The Beautiful Captive – Parshas Ki Teitzei

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion) is a doozy.  Even just from a perspective of trying to process it all, this week’s parsha has 74 of the Torah’s 613 mitzvahs in it, so that’s a lot to take in.  Interestingly, though, this week’s parsha also has a lot of mitzvahs regarding women.  My dear friend over at her blog, Jewish Thoughts, has already begun to wrestle with this weeks’ parsha in her post a few days ago, Parshas Ki Teitzei:  I Have No Answers.  It’s a really good post and you should check it and her blog out.  Every week, she gives a great Dvar Torah there.

For me, there’s a unique perspective that I bring to parshas like this one in that both the portions that can seem problematic as they deal with women and relationships between men and women apply to me, so too do the portions that deal specifically with non-Jews and non-Jewish women.  This week’s parsha begins with a real big one that hits these intersection points:

If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives, יכִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ:
11and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take [her] for yourself as a wife. יאוְרָאִ֨יתָ֙ בַּשִּׁבְיָ֔ה אֵ֖שֶׁת יְפַת־תֹּ֑אַר וְחָֽשַׁקְתָּ֣ בָ֔הּ וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֥ לְךָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה:
12You shall bring her into your home, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow. יבוַֽהֲבֵאתָ֖הּ אֶל־תּ֣וֹךְ בֵּיתֶ֑ךָ וְגִלְּחָה֙ אֶת־רֹאשָׁ֔הּ וְעָֽשְׂתָ֖ה אֶת־צִפָּֽרְנֶֽיהָ:
13And she shall remove the garment of her captivity from upon herself, and stay in your house, and weep for her father and her mother for a full month. After that, you may be intimate with her and possess her, and she will be a wife for you. יגוְהֵסִ֩ירָה֩ אֶת־שִׂמְלַ֨ת שִׁבְיָ֜הּ מֵֽעָלֶ֗יהָ וְיָֽשְׁבָה֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ וּבָֽכְתָ֛ה אֶת־אָבִ֥יהָ וְאֶת־אִמָּ֖הּ יֶ֣רַח יָמִ֑ים וְאַ֨חַר כֵּ֜ן תָּב֤וֹא אֵלֶ֨יהָ֙ וּבְעַלְתָּ֔הּ וְהָֽיְתָ֥ה לְךָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה:
14And it will be, if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes, but you shall not sell her for money. You shall not keep her as a servant, because you have afflicted her.

It’s not hard for me to imagine the plight of the woman in this section here.  Her people have been conquered by the Israelites and probably most of the men in her family have been killed.  She is now a slave and among the other captives taken from her homeland and, lucky her, a Jewish man finds her attractive and desires her.  So, the Torah creates this situation where she comes into his home, shaves her head, lets her fingernails grow, and mourns her lost family for a month.  At the end of the month, best case scenario, she must marry her captor whether she wishes to or not and worst case scenario, she is freed but without a penny to her name, essentially with her hair grown back about a month and the equivalent of a bus ticket to wherever she wishes to go.

The explanations I’ve heard for this mitzvah are mostly that it was meant to stop soldiers from simply raping female captives, which is sadly even now common in war.  By creating rules about how a man can take a captive woman as his wife, the Torah acknowledges that this is a common urge among soldiers in war, to claim the prettiest among the conquered peoples’ women as their own and instead of simply telling the men “no” which they likely would not follow, a procedure is given that would stop men from casually taking these women and give the women some protections if the men did desire them.

The Torah often speaks of the dangers of men taking wives from other peoples, so another explanation given is that this law is there to try to stop that from happening, with the idea that in most cases, once this woman has shaved her head and begun mourning for a month, her newness will have worn off and the man’s attraction will have cooled and in almost all cases, he would then let her go free, thus avoiding a marriage which might later lead him into idolatry.

These both are very practical responses.

I do take some comfort in the idea that the IDF doesn’t regularly practice this mitzvah, but the modern woman in me still asks, “What about this woman’s wants and needs?  Is she not even asked IF she wants to marry this man?”  The Torah is silent over whether her consent is required at any part of this process.  How is this that much better than rape?

