happens.  For Orthodox Jews, this also means that Passover cleaning is a form of spring cleaning, with cabinets cleared out and all manner of pasta, flour, and baked goods being used up in preparation of the holiday.  It’s all about letting go of what’s holding us back from reaching the next level, from really being free.

In Alaska, spring comes slowly and then there is one week, usually at the end of April, were everything springs to life.  For now, we’re in the part of the year where the sun is rapidly winning time from the night and things are melting during the long daylight hours, only to freeze again at night.  It’s a constant back and forth as more snow comes some nights and then more ice and snow melts again in the day as winter and spring fight against each other each day.  Alaskans typically call this strange season before spring “breakup” and it lasts much longer than the quick burst of Spring we get for about a week when all trees and plants suddenly burst into leaf and bloom all at once with almost no night to slow them down.

It’s against this backdrop along with our own season of letting go of most of our possessions in preparation for our big move that Passover comes this year.

Moving the distance that we are moving really requires you to look critically at what you own and make some tough decisions.  Often, it’s cheaper overall to buy things after you move rather than haul them across the continent.  Since we decided to move, we’ve slowly been paring down our belongings.  Each pass, we carve off more of what we’ve held onto, only to revisit it again.  How many pairs of shoes does each person really need?  Will I ever find an occasion for that shirt?  How many books can I let go of?

I imagine that the Hebrews had less to go through as they prepared to leave Egypt.  Being slaves, they didn’t have a big house full of cross country skis and winter gear to sort through.  Still, they had to travel light as they left.  Even deeper, they had to be willing to let go of everything that held them back from freedom, the attitudes and habits that tied them to slavery in Egypt.  Our journeys are so far apart in time and geography, but I think my family is feeling something similar.  If our Rabbi is correct, this is our last Passover as non-Jews and there is a lot to go through to decide what to take with us…and what to leave behind.

The logistics ahead are daunting, but nothing like a whole nation walking out of Egypt into the unknown.  We have flights for most of the family and we’ll have bags aplenty.  Then, my husband will undertake the long, lonely trip from Alaska, through Canada, in a Uhaul with the small pile of what we think we shouldn’t leave behind.  We estimate, with construction and Shabbos observance included, the trip will take 2 weeks.  He’ll cross two international borders, travel through remote mountain ranges and empty plains, and much of it will be outside of cell phone coverage.  He’s looking forward to the trip, though, seeing it as a chance to clear his head and regroup before joining us in our new community.  In the meantime, I’ll be settling the kids and I into our new home.

In many ways, this process takes us full circle back to the beginning of our Alaskan adventure.

When we moved up here, I came up a month in advance and found us a place to live.  I brought very little with me and among the things I’d brought was our cat, Iggy.  Iggy and I essentially camped in the new home with an air mattress and only a few basics.  A month later, my husband joined me and then a week later, I flew back to the east coast, picked up the kids, spent a very tiring night watching over them in an airport, and then flew all the way back to Alaska…and promptly went back to work the next day.  It’s never easy moving an entire family of four across a continent.  Still, I’ll never forget their amazement when they first looked out the plane window and saw the snowy mountains below.

Our truck and other belongings arrived a couple of months later, so we essentially spend 4 months camping in our house on air mattresses without chairs.  It was so exciting when the moving truck with our stuff showed up!

This move will be somewhat smaller since we are doing it ourselves.  There is no company paying to move us.  There are no movers coming to lift our boxes into a truck.  It’s just us and a lot of faith.  We have faith that everything will work out and that we’ll all be reunited safely in our new home.  We have faith that our house here in Alaska will sell.  We have faith that we’re not making a big mistake by leaving Alaska…a place so wild and beautiful that it’s hard to find anything like it anywhere else.

We have just 2 short months left here in the mountains as we turn our faces south.  As we prepare for this Passover, there are so many mixed feelings and so many ways we connect with the story of the Exodus.  I wish there was a way to be more certain of the path, but we have no Moses to guide and reassure us, no clouds of glory, no pillar of fire.  We simply have our faith and hope and a lot of maps.

In the season of letting go, sometimes the most important thing to let go of is fear and doubt.

The Power of Speech

I just completed a JLI class at my Synagogue all about communication and the power of speech.  This morning, I had a perfect example of exactly what we’d been studying happen right in front of me in the grocery store line.

A coworker and I were standing in line to pay for some small purchases when a fight nearly broke out in front of us.  I didn’t clearly see the beginnings, but my coworker did and, being a former marine, he quickly stood between a very angry younger man and an older woman, diffusing what had become a pretty ugly situation.  The younger man was inches from the woman’s face, clearly upset and much larger than her.  With my coworker’s quick intervention along with another man, the man who was angry quickly left the store.  I spoke to the woman, asking her if she was all right.

In all fairness, she probably was rude to the man and both of their actions had a lot more to do with where they were before the checkout line.  As the young man left, he angrily related that his wife had just had surgery for cancer.  After he left, the woman admitted that she usually never speaks up for herself, but had “had enough” when she felt he’d cut in line in front of her.  Their words had so quickly escalated a situation.

