A Sweet Gift

Milk is the first food we eat, gliding silkily over our infant tongues, filling our tummies with warm comfort.  We never know hunger until we come into the world and milk is our first taste of love, of nourishment, and comfort.

This week I’ve kind of been acutely experiencing a feeling of being lost in a wilderness.  Maybe it’s preparation for receiving the Torah or maybe it’s more related to my husband’s birthday reminding me of my own 40th birthday approaching soon, but for whatever the reason, I have felt in need of comfort, love, and nourishment.  I’m sure the Jews felt the same before Mount Sinai.  Their future was also uncertain and while Egypt had been horribly confining at least it was a suffering they knew versus the unknown they now faced in the desert.

In many ways, the Exodus was a birth.  In darkness and despair, they’d awaited their freedom, but in captivity, there had also been certainty.  Slaves are told at every moment what is expected of them.  Their world is confined and limited, but the lines are clearly marked out and there is shelter in that structure.  Birth is traumatic and freeing at the same time.  Suddenly, there is a huge open world that is both exciting and terrifying.  Leaving Egypt, it would be easy for the Jews to feel lost and afraid.

At every Jewish holiday, we celebrate it as if it is happening now, for us, in each generation and in each year.  At Shavuos, we all celebrate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.  We eat dairy foods in part because the Torah is likened to sweet milk, nourishing and comforting and the perfect food for a newborn nation, still learning kosher laws.  The words of Torah are said to be like milk and honey on our tongues, sweet and comforting, easy to digest, filling us with warmth.

Today, I turned a corner myself, away from my fears of the future or the passage of time and focusing again on now.  I am so fortunate to be able to celebrate this Shavuos with my family and to be able to share in the Torah.  If we truly believe that every convert was present at Mt. Sinai that day, then I hope and believe I was there, too and that this nourishment is for me also.  If I only can let go of my fear of the wilderness and trust and seek out that comfort and nourishment, then I do believe that my family will find our way again back to Sinai spiritually where we can again affirm our commitment to the Torah just as we did then.

I hope everyone has a peaceful, happy, and meaningful Chag.  I plan on doing some good study, enjoying the treats I’ve prepared, and spending time at shul and letting go of dwelling on the past or future and instead focusing on this moment where I can stand again at Sinai.

The Missing Mixed Multitude?

There are bits and pieces of stories of converts mixed into the Torah.  We read the book of Ruth on Shavuos, which is such a moving story.  We look to Avraham as the first of the converts in many ways.  However, the story that has always fascinated me is the story of the “mixed multitude” that left with the Hebrews from Egypt.

We know little about these people other than that they dropped everything and left Egypt with the Hebrews, choosing to cast their lot in with the escaping slaves.  It’s interesting to me to wonder about them.  Did they leave behind family?  Did they have businesses or some kind of jobs they dropped?  Were they slaves or wealthy people, Egyptians or other enslaved people?  Were they a group that kept together after leaving or did they simply disappear into the Hebrew tribes?  Surely it took a great amount of courage and faith to walk out of your homeland with a different nation than your own, trusting in G-d to deliver you as well even without the same specific promises spoken to the Jewish people.

The mixed multitude feature prominently up to and during the sin of the golden calf.  They’re often blamed for instigating the plan to build the idol.  Yet, after that sin, they really aren’t mentioned again.  Did most of them die in the plagues that followed?  The Hebrew women chose not to participate in the sin of the golden calf and I wonder if the women of the mixed multitude were also wise enough to also abstain?

By the time we reach Bamidbar, the reading of the Torah right before Shavuos, there is no more mention of the mixed multitude.  When the layout of the different tribes and their flags are described, there is no separate encampment for them and no separate flag.  I wonder if they had simply melted into different tribes and were absorbed or if they had ceased to be somehow?  To me, their story is so much more compelling than Yisro, a prominent and well-connected convert who was able to walk right into the Hebrew’s encampment and approach Moses, earning his own parsha.  You can’t get much more connected than being Moses’s Father-in-law.  I also sometimes find a harder time connecting to the story of Ruth.  Her heartfelt plea to her mother-in-law was her conversion and her difficult times came after.  While I definitely do relate to her words, her story is still foreign.

We never hear of any of the mixed multitude being entrusted with a position of importance.  We never hear their names mentioned, let alone a parsha named after one of them.  They just seem to disappear after a while in the story of the Jewish people, aside from a few scant mentions of them essentially making more trouble for the Jewish people here and there.