And then I realize that the mitzvahs deal with the reality of our world, unflinchingly, not with the world as I might want it to be.  You don’t have to look far in the news to find stories of women and girls that are taken as slaves and raped as part of warfare.  Their consent is never asked and many spend years enslaved and abused.  That is reality as much as I don’t like to think about it.  While our technology may have changed, human nature remains and warfare often brings out the very worst in humanity, particularly where the most vulnerable are concerned.

What the Torah seems to be trying to do here is to force some responsibility for the women trapped in this situation.  He does not get to simply take her right then and there and then leave her to her plight.  He must wait and he must provide for her while he waits.  Then, after that month, he has to decide if he really wants her and if he does, it must be as his wife, with all the rights any other wife would have, not as a slave.  He can’t sell her off to anyone else and must support her as he would any other wife.  Ostensibly, she would convert and become part of the Jewish people and her children would inherit as his children.  If he decides not to have her, he must set her free and send her wherever she wishes to go.  In many cases, it probably would have been one of the few ways she would have avoided being a slave for life in these circumstances.

If human nature was perfect, no soldier would ever rape an enemy’s women, but human nature is not always perfect and the mitzvos are written to help improve us.  I may not find the plight of the beautiful captive perfect, but it is so far better than the reality of warfare without the mitzvahs, even today that I can see the good in it.

The truth of human nature, written within the Torah, is sometimes a hard and difficult truth.  It’s like a mirror in which we see a true reflection rather than the reflection we’d like to see.  Torah challenges us to look at that reflection as it is, not as how we’d wish it to be and wrestle with that disparity.

I’m just glad my husband never had me shave my head and let my fingernails grow before he married me, but then, he also did not have to conquer my people, either.

Thinking of Houston From Alaska

Alaskans and Texans share a bond, created both in the common oil industries that support each state and in the pioneer spirit that the inhabitants of both states seem to possess.  Alaska is often filled with Texan transplants, both companies and workers and we often playfully tease each other, with Alaskans pointing out that while Texans are so proud of their “big state,” actually Alaska is far bigger.

Right now, though, Texas is reeling and in particular, Houston, which also has a sizeable Orthodox Jewish community.  Like most Orthodox communities, their community is tight-knit and geographically close together and, unfortunately, they are in a part of the city that has been hit hard by tropical storm Harvey.  I found this firsthand account by the Rebbetzin of one of their Orthodox Synagogues and it’s very moving:


I am originally from Belle Harbor, New York, and we moved to Houston 14 years ago so my husband could become the rabbi of an Orthodox shul here. There are about 50,000 Jews living in the Houston area.

This is the 3rd time our house has flooded. In 2015 we were living in a house we owned across the street from our shul, and there was a storm that flooded the shul, our house, as well as many others. We had about 3 feet of water in our house and lost all of our furniture and a lot of our possessions. We lived with our neighbors down the street for 3 months, and then in a rental apartment for a year.

During our time in the rental apartment, in April 2016, Houston flooded again and many people from our community got flooded a 2nd time . The house we had left also flooded then, but we had not returned to it, so it didn’t impact us much.

Now Hurricane Harvey has hit Houston and we are flooded again. Since our house had flooded twice already, we had decided not to return to it and bought a new house, one that historically had never flooded.

We moved into it last year in June and we were confident that we would never get flooded again.

Saturday night, after Shabbos, the rain was coming down heavily and very quickly the streets were filling up with water.

Even though our house had never flooded in the past, we began to become concerned and started to lift things up off the floor- we put our couch on folding chairs, wrapped the legs of our table with plastic bags, and lifted up anything that was on a bottom shelf.

All Saturday night, it rained and rained, and we saw that the water was steadily creeping up toward our front door.

By Sunday morning, we really thought our house was going to flood (our house only has one floor, so we could not go upstairs to escape the rising water).

So we quickly packed a “go bag”- electronics, important papers, a change of clothing, and left our home with a kayak/raft.

Starting about 5 am on Sunday, some members of our community had been going around the neighborhood helping people evacuate from their homes to safer places.

We went to a friend’s house – she has a 2nd floor so we knew we would be safe even if her first floor flooded. In the end, she had 24 people in her home, plus a dog. Power went out quickly, and we all spent a long night alternating between a hot, dark second floor and running to the hallway during tornado warnings.

Today (Monday, August 28th) even though it is still raining heavily, the water has subsided somewhat. We walked to our house to see the damage- we have about 2 feet of water in the house and many things are ruined.