As I spoke to her, making sure she was ok and calming down, I happened to say, “You know, maybe this is your bad luck for the day and the rest of your day will go really well.”  She suddenly smiled, her entire demeanor changing and replied, “Thank you, that really is a great way to look at it.”  She went on her way much more relaxed and, hopefully, she won’t have any more negative interactions today.

I’m not relating this story because I’m proud of myself.  I am really happy that I found the right words at the right time to help her, but I also wish that someone had found words that could have comforted the man, whose out of proportion anger was likely more about his pain and worries about his wife.  He may have been almost as surprised as everyone else by his sudden reaction.  The fact that he left quickly before anyone could really speak to him seems to me to say that he realized he wasn’t himself.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

This was just such a perfect example.  Everyone came into that checkout line carrying with them the weight of their past, if even just that morning.  My coworker and I were discussing a project he’s stressed about this afternoon when he became distracted by the growing altercation.  I was still mulling over my own stressful situation at work, an ongoing conflict with a customer’s engineer that I’m still trying to resolve.  The man had his wife’s health issues and recent surgery heavy on his mind.  The woman had years of feeling like she was too small to stand up for herself, resentment building.

For a fleeting moment, our lives intersected in a grocery store line and we had our words as our tools.

In Judaism we’re taught that words are so powerful that there are words we should never say, other words we should only say at certain times or during prayers, and yet other words that we should be incredibly careful to say.  There is an acknowledgement that words have power inherent in them and that we need to practice being intentional with our words.  There is also an understanding that once a word is spoken, it can’t be taken back, like an oath made in vain.  The entirety of creation was made with ten simple utterances from Hashem and so much can also be destroyed with simple misspoken words.

Sadly, this seems to be a concept that is lost in this time, when words have even more power than ever.  Words travel at the speed of light now, across national boundaries in an instant.  I can sit and measure the latency of a message in milliseconds, just fractions of seconds.  Anything over 200 milliseconds is now considered “slow.”  We have only to type out our words and hit send and our utterances can reach millions.

Our words have such power for good or ill and I’m inspired to slow down more and more carefully consider my words.  I can never know what has led another person to where they are, what lonely battles they are fighting.  I can, however, try to focus on kindness and using my words to bring just a little bit more light into this world.

I can try to be just a little bit more like the One in whose image I was made.

Slowing Down and Building the Mishkan

In this week’s parsha, we talk about the actual building of the Mishkan, the moveable tabernacle that the Hebrews carried around with them in the desert wanderings.  Up to this point, we’ve talked about why there needed to be a Mishkan and we even had a rather long parsha that explained in great detail all the tapestries and hangings and fasteners.  This parsha, though, talks about the actual building of the Mishkan, from all the donations that the Jews poured out until Moses had to tell them to stop giving, to the actual work that was done by all different kinds of craftsmen and women to build it.  It’s from this list that we get all the prohibitions for different kinds of work that we’re not allowed to do on the Sabbath because we know that all these workers paused from their work on the Sabbath.

There were spinners and weavers of cloth, bakers of bread, metalworkers, and carpenters.  It’s even said that each craftsperson was divinely inspired in their work.

What it doesn’t say is that they met certain metrics or deadlines.  In the parsha, even though the artisans are praised for their handiwork, no mention is made of how quickly they built the Mishkan.  In fact, when Hashem tells Moses to build the Mishkan, He only states a starting date…no deadline at all.

My life revolves around deadlines it seems.  Projects have “benchmarks” that must be met in an orderly fashion to reach an arbitrarily decided endpoint.  Tickets, which really are just electronic and not even written on paper, have SLA’s or “Service Level Agreements” for responses.  I work in a world where an outage of a minute is like a lifetime, where everything happens in an instant and, so too must I move quickly.  At home, I watch over all the deadlines for my children’s homework and also, deadlines for my own work at home.  Meals must be ready before lighting Shabbos candles.  Different projects must be completed before our move.

Time feels like each year it speeds up and I scramble to keep up with it all.

Perhaps that’s why, when I want to relax, I turn to hobbies that are slow.  I spin my own yarn, delighting in the slow process of turning a ball of fluff into something useful, something that can be made into a hat or sock.  I enjoy that this is a process that I can touch and feel and that exists wholly in this world.  Then, I enjoy knitting, which is so much less efficient a way to make a hat than driving to the closest store and buying one.  Still, I enjoy the process almost more than the hat itself.  I can lose track of time in the stitches and feel a sense of comfort in the repetitive nature of the act.  I also love baking homemade bread and feeling the dough in my fingers and the smell of yeast rising in the home.

All of this helps me to escape the frantic pace of life and pretend I live in a simpler time that perhaps never really existed.

