What Is Mourning?

We’re deep into the 9 Days now, a period of mourning for the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem as well as all the other losses the Jewish people have endured.  There are laws about what we should refrain from doing during this period, from not listening to music, to not washing clothes, eating meat, and others.  Meanwhile, it seems as if there are modern day reminders of loss and mourning all around me.

Far away, there have been tragedies in Israel, where families have lost loved ones due to terrorism there.  I’ve heard of at least three children who have died from drowning.  Closer to home, last week, one of my best childhood friends suffered the loss of her father, a man I’ve known all my life who was a wonderful father and husband and as close as family to my own.  As I try to choose the right condolence gifts and witness their pain from afar, a question comes to me, “What, really, is mourning?”

You’d think I’d be an expert at mourning by now.

My family was decimated by cancer as I grew up.  My grandfather was one of eleven siblings and all but him succumbed to different forms of cancer.  My brother fought cancer in his 20’s, but later died of kidney cancer just a year older than I am now, at 41.  Funerals were regular events of my childhood and I always had a black dress hanging in my closet, waiting.  You would think that mourning and I would be well acquainted by now and perhaps we are.

One thing I have learned about mourning is that it’s unpredictable.  After the loss of a loved one, you can feel great one moment, even be laughing and then some small thing unearths buried pain, like the earth cracking to reveal hot lava underneath.  It rises up when you least expect it and it can feel overwhelming, like you could drown in that much emotion.  The first instinct is to run from it, to escape into work or any diversion you can find.  It sometimes feels like you can’t breath in the tide of all that feeling.

That was how I initially approached my brothers death.  I buried myself in work and I ran long distance.  I pushed my grief aside in a way that Orthodox Jews aren’t allowed to do, due to the laws of shiva.  When you dam off a stream, it may seem more peaceful for a while, the waters gathering to form a placid lake, but if that dam breaks, there is so much built up power.  Eventually, months later, my grief broke free and came out.  I remember coming home from work early to Mr. Safek and suddenly, just kind of crumpling onto the floor, an inhuman howl of pain escaping me as sobs shook my body.  He just held me and let me cry, which was the kindest thing anyone could have done.  It all needed to come out, like poison from a wound.

Which brings me back to the 9 Days.

Collectively, Jews have a pain that goes back thousands of years, welled up inside and fed by the losses that just keep coming to a people who has lost so much.  A coworker, weeks ago when I explained Tisha B’Av, asked me why Jews would have such an unhappy holiday and I found myself struggling to find the right words to explain it to him.  I guess, holy days of mourning help relieve the pressure of that buried sadness, that grief that lurks beneath.  We mourn together much like my husband holding me as I sobbed, letting out all that has pent up so that we can move on with the business of joy and creation.  Periods of mourning, like the Jewish custom of sitting shiva, force us to confront our grief rather than running from it like I did my grief at the loss of my brother.  The customs and laws surrounding the 3 weeks and the 9 days constantly remind us of things perhaps we would otherwise avoid thinking about, gently returning us to contemplate our loss.

My family practiced a very stoic way of dealing with death, which is to say, we avoided dealing with it and certainly didn’t acknowledge public grief.  Tears might be allowed a little during an actual funeral, but then we were expected to stuff those emotions back down and carry on.  That only works so long until all that feeling begins to sour to poison.

I prefer the Jewish way of facing grief, less like an enemy and more like a healer.  It’s bitter medicine to be sure, but allowing it to bring our pain to the surface to be washed away by tears feels so much healthier.

May Hashem comfort all those who mourn among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

I Woke Before the Dawn Today

The sun’s long reign has all but ended
the day dawns later
dark, rainy, a chilly pricking at my face
the clouds are low
the mountains hidden

The sun was arrogant
stealing away the night
overreaching, grasping too far
now, the night spies her chance
she begins to push him to retreat

Creation senses the impending victory
bears scrambling to eat their fill
animals preparing for their long flights south
saying their goodbyes to the midnight sun
humans trying to deny the inevitable

The time for lighting candles first inches closer
then moves in leaps
the neverending Sabbath becomes more sensible
then diminishes
we must rush to be ready

Now is a time for preparing
for last moments with the sun
for doing what has been put off
the list grows long
Fall looms near

Every Day Has Its Song

Every day is given its own song
In Hebrew, the Shir Shel Yom
they say every word of Torah was sung
As G-d sung the world into creation
A neverending song

Song sung without lips, words without sound
a frequency beyond our hearing
even a dog’s ears cannot hear
without song, nothing would be
existence ceasing the moment the tune ends

if my life is a song, what key is it sung?
is the melody happy or sad?
the tune smooth and flowing
or discordant as experimental jazz?
is my song light and lilting or heavy?