As we approach Shavuos, I wonder if they stood at Mount Sinai and if they also saw the sounds and heard the sights there, as is famously written?  Did they become one with the Jewish people at that moment, the way the Torah speaks of the Jews as one?  Did they suddenly know which tribe they belonged to then?  Or, did they all end up dying due to the golden calf, so close to being part of the Jewish people, but never quite making it?

Their story wasn’t significant enough to merit much mention in the Torah, but it’s possible that there are other Midrash stories about them.  I haven’t dug that deeply yet, because what Midrashim I have heard about them haven’t been positive.  I can’t help but feel a connection with these faceless people who dared to walk away from civilization as they knew it and take a chance to be one of G-d’s chosen people.  I like to hope that we stop hearing about them because they simply faded into the fabric of the Jewish people and lived simple, but fulfilling lives there.

If that’s true, then I think they may have achieved the goal of most converts perfectly, to simply fade into the people to the point they were just more Jews among many and not needing a separate mention.

Mourning Fading Dreams

At first, it was a wedding
a chuppah raised high
family and friends dancing
a dress of white
the sound of breaking glass
we were willing to wait
but waiting wasn’t enough

slowly, that dream faded
I cried only a little
feeling selfish
I had love
and others did not
we wed simply on a beach
beautiful flowers still smelled sweet
the rain stopped long enough

Then, it was a baby
eyes like his or her father
a tiny hand grasping his finger
dark brown
there would be a bris or naming
the grandparents would smile

My belly remained empty
waiting for it all to be complete
it wasn’t right or fair
to bring another soul into this
I was ashamed to grieve
weren’t my own two enough?
he loved them as his own
wrinkles began to grow
my forehead had frowned too much

Next, it was a bar mitzvah
my son finally accepted
he’d read from the Torah
we’d throw candy
he’d beam with pride
the Rabbi would embrace him
just another young Jewish man
taking on the weight of tradition

My son became a man without fanfare
his studies didn’t pause for candy
I cried on his behalf
only when he wasn’t looking
frowning, he watches other bar mitzvahs
boys younger than him casually take aliyahs
he quietly puts their Chumashim over their Siddurs
as they walk to the bima

Now it is a bat mitzvah
there’s not much hope remaining
she wants a pretty dress
a cake with fancy frosting
Do I tell her there is no party?
I think she already knows
I avoid making plans
she stops asking

My eyes dim as I look ahead
I still have hopes for my children
For me?
There’s just a burial plot left
I still hope to earn it
as I hope my days as a Jew
might outnumber the days I waited

Yet…I’m waiting still.

Fragile Strands of Hope

The strings are tangled
coiling up and evading prying fingertips
his brow furrows
his young fingers fumble
I feel frustrated
I can’t tie these knots for him
or untangle the strings
Some things, a boy must do alone to become a man
My fingers twitch, wanting to tie the knots for him
remembering friendship bracelets long ago
my fingers deftly weaving them at camp
the smell of woods wet from rain
his eyes cross, the diagram is unclear
and I can see it
my lips struggle to translate it
I untangle the language to explain
he untangles the knots

My own knots are more complicated
I worry over them each day just as he does his
his knots are worn loose by friction
constant rubbing against his clothes
mine are worn loose the same
constant rubbing of worries about the future
constant longing for completion
Each morning he checks his knots
and I check mine
Him with fingertips
Me with prayers

And so we reconnect so that we can begin another day.

Birthday Cake and Mitzvos

I’m reading a really good book about Family Purity called “Total Immersion.”  All the books I’ve read on the topic previously have been more dry and focused on the “how” of the mitzvah, not the “why” or deeper spiritual dimension and I’m really enjoying this chance to step back and sink deeper into those aspects.

One recurring theme is the relationship between us and Hashem.  Specifically, the idea of surrender in that relationship and the way that this can be practiced in the relationship between man and wife as well.  Some mitzvos are hard to understand, impossible even.  Even the ones that might make practical sense often could be done in more than one way.   In our human minds, we often can think of ways we could make a mitzvah more pleasant or adapt it to our modern lives.  Whole rifts and splits in Judaism have happened over this.

