Minimalism, Hygge, and Chassidic Judaism?

If you’ve been under a rock for a few years, then you might just be unaware that people are increasingly getting rid of their stuff, opting to live in tiny houses, or even RV’s or completely nomadic.  It’s kind of a recent trend in the never-ending quest to simplify our lives.  There is even a Netflix documentary on this as a movement, called Minimalism, and you can find a slew of blogs devoted to it as well.  Our modern lives have more and more demands for our attention and with the stagnation of wages, more and more people are opting for a simpler life of less, from “capsule wardrobes” that pare down our closest, using the “KonMari Method” to declutter our homes, to the bare minimum to attempting to live lives of zero waste to ease the pressure on the environment, less has become the new more.

For those for whom Minimalism feels a little, well, TOO minimal, hygge is the new trend.  It’s a Danish word that essentially means a cozy or pleasant experience and those who have embraced this idea point out that every day we are given opportunities to find moments such as these, whether it’s a soft, warm sweater on a cold day, a simple walk in the park with friends, or slowing down enough to enjoy a cup of tea.  This philosophy is somewhat related in that it focuses on simple pleasures and trying to increase those in one’s life.

So, what does this have to do with Judaism and Chassidus in particular?

The way I see it, at least from my studies, the main purpose of Chassidus is to find the holiness within a simple life.  Early Chassidic stories talk of people living very simple, often poor lives yet filled with holiness and Chassidus itself often deals with finding the sparks of holiness within the mundane around us and elevating them, freeing them from the husks that obscure them so that they can return to the divine source, Hashem.  In fact, Chassidus teaches that this is the very purpose of our existence, to elevate these hidden sparks through mitzvos.

The Torah points to a life lived with intention, where attention is paid to even the rocks we step upon and the foods that we eat, where every detail of one’s life is ordered to a purpose of creating holiness in the everyday world.  Unlike many religions that encourage their adherents to separate from the mundane, to cloister themselves off to a mountaintop or sanctuary to avoid any distractions from the spiritual, Judaism stresses that it is precisely within the mundane that we must search for the spiritual, that we must bring the spiritual into the everyday and by that process elevate it.

To me, looking at these attempts to simplify, live with intention, and to elevate mundane moments into something better…it looks like people are trying to fulfill that basic drive, but are just missing the heart of it all…that the intention and purpose that you simplify your life for should be Hashem and His ways, not necessarily just a “cozy feeling” or “simple pleasures.”

Which leads me to wondering, what does a life pared down to allow a much greater focus on Torah and mitzvos look like?  What is the precise lifestyle that provides the least clutter or distractions from elevating those sparks of kedusha, yet still remains firmly rooted in this world so that I’m most able to find those sparks?

And so, I come back to my own life and where it is now and where it is headed.

Today, I walked to the store from work to find lunch food and I looked up at the mountains that border Anchorage to the east.  For once, the rain had stopped and there were only a few low-lying clouds, so I could see them clearly.  I saw the tundra above the treeline and I noticed that it was changing colors as it does in the Fall here.  There were beautiful reds and yellows and oranges in the sedges, the small stunted plants that live in those harsh places.  I could imagine the scent of wild sage up there, as it often is this time of year.  I smiled and then I felt an ache in my heart as I realized that this is the last autumn that I will see the tundra changing colors for the Fall.  Next Fall, I will be in a city and when I look up, I will see buildings and sky, not mountains.

Here, the sparks are big and easy to see.  They exist in those breathtaking views and the difficulty of keeping mitzvas so far from a larger Jewish community and in a place where sunrise and sunset are so variable.  I don’t have to search far to find inspiration and I also don’t have to go looking for challenges.  It’s all easily brought to me, every day.  But, I must move if I’m to continue growing in my Judaism.  Beyond just conversion, there are limits here to how much I can learn and grow and observe.  I must leave my beloved wilderness with it’s beauty and majesty and instead choose a life that is much more confined.

I must choose a life that is much more grounded in the mundane.

With this life, we’ll also be trading our home for one much smaller and our time will be much less free and instead filled with all the commitments that come with being a productive member of a community.  We will need to choose carefully what we take with us, both physically as well as spiritually and we will need to work harder to find inspiration and not become too casual when kosher food is widely available and shul just down the block.