Thank G-d, for us this flood is better for us than the one 2 years ago, because we’ve had less water and we had some time to prepare and get ready.

Our house is not livable right now. We are spending tonight at our local day school which has power and air conditioning. The next step for everyone here is to wait for the rain to stop- and then to begin cleanup and the fixing of our home. While we fix our house we may rent an apartment, but there will be a rush now on any available housing.

My in-laws moved down to Houston a few years ago from New York to be close to us, so once we can get to their apartment (right now roads are impassable) we can stay with them for a while.

We have 5 kids- 3 are not home right now. Sam (21) is a Yeshiva University student. Lilly (20) is at Stern College. Ben (18) is learning in yeshiva in Israel. Eli (13) and Amichai (10) are with us.

All our children are very upset and anxious. They feel betrayed because after going through the 2015 flood and losing their house and many of their possessions, we had told them that this new house would be safe and not flood and now, here they are, going through this all over again. My older kids feel nervous and message us often to see if we are OK and to find out what is happening.

Our shul- United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) sustained terrible damage. In 2015, part of it flooded but a raised social hall was available after the flood to hold services and as a safe meeting place for the community. This time, the water was so high that every part of the shul was flooded – the sanctuary, beit midrash, social halls, mikvah…Torahs were saved and removed before this past Shabbat, but everything else has water damage

Also, here in Houston, we have a few different areas that have Orthodox shuls. This storm affected ALL of them (some more than others). It has affected so many people- many who were the ones offering help in 2015. This will be an issue going forward as we will have so many more people who will need help to recover.

Locally and nationally, we have received an outpouring of love and support. Right away, messages and calls were coming in- to see how people could help and to check if we were OK. Since we are still in the thick of the storm, really nothing can be done right now. Afterwards we will need so much assistance.

What gives me chizuk? The outpouring of kindness and goodness that we see during a disaster like this gives you faith in humankind in general. Specifically, in our Jewish community, where we know that we will band together, and help each other.
People will not be left homeless and will not be alone. The Jewish community is already gathering information on the needs people will have

There are no divisions- Orthodox, Modern, Conservative, Reform- whatever label you associate with- after an event like this- all Jews are family, and family helps family.

I’ve also heard of Chabad of Houston coming together to help feed people as well as countless acts of kindness and bravery by the people living there and those who have come from all over the country to help where they can.

If you would like to help the Orthodox Jewish community of Houston now, either with a donation or tehillim, these links can help:

To donate to assist the struggling Jews of Houston whose homes have been flooded (some of whom, unfortunately, do not have flood insurance), you can visit the website of United Orthodox Synagogues ( or The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston (…). Visit the website of the Orthodox Union ( to send chizuk to Houston’s Jewish community and to sign up to say Tehillim.

The only good thing about storms like these is that it gives all of us a chance to show the very best side of humanity and to come together to help each other.

What You Get With Waiting

We had a good meeting with our sponsoring Rabbi last night who reassured us that he still plans on us converting in April 2018.  He has plans and is confident that they will work out.  So, we have only to trust him and continue doing what we’re doing.

While this has all been playing out, I have been thinking a lot about our process, now entering its 7th year and I’ve been looking at what we have gained by having a longer conversion process than is usual in the US.  I think a lot of these benefits could apply to anyone who is going through a long process without a clear timeline to reach any goal, but perhaps they will be of particular comfort to anyone who is going through a prolonged Orthodox Jewish conversion.

My Children Will Be Unlikely to Take Their Judaism For Granted.

In our Chabad house, there are often teenagers who breeze in and out, the girls wearing leggings as pants, the boys casually taking an aliyah, grabbing some kiddush, and then breezing out.  For these young people, Judaism is just one small part of who they are and often more of a burden to them than a blessing.  Because our children have worked and waited to be Jews for most of their young lives, I have less fear that they will take being Jewish for granted.  I can’t guarantee any more than any other parent that my children will always be observant, but I think the odds are probably better because of the process we’ve been through.  It’s harder to walk away from something you’ve spent years working hard to earn.

