Finding the Holiness…Right Where You Are.

I’m listening to a fantastic shiur, the kind of deep learning that makes my mind ache a little, like a muscle that’s been well-used.  I know when I’m learning something that feeds me when it changes how I look at the world around me.

Have you ever gone on a long trip away from home and returned and found that home looked a little different?  It’s a little like that when I find a class that really gets into me.

In this class, the Rabbi is talking about mindfulness and living in the present moment, but he also talks about finding holiness in 3 places.

  • Holiness of Place – Think of the weighty feeling of Israel or even more, Jerusalem.
  • Holiness of Time – Think of how separate Shabbos feels from the rest of the week.
  • Holiness within the Soul (Nefesh) – This is an inner holiness, when you feel most connected to G-d.

In each of these, the temptation is to believe that we have to be someplace else to really feel connected to G-d, to really sink into our spiritual practices, to really find our purpose and live.  It’s easy to keep putting off fulfilling our purpose in life to a later time.  A person could say, “When I can make aliyah and live in Israel, well THEN, I’ll really be able to study Torah.  Until then?  What can I do?  I’m stuck here.”  Or, “When I get past these trying times, when my children are older or when I’m retired, or when work slows down, THEN I’ll be able to really do the big thing that I feel is my purpose in life, that volunteer work I’ve been called to do.  Until then?  I’ll just have to wait.”  Or, even, “When I finally feel that connection to G-d, when I’m no longer struggling, THEN I’ll be able to take on more mitzvos.  Until then?  I’m just not feeling ready.”

It’s easy to put off our lives until there is no more life left.

In my own life, I have some challenges right now.  I’m working 4 ten hour days so I can have Fridays off.  The kids are busy.  We live in Alaska, where observance can be tough.  We have only a small Jewish community and limited resources.  It’s really tempting to put off things until we’ve moved to a bigger community.  We’re also still in that awkward space between Jewish and not Jewish.  It would be very easy to put off other things until we’ve converted and everything is more clear cut.  There are also times I’m discouraged or having trouble finding hope.

One thing this class has helped with is that I’m looking for the holiness now, right here, where I am.  Alaska may not be Israel, but G-d is everywhere and can be found anywhere.  My challenge is to find holiness here, now, while I am here and to fully live here until it is our time to go.  Similarly, we’re in this space between Jew and non-Jew for a reason and it’s my challenge to find the holiness there.  What lessons can I learn in this space that I won’t be able to learn any other way?  And, even in discouragement or when hope seems fragile, what is there that I am missing?  What holiness is there to be gained?

The point is that no part of my life is a waiting room for my “real” life.  Each moment and place I am is for a purpose and is important and requires my attention and focus.  I can’t daydream my life away thinking that I will get to this business of being the person I was meant to be when I’m in an easier place or an easier time or I feel it more.  There is nothing but this moment.

Unfortunately, recently, we don’t have to look very far for sad reminders that another day isn’t guaranteed for any of us and each moment we have is precious.

As Shavous quickly approaches, I’m immersing myself in this world and this time to prepare for the giving of the Torah in the hopes that my soul was there at Mt. Sinai and soon may it merit to return to the Jewish people.  Until then, though, I need to focus on what I am here for in this moment and live it the best I can.

Menuchah and Watts

Every moment is precious and is the only thing we really have in this life.

I’ve been enjoying my Menuchas Hanefesh studies immensely.  The mindfulness that observance brings to everyday life was a big part of what initially drew me to Judaism and this study only digs deeper into that idea.

Interestingly enough, it also feeds into the work we’re doing with the Shabbat RV!

RV’s are a lot more complicated than we initially thought.  There are several different systems that help power things on the RV itself and banks of batteries that have to be re-charged and not allowed to get too low in charge.  We also have the challenge that, for now, we can only get 12 amps of power from an outlet that the Chabad house is very graciously letting us use.  The RV systems run on 30-50 amps and trying to plug directly into the 12 amp outlet means a breaker trips and we have no power.

To keep it simple, what this means is that we have to be VERY mindful of what power we are using.  We essentially run an extension cord to the RV and only plug in what is absolutely necessary.  We also need to have figured out before Shabbat what we will need to have running and get it all set up before candle lighting because we can’t really interact with any of the systems once Shabbat begins.  Even worse, if anything goes wrong and the breaker trips during Shabbat…that’s it.  No power for anything the rest of Shabbat.