I think there are greater opportunities to build that kind of life, the kind that has an intentional focus on Torah and mitzvos, but there are also plenty of challenges and ways to build a life that is full of distractions from our real purpose for moving.  There will be so many more choices to make there than there are here.

And sometimes, I look around myself and envy those I will be leaving behind, who have a kind of forced simplicity to their lives just by living someplace this wild and remote.  If it wasn’t for Judaism, I don’t think I would ever leave here, but because of Judaism, I absolutely cannot stay.

In the meantime, I plan on climbing to another mountaintop, to enjoy the view, smell the sage, and contemplate what to take with me.  I have one more winter to gather sparks here and not a moment to lose, but then, my sparks are elsewhere.

 

Tools for Converts or BT’s – Bullet Journaling

If you’re in the process of conversion or even if you’re just looking to grow and add observance and study, there can be a lot to keep track of.  Classes, books to read, prayers to remember to say…it can be a lot.

Over the years, I’ve tried several different systems to keep our family on track.  I’ve mastered a google calendar and I’ve worked with different planners, but the most powerful and flexible tool I’ve found for tracking all these different things has been a bullet journal.  If you’re unfamiliar with bullet journaling, it’s a very simple paper system that can track tasks, habits, and dates and all you need is a pen and a small notebook.  I won’t go into all the ins and outs of bullet journaling itself and I’m instead going to focus on how it is particularly useful for tracking things pertaining to Orthodox Jewish observance and conversion study, but a great place to begin if you’re completely new to it is bullet journal’s official website.

I do use my bullet journal to track important dates, but where I find it most powerful is in tracking tasks and habits.  Often, I need to remember to make phone calls or send emails or bring some piece of documentation.  My task tracker is very helpful for helping me keep track of those things in one place.  You can google for a task key and use whatever symbols work for you, but this is an example of a simple daily task list that someone else made.  Mine is a bit too personal to share!

bujutasks

My task list isn’t quite this pretty and is a lot more colorful, but it is filled with anything I need to remember or do on a given day.  I use different symbols for appointments and tasks or things I just need to remember and then I can carry those forward or mark them off as they’re done.  That is helpful, but the next section is where I really find the power in my bullet journal.

I use habit tracker pages to track those recurring things that I’m trying to do every day.  It can be something as simple as remembering to wash and daven morning blessings.  These are those recurring habits that begin to form an observant life and for me, tracking them, can be really helpful to keep me on track as I slowly add to my daily observance.

This is an example of someone else’s habit tracker.  Mine, again, is a little too personal for comfort to share.
bujuhabit

In my case, my habits revolve around prayers I want to say, washing netilyas yadiim, giving tzedekah, reading and study, along with a few other personal habits I want to cultivate.  Since I check my bullet journal a couple of times a day, it’s a great reminder!

The final thing about bullet journaling that I wanted to share is how you can use it to track longer term goals.  I’ve created a spread to track my progress on the 101 Goals in 1001 Days.  As part of that challenge, I have goals that I want to do daily, weekly, monthly, annually, and even just once.  That can be a lot to try to keep track of!  This is part of what I’ve come up with to help myself.

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This one is actually mine and that’s the first of 7 pages dedicated to those 101 Goals.  Mine may not be as pretty or perfect as some of the other bullet journals out there, but I primarily keep it for myself, to help me not get lost in all the things that I should be working on, whether it’s adding Hebrew vocabulary, giving tzedakah (charity), or keeping track of appointments and making phone calls.

If you’re drowning in tasks and having trouble keeping on track, why not give it a try?

A Good Shabbos to everyone and may you have a peaceful and meaningful Shabbos!

Parshas Eikev – Turning Our Eyes to a New Land

This week’s parsha continues the theme of Moses preparing the Jews to enter the land of Egypt.  He wants them to be ready for the challenges that they will face and he uses a mixture of encouragement and also some reminders of their past failings.  He’s essentially been the father of this people, bringing them from Egypt and guiding them, trying to help them mold into a nation rather than just a ragged bunch of freed slaves.  He knows his time left with them is short and that soon they’ll be on their own in a new land with new challenges.

Basically, he is a father giving one last speech to his children before they leave him and enter adulthood.