Our Family Knows How to Be Observant

For better or worse, conversion candidates are required to really study the ins and outs of Orthodox Judaism, often in a more structured way than born Jews are given.  In some ways, I feel like it might actually be harder for aspiring BT’s to become observant because there is less pressure from outside of them, at least in some of the communities I’ve been a part of.  Because kiruv organizations are eager to make sure that newer BT’s feel welcomed, they often don’t tell them what they may be doing “wrong” or don’t feel like they can give too much direction at one time.  Since Judaism is not obligated to accept converts and doesn’t seek them, there is no real fear of driving them away to hinder giving them direction when it comes to study or observance or giving them correction.

In many, many ways, this has been a great gift to our family in that we’ve been taught what we need to do in order to take on mitzvos and we were able to learn all that before we were obligated.  We got years of practice time.  3 day yom tovim coming up?  No worries, we’ve been through them before.  Weird kashrus situation?  Odds are that I’ve either been through it or I already know who best to ask.  My husband who was raised in Orthodox day schools even learned a lot he didn’t know through this process, often when it comes to things that to him were things you “just do.”  When I would ask “ok, why?” then we’d find ourselves going down a rabbit hole that led to us both learning a lot more.  We wouldn’t have this kind of experience and confidence if we’d converted in just a year and we would have faced having to learn and make mistakes as we went along.

We Know Orthodoxy Is Where We Best Fit

Many converts wander through different streams of Judaism.  In most cases, they convert Reform or Conservative and then later pursue an Orthodox conversion, often after they’ve discovered that an Orthodox community is a better fit for them.  Sometimes, though, they wander in the other direction, which is more problematic from an Orthodox perspective.  Our family has spent time in several different Orthodox communities as well as visited a Conservative community and spent a year in a Reform community.  I actually recommend to people interested in conversion that they first visit as many different streams as they can before speaking to any Rabbi about the conversion process so that they can know where they will most likely be happy and only need to convert once.  It also helps later no matter which stream of Judaism you choose because in smaller communities, you will often encounter and interact with people from all the major streams and it’s good to understand their perspectives a little better.

Every time we visited a Conservative or Reform Synagogue…it only made us want to go back to an Orthodox Synagogue more.  It was like visiting a place that was close enough to home to remind you of home but just different enough to make you miss home.  I would guess that Reform or Conservative Jews probably feel similar when they visit an Orthodox Synagogue.  We also found that what we believed just fit so much better with Orthodoxy.  I really think it’s so much better to take the time to make sure that you’ve found the right fit BEFORE you’ve converted and made a commitment!

In addition, we’ve gotten to experience different Orthodox communities.  We’ve been to a more Modern Orthodox shul, a more religious Zionist shul, a Yeshivish shul, and plenty of different Chabad shuls as well as Dati Leumi shuls in Israel and seen how each different flavor has its own distinctive spin on Orthodox Judaism.  On the plus side, we’ve found something to admire in all of them and I think we could find a home in almost any of them, except perhaps a really Modern shul.  On the downside, I’m not sure I can give up some of the amazing things I’ve found in each of them.  I love reading Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, but I also enjoy mind blowing Tanya classes, and I really get into studying Mussar.  I might not have been exposed to such a wide swath of Orthodox Judaism if we had simply stayed in one community and easily converted there and I feel like I might have missed out.

We’re Past Our Awkward Stage (Ok, Mostly)

All conversion candidates go through awkward stages.  I’m sure BT’s also do, but maybe it’s less noticeable to me?  I see a conversion candidate struggling to know what they should do in a situation and I try to quietly reach out and help because I know that feeling.  There is an initial awkward stage around basic observance, but there are other awkward stages as well.  There’s mispronouncing basic Hebrew and Yiddish words, the cringe inducing attempts to shake hands with the opposite sex, figuring out how to dress tznius in a way that is comfortable for you, and then those fits and starts of sometimes going too far in observance too fast.  There’s also learning how to navigate Jewish culture and growing in confidence that yes, you belong here.

I could probably tell a dozen embarrassing stories from my own family’s experiences, just off the top of my head.

Our family has been gifted years to work through all this, sheltered from much judgment as we do and we’ll have few people who remember our awkward stages, at least until we hit our next awkward stage.  I like to think we’re kind of at the level now of Jewish adolescents, so I’m sure we’ll make some more mistakes at times that will have our friends and family grimacing for us, but I feel like the worst is probably past us.

