The Fireweed Blooms as the Three Weeks Continue

The Three Weeks is a period of mourning.  You name it and if it was really awful and needed to happen to the Jews, it most likely happened during this period of time, culminating in the destruction of the temple on the 9th of Av.  So, along with observant Jews throughout the world, we mourn.

Alaska, it seems, did not get the memo.

This past weekend was the kind of weekend we dream of as the cold darkness encloses us all winter.  The sun shone in a clear blue sky and wildflowers were everywhere, including our summer countdown clock, the fireweed, its first bright purple blossoms beginning at the bottom of the row of blooms that will eventually go to seed looking like ashes.  We spent this past Shabbos at home due to some engine issues and so we went on several walks to help pass the long Sabbath, noting all the beautiful wildflowers that had popped up in what months ago had just been piles of snow.  When I saw the fireweed, it was with a mixture of happiness mixed with a little sorrow.  Those blooms mean summer is already over halfway over and when the blooms disappear, going to seed in fluff that looks like ashes, it means summer has ended.

Long before any of us came to the area around Anchorage, it was home to a tribe of Native Americans known as the Athabaskans.  In their legends, each individual fireweed represents the soul of a tree that died in a forest fire, which is why they bloom beautifully, then go to seed looking as if they had burnt up.  With Judaism’s emphasis on the sparks of holiness being present in all things, I find this a beautiful idea.

The appearance of these blooms is a reminder of how limited our time in the sun here is.  They prod us to hurry up and finish everything that must be done in our short summers to prepare for the next winter.  They also remind us that this summer…is more like a dream.  It’s  brief reprieve from the real natural state of this land, which must be one of cold and often great darkness.  Without reminders like the fireweed and the chill that has crept into the early mornings, it would be tempting to forget that most of the year is cold.  It would be easy to slow down and just lazily enjoy the warm sunny days as if they would never end.

When it comes to living in exile without the Temple, it is more like Jews have adapted to a long winter and forgotten what the summer could be like.  We’ve gotten used to life without the Temple, to life in exile, like a person who adapts to an injury, but in doing so, actually damages their body.  It’s easy to adapt to what is compared to being able to imagine things being different.

A perfect example is my kitchen.

One of my shortcomings is organization.  I will walk across my kitchen multiple times a day to reach an often-used item without it ever occurring to me that I might just move it someplace closer and save myself all that walking and time.  I’ll work around something that is broken for a long time without thinking to have it fixed or replaced.  I simply accept my kitchen as it is, not stopping to think it could be something better.  This isn’t a uncommon problem.

What is familiar becomes the default setting, like assuming this sunshine in Alaska will last all year, that the measuring spoons must be on the opposite side of the kitchen as the stove, or becoming so used to exile that it feels like home.  The Three Weeks asks us to remember who we really are.  It asks us to question whether exile is really our home and to remember all that has happened to us.  It asks us to remember what we’ve lost, both the Temple as well as countless lives of Jews over so many generations of pogroms, the holocaust, the inquisitions, crusades, and countless expulsions.  It asks us to face the parts of Jewish history that are uncomfortable to face but have so shaped the Jewish people.

As a convert, I feel it’s even more important to dig into Jewish history during the Three Weeks.  I don’t have older family to tell me stories of their own survival as Jews or memories in my blood of generations past who bravely faced all these things.  I try to imagine myself in the histories I read and imagine what it might have been like to be in Jerusalem as the walls were breached by the Romans or leaving everything behind in the Spanish expulsion.  I also keep in my mind that by choosing the chosen people as my own, I also am choosing to be part of this history and choosing it for my children and grandchildren.

The Three Weeks is also a reminder that all these sad days can be turned to joy.  We don’t have to live with the measuring spoons across the kitchen.  We can choose to work together to bring an end to the exile and right the wrongs of the world.  Each and every one of us is important and can help bring Moshiach, but it takes waking up and realizing that our actions now and every day, even the small ones, have such tremendous power.

It’s so fitting that the fireweed would begin blooming during the Three Weeks, telling us the time to act is now, this moment.


Animals, Sacrifices, and a Farmer’s Daughter

Bunny FuFu was the meanest creature I’d ever yet encountered in my very young world.  Those memories are fuzzy now because I was so very young, but I still remember how huge that white rabbit seemed, with red eyes and sharp teeth.  I’d feed him carrots through the mesh of his rabbit hutch, trying not to let him bite my fingers, but Bunny FuFu’s favorite food was hotdogs.  He was a herbivore gone mad and turned carnivore and the stuff of preschool nightmares, but, oddly enough, he was also a gift by a well-meaning neighbor.

I mean, what little girl doesn’t love a fluffy bunny?

After a few memories of the terror Bunny FuFu induced, I also remember him leaving, going to another neighbor who ate Bunny FuFu.  I don’t remember being sad about that, but more relieved that I no longer had to fear his teeth.  To a farmer’s daughter, this was the way of life.  I was used to petting adorable baby animals that we’d one day have on our table and I felt no conflict between the two.  I could pet a calf and feed it a bottle on a cousin’s dairy farm and then have a hamburger for lunch.  It all was just part of a circle of life that was simply apparent.