A perfect example could be Shabbos.  There are so many laws surrounding Shabbos observance and most of them are not concretely spelled out in the written Torah itself, but rather expounded upon by the Sages and Rabbis.  Just reading the Chumash, I could look and see that it’s a “day of rest” and come to the conclusion that I should just take a day off work and do whatever seems a good leisure activity, thanking Hashem for the chance to go for a nice drive into the woods and later cook a lavish meal for my family.  We could even throw in a couple of prayers of thanksgiving!  Instead, there are laws which sometimes seem to get in the way of “rest” or pleasure, like not being able to use hot water or watch a movie.

In my book, it points out that this all becomes much easier to understand if we look at the purpose behind all mitzvos, which is to connect to Hashem.  If we’re really doing a mitzvah out of love or awe of Hashem, then we’ll do it His way.  If we’re only doing a mitzvah for ourselves, it’s easier to justify doing it in the way that pleases us most.

Another example is my husband.  Mr. Safek has some, to me, unusual tastes and it was his birthday this week.  For his birthday, I asked him what meal I could make him that would please him.  He asked for his favorite foods and a chocolate cake with strawberry icing.  Because I love him, instead of arguing with him about what icing would be better or trying to alter the menu so that it had some of my favorite foods on it, I made the meal exactly as he had asked.  I did it because I love him and it’s his birthday and giving him exactly what he asked for is how I show my devotion to him.

If you believe the Torah, both written and oral, to be truly divine, then it’s clear that the mitzvos are the way they are because that is what Hashem is asking from us.  Like my husband, he wants to connect with me and give me that opportunity to do something for him and he’s given me specific instructions on what would please him.  Viewing it that way, altering the mitzvos to make them easier or more pleasant for me is like changing the menu for my husband’s birthday meal…suddenly it’s less about my love for him and more about my love for myself.

As we approach the giving of the Torah again, it was timely to me to read about this.  How often do I get lost in the details of observing a mitzvos and lost sight of the reason behind it?  How often might those details become more meaningful if I kept that focus, like how hunting for the right ingredients for a birthday meal is a lot more fun than just looking for ingredients for a meal that lacks a real purpose?

The First Time I Went to a Synagogue

I checked my outfit 3 different times, changing clothes and kept pestering the kids to get them ready.  Mr. Safek nervously tied his tie.  It had been a little while since he’d gone to the Synagogue.  I didn’t understand his apprehension.  After all, I’d heard it was a holiday party.  This should be fun, right?!

“What holiday is it that they’re celebrating?” I asked between swipes at my son’s face with a wipe.

“Shavuos,” he answered, retying his tie for the third time, frowning into the mirror.

“What is that anyway?”  I asked, having no idea.  He mumbled some response that probably was really helpful, but I was too distracted.

We walked through the sticky heat of what was already summer in Jacksonville, Florida, to the nearby Chabad house.  It was small, mostly there for the college students nearby, but there was a young, friendly, energetic Rabbi my daughter immediately nicknamed “Rabbi Smoothie” because she had trouble pronouncing his last name and she really thought he was the coolest.  We didn’t yet know about Mr. Safek’s safek-ness.  At that point, for all any of us knew, he was Jewish.  I swelled with pride when he got an aliyah, even as I struggled with the Hebrew letters in the Siddur.  The kids played with other kids.  I listened to the story of the giving of the Torah and dreamed that maybe, just maybe, one day we could belong here, all of us.

Shavuos was the first Jewish holiday we celebrated, all those years ago, before all the twists and turns.  I already knew then I really wanted to convert and for us to be a Jewish family, but that’s really about all I knew.  I came to our Chabad house wide-eyed, like a child.

I feel like, this year, I have been able to regain some of that childlike wonder and joy that I had lost somehow along the way.  As I pick through my recipes, looking for what will survive in the RV over the Yom Tov, I’m able to find that same freshness and enthusiasm again.  I’d lost that in all the tears and disappointments.  My relationship with Judaism had become one more of duty and commitment and less one of joy and love, like a pendulum that had needed to swing more in that direction, but had swung too far.

Each Shavuos we receive a gift of the Torah anew.  This Shavuos, I really do feel like I’m receiving it again and looking at it with fresh eyes again.  That is a HUGE gift!

Shavuos and Surrender

Imagine you’re sinking below the surface of a deep, dark pool of cool water.  At first, you fight to stay afloat.  You don’t want to drown.  You can’t see what’s in the depths.  You struggle against the water, trying to tread and keep your head above the surface.  Finally, your strength reaches its limits.  You realize your struggle is futile and you can’t continue on.  You let go and let your head slip below the surface, slowly sinking into the depths.