We’ve Grown Really Close

I beam with pride when people compliment me on our children and how close-knit our family is, but really…a lot of it is a result of how much we’ve been through together.  When you can’t be invited for holidays, you spend them together as a family.  There have been many times that the only people who really understood what we were going through…were the people living in our house, our family.  We have comforted each other, watched out for each other, and learned with each other.  My son has helped me with my Hebrew reading when he’s gone past my level in his studies.  My daughter and I have stumbled over words together, learning to read at the same time.  My husband and I have had to navigate challenges in our marriage that came from the conversion process and find our way through them together.

Yes, my kids are becoming teenagers and sometimes my son rolls his eyes at me, but he’s also such a thoughtful and kind young man.  He’s come over and hugged me to cheer me up when he’s seen me looking down and left out at a holiday party.  My daughter may be moody sometimes, but she’s also right there to pitch in and help me when I feel overwhelmed preparing for a holiday or Shabbos.  Conversion has put our family in a pressure cooker…and we’ve been tenderized by it.

Judaism Is No Longer Something We Do.  It’s What We Are

I think this might be the biggest gift a long conversion process will give you.  At some point, when we’re talking just to ourselves, we stopped speaking of being Jewish as if it was something that might happen in the future.  We stopped mentally cutting ourselves out of the stories in the parsha, reminding ourselves these weren’t our ancestors.  My children, when talking, will say something and explain it as, “Well, we’re Jewish, so…” without any equivocation.  We’re all aware that we’re halakhically not Jewish, but that difference begins to mean less and less on a daily basis.

At some point, we stopped striving and learning and studying to BECOME Jews and began just learning and observing because we ARE Jews, except for those parts we still need to keep because, technically, we aren’t.  I know it might be a little confusing of a line, but I think it’s an important part of becoming a part of the Jewish people that we no longer stumble over the morning blessing where we thank Hashem for not having been born a non-Jew…because I really do feel like I’m just a Jew that needs some paperwork.  When I read the parsha, I feel a connection to the Avos and Imas as real as to my blood ancestors and I read those stories as my history, no longer as the history of my husband’s people.


I do think that our family probably could have been ready to convert years ago and it might have saved us some heartache, but I also think that we have grown a lot through having a longer process.  If you’re in the process of conversion and it seems like it’s going to take longer than other converts you have known, please do not lose heart.  Hashem has a unique process for each of us and it’s hard to know what twists and turns you might encounter along the way.  As hard as it is to wait, it may be exactly what is needed to help you reach where you need to be.

After the Rain

I’ve been silent for a while, contemplating my own personal storm that was shaking up my little world when I began to see pictures yesterday of a real storm, one that has displaced so many people, the storm down in Houston, Texas.  Seeing that level of devastation puts my own storm into a much more proper perspective.  My home is safe and sound as are my loved ones.  I remember living in Florida when tropical storms would roll through and the mess that they can make, but I never had to survive a storm like the people in Houston are now facing.

It also brought to mind that moment after the storm passes, when people begin to come back or come out of their homes and survey the damage, taking stock of what is now lost and what remains and beginning to clean up and make plans to rebuild.  This always happens after physical storms and I think there is a similar process after the smaller storms in our lives.

After our big news last week, we’ve begun that process in our own lives.

One thing I quickly realized was that more is left intact than was damaged or put into danger.  I also realized that, regardless, our path forward is still pretty much the same.  We need to keep learning and growing and somehow, someday, the conversion process will catch up with us.  In the meantime, our Rabbi is working on finding us a new Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) to work with, so there will likely be paperwork to fill out and new directives to follow.

After a storm passes, there is a lot that isn’t certain and the only choice is really to focus on what is.  You pick up tree limbs and clean up debris and there is a comfort in doing something that seems to help fix what is broken around you.  People come together in the wake of a storm, helping each other.  Right now, we don’t know how all this will affect our move or our future.  We don’t know if our children will be in day schools next year or not or even if we’ll have to move to a completely different community to finish our conversion.  Very little is certain, so my husband and I talk after the kids are asleep and we focus on what is certain and what we can do.  We can move forward with the kids’ education as if they will be in day schools next year.  We can continue with our own learning as if we will need to be fully observant by this time next year.  We can continue preparing our house for sale and our belongings for a move even if we’re no longer sure where we’re moving to.

