Judaic Studies…in Alaska (or how to teach your children when you live very remote from Day Schools!)

Next year, Hashem willing, our children will be in Orthodox day schools.  This is a requirement for most converts because we may not be able to teach our children everything they need to know when it comes to Judaism.  Most day schools are simply private schools that follow a “dual curriculum.”  Students spend roughly half their day on secular studies, which is all the stuff that public school children study and then the other half is spent on Judaic studies, where they work heavily on learning to read and understand Hebrew as well as learning all that they need to know to live an Orthodox Jewish life.

Our children were in day school when we lived in Florida, but they’ve now been out 5 years here in Alaska, so we have a LOT of catching up to do to smooth their transition back in.  I’m fairly sure that no matter how hard we work now, there’s going to be some bumps when they move back into that environment, particularly for our son who will be starting Yeshiva (high school boy’s school).  Another challenge is that we live where we live, a hour behind even Pacific time and far from any large Jewish community, so resources are a challenge to find.

But…Alaskans are resourceful by nature, so resources I have found.

An average day for us begins like anyone else’s.  We go to work and the children go to public school.  After a full day of public school, they come home and begin their homework from that day.  When I come home, I move from being a network engineer to being a homeschooling teacher.  If I’m very lucky, I have a cup of tea to soften that change!  After I’ve checked in with the kids on their secular homework, I make us some dinner and we all eat, then it’s on to Judaic studies.  I use a mix of different things.  The basics is covered by an online program for Jewish homeschoolers called Melamed Academy.  We also looked at Nigri International Jewish Online School and really liked their program, but it didn’t work out for our timezone.  Melamed Academy is mostly self-study, so it can be done at any time, so that’s what we went with.

I supplement with materials from chinuch.org.  It’s primarily a website in which Jewish educators share materials, but anyone can create an account and download educational materials for free.  I find extra vocabulary lists, study sheets, and parsha study sheets there.  In addition, high on my mind is that my son will need to prepare for Gemara study.  To that end, he has an additional study session weekly with his Zaide.  I found study guides at Boniyach.com for them to try out.  They have programs for boys from elementary school on that help ease them into Mishnah and then Gemara study and I’m hopeful that they will be helpful in their studies.  My daughter also spends a few hours every Sunday at our local Chabad House’s Hebrew school.

We try to wrap all this up by 9pm at night so that everyone can get to bed and sleep since my day begins at 4:30am, when I get up to get ready for work at 6am.

I’m very proud of the way the kids have adjusted to this schedule and their enthusiasm for their Judaic studies.  They also seem to work through their secular homework quicker because they are eager to move on to their other lessons.  I’m very fortunate that they’re both eager learners, even if it means I have to work to keep up!  We’re at a holiday lull in Judaic studies, but I’m using the time to organize materials for after the holidays when we begin the Torah over again.  I often learn alongside the children, having to study myself to help teach them.

Will it be enough to ease the transition?  I’m pretty sure there will still be some big gaps for both of them and we’ll have to help them handle being behind.  Both of them are very good students at school and won’t be used to being the kid who is behind, which is more what I worry about than them catching up.  We talk about not comparing themselves to others and also focusing on how far they have come and how proud we are of them.

I love how our days are full of Torah, even if it means my nights are sometimes a bit too short and I definitely look forward to my Shabbos shluf (nap)!

Parshas Nitzavim-Vayelech: Choices and a Life of Happiness vs. a Life of Meaning

In this week’s double dose parsha, Moses completes telling the Jewish people the laws of the Torah and all the blessings and curses they will receive depending on whether they choose to follow it or abandon it.  He reassures them that keeping the mitzvos really isn’t impossible.

“For the mitzvah which I command you this day, it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven . . . It is not across the sea . . . Rather, it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it.”

Then, he reminds them that it is their choice which path they will take, that they have the freedom to choose.  He is confident that they’ll make the right choice.

“I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil: in that I command you this day to love G‑d, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments . . . Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life.”

In this way, the Jews at this point face the same choice we all have.  There is a saying that every day, you are a single choice away from a completely different life and every day each of us makes choices that shape the direction our lives will go.  We often forget the power we have and frame these choices as if we had no free will at all.

“I have to go to work.”
“I wish I had more time, but I have to do these chores.”
“I’d rather live someplace else, but I have a mortgage and a job here.”

The fact is, there is very little in our lives that we don’t have the freedom to choose.  We can even choose to break the law and suffer the consequences or not pay our bills and have our house foreclosed on or not go in to work and lose our jobs.  There are consequences to our choices, but we still have the freedom to choose.  Similarly, we have a choice to follow the Torah and receive its blessings or to ignore the mitzvos and suffer the curses and this choice is still very much as open to us now as it was when Moses reminded the Jewish people of it.

