Slowing Down and Building the Mishkan

In this week’s parsha, we talk about the actual building of the Mishkan, the moveable tabernacle that the Hebrews carried around with them in the desert wanderings.  Up to this point, we’ve talked about why there needed to be a Mishkan and we even had a rather long parsha that explained in great detail all the tapestries and hangings and fasteners.  This parsha, though, talks about the actual building of the Mishkan, from all the donations that the Jews poured out until Moses had to tell them to stop giving, to the actual work that was done by all different kinds of craftsmen and women to build it.  It’s from this list that we get all the prohibitions for different kinds of work that we’re not allowed to do on the Sabbath because we know that all these workers paused from their work on the Sabbath.

There were spinners and weavers of cloth, bakers of bread, metalworkers, and carpenters.  It’s even said that each craftsperson was divinely inspired in their work.

What it doesn’t say is that they met certain metrics or deadlines.  In the parsha, even though the artisans are praised for their handiwork, no mention is made of how quickly they built the Mishkan.  In fact, when Hashem tells Moses to build the Mishkan, He only states a starting date…no deadline at all.

My life revolves around deadlines it seems.  Projects have “benchmarks” that must be met in an orderly fashion to reach an arbitrarily decided endpoint.  Tickets, which really are just electronic and not even written on paper, have SLA’s or “Service Level Agreements” for responses.  I work in a world where an outage of a minute is like a lifetime, where everything happens in an instant and, so too must I move quickly.  At home, I watch over all the deadlines for my children’s homework and also, deadlines for my own work at home.  Meals must be ready before lighting Shabbos candles.  Different projects must be completed before our move.

Time feels like each year it speeds up and I scramble to keep up with it all.

Perhaps that’s why, when I want to relax, I turn to hobbies that are slow.  I spin my own yarn, delighting in the slow process of turning a ball of fluff into something useful, something that can be made into a hat or sock.  I enjoy that this is a process that I can touch and feel and that exists wholly in this world.  Then, I enjoy knitting, which is so much less efficient a way to make a hat than driving to the closest store and buying one.  Still, I enjoy the process almost more than the hat itself.  I can lose track of time in the stitches and feel a sense of comfort in the repetitive nature of the act.  I also love baking homemade bread and feeling the dough in my fingers and the smell of yeast rising in the home.

All of this helps me to escape the frantic pace of life and pretend I live in a simpler time that perhaps never really existed.

I wonder if the people spinning yarn for the weavers to use to weave the tapestries of the Mishkan worried about falling behind.  After all, if they failed to spin quickly enough, the weavers would be left with nothing to weave until they caught up.  Did they feel stressed?  Did they sneak glances at the weaver’s progress or ask for updates?  Did the weavers feel pressured to weave all their tapestries quickly so that the builders could put them up?  Or, did everyone just try to do their job to the very best of their abilities?  Was Moses tapping his foot, urging them to spin faster to meet some date he had hoped to dedicate the Mishkan on or, did he urge them to slow down and do their best work.

Did a spinner stop for a moment, just savoring the fact that he or she was doing this sacred work?  Did they want to make the project last just a little longer, knowing that never again in their lives would they be doing something so momentous?

We only know that when it all was completed, Moses saw that every piece of it had been done exactly to Hashem’s specifications and that Moses blessed the workers.  The text sounds like all the work was inspected at once and all the workers blessed together at the same time, the great project completed.  Was a project plan, a timeframe, part of Hashem’s specifications?  I’m left to wonder.

As I reluctantly turn from my hobbies, where I am content to work through a slow process, and back to my work where all too often, I must simply do “good enough” in order to meet deadlines, I wonder at how I might bring deeper meaning to my work and blessing to me as the worker.

In the meantime, my ticket queue calls…

Parshas Vayishlach – Wrestling with Angels and New Names

In this week’s parsha, Yaakov famously wrestles with Esav’s angel, gaining an injury and the name Israel.  In the Torah, every nation has its own angel watching over it and we’ve already learned that Esav is destined to be a mighty nation in his own right.  The struggle is dramatic and costs Yaakov, injuring his hip from which Jews derive the commandment not to eat the sciatic nerve of animals.

I sometimes wonder what nation I was born to and if I wrestle with the angel of that nation.