And, of course, we can continue davening, since all this is in Hashem’s hands.

Hashem wouldn’t have allowed the storm to come if He didn’t already have a plan for what would come after.  For now, it’s enough for us to focus on what is right in front of us and just keep moving forward and finding the beauty around us.

As if on queue, we saw more moose this weekend than we have in weeks.  All were mothers with twin calves, a sign of abundance since moose will only have twins when there is plenty for them to eat.  These mothers were busy with their calves eating as much as they could before winter sets in.  They weren’t trying to avoid the coming snows or worrying about them or overthinking what they might do.  They were so intently focused on what they needed to do, right at this moment, that they scarcely noticed us.

Whatever our own personal storm brings us, we can only have a similar kind of faith and simply focus on what we need to do in the present and let Hashem handle the future.

Conversion Setbacks and Crying in the Rain

I watched a really deep and profound shiur (class) once that said that the tears of a woman are the rain that causes blessings to come from above, that a woman’s tears have great power to soften Hashem and call upon his mercy.

Today, since it is fall and our rainy season, it is a lot like the heavens cry with me, sharing in my sadness.  I try to keep this blog upbeat and hopeful, but sometimes the only appropriate response to life is to cry out to Hashem.

We were given some bad news regarding our conversion process yesterday.  Somewhere, someone who converted that we have never met made some bad choices and now our current Beis Din (Rabbinical Court) is no longer willing to work with us unless we begin our process all over again after we move.  This would mean our son would not be able to attend Yeshiva and would likely put our conversion back 2-3 years.  Our other option is to try to find another Beis Din on the Israeli Rabbinate’s approved list that might be more lenient, even though we haven’t been working with them for years.  Our Rabbi has told us not to lose heart and has some ideas of courts he has worked with before.

It’s hard not to lose heart.  It feels like every time we begin to make progress toward conversion, some major setback happens that tosses us back to square one, like the board game chutes and ladders.  You think you’re near the end, but then a chute comes along and you’re back at the beginning…again.

The major fear that the Beis Din had was my son.  They haven’t spoken to him since he was 8 years old and even then it was very brief.  Their fear is that at 13 now, he will rebel against us and stop observing.  I can understand their concerns, but I wish they would have spoken to my son before making such a determination.

My son is a pretty remarkable 13 year old.

I know most mothers believe that, but my son has been through so much and has such a deep love of Judaism.  He began celebrating Jewish holidays at age 5 and has been raised Jewish since.  His father left his life when he was 6.  When he was little, I remember holding him and explaining to him why he wasn’t allowed up on the bima (place where the Torah is read in a Synagogue) with the other boys toward the end of services or on Simchas Torah.  I comforted him when he was teased in day school for being a goy.  I’ve hugged him when boys came to our Chabad house for their bar mitzvahs and promptly disappeared from observance after, leaving him still waiting for his own.  He now watches boys younger than him casually receive their aliyahs, then leave.

If anyone would have a reason to be bitter about Judaism, it would be my son, but he isn’t.

My son studies Torah every week with his Zaide (grandfather).  He stumbles over Hebrew words, learning to translate them and he is disappointed if he has to miss a week.  He yearns to visit Israel and seriously considers aliyah.  He sees himself as Jewish, just with a small paperwork issue.  He is studying hard, hoping to prepare for Yeshiva, nervous but excited about all he could learn there.  For now, my husband and I have decided it’s best not to tell either child about this setback and hope that we find a resolution before we have to.  They’ve already been through so much and all they really want is just to be fully Jewish.

We’ve given up so much for conversion.  The hope of more children, a real wedding, a bar mitzvah for our son, soon a bat mitzvah for our daughter, and soon Alaska.  As I cry this morning, I beg Hashem…please.  Please don’t ask us to give up my son going to Yeshiva, too.  Please help us convert in time for him to start there and have this one experience on time.  Please.  He’s working so hard and is so devoted to You and to Torah.  Please don’t turn him away.  Please.

And please daven for our family that Hashem should stretch out his hand for us and help us through this.  I know we’ll do another 2 or 3 years or however long it takes, but I don’t know how much more the children can take of this and I worry that the beautiful spark of Judaism in each of them will dim.