Somehow, the composer creates all songs at once
they all fit together, adding to the symphony
and no human ears can hear
no matter how different, they harmonize
blending into one note of creation

Does my song add or detract from this beauty?
Is my song important, or would it disappear unnoticed?
Is the song of my life the way the Writer intended?
Or am I sung off-key, out of tune?
Am I the instrument I was meant to be?

The singer sings on all the same.

The 9 Days and the Month of Av

It’s Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av.  Every beginning of each Jewish month is celebrated as Rosh Chodesh (literally the head of the month), a mini-holiday that is particularly tied to women.  Many women take the day off from all housework and relax a bit or say tehillim (psalms).  This month, though, it’s also the beginning of the 9 Days, an intensified period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

It’s particularly poignant this year as greater tensions have broken out after Israel placed metal detectors on the Temple Mount following armed terrorist attacks that killed 2 policemen.  The terrorists brought their weapons from the Temple Mount.  I guess I always assumed that the Temple Mount already had metal detectors, like the Kotel and most major public sites do these days.  Now there has been another terrorist attack, killing three in a family who was just sitting down to their Shabbos meal and celebrating the birth of a grandson and protests keep breaking out in Jerusalem and in Jordan, where an embassy guard was stabbed with a screwdriver and then managed to fight off and kill his attackers.

Just as thousands of years ago, Jews feel under siege.

My Rabbi had a very profound thought about all of this chaos.  He reminded us that the month of Av is named after the Hebrew word Av, meaning father.  It also means a close relationship, like a Daddy, rather than a stern, disapproving father.  The month in which we reach our highest mourning and all the world seems against the Jews, is also the month in which Hashem comes close to us, to comfort us as a Father holding his children in his arms.

Several fathers have died in this round of terror, from one of the policemen in the first attack who had a newborn to the father of 5 in the stabbing attack whose wife saved their children by barricading herself in another room and calling the police to the grandfather of that same family.  It’s my sincere hope that their families are drawn close to Hashem and comforted now, along with all those who mourn this month.  May all the tears be turned to joy and the coming of Moshiach.

Explaining Rashi’s Daughters to My Own

My daughter is a fierce little fireball of energy.  At 11 years old, she’s smart and capable and living in Alaska has shown her that she can do just about anything she sets her mind to.  She’s cross-country skied in a skirt, ridden horseback, done a zipline, and fished for salmon.  Alaska is definitely a place where women stand toe to toe with men, outnumbered as they are, but equipped with pink tackleboxes and 4 wheelers.

It’s on this backdrop that she wrestles with questions like, “Why can’t I wear tefillin?  Why can’t I have an aliyah?”  She looks for her place within Orthodox Judaism much as I did when I first encountered this world where gender roles seemed to be set back to a much older time than the world outside.

The way I see it, it’s my job to try to help her understand the complexity of what she’s seeing rather than try to make her decisions for her.  I openly tell her that if she chooses a different path when she’s an adult, I’ll still love her every bit as much.  I do try to explain why I, a woman who works as an engineer and teaches girls about STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, and Math) as a volunteer, also is comfortable sitting on my side of the mechitza (the partition that separates men from women when they pray in an Orthodox Synagogue).

It’s hard to fully articulate how I came to find not only peace, but fulfillment in traditional Orthodox Jewish gender roles.  It’s even harder to fully articulate that in terms that my 11 year old will fully grasp at her season of life.  Still, after some wrestling, I have embraced those roles.  It helps that I’ve had some great examples of strong, intelligent Orthodox women and that they were open to discussing with me what bothered them and what didn’t and why.  It’s important to remember that like any group of people, Orthodox women are not some monolithic hivemind.  We’re all individuals and what deeply upsets one woman might not even be on the radar of another.

My daughter, though, specifically wanted to know why women can’t/don’t wear tefillin, which men wear each morning in prayer.