I wonder if the people spinning yarn for the weavers to use to weave the tapestries of the Mishkan worried about falling behind.  After all, if they failed to spin quickly enough, the weavers would be left with nothing to weave until they caught up.  Did they feel stressed?  Did they sneak glances at the weaver’s progress or ask for updates?  Did the weavers feel pressured to weave all their tapestries quickly so that the builders could put them up?  Or, did everyone just try to do their job to the very best of their abilities?  Was Moses tapping his foot, urging them to spin faster to meet some date he had hoped to dedicate the Mishkan on or, did he urge them to slow down and do their best work.

Did a spinner stop for a moment, just savoring the fact that he or she was doing this sacred work?  Did they want to make the project last just a little longer, knowing that never again in their lives would they be doing something so momentous?

We only know that when it all was completed, Moses saw that every piece of it had been done exactly to Hashem’s specifications and that Moses blessed the workers.  The text sounds like all the work was inspected at once and all the workers blessed together at the same time, the great project completed.  Was a project plan, a timeframe, part of Hashem’s specifications?  I’m left to wonder.

As I reluctantly turn from my hobbies, where I am content to work through a slow process, and back to my work where all too often, I must simply do “good enough” in order to meet deadlines, I wonder at how I might bring deeper meaning to my work and blessing to me as the worker.

In the meantime, my ticket queue calls…

Teachability, Conversion, and Life

I have a couple of really wise friends that I listen to and always learn something from our conversations.  Today, we were talking about the power of teachability and it seemed to fit exactly with a lot of what has been going on in my life recently as well as struggles I have seen around me.

We all live in a culture where just about the worst thing you can admit is that you “don’t know.”  Information is literally a major driver of our economy and we can research almost any topic with a web search.  When you’re asked a question, either in school or especially later at work, “I don’t know,” becomes an unacceptable answer.  We aren’t allowed to admit the limits of our knowledge.

The problem with this is that we are all full cups.  We’re so full of certainty and what we “know” that we are no longer open to accept more.  I know I’ve been guilty of this plenty of times in my life and also in my conversion studies.  I often feel resistance to being told something I think I already know or having to study something that I’ve studied before.  At work, I sometimes make assumptions based on what I think I know about a system or process, in too much of a rush to reach a solution or move on to the next task.

As I grew older, it became worse.  I no longer looked for teachers at work or at home.  I became more resistant to learning from others because I thought I had to appear an authority.  Obviously, if I’m open to learning from my kids or junior coworkers or even my customers…then it must mean that I’m not really worthy of the position I’m in.

This resistance to learning…made me stagnate.

It’s basically like Hashem took a look at me and shrugged and said, “Well, if you KNOW, then I guess you don’t need to learn anything new or move up any levels.  Ok, stay where you are.”

I thought I’d gotten a lot better at this and I probably have.  I’ve opened up a lot more to learning and become a lot more teachable.  I’ve actively studied subjects that I “thought” I knew and found new facets, new richness, new depth.  I’ve learned so much from the younger engineer I’m mentoring that often I feel like I’ve learned more than I’ve taught.  Still, I have a long way to go.

As my friends and I spoke, I realized that there are still places I’m resistant to change, resistant to learning new ways to handle situations.  At work, I’ve been struggling with a customer who has had a high amount of employee turnover and quickly changing processes.  Now, I wonder where I could be more teachable there, more able to move with their changing environment?  At home, my children seem to be rapidly changing as they move into adolescence, yet I realize that I’ve been relying on the same parenting techniques that have worked before.  Where could I be more open to learning new ways to parent them that work better with who they are now rather than keep trying to treat them like the children they were?  In my conversion studies and process, where am I still resisting being led or learning at a new level?  Where am I still stubbornly sticking with how I think things should be rather than accepting and working with how they are?

thought I understood lifelong learning, particularly since I work in a field that is constantly changing and I’m always having to learn more to keep up, but I realize that I’d fallen into a very common trap of knowing too much and not being able to admit that even the things I think I knew, I may no longer know.

Widening this out from my own personal experience, I would say that teachability is one of the bigger predictors of who will be successful in Orthodox conversion.  The converts that I have known that have successfully completed conversion, for the most part, have been those who were teachable, who were willing to admit what they didn’t know, and who were willing to do what they were told was necessary rather than insist on doing things their own way.  When they were told they needed to move to within walking distance of an Orthodox Synagogue, they didn’t waste much time arguing about the expense or difficulty or unfairness or trying to find some way to not have to move…they instead focused their energy on finding the right community and working out the logistics.  I’ve even known of converts that left their home country and had to learn an entirely new language besides just how to read Hebrew in order to convert.

In contrast, I know another conversion candidate who is stuck in the process.  She has been in process several years and yet still will argue about whether or not she should drive to shul or carry outside an eruv on Shabbos.  She can’t see how her own resistance is in the way of her desires.  There are countless others like her that really do yearn to convert, but just can’t seem to get out of their own way to do it.  Looking back, I can see places where we got in our own way during our process.

Learning how to be teachable, how to work through initial resistance to new information and change or being led…is such an important life skill, no matter what age you are or what your goals are.

Even if you aspire to join a “stiff necked people.”