We’re working on a longer term solution and planning to donate a few 50 amp circuits to the Chabad house so that not only can we plug in, but other RV users can also plug in easily.  Then, the Chabad house can charge people to RV camp there for Shabbat, so it could work out really well for us and also help them raise some money in the summers.  For now, though, we have to be mindful of every single amp and watt, which has me doing things like looking up exactly how much energy a crock pot of cholent does use versus how much energy a plata might use.  It’s important to be as efficient as possible and waste nothing.

I’m more used to my house where leaving a light on over Shabbat isn’t a problem at all and having a crockpot running for the last meal is something I don’t even really need to think about.  Now, though, I have to plan meals very carefully and make the most of natural light.  It’s a very interesting mental shift.  Also, living in the RV makes me more aware of exactly what is necessary versus what isn’t.  We don’t have extra space for things we don’t absolutely need and we also have little space for trash to pile up during Shabbat since, without an eruv, we can’t carry a bag of trash to the dumpster until after Shabbat.

It all comes down to being more mindful of exactly what is needed and what we can do without and living in that moment.  There are also wonderful things about being in the RV, too, and focusing on them can really help make the experience better than if I only focus on the challenges.  We’re so close to shul that the kids can stay and play with their friends a while after services.  There’s a wonderful cross-breeze through the RV in the afternoons when it’s warmer.  We’re so close together that having good family time is easier.  Most of all, there is the warmth from knowing that we’re doing what we can to really keep Shabbat.

Just as every watt counts, so does every moment and in every moment I have the choice to draw closer to G-d by my actions or further away.

Menuchas Hanefesh…and Long Flights

I’ve been taking a break to fly about as far as someone can and still remain in the United States.  We flew from Anchorage last week to Ft. Lauderdale and spent a wonderful Shabbos and weekend with friends and family there.  It’s been great visiting grocery stores with whole kosher aisles and spotting kippahs all over.

The LONG flights to get back and forth, though…are often less uplifting.

I’m the sort of person who really can’t sleep well on flights and it’s the Omer, so listening to music isn’t an option, so instead, I began a class series a friend recommended on Menuchas Hanefesh.  I don’t think it was chance that I began this series now and on long uncomfortable flights.

Menuchas Hanefesh is, in an oversimplification, the Jewish version of mindfulness.  It’s about living in each moment fully and with a clear sense of purpose that allows a person to feel peace even in the midst of suffering or chaos.  The first few classes went through the idea of the holiness of place and the idea that it’s important to commit to remaining in both a physical place and a spiritual place.  An example of a person who had a high level of menuchas hanefesh was given in a man who lived through exile in Siberia during the time of communist Russia.  This man was sent far away from any other Jews, deprived of books or Torah to study, and put into an awful situation where he had to do backbreaking labor under sparse conditions.  And yet…this man said that he found an amazing connection to G-d in those circumstances because he lived each moment so aware of his utter dependence on G-d and never knew if there would be a next moment.

So…what does that have to do with long flights?

It’s so easy to spend an entire long airline flight focused on where we are leaving or where we are going.  It’s easy to either live in the past, dwelling on the home or people we are leaving behind or to live in the future, thinking about where we are going and what we will do once we get there.  The flight itself is far less interesting and often uncomfortable.  It’s a time of waiting and conditions that are rarely enjoyable.

It was in this setting that I was listening to a great class on NOT doing those things, but instead intensely focusing on the present moment and trying to find purpose and meaning just there.

It was then that I realized that much of the source of the discomfort I feel on a cramped plane comes from being so focused on either what I was doing before the flight or what I’ll be doing after.  I miss my comfortable bed or I long for the hotel I’m headed to.  I remember walking on the beach or I look forward to walking freely at home.  I’m always comparing my current conditions, seated in the middle of the row, with my conditions before, lounging in the sunshine, or what I have ahead of me, hugging my children and dog.  This all only makes the flight feel longer and even less pleasant.