Which brought Rashi’s daughters to my mind.  Rashi wrote what is arguably the greatest commentary on the Torah ever written.  It’s considered so important that it’s generally included, untranslated, in every Chumash and even has it’s own form of Hebrew script.  It’s safe to say that he was a man with a very deep and expansive mind and a very pious man who was always trying to dig deeper into the Torah and understand it better.  There are numerous anecdotes about his daughters, who it’s assumed also inherited his great intellect and love of Torah and it’s said that his daughters did adopt several observances that are traditionally reserved only for men.

The difference I see is that Rashi’s daughters adopted these practices in private.  They did it after extensive study and perfecting the mitzvahs they were already obligated in.  They didn’t do it to make any statement about gender equality, but in search of a greater connection to Hashem.  They didn’t do it in place of mitzvahs that they were already obligated in, but in addition to them.

The idea that men are somehow more important because their religious life is more publicly visible suggests that only that which is publicly visible is really important.  I would argue that it’s often that which is private that is more potent and transformative.  It’s what we do, each day, in our homes that makes a bigger impact on our families and those closest to us than whatever face we wear for the outside world.  I’ve also come to firmly believe that men and women are different, inside and out, that we are not just interchangeable.  I am not a smaller, weaker version of a man, but something else entirely and men are not a rougher, less sensitive version of women.

Men are inherently external creatures.  From their physicality to their drives and desires, they are made to go out into the world.  Their pursuit of connection to Hashem is an external one.  They go out to learn Torah and daven together as if they were a hunting party.  Holiness is something they seek as if it was outside themselves and they go out to find it and bring it back with them to where they can integrate it.  Women, in contrast, contain worlds within them.  Our ability to hold new life inside us is only the tip of the iceberg of all this hidden wonder.  Our bodies move in harmony with natural cycles along with all of creation.  By acting as if we are simply smaller men, we sell ourselves short.  We are made to seek our connection to Hashem inwardly.  We don’t need to go out to find it and in fact, for most women, this is actually harder for us than seeking it inwardly.  The mitzvos particularly tied to women are ones which engage our senses and pull us down into our bodies rather than up high in our thoughts.

This is not to say that women lack the intellectual capacity to engage with anything, but that we have a deeper, hidden connection to Hashem that is more powerful than that which we could reach with only our minds.  Our hearts, our tears, and our love are so much stronger.

Which brings me back to what I told my daughter about Rashi’s daughters.  I explained to her that if I had perfected all the mitzvahs that I am obligated in already and studied exhaustively everything that was given to women to study, then and only then, I would begin to try on men’s mitzvahs or learning Gemara, in private, to further my connection to Hashem.  I’m a far way from that myself and with the amount that is open to women, I doubt I’ll ever get there.  Until then, I have my own work to do rather than being jealous of the work given to men.

We also talked about how we divide up chores in our family, my son and Abba having different chores than her and I.  That doesn’t make their chores more important and it’s easier for our household if not everyone is all trying to do the same things.

I still believe that the sexes are equal, that we should all be respected, paid equally, and treated with dignity and kindness, but I no longer believe that means we should be the same.  I think there is great beauty in the polarity there and that we are stronger when we embrace our differences rather than trying to pretend there are none.

My daughter seemed satisfied with the conversation, at least for now.  I hope that as she grows, she continues to have women in her life that are able to explain these things with nuance and sensitivity as well as men who treat her with respect rather than as something less than.

40 Years as a Stubborn Optimist

Today is my 40th birthday.  40 years ago, as family legend goes, my father was busy putting up a windmill on our farm with a few other men helping him.  My mother, rather pregnant, but not near her due date, came out to bring them some ice tea on that hot July day and casually mentioned that she’d gone into labor and the men comically scattered.  My father rushed her to the nearest hospital and I was born soon after, premature and tiny.  I was quickly rushed to a helicopter with my father trailing along behind, to be transported to a larger hospital with a NICU.  My mother had sent him while they cared for her.  She wound up requiring a hysterectomy.

My parents never spoke much about just how early I was or how long I really spent in the hospital.  They do talk about how my heart stopped twice on that helicopter ride, how I was given last rites on the way, and how they waited a month before letting my grandparents see me…even then they immediately began mourning, certain I would die.  I had already fought off death twice.  I did survive, coming home in doll clothes because there were no premie clothes then, with a scar on my head from where tubes had been inserted that I have to this day.  I was even part of a study the state sponsored to see what the long term outcome would be for babies as premature as I was, to determine if we would have the potential for normal lives after such a traumatic beginning…if it was ethical to save our lives or if it simply prolonged suffering.