Unfortunately, the Torah doesn’t tell us which of the people that it speaks of wandered through Europe later.  It doesn’t say if Esav’s distant descendants later decided to move to England, Ireland, and Alsace, where my ancestors sprang from.  There are some commentaries that seek to explain which modern day people are at least spiritual descendants of which people in the Torah, but beyond Jews and Muslims, it can be tough to trace even one’s spiritual lineage back to the Torah.  There are some interesting ideas that the ten lost tribes of Israel spread out throughout the nations and that those who successfully convert are descended from these, but most Rabbis seem to think that converts are neshamas that were present at Mount Sinai, but for varying reasons, were born into non-Jewish bodies.  The generations before have little meaning beyond creating that vessel.

In many ways, I could picture Esav as the ancestor of the people of my birth.  My ancestors were pretty tough people, surviving conditions in Western Europe and then being bold enough to cross the Atlantic in the hunt for a better life.  There are certainly plenty of hunters and warriors in my family line and I can say that there was little concern with spiritual matters, at least in the generations I’m aware of.  The people I come from are very practical, stoic people who value hard work and independence.  Giving up some of that independence to be part of a religious community is seen more as weakness than admirable and admitting to feeling moved by anything that isn’t concretely visible in this world is far too sentimental for their taste.

They’re a good people in their way and people like those I was born to are the bedrock that helped build this nation.  From them, I learned how to go out into this world and work hard, hunting for what I need.  I doubt any of them would have guessed that I would one day turn those skills to hunting for something more, something intangible.

Like any conversion candidate, there are times I question what I’m doing.  There are moments when I ask myself why I am choosing to make my life harder and why I am working so hard to join a people…that very often doesn’t seem to want me.  It helps that I never quite felt at home among the people I was born to.  I always had too many questions about things that seemed unimportant to them.  I always had my head in the clouds and a yearning that no one else seemed to understand.  Still, I look at the world around me and I can’t help but admit that there are other places I’d probably be more easily accepted, other lives that I could slide into with relative ease compared to this one, where I am constantly called on to prove I should be here.

It’s at those times that I wonder if I’m myself wrestling with the angel of my forebear and I often wonder which of us will ultimately win.  Hashem knows we’re both stubborn.

When Yaakov won the battle with Esav’s angel, he was given a new name that his children would carry through time…Israel.  The Sages say this marked a great spiritual transition for him.  He had attained a higher spiritual level following the struggle, a level which would be necessary for the Jews to survive everything that would come later, from bondage in Egypt to years wandering the desert, to conquering their own land, to the exile.  The struggle with Esav’s angel revealed the inner strength of Yaakov.  He didn’t become a different person, but rather it revealed who he really was.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that in exile, Jews must be Yaakov and the nature of Yaakov is to have to hide parts of who we are for survival, but in the time of Moshiach, all Jews will be fully Israel, that is, Jews will be able to reveal fully who they are.

Converts gain a new name at the time of conversion, their Hebrew name.

It’s an interesting task to have to choose a name for yourself.  I remember that my children’s names, both English at their birth and Hebrew as we began this process, came very easily and naturally to me.  Some say that mothers are given divine inspiration when it comes to naming their children and last week’s parsha spoke of Leah and Rachel naming their children.  For me, it was as if once I said their names, those names had always been theirs.  They fit them.  I struggled, though, when it came to my own name.  Should I choose a name that fit who I see myself as or who I wish to become more like?  What should my name sound like?  Converts are urged to choose common Jewish names, names that won’t really stand out much in their community or set them apart.  Being a convert alone sets one apart enough.  Every name I tried, though, just didn’t seem to fit the way my children’s names fit them, but then again, I’d often felt like my English name that I’d had since birth never quite fit.

Over the years, I settled on one that I use and it fits in the way that a shirt that isn’t quite right, but you’ll still wear out fits.  I wonder, though, if I do succeed in wrestling the angel of my ancestors and gain Avraham and Sarah as my spiritual ancestors if that name will come to fit me better and feel more like it is simply who I always was, revealed?

Parshas Chayei Sarah – Big Shoes To Fill

In this week’s parsha, Sarah, the spiritual mother of all Jews and particularly of converts, dies and is the first person to be buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the only piece of the land promised to Abraham that he would actually own in his lifetime, but a promise for more.  Rivka is brought to Yitzhak to be his wife and sees him in the field and in what is one of the most romantic passages of Torah, they experience a Hollywood-like moment of “love at first sight.”