If you’re a regular reader, you already know we have 2 children.  Our son is 13 and our daughter 11, so we’re facing adolescence head on.  We have voices cracking and changing, mood swings, and sudden growth spurts.  We also get wonderful glimpses of the adults our children are becoming.  For us, this is a year of preparation, too.  We’re preparing our children for, G-d willing, conversion and for joining Orthodox day schools.  Our son faces a particularly lofty challenge, preparing to join a Orthodox Yeshiva, where most of his classmates will have been preparing for this since birth.

We live now, both literally and spiritually, in the wilderness and more and more we turn our gaze to a new land, a land that is foreign to us and has all kinds of new challenges and opportunities.  Knowing how to catch and fillet a salmon won’t be much use there, nor will knowing what to do if you’re confronted by a moose or bear.  We may be considered very well educated in Judaism here, but there…we’ll be beginners again and it may be hard for our children to adjust to being behind in much of their Judaic studies.

As we look ahead to the future and also look back on our time here in Alaska, I find myself wondering if as Moses spoke to the people, did some of them look back at the desert with conflicted feelings?  Were they now so afraid to let Hashem down that they didn’t dare look back and commit the sin of the spies again or did some of them look back on the desert that they had grown up in and worry they would miss it?  I know I look at the mountains with a mixture of feelings.  There is an ache at the thought of leaving all this behind.  Will I ever see it again?  What if city life doesn’t agree with us?  Will the children one day be upset that we took them far away from such an amazing place?  Will we fit in there or will we be the strange converts from Alaska that people avoid?

I am a strong believer in the idea that one’s attitude has great power to shape their reality.  How we view our lives is in large part due to how we choose to view them.  We can choose to see everything as a blessing for our benefit from Hashem or we can choose to see ourselves as a victim of it.  To me, there’s great power in knowing that I can choose how I will experience the things that happen in my life.  I’m choosing to believe that this move will be the best thing for us.  I’m certain it will come with challenges, but I’m choosing to believe we will rise to meet them as much as we have any challenge before and that we will receive the growth we need.  I’m also choosing to believe that our new community will see the good in us that others have and that we will find our place, even if it takes some time.

Meanwhile, this year, I can relate to Moses worrying over his children, but knowing that the time is coming soon when they will need to begin to make their own way without him.  My letting go is going to be a bit more gradual perhaps, but I know this is probably the last year that I will have my children so close to me and have this kind of influence over them.  G-d willing, my son will get into Yeshiva and he will turn to his Rebbes more and more to guide him and he will learn from the boys there as well and they will probably have more of a hand in helping him find what kind of man he will be and I less.  My daughter will still be in day school for a couple more years before high school, but it’s going to be different than public school and I expect that her teachers there will probably have more and more influence with her as well.  More and more, I’ll be stepping back into a supporting role rather than a guiding one.

I’m sure Moses went through moments where he really wasn’t sure the Jewish people would make it without him in front of them, where it was so hard to even consider them off on their own without him.  How could this people who’d made so many mistakes and gotten so lost even with him there now be trusted to stick to the mitzvahs in a land of their own, with all the obligations to make their living from the land?  My own children still seem so fragile to me…and I also feel like we’re fragile new potential Jews.  We’re going to face disappointments.  We’re going to eventually meet Jews who aren’t so nice because Jews are human and subject to all the good and bad that humans have.  We’re going to face all kinds of situations where it will be easier to stray from the mitzvahs, just like the Jews entering Israel did.

This week, it’s like Moses is speaking to our family, preparing to move, reminding us that when everything else seems murky and it’s hard to tell what is the right thing to do…to turn back to what we’ve learned from Torah and the leaders we trust to help us find the right way.

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.

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.

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.

Home Improvement, Yoga, and Taharas Hamispacha (Family Purity)

(The picture isn’t of me…I only do yoga at home in private.  Although, I might do it in the wilderness if it was private.  🙂 )

Preparing to move has meant that this summer has involved several small home improvement projects.  On Sunday, I decided it was time to tackle the one that I’d been procrastinating the most on…painting the master bathroom.

Let me just say that I don’t mind painting, but I think bathrooms are the WORST room in a house to have to paint.  I’ll admit, I haven’t yet painted a kitchen, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but in the past year, I have now painted 3 of the 4 bathrooms in our house and this third one is the one I was dreading the most and putting off the longest.  When we moved in, it was clear that a previous owner had tried to remove the textured wallpaper in there.  There were patches of it missing.  It was also clear that they’d considered just painting over it and then decided not to.  One quirk of our home is that the master bathroom is the smallest and most cramped of all the bathrooms as well.