Like any Alaskan in the rain, I’m sheltering those tiny sparks as best I can from the rain, trying to shield them from the wind so that they have the chance to grow.

In Search of Jewish Minimalism

I have probably been a minimalist my entire life, before I knew what to call it.  I’ve never been much attached to heirlooms or possessions and I’ve always found a great pleasure in getting rid of things.  Even as a child, when my mother would decide it was time to cull the herd of stuff animals or children’s books in my room, while I might experience a little discomfort choosing what was to go, there was this blissful feeling of freedom once they were gone.  As an architecture student, the spartan lines of modernism spoke to me far more than anything more decorative.  I loved things that were simple, but well-designed.

My minimalism, though, reached a peak when I left my ex-husband, who was coincidentally a hoarder.  I left rather dramatically, by necessity, in the middle of the day while he was busy at work, taking only what I could fit into my truck to my new, empty 2-bedroom apartment with white walls.  For months, the kids and I, along with 2 cats, had no furniture besides our beds.  We ate dinner each evening like it was a picnic and played hide and seek in the emptiness.

That minimalism definitely gave me a profound feeling of freedom that I never again wanted to fill up.

Since then, our family has moved often, but even when we do not, I generally go through the house like a tornado both in Spring and Fall, sweeping up what has gathered up over the past year and sorting through it.  I always feel a great relief when I drop off a pile of donations.  There is little in our home that is purely decorative.

So, this Fall, I’ve begun that bi-annual sweep of the house as I prepare for the High Holidays.  I do my spring sweep as part of my Passover prep and I find that the clearing out of clutter really brings a physical side to the clearing out within I’m doing during each of these seasons.  As they say, “As above, so below,” and as I prepare my spiritual house for these two very important Jewish holidays, I’m usually also busy with preparing my physical home.

This time, as I looked for inspiration for what projects to tackle, I was surprised to find that there is a growing movement toward minimalism among Christians and I began to look for something similar among Jews.  To me, minimalism is a perfect fit with a Jewish lifestyle.  Often, Jewish neighborhoods are tough to find a lot of space in, with smaller apartments or homes.  Families prioritize paying for education and having more children, so it would seem that paring down possessions and simplifying life would fit naturally.  Tzedakah is also a high priority, so donating to charity or gemachs would seem to fit right in.  Spiritually, simplifying what you own and your lifestyle would seem to open up more space for Torah study and mitzvos.

And yet, I really didn’t find the kind of spiritual, minimalist blogs, podcasts, or youtube channels made by Jews that I had seen other people of faith creating and I began to wonder why.

There often seem to be two opposing urges within Judaism, at least from my own semi-outsider perspective.  There is one I very much relate to, the idea that a life lived simply is a spiritual life, perhaps best embodied in Baal Shem Tov stories, where simple, poor people receive great spiritual blessings through simple faith and mitzvahs.  One of my favorite stories is of a couple who can only afford beans for Shabbos.  However, because they are good people with a great attitude, they celebrate as if each course of beans was a feast, which in their eyes, it is.  I think I relate to these kinds of stories because in my own life, I have definitely had those times when just having beans was worth celebrating.  Then there is the other urge, which also comes from a good place, which is to beautify every mitzvah we can, to elevate it when we can.  It’s this principle that tells us that if we can afford a nicer havdalah set or kiddush cup, we should buy it.  Judaism doesn’t embrace asceticism in the way Christianity has, but instead acknowledges that beauty is good.

So…which is right?  Simplicity or embelishment?

I think either can be taken to unhealthy extremes.  There are communities where if you don’t have the correct brand of stroller or the “right” shoes, you will be looked down on, even if you are at shul and working hard on being a good Jew.  There are Jews who go into debt trying to maintain a beautiful facade of success.  Still, there are people who go to far toward asceticism, failing to prioritize the beautification of mitzvahs or becoming too rigid in their stringencies and losing the joy and warmth of Judaism.  I think there is definitely a middle ground to be had and perhaps that is why I don’t see the wholesale embrace of minimalism as a lifestyle by Jews, let alone a rebranding of it as a Jewish ideal.