And then you realize you can breathe!

In fact, it’s peaceful here.  Above, there is chaos, fear, and struggle.  Here, deep in these waters?  You’re held, safely.  Like a return to the womb, you are embraced and provided for.  All you had to do was stop struggling against it.

For me, this is what surrender feels like.

I’m a rather stubborn, headstrong person.   Just ask my mother.  In life, this has often served me well.  It’s enabled me to work through difficult times without giving up.  In relationships, it helps me work through conflicts rather than give in to the temptation to walk away.  At work, it gives me the strength to untangle complex issues.  An ox may be stubborn, but it can plow through almost anything, steadily pushing its way through whatever obstacle is there.

The downside is that this also tends to make me try to push my way through the world.  I tend to take on too much responsibility and feel I have too much control over how things will turn out.  As a result, I have to be mindful of this tendency and remind myself that all I can work on is my little piece of any situation and let go of the rest.  I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but it’s still an ongoing practice.

Yesterday I was thinking about Shavuos and this became particularly timely.

Shavuos is a holiday particularly wonderful for converts and conversion candidates.  We read the story of Ruth, a convert and the ancestor of King David, which is inspiring to any convert.  There are delicious dairy foods, Torah study all night long, and the story of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, where it is said that the souls of every convert stood among the souls of every Jew that would be born and all accepted the Torah together.

To me, it’s also a holiday that is all about surrender, which at it’s root is the foundation of my spiritual path in Judaism.

In the story of Ruth, Ruth loves her Mother-in-law so much that she refuses to leave her.  Given that she was leaving behind a life of ease in which she would have been descended from royalty for a life of poverty and an uncertain future, not to mention her Mother-in-law was actively trying to send her and her sister-in-law away, this act would have required a certain amount of stubbornness.  It would have been easier for Ruth to stay in her homeland, but she was determined to go with Naomi, come what may.  However, once they were in Israel, Ruth completely surrendered to whatever she was told to do, no matter how little sense it might make.  She had made her choice to become part of the Jewish people, an act that took strength, but she also realized that after that point, she needed to surrender.

In the story of the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people famously responded, “We will obey and we will hear!”  They promised to obey the laws even before hearing what those laws would be.  They were in complete surrender in awe and love of G-d and willing to do whatever He commanded of them.  Like Ruth, it wasn’t that they were weak-willed or easily led.  They’d proven their inner strength through the survival of years of slavery and the courage it would have taken to leave Egypt and walk into the sea and desert.  They were a people famous for their “stiff-necked” stubbornness, which had helped them survive as a nation.  Still, they were moved to surrender.

Yesterday I had a realization about what is so different now than years ago when I began conversion.  Years ago, I was outwardly obedient to the mitzvos.  I would take on observances and dutifully study laws, but deep inside?  I wasn’t in surrender.  I was still stubbornly pushing my way along, using my strength and determination.  I approached conversion like any other goal I’d faced.  I was willing to put in hard work to get there and the more elusive that goal seemed, the more I would strain and push and struggle, treading that water, working to keep my head above the surface, certain that I would make my way there, that it was MY strength or knowledge or hard work that would reach that destination.  The harder I worked at it, the further that goal seemed to become.

In frustration, I stopped swimming against the current, taking a break from my conversion studies and losing much of my observance.  I still wasn’t willing to surrender, but I realized that the current only took me further from where I wanted to be.  Life was “easier” in some respects, but harder in others in that I felt lost and I missed feeling that richness of meaning.  So, I turned back towards that destination, gazing longingly at the shore, still treading water, but a lot more humble, realizing that no amount of effort of mine was going to get me there, that I simply am not strong enough on my own to fight my way there.

Finally, I have reached a point of surrender.

I’m no longer trying to prove how much I’ve studied or how much I know.  I’m more open to being led and taught and as I re-learn things I thought I already “knew,” I’m picking up little nuances I didn’t see the first time around.  I’m moving slower and finding more peace and joy in my observance.  When I focus on that, the shore that I’m still hoping to reach doesn’t seem quite as important anymore.  I trust that when the time is right, my feet will find their footing and I’ll stand there, G-d willing.  Until then, now that I know I can be held in these waters and breathe them in, I can find the holiness where I am and as I am.

“I will obey and I will hear.”