As usual, I began studying this week’s parsha at a time where it really seemed hand picked for me.  I had just finished watching a TED talk about meaning and how meaning is actually more important for a fulfilling life than happiness.  To me, this talk fits so well with the message of Nitzavim.

Often, the choice to avoid a positive mitzvah or break a negative one comes with it the promise of happiness.  If I give in to eating at that non-kosher restaurant with friends, I know the food will probably be delicious.  My friends will enjoy spending time with me without my religious beliefs getting between us.  I will feel more connected to the community around me, more “normal.”  I may even experience quite a bit of warmth and happiness from the experience, at least while I am there.

The Torah asks me to consider the idea that there is more to life than this happiness in the moment, that there is something deeper and more fulfilling.

If I avoid giving tzedekah, I will have more money to spend on myself and my family.  I could buy my kids things that they like or we could spend that extra money on a family trip.  It would ease some of my husband’s financial worries and strains.  For a while at least, this choice looks like the one that would lead to more happiness for myself and those I love.

And again, as I consider a choice like this, I’m asked to really think about what is more important…happiness or meaning?

In her TED talk and book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness author Emily Esfahani Smith breaks down meaning into 4 pillars.  To her, meaning is comprised of belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendance.  Belonging refers to a feeling of being connected to others, that we have relationships that are important and give us a reason to much of what we do.  Purpose is comprised of feeling like we have a calling or some goal greater than ourselves and often involves serving others or making the world a better place.  Storytelling involves the way we frame the events in our lives and how we consider them to have shaped who we are as a person.  Transcendance is those moments where we glimpse something greater than ourselves and are inspired by it.

I would say that Torah gives us all of these things, fulfilling each of the pillars of meaning that can form a meaningful life.

Living a Torah filled life connects a person to a larger tribe, to the Jewish people.  It sets a person apart from the world, marking them outwardly by mitzvos like tzitzits, kippahs, hair covering, and tznius and marking them by their behavior in so many ways and it also connects them to others who are striving after the same goals.  Orthodox Jews by the very nature of their observance need to live together in communities and bonds between Jews are strengthened both from within and, all too sadly, from the outside world as well.  Even an atheist Jew will still often consider themselves part of the Jewish people and are considered Jewish by most Jews as well.

Living a Torah life is a wonderful way to find a greater purpose in life.  Whether it’s engaging in Torah study, raising and educating Jewish children, participating in Chesed activities to help the community, fundraising, fighting antisemitism, or even just trying to be the best Jew you can be, Jews are very focused on bringing positive change to the world around them.  We can see a very tangible example of this in the US right now as Chabad houses work to feed and shelter people in both Texas and Florida following hurricanes and the Orthodox Union works to raise funds for rebuilding.  From every corner of the Jewish community, there is an outpouring of support when tragedy strikes or a need is seen.  One can’t help but find a basis for this spirit of giving and helping in the pages of the Torah.

Storytelling is central to the identity of a Jew, the Torah itself is the story of how the Jewish people became a Nation and it is through these stories, being told and retold over and over again that the Jewish nation was able to hold onto a cohesive identity despite being scattered throughout other nations for so much of their history.  As individuals, Jews also tend to have a rich tradition of storytelling with stories of survival and spirits that could not be dimmed at the forefront of each family’s story.  Jews who believe deeply in Torah are often shaped by it to be people who view the events of their lives as having some positive outcome, even if that outcome can’t be readily seen in the moment.

Finally, we come to transcendance.  Many Jews find transcendence within the walls of the Synagogue in the cries and songs of prayer.  Particularly this time of year, it is difficult not to feel moved.  Others, though, find those experiences in holding a grandchild, hiking a mountain, creating art or music, studying Torah, or even just in the simple candlelight of Shabbos.  Orthodox Judaism is filled with rich sights, sounds, and even smells like the scent of baking challah that engage the senses and bring us out of the ordinary world.  There are endless opportunities even within an ordinary week to step outside of our everyday lives and connect with something deeper.

In her work, Esfahani Smith, argues that Western culture’s over emphasis on the pursuit of happiness is actually getting in the way of us living deeper, more fulfilling lives.  She argues that because happiness is just an emotional state that comes and goes, basing a life on it means that fulfillment is fleeting as well.  We begin to worry that something is wrong if we aren’t happy all the time, if we can’t simply sit serenely, basking in this peaceful happiness we’re supposed to be finding through work, success, material goods…something.  Her argument is that it is really meaning that makes life worthwhile and satisfying and leads to greater long term happiness and that really it is the pursuit of meaning that we should be occupied with.