So it is with that background that I sat, trying to understand, over 30 years later and a few thousand miles distant, why someone who enjoyed eating meat couldn’t understand the animal sacrifices in the Mishkan.  (Traveling tabernacle that the Jews carried with them before entering Israel.)  It surprised me that a Jew would have trouble reading passages describing how the animal sacrifices would be offered, which to me sounded far more humane than most non-kosher slaughterhouses or hunting trips.

It was a reminder that most Jews are urban dwellers, people far removed from where their food comes from even if they are well versed in the laws which must be followed to make it kosher.

Jewish law was far ahead of its time when it comes to animal rights.  There are multiple passages in Torah dealing with how you must treat your animals and impressing upon the Jew the responsibility that comes from owning animals.  Kosher slaughter, too, is a very restrictive way in which animals can be killed that is meant to minimize their suffering.  To a farmer’s daughter, this all seemed very civilized and good.  It reminded me of the affection my grandfather had for his milk cows.  He knew them each by name and they would always line up in order to be milked.  They knew which cow went first and which one went last.  He’d give them a friendly pat or scratch behind the ears as he milked them and talk to them.  He was also with them when it was time for them to be slaughtered, their milking days done.  Nothing was wasted and he allowed himself to be sad, but showed the same care in bringing them death as he did for them in life.

Nowadays, milk comes from a factory farm.  The cows have no names and they have no pasture to walk in from in their order.

To me, the passages in the Torah that speak of the animal sacrifices have no conflict with those that speak of being kind to your animals.  The person bringing the sacrifice must inspect the animal.  This forces them to be familiar with the animal.  It can’t just be an object since they must go over every part of the animal several times, looking for a blemish.  Only then can they bring the animal to the courtyard for slaughter.  Then, in a part that really is touching to me, the person bringing the sacrifice must lay their hands on the head of the animal and say blessings.  It’s no coincidence this conjures the image of my husband’s hands on the Challah we eat for Shabbat as he blesses it and also my grandfather’s hands on his milk cows.  A Jew has to touch this animal to bless it, he has to feel the warmth of its fur or feathers and face the reality of the life within it, knowing what he will have to do next.  This isn’t supposed to be an easy act, but one that brings him into the moment and reminds him of the weight of what he is doing.

And then, the slaughter itself, done according to kosher law, quickly, with as little pain to the animal as humanly possible.

Unlike most Jews, I have killed an animal to eat it.  It was chickens and fish, but there is still the same grainy reality to that moment.  You spill blood and it is hot and not unlike your own.  No matter how swiftly I cut, death takes a moment or two and that moment seems like forever and I feel in that moment, connected to that animal.  I suffer, too, waiting for the movement to cease and the eye to glaze over, hoping I’ve used my knife well and death comes quickly.  I can only imagine that moment for a larger animal.  I know I’ve contemplated mortality in those moments with smaller animals, understanding that death comes to us all and it’s how we live our lives that’s really important, not trying to avoid the inevitable end.  I can only imagine how visceral that feeling would be for Jew bringing a sin offering to the Mishkan, realizing this animal whose blood is on his hands and whose eye he now watches the life leave…has taken his place.  I think it’s supposed to be a difficult, emotional moment.

The difference, though, is that I can imagine it, my mindset closer to the ancient one than someone who has lived separate from their food.

In most cases, most of the animal sacrifice is eaten, either by the Priests or both the Priests and the person who brought it.  For most of the sacrifices, only a portion was burned on the altar.  To me, this is little different than taking Challah.  The portions burned are generally the portions Jews aren’t allowed to eat anyway, so it’s better to a farmer’s daughter’s mind that they be raised up in a sacrifice than wasted.  Other sacrifices were completely burned on the altar, hide and all, but again, it’s giving a portion of the animals we already would have eaten to G-d.

It’s a reminder of my own foreignness to this people I hope to join, that even after the Mikvah, I will come to the Torah with a unique perspective, with different life experiences than other Jews.  When I’ve told stories of my childhood on a farm at the Shabbat table before, it’s always been a novelty, people reminded of stories from the Ba’al Shem Tov or long lost great grandparents on a European shtetl.  Growing up on a farm isn’t really common among non-Jews anymore, either, but it’s even more unusual to religious Jews, most of whom need to grow up in urban places where a Synagogue is within walking distance.  Add to that my travels and experiences including years lived in Alaska and, well…I’m never going to be able to just blend in.

I like to think that’s all part of G-d’s plan.  I like to think that some Jews he decides should be born as non-Jews so that they can have those unique experiences and perspectives and bring them back to their people, that we are sparks that were scattered out among the nations for a purpose, maybe even chosen because we’d be resilient enough to find our way home.

As we celebrate the Exodus and Passover, I do feel like our family is drawing closer to that day, bit by bit.