Eventually, we hired someone to try to take down the rest of the wallpaper.  The workman that came spent hours stripping and discovered that the previous owner had actually used drywall mud between the layers of wallpaper!  There was no way to completely rid ourselves of the layers without damaging the walls, but the workman stipped back as far as he could.  For a few weeks, we just lived with the walls looking like something out of the pictures you see of abandoned buildings.  Finally, Sunday, I felt like I had built up enough strength to work on them and we bought primer and paint and I set to work.

I do most of the painting when it needs to be done.  Mr. Safek is better on projects that require strength.  He can pry bolts loose and hammer through things with the best of them.  He can change oils and fluids and filters, install sinks…he’s amazing.  However, his hand is about as steady as his singing voice is on-key, which is to say that painting is not among his talents.  He usually comes in after me to do some rolling, but it’s up to me to do edging and the other tedious, fiddly bits.  Bathrooms also are cramped enough without adding another person.

I started with the primer and a paintbrush.  I found that if I stopped worrying about the outcome of the project or how long it was taking and only focused on the small part I was working on, I no longer felt that same negative feeling about doing it.  My discomfort with having to do this project really was tied to my resistance to it, not the project itself!  I let myself kind of turn the painting into a meditation, focusing on my breath as I painted and occasionally letting my mind wander to think of the family that might buy our home.  I asked Hashem to bless them.  Let them be happy here.  Let them not have to go through fighting the water heater as we did, but instead, let them feel welcome here.

It reminded me of something I’ve begun doing again.  I recently took back up a daily yoga practice.  In particular, I do yin yoga, which means spending a lot of time in a pose, getting really deep into it.  Basically, you get into a really uncomfortable position that stretches you in places that don’t necessarily feel good and then you stay there for 5-10 minutes.  During that time, you try not to distract yourself from the discomfort and focus on your breath.  Very often, I find that the discomfort I’m feeling is my resistance to the pose.  I am often holding myself up out of fear of pain or injury instead of relaxing and letting my body open into the pose.

Which again, as with everything else, brings me back to Judaism.

The places where mitzvos are difficult to keep, I find, are most often the places where I am resisting.  It’s the resistance itself that makes them unpleasant, but just like it can be hard to see that when I’m looking at a project I don’t feel like doing or a yoga pose that I’m wishing was over already, it can be hard to see that the resistance isn’t part of the mitzvah itself, but something else entirely that I’m choosing.

As an example, I have struggled with the laws of family purity (taharas hamispacha) over the years.  In these laws, there is a period of separation between husband and wife that corresponds to her monthly cycle and a week afterwards.  There are also many rules in place to help the couple keep that separation, called harachot.  In effect, this means that for half the month, a married couple doesn’t touch.  No hugging, no kissing, no holding hands.  For me, the actual separation and the details of the laws aren’t so bad, but not being able to hug my husband or enjoy a warm embrace after a hard day?  That can be so hard.  The first time we implemented the rules, I immediately began looking for every loophole.  When we took our break from conversion, they were the first mitzvahs to go.

When we began to observe them again, this time, we put them into place slowly and gradually, like slowly getting into a yoga pose.  I began to poke deeper into why I felt such resistance to them.  What was it about a hug that felt so good after a difficult day?  Was there any other way to get that feeling when I was niddah (in that period of separation)?  Why was I so sad when I couldn’t have that hug?  Did it mean I felt less loved?  As we put the rules back into place, I worked on what was under my discomfort with them instead of just accepting my discomfort as being part of the mitzvah itself.  It helped so much.

And I still wish I could have a hug when I’m niddah, but I know I can make it through by just focusing on what I need to do now rather than being preoccupied with how many days it will be until I can have one or dwelling on the fact that I can’t have one right now.  I’m happy seeing that there are other ways for my husband and I to connect and comfort each other.  I still don’t really like painting bathrooms, but I’m also happy seeing how much better the bathroom looks.

Letting go and relaxing into my life rather than resisting it, thinking I know better than Hashem does how things should go actually makes it all so much less uncomfortable.  I just have to breathe, trust, and let go of trying to force things to stay where I think they should.

The rest is up to Hashem.