The times that I have been able to find enjoyment even in the moments I’m on the plane have been my easiest flights.  Time goes by more easily when I can find something on the flight that is worth my attention, like a good book to read or an interesting person to talk to or even when I can look out the window and see the world below.

How many hours of my life are spent living in the past or the future, waiting for something to pass so that THEN I can really live?

Similarly, I used to treat conversion this way.  I would put off buying good plates or tupperware.  I would put off really enjoying holidays, instead focusing on the fact that I wasn’t “really” Jewish yet and allowing that to sadden me instead of really just focusing on the joy of the holiday itself.  I would put off really living the mitzvos fully, more focusing on doing them “right” instead of finding the joy there, as if I didn’t yet deserve that.  I couldn’t live fully in the present because I was always focused on this distant point in the future.  I couldn’t enjoy being what I was because I was always comparing it to what I hoped to become.  My life was filled with disappointment when it seemed like nothing I did helped that future come any closer.

That changed when I took a break from conversion and when I came back to it with fresh eyes.  I suddenly realized that I’d been missing a big part of the entire point.  I stopped focusing on conversion as some sort of end goal and instead treated it more as something incidental, something that would happen in time, but not as something that I could earn or work toward.  Instead, I began to focus on each day and being the best “Jew” I could be that single day, without any bigger goal in mind.  I focused on each mitzvah I added back to my life, but this time I did it without thinking ahead to the next one or seeing it as a progression.  Instead, I tried to take longer and go deeper into the reasons behind the mitzvah.  I asked myself what it felt like to keep that mitzvah.  How long until that mitzvah became habit, a normal part of my routine?  I didn’t move to add another until I felt like I had really integrated that one mitzvah into my life and that’s a process I’m still working on.

It reminded me a little of someone who was once an athlete who then suffers a serious injury and has to re-learn things that were simple before.  An athlete takes for granted being able to walk, but if you suffer a serious injury, suddenly, nothing is for granted and you have to slowly re-learn things you’ve known before, bit by bit.  I felt like I’d injured my neshama in my first attempt at conversion by taking on too much, too fast, like an athlete who pushes their body too hard and then tears or breaks something and has to begin with the basics again.

This happens often in movies and is often a great plot device.

The athlete most often comes to some deeper understanding that they didn’t reach the first time around, even if they never reach the level of performance they had before their catastrophic injury.  They often also find themselves feeling grateful for things that they took for granted before they were hurt.

Similarly, I’ve found that by having to begin again and more slowly take on observance, I’ve discovered so much that I either missed in my hurry the first time around or took for granted because I was too focused on what I didn’t have and where I wanted to be to really see how fortunate I was where I was.  I now see how many gifts I was given, whether it was a warm and welcoming community or great teachers and mentors.  I couldn’t really fully appreciate or enjoy what I had because I was living in the future, focused on a time when I’d have what I lacked.

Now, I’m a lot more focused on enjoying where I am.  There’s nothing wrong with being a beginner or a conversion candidate.  It’s actually freeing to say, “Well, I don’t know a lot and right now, my mitzvos may not “count,” so it’s ok to make mistakes.”  Being in a place of learning means that there are entire worlds that open up to me and I can take my time exploring them.

My class on Menuchas Hanefesh also stressed the idea that you shouldn’t wait until you’re in the perfect place to pursue Torah or mitzvos…that you should look for the divine wherever you are and that you will find it there because G-d is everywhere.  Even more, the class stressed that the very act of searching for G-d in the most mundane of places is what will raise you up out of those places, whether it’s a spiritual or physical Rome.

This very much spoke to me because I have had people ask us, “Why are you working on conversion in Alaska, where you probably can’t convert, especially since you already plan on moving?”  When we were asked this question by a well-meaning relative, I couldn’t help but feel a little surprised that the idea hadn’t even occurred to us.  To us, if we could take on some observance…why wouldn’t we?  To me, everything we practice is something that will ease our way later, even if it never “counts.”  Why would we put off taking on mitzvos until we were in a bigger community if it was at all possible to begin taking them on now, where we are?  Wouldn’t that mean it would eventually be easier to work toward full observance when we are where we want to be?

I don’t believe that Alaska is Rome, but it is pretty far from Jerusalem and the idea that searching for G-d through the mitzvos we take on there will help lead us forward is definitely encouraging.