Parshat Tzav for Conversion Candidates

I feel a little guilty that I don’t often address the weekly parsha (Torah reading) in my blog.  Most often, it’s because there are so many wonderful parsha commentaries out there that I don’t feel I have anything unique to share.  Other times it’s because the really deep insights I’d like to share only come on Shabbos and after Shabbos I feel like it’s a little odd to share thoughts on LAST week’s parsha when most people have already moved on to the current week for study.

This week, though, I feel like the Parsha has a special significance to those in the conversion process.  This week’s parsha, Tzav, is a continuation of last week’s parsha that spent quite a bit of time focused on the different offerings that would be given in the Mishkan (traveling tabernacle that served as a Temple for the Jews while they wandered the desert).  This week, though, it talks specifically about the role the Priests and the altar had to play, which involved keeping a fire burning on the altar at all times, ready for sacrifices.  The fire was never to be let to go out.

When we first moved to Alaska, I was intimidated by the wildness and determined that our family enjoy what the outdoors here had to offer, but I also wanted us to be safe.  I knew these woods and mountains were a bit more rugged and dangerous than anywhere else I’d ever hiked or camped, so I signed up for classes to learn basic survival skills.  I learned that in Alaska, the biggest threat of death from hypothermia comes not in the cold dark winter…but in the summer.  It’s more likely that someone will die of hypothermia then because they don’t expect to be cold and they’ll get wet and not have the proper gear to warm themselves.

We were taught that the first thing you do whenever anything seems to have gone off plan…is build a fire.

There are a few reasons for this.  For one, building a fire builds up your confidence and gives you an emotional lift.  As human beings, fire is something that we alone have mastered and no other animal has.  Sitting by a fire is comforting beyond just the warmth it provides.  That flame tells us we have the power to change nature to serve us.  It gives us the confidence to use other skills to survive.  It also can help other people find us.  The smoke created by the fire may be what leads rescuers to our camp.  Of course, it also provides much needed warmth and can help dry out wet clothes.  We went through a dozen or more different ways to start fires and each was fun and had its own challenges.

Fire, though, must be fed to stay alive.

I remember being taught how to make the kind of fire that will help you survive extreme cold and the amount of wood needed to sustain it through a dark, cold night.  The longer the darkness and cold, the more wood you’d need to gather and the harder it would be to keep that fire going.

The journey to Orthodox Jewish Conversion can often be a long cold night.

Just like there are many ways to start a fire, many people come to conversion from different paths.  They’re often full of enthusiasm, full of joy…full of FIRE.  They’ve finally found a truth they were searching for so hard.  The sparks have caught the tinder and they can see flames.  As early conversion candidates, we smile, rubbing our hands in front of our small fledgeling fires, congratulating ourselves.  What we often don’t realize, though, is that the real work is in gathering the fuel to keep that fire going through the long night.

I’ve belonged to online conversion groups for years and over time, patterns emerge.  Those who seem to succeed are those who are willing to go further out in search of what’s needed to keep the fire going.  These are the conversion candidates who are able and willing to move as needed and who seek out sources for study.  They aren’t afraid to venture far from their comfort zones to find teachers, books, or even a supportive community.  They gather these necessary resources like dry logs, carrying them back to their small flames and they draw on those resources when the fire sputters, feeding it as the night grows longer.

Those who concentrate more on excuses as to why they shouldn’t need to go gathering…they tend to fade away into the darkness or, perhaps more sadly, their flame goes out in an angry gust of wind as they vent their frustration at the unfairness of the path.  Those who have tended their fires longer realize while it may feel unfair at times, the coldness, darkness, and length of the night isn’t personal…it just is.  You have to go through the night to reach dawn and no one really knows what it’s really like at someone else’s fire.  Maybe it looks easier or harder for them from a distance, but you can really only know how warm your own hands are.

I’m sure it wasn’t always easy for the Priests to keep the fire going on the altar, either.  I can’t imagine there being many large logs in the desert and feeding a fire with small brush takes a lot of tending.  It would have been so hot during the day in the desert and I’ve heard that desert nights can be very cold.  The Priests of the Mishkan also would have learned early on how important going out and gathering the resources needed to keep the flame going was.  I’m sure sometimes feeding the fire became tedious, even frustrating.  After time, it might even have become difficult to see the bigger reasons behind tending that fire.  When they first began, I’m sure they were filled with awe and felt privileged to be the ones to keep the flame going, but over time?  It would have taken work to hold on to that awe and wonder.

And so it is with conversion.  It takes work to keep reminding myself of why I need to keep moving forward along the path.  I can’t know when dawn will come, but I already know that while the day will be different than the night, the flame will still need tending all the same.  After conversion, there may be times it’s even harder to hold on to that enthusiasm and even more tempting to back off mitzvot.  After all, we’re past the night, right?  The test is over, isn’t it?

More people die of hypothermia in the day, when the sun is shining because of that sort of thinking.

So, the wise gather up the fuel needed to keep the fire burning, day or night.