One of the things that I love about living a Torah lifestyle is that while there is a pretty rigid structure there to help provide support for a good life, there is also some room to personalize what that looks like.  For me, I prefer a simple life that revolves around my family and Torah and I seek few embellishments beyond meat on Shabbos and silver candlesticks and a silver kiddush cup.  What feels like contentment and coziness to me might feel like a denial of life’s pleasures to another.  It’s up to each of us, though, to determine what makes a Jewish home and a Jewish life for us in a way that is within halakhah, but also within who we were created to be.  As I grow and hopefully draw closer to conversion, I find myself more and more comfortable with my Judaism not looking exactly like my neighbors as long as it fits me and the Torah.

Perhaps that authenticity and comfort is exactly the simplicity and minimalism I’ve been yearning for.

When My Yetzer Hara Tried To Be My Editor

Yesterday, I began one of the harder parts of my process of teshuva (repentance).  In Judaism, Hashem can only forgive those offenses that are against Him, not the mistakes we make that are against our fellow human beings and many people spend some time before the High Holidays seeking out those they may have wronged to apologise and ask forgiveness.  This is a humbling experience, but on the bright side, we’re also not supposed to hold grudges against each other, either.  Since most of the people I still interact with in Alaska are not Jewish, this means that most of the people I feel I need to apologize to aren’t really bound by that rule, though.

I decided to begin with a friend that I’ve grown apart from.  Our friendship ended on a sour note that really had little to do with her and more to do with issues related to her ex husband.  I won’t go into details, but it wasn’t that dramatic.  It was just enough for us to have a disagreement and grow apart and nothing that would make even halfway exciting reality tv.  Still, looking back, I can see where I definitely could have handled it all better.  I think the friendship still probably would have ended or faded, but I could have been a better friend while that process completed itself and I only learned after her divorce how much she could have used a good friend right then.  I definitely have regrets.

And so, since I only have her email address now, I sat down at my computer to write to her, to express those regrets and apologize for not being there for her.

The letter began easily enough, the opening and then the first few words, then, it was like I began an argument with my own yetzer hara (evil inclination) as she tried to suggest edits to my letter.  I would type a sentence, expressing an apology and suddenly a thought would pop up of “Well, yeah, but do you remember when she said this?!  Surely you can’t send this off without adding that.”  I’d sigh and take a deep breath, ignoring it.  It doesn’t really matter what she said, this letter is about what I could have done differently.  It’s not about asking her for an apology.  Then, another line would go by and again, that small voice, “This letter makes it sound like everything was your fault!  You know that isn’t true.”  Another deep breath and I’d remember the point of the letter, which was to apologise for my part, not criticize hers.

This continued on and I began to have other thoughts as well.  Would she laugh at me as she read this, seeing me as foolish?  Would she share this with our mutual friends and would they laugh at me?  Was I making things worse by reminding her of what had happened between us?  Dozens of excuses not to click send rose to my mind.  Did this mitzvah even apply to non-Jews or did I only need to make amends with Jewish friends and family?  What if she knew what time of year it was for me and didn’t think my letter was sincere because it is Elul?

I sat for a moment, my finger paused on my mouse button, staring at send.

Then I clicked it.

Ultimately, all those questions and voices were what got me into this mess to begin with.  It was that kind of advice that had caused me to react with hurt and distance in our friendship when what she’d really needed was someone to see past the surface to what she was going through and be a better friend.  I’d failed in that and while I could use whatever I wanted to justify that failure, it still meant that I hadn’t lived up to being the person and friend I want to be.  If I want to be that person and friend moving forward, then I had to send that letter to mend me as much as her, to fix what was broken in me that had led me to behave the way I did.

After I clicked send, I sat back from my keyboard.  That voice still wasn’t silent and I wondered if she would even read it.  I closed my eyes and realized that really, that was her business.  She didn’t have to read it if she didn’t want to and that was ok.  What was important was that I had written it and sent it, that I had reached out in the only way I had left to reach out to her and I had allowed myself to be vulnerable.  I had opened up to her in a way that I’d failed to do months ago and I’d shared my regret with her.

I breathed deeply and felt myself letting go of that regret.  I’d sifted through it enough to find the jewels within it, the lessons to take with me into this coming new year and now it was time to let go of it and let it scatter to the winds, like breadcrumbs onto a river.  After a bit, I sat up, and I remembered the fun she and I had together, our kids playing together and I smiled, those memories no longer stinging the way they had.

And I told my Yetzer Hara that she’s fired as my editor.