This is how I came into the world, stubbornly clinging to life when my body really wasn’t developed enough to survive.

I did grow up and I’m about as tall as my family tree could hope for me to be.  I lagged behind on physical milestones, but I was always ahead on mental development milestones.  I was always a bit uncoordinated and not athletic and my immune system has often seemed wimpy, but it’s tough to know if any of that is the result of being born too early or just the luck of the draw.

Over the years, I’ve wondered at the deeper implications of my beginning.  At first, I wondered if I’d been meant to die.  Maybe I wasn’t meant for this world and I’d been snatched from my destiny?  When I learned about the idea of converts being born with Jewish souls from the beginning, I wondered if, perhaps, during one of those times when my heart stopped and I could have been dead…did my non-Jewish soul leave my body and a new one become placed there, a Jewish soul?  These are questions I’ll have to wait to ask one day, G-d willing, many years from now.

For now, it’s enough to know that I have had an amazing 40 years of life.  I’ve searched and wandered and had so many adventures.  I still can stare, wide-eyed in wonder at something new I’ve seen or learned.  I still approach life with curiosity and I love finding new corners to explore.  I’m still stubborn and while it can be frustrating at times, it’s definitely served me well when it comes to commitments.  I don’t give up on the people or things that are important to me.

I like to think that those very early experiences taught me that it does no good to dwell on what “should” be, but instead to simply choose to believe in what “could” be.  By all rights, I should have died.  The odds were definitely stacked high against my survival.  Happily, I was far too young to realize this and I was surrounded by people I’ll never know who were determined to help me fight those odds.  I lived because I had no way of knowing that I shouldn’t and I had optimistic medical professionals around me who were on my side.  As I grew up, I’d apply for scholarships for summer programs and anything else without even really considering if I was capable of winning them.  I didn’t stop to think of the odds against it, but filled out those applications, wrote those essays and sent them off…and I’ve done the same with job applications.  After all, if I don’t try, I’ll absolutely never win.

My mother once remarked that she was always amazed that I’ve never been afraid of heading off into the unknown.  I’ve packed my bags and flown off to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language or know anyone…multiple times.  Each time, it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a wonderful adventure or that I wouldn’t be able to figure out what I needed to in order to survive.  Each time, I’ve found what I needed and any hardships?  Those were just a part of the great adventure.  I would say it’s faith in Hashem, except perhaps it’s not always been a conscious faith.  I had this faith that things always work out as they should even before I could put a name to it, a faith that there is some kind of goodness in the world that means that things do work out as long as I do my part to help it.

Just as it doesn’t occur to me to be afraid or to let the odds against something slow me down, it also most often doesn’t occur to me that this kind of perspective is unusual.  I’m genuinely surprised when I encounter someone who doesn’t have this kind of faith.  I’ve often felt foreign even among friends because I do have such a different view of the world, but I can’t imagine wanting to live a life full of doubt, particularly if that doubt held me back from my next big adventure.  I’d rather simply leap, not knowing what waits, than be stuck questioning and doubting, paralyzed by fear.

40 years has taken me to places as far flung as Japan, Europe, Israel, and across the US.  I’ve seen some of the most beautiful things in nature and that man has created.  I’ve met so many interesting and intriguing people.  I’ve been privileged to partner in creation, bringing two new lives into this world and I’ve had the honor of helping them begin their adventures in this world.  I’ve loved intensely and fiercely, hurt deeply, and learned so much.

I can’t say I could wish for much more, but I was so happy to say Modeh Ani this morning because I really am curious about what the next chapter in my life will be.

The one thing I do know is that I’m here for some reason, because I can’t really explain why I was able to escape death so close and sure otherwise even as I tried to take my first breaths.  Where I once wondered if my life was a mistake, I now see that it’s anything but a mistake.  Whatever I’m here to do, it must be so important that I was allowed to beat those odds and it must be that I’m not yet finished because I’m still here and still breathing.

Baruch Hashem…what a privilege it is.