As I listened to her words, I found myself agreeing, but also thinking that this was simply the same argument that Moses was making, thousands of years ago when he told the Jewish people to choose life and goodness by following the Torah’s path to a life of meaning, not just pursuing happiness.

Not Punishment, but Medicine?

Right now, the US is kind of a mess.  Texas is still drying out and cleaning up from massive flooding.  A huge wildfire is burning large swaths of forest and homes in Oregon.  Over a hundred small earthquakes have hit Idaho, in an area not used to earthquakes.  An enormous, category 5 hurricane is headed for Florida.  In our own small world, a fierce windstorm knocked out our power this morning.  If you look only at these events, it seems like mother nature is angry, as if Hashem is bringing natural disasters to us for some reason.

And yet, in some ways, this is bringing out bright glimmers of hope.

I was watching a video this morning about the Cajun Navy.  If you’re unfamiliar with them, they’re a group of volunteers from Louisiana that come to natural disasters in that area with all kinds of fishing boats to rescue people in floods.  Apparently, they do a lot more than just that, big as that is.  They feed people, help remove waterlogged building materials and debris, and truck in supplies.  Their history, though, is what was really fascinating.  The Cajun Navy as an organized group was founded after a period of great unrest just a few years ago in Louisiana.  There were riots and shootings, mostly due to racial inequality.  The people were very divided with anger and pain on both sides.

And then, as if things weren’t already bad enough, the flood came.

This flood caught everyone unprepared because it wasn’t connected with a hurricane or massive storm, just rain that fell without stop.  As a result, many people were trapped in their homes and not prepared for the devastation.  People from all backgrounds came together, with boats and food and whatever they had, to help their neighbors.  No one cared about skin color, gender, or any of the other things that had divided them before the flood.  They only thought about trying to help each other through it.  After the flood, they found they had formed friendships across these boundaries that lasted longer than the flood damage.  They began to trust each other again and feel safe to open themselves up to people different than themselves.

This is how the Cajun Navy was born and this is the same growing group of people who now went to Houston with countless fishing boats to rescue people they’d never met.

It occurred to me that what might look to us like a divine punishment, a devastating flood, might just be the bitter tasting medicine a community needs to move past their differences and divisions and come together.  As these disasters have descended upon the US, we’ve seen people forget about political disagreements and ideological divides and instead focus on seeing each other as simply other human beings in need of help.  Sometimes it takes a disaster to shake us out of our illusions and help us find the better part of ourselves.  It’s when things fall apart that we realize that we’re stronger than we thought we were, that we’re more resilient, and that stuff really isn’t that important and neither are our disagreements.

Yesterday, I wrote about this week’s parsha, about blessings and curses.  Today, I wonder at the Kabbalists’ words, that divine punishments are just more goodness, more carefully disguised and I begin to wonder if curses are simply the bitter medicine needed when the promise of blessings has failed to cure us.

May those in the path of these disasters be kept safe and brought comfort and may we all wake up sooner to our better natures, without the need for further medicine.  Thank you, Hashem, for having so many ways to help us be the people You made us to be.



Parshat Ki Tavo – Justice, but Where is Kindness?

This week’s parsha seems to mirror what I see in the world around me this week.  Most of the parsha is concerned with a number of blessings and curses that Moses tells the people will happen to them.  He commands that half of the tribes will ascend one mountain and half the other when they enter Israel.  Half on one mountain will be told the blessings that will be for the Jewish people if they keep the Torah.  The other half will be told the curses that will come to the Jewish people if they do not keep the Torah.  A lot more time is spent very vividly describing the curses, some so awful that they involve the people becoming desperate enough to eat their own children.

Reading this in the time we are, we know that historically, the Jewish people did fail and suffered many if not all of these curses.  They did see themselves dispersed.  There was starvation and death and sickness.  Over and over again, the Jewish people have as a people suffered.  Looking around, too, we can see that people still suffer as great storms ravage the US and war seems so close.

Moving in closer, I see so much hostility and judgment between people now.  For a brief while, there was a respite from it all as all kinds of people came together to help each other in the wake of the flooding in Houston, but now again, they seem back at each other’s throats.  Everyone is preoccupied with justice, but few seem to have time for kindness.  They spend so much more time trying to curse those they see as opposing them than trying to bring blessings to those in need.

The Kabbalists say that even the harshest decrees come from a place of goodness and that the only reason we can’t see this goodness is that it must be hidden from us or else the revelation of the existence of G-d would be so apparent it would destroy our ability to exercise free will.  To them, even the worst curse was simply a hidden good directly from Hashem.  A flood, the death of a beloved child, even war, are all delivered from Hashem in His goodness.