Everyday Holiness

One of the things I love most about Judaism is the awareness and intention it can bring to even the most mundane and everyday of tasks.  Growing up, “religion” was something that was always separate from everyday life.  We went to church on certain days and not others.  We prayed only on certain days or at certain times.  Religion was an obligation to be taken care of and THEN you lived your life and in church it seemed like everyday life was inherently unholy and that holiness was something separate that you only touched briefly when you were in church unless you were part of the clergy.  It wasn’t for just any layperson or any day and it certainly wasn’t found in the “worldly” world around us.

This never quite fit with my own personal experience of the world, even as a child.

I felt more connected with whatever that “more is out there” was when I was out in the world, particularly the natural world, than I ever did in the stuffy air behind stained glass windows.  To me, it seemed like the dark wood pews, frowning statues of saints, and stained glass more seemed to keep what I felt was something more out.  I know understand that Hashem was even there because there is no place He isn’t, but as a child it seemed to me that church was the last place I could find that connection.

Judaism is so different when it comes to everyday life and religion’s place in it.

An observant Jew’s day is filled with prayer and almost every aspect of the day is given greater intention, from what we wear, to how we speak, to what and how we eat.  I open my eyelids and, as tired as I was having to wake up extra early for work at 4am, I utter the first prayer of the day, Modeh Ani, thanking Hashem for giving my soul back to me and giving me another day here in this life.  Blessings and prayers are on my lips throughout my day and each day involves some kind of study of Torah.  My faith isn’t something confined to certain days or times, but is integrated into every waking moment.  Even working on a firewall at work can have a greater purpose and intention and should.  We’re asked to elevate the mundane everyday into something greater, not try to escape it.

Perhaps the most perfect and visible example of this is how a Jew eats.  Most people are aware of the basics of kosher, that there are some things a Jew shouldn’t eat and that even the foods that are permitted need to be prepared in very certain ways.  Really, though, that’s only the beginning.  The Jewish table is not a feeding trough, but an altar.  Each meal is a sacrifice, carefully and lovingly prepared.  Just as in the times of the temple when the Priests would eat the sacrifices, both the meat of the animals sacrificed and the meal offerings, so to is each Jew like a Priest offering up and eating a sacrifice.

We bless Hashem before we eat or drink anything, thanking him for our food, but also acknowledging where our food came from.  We have to know if a fruit or vegetable grew on a tree or from another plant or if something was made of certain grains.  It requires awareness of how our food grows.  In addition, there is a blessing that must be recited the first time we eat a fruit each year, which really makes each first time as if it is THE first time I had an apple or a peach.  As I take a fruit in my hand, I have to know where it came from and remember if I’ve enjoyed that fruit already this year or if this is my first peach all year.  Afterward, there are more blessings, again thanking Hashem for creating all this food.

Last night, in a class on the weekly parsha (weekly Torah portion), one of our Rabbis asked a very good question.  If Hashem could create people any way He chose, why create them so that they needed to eat at all?  Angels don’t have to eat and He could just as easily have created humans so that they never needed to eat anything.  The answer was that everything contains sparks of holiness that need to be elevated and when it comes to food, we elevate those sparks back to the Creator by eating it.  There’s a little more to it, though.

If I eat mindlessly, without blessings, intention, or awareness and then I use the energy from that food either wastefully or to do bad things, then I really am not elevating that food or the sparks of holiness within it at all.  If, however, I eat only what I need and do so with intention and awareness and blessings to the Creator of it, then use the energy from that food to make the world a little better, doing acts of chesed (kindness) and mitzvos, then I certainly have elevated the sparks of holiness in that food, returning them to their source, Hashem.

From a Chassidic perspective, that’s the entire purpose of creation, for us to gather the treasure that our Father has hidden in this world and return it to Him.  That treasure isn’t just in special buildings with stained glass and marble, but in everything around us every single day.  It is even within us and every person we interact with.

Even something as simple as eating a piece of fruit can be holy and a deeply, profoundly religious act of sacrifice to Hashem.

To me, this heals a wound I felt as a child, not understanding the duality I was taught which seemed to contradict a greater truth that my heart already knew…that there is no separation between faith and religion and the mundane, that Hashem is everywhere and in all things and that our lives were meant to be filled with that awareness, not just reminded of it on certain holy days.

We are meant to be one as well.