I find this easier to accept when it comes to divine judgment than when it comes to the ways in which we pass judgment on each other.  I feel like we’ve grown harsher in how we treat each other, more eager to rush to justice without first considering compassion.  I look at so much of what I see around me and wonder, “Where is the good in this?  Are these words and actions part of Hashem’s bigger plan or just us exercising our free will to be needlessly mean and cruel?”  Why do we seem to spend so much more time on the negative than trying to create the positive?

In this week’s parsha, half of the tribes were meant to hear the curses and half the blessings, which to me seems to indicate that we are supposed to be balanced when it comes to judgment and kindness, that we are supposed to consider each equally and that while the parsha may have spent more time describing the curses for those who failed to live up to the Torah’s mandates, that these curses were only equal in weight to the blessings.  There seems to be a middle way that we are meant to find here, in which we avoid the curses and win the blessings.

But I feel like the pendulum will need to swing back some to reach that center.

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.

Parsha Re’eh – A Blessing and a Curse

This week’s parsha comes at a very critical time, both in recent modern history as well as on the Jewish calendar.  We are at the end of the Hebrew month of Av and the month of Elul is about to begin, which is a month dedicated to repentance.  It’s a time when Jews take stock of the year that has been in preparation for the new year and for the time in which the world is judged.  Many people undertake greater study, make apologies to those they may have wronged, and seek to figure out what they can learn from this past year.

It’s fitting that his week’s parsha begins with explaining that following Hashem’s laws will bring the Jewish people blessings, but failing to follow them will bring curses.  Hashem does not force us to follow His will, but instead gives us the free choice.  It’s also clear that it isn’t always easy to follow His will, that often it takes effort and a real determination to choose correctly.  In short, this week’s parsha tells us that there is no way to sit on the fence…we have to choose one path or another and there are consequences for making the wrong choice.

However, there is some consolation in how this is worded.  The Torah says, “See that I am placing before you a blessing and a curse.”  This means that we’re not left to blindly try to figure out what is good and what is evil in the world.  We’re shown and taught what goodness is as well as what evil is.  We’re instructed by the Torah as to what is good and we’re also shown in our own lives what good is.  We’re also taught what is bad by Torah.

This week I was unfortunate enough to be forwarded a video of a family of white supremacists.  The mother in the family had a baby in her arms and a toddler next to her as she spoke of her hatred of Jews and her desire for a genocide.  Her children, wide eyed and innocent, were too young to understand her words.  To me, the greatest sadness in that video was that these children will have a much harder time seeing what is a blessing and what is a curse because they will first have to overcome what they will be taught by the people they instinctively trust the most, their own mother and father.

I can imagine that in the time in which Moses was speaking to the Jewish people, it was just as difficult, if not harder for any people to overcome their upbringing.  Idolatry was rampant and literal in the land the Jews were about to inherit.  Great statues had been built to false gods and the Jews were commanded to obliterate every trace of them, less they later be led to gather around them and worship them.  Hashem’s commandments to destroy every single symbol of idolatry and even the commandment to annihilate all the people who followed them showed a very pragmatic knowledge of human nature.  Hashem knew that if any trace of those groups or their symbols remained, it would only be a matter of time before their descendants returned and used those symbols as a rallying point.

Of course, in hindsight, we already know what was going to happen in this story.  The Jews would not follow these commands and didn’t wipe out all who lived in the land and eventually, repeatedly, they did fall into idol worship, bringing about the curse of galus, of exile.  I can imagine at the time that it would have seemed heartless to wipe out an entire people.  It’s something I struggle with in Torah myself because I consider all genocide an evil.

I wonder, though, if there is a spiritual way to wipe out a people that has become toxic to all who surround them, a way that doesn’t involve violence or bloodshed.  If the Jews had destroyed every monument to the evil of idolatry, would there have been a way to ensure that it never rose again even without killing every man, woman, and child of the people who had built it?  Is there a way to remove the evil without destroying the people?

People have likely pondered questions like this ever since Moses gave these commands and still we wrestle with those among us who are drawn to the same evils.  Perhaps its the consequence of free will that some people will choose to use that will to create hate or idolatry and then will choose to teach their children that instead of what is truly good.

Hashem sets before all us blessings and curses for us to see and choose and makes it clear that there is a choice to be made even when it would be easier to avoid.  In Elul, looking back over the year, I need to see where I may have made the wrong choice, where I need to repair what I may have broken, and how I can prepare to be a better person in the year to come.

May we all make the choices that lead to blessings and inspire others to do the same.

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.