There is a Midrash that tells of Yitzhak bringing Rivka into his mother Sarah’s tent, to show her the example of Jewish womanhood that she needs to follow.  We aren’t told much about Rivkah’s upbringing directly in the written Torah, but midrash tells us that her father was a wicked man, even attempting to poison Eliezar.  She wasn’t raised to be what she became, but somehow, she grows to be a young woman thoughtful and kind, bringing not only water for Eliezar, but also his animals.  It seems like Rivka might often have felt out of place in her own family, as if she never quite belonged and longing to be with people she felt more at ease among.  Rivka leaves her own people to travel to meet Yitzhak, leaving her old life behind.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to stand in Sarah’s tent after her recent passing, realizing that you now have to continue what this great woman began.  Sarah was uniquely gifted in prophecy, even more so than Avraham, and was renowned for her beauty.  Even Hashem himself counselled Avraham to listen to his wife.  She bore great influence with him and undoubtedly began to shape the women who looked up to her and follow her example.  Now, though, all those who had come to monotheism through Avraham’s hospitality found Sarah’s tent empty.  It was Rivka’s task to continue to light Shabbos candles and pass on what Sarah had begun to the next generation.

In a way, we’re all Rivka, standing in Sarah’s tent and wondering if we’ll ever measure up to her example.

As a conversion candidate, I definitely have that feeling of joining a people, but without a flesh and blood mother to guide me, slowly raising me and teaching me.  Like Rivka, I’ve had to learn on the job, so to speak, studying the stories of great Jewish women and looking around me for role models.  I have had to find my place in a family that has a long and rich history of tradition as someone brought from outside by a desire to become a part of that tradition.  I stand in Sarah’s tent, hoping that I can do her memory proud, that I can be a suitable descendant of hers in my own home, raising my own children to carry on those traditions and caring for my own family.

I wonder if Rivka ever got nervous hearing of the greatness of her mother in law.  Did she worry that she wouldn’t be worthy of bringing the next generation or did she already have a quiet confidence within her?  Did she simply accept this mission as what she was born to do, without fear she’d fail?

Parshas Lech Lecha – Go!

This week’s parsha begins the story of Avraham, the father of monotheism and the spiritual father of all Jewish converts.  His story begins with a command that’s familiar:

“Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.”


In some way or other, we all have to eventually leave what is comfortable and familiar and step into an unknown future.  I’ve heard it said that Avraham was the first Jewish convert and this makes perfect sense.  He didn’t grow up with monotheism around him.  He grew up in a family of idolaters in a community where idolatry was normal.

If he’d grown up today, it’s likely his father might have sold iphones and kept up with the Kardashians or simply been someone who idolized money or power.  After all, not all idols are made of stone or wood.

It would have been easy for Avraham to simply follow along.  He could have stayed where he grew up and simply blended in with everyone else.  Instead, he was called upon to leave everything behind and begin a new life, one that was foreign to him both physically and spiritually.  He had to leave what he’d known.

When you study Torah, you quickly learn that the Torah wastes no words.  If something is repeated, it’s for a deeper reason.  Here, we see the Torah basically say that Avraham is commanded by Hashem to go in three different ways.  It would have been clear enough to list any one of them.  Instead, he’s told to leave his “land,” his “birthplace,” and his “father’s” house.  Odds are, during that time period, all three of these could be the same physical location, so it’s obvious that this must mean three different things in some other way. has a article explaining these 3 different journeys in depth:

This is the deeper significance of the words “your land, your birthplace and your father’s house” in G‑d’s call to Abraham. Eretz, the Hebrew word for land and earth, is etymologically related to the word ratzon–will and desire; so your land also translates as your natural desires. Your birthplace–moladtecha–is a reference to the influence of home and society. And beit avicha, your father’s house, refers to man as a mature and rational being, forging his mind-set, character and behavior with the transcendent objectivity of the intellect. (In the terminology of Kabbalah and Chassidism, the intellect is referred to as the father within man, since it is the progenitor of, and authority over, his feelings and behavior patterns.)

Avraham was being called upon to do a lot more than just make a physical move, more than just relocating his wife and household to a new place.  He was being called upon to go and leave behind.  His journey is even beyond just leaving behind his father’s ways or the culture he was born into.  His ultimate journey was to travel beyond the finite, human ability to understand and perceive the world and to glimpse beyond it to Hashem’s will.  Essentially, he was being asked to do more than just reject idolatry and believe in one G-d alone…he’d already done that before the command to Go came to him.

He’s being told that it’s time for him to transcend his own nature, his habits, and even his rational self.  This makes sense when you recall that the culmination of this journey is the akeida, where he sets aside his rationality in favor of pure faith and binds his only son for sacrifice at Hashem’s command.  Everything we learn about Avraham as we follow his journey up to that point contradicts the binding of Isaac.  We see him yearn for a child.  We see him agonize over sending the wicked Ishmael away.  We see his kindness and generosity towards strangers and we see him plead for the lives of Sodom and Gomorrah.  We learn that Avraham is a kind, generous, righteous man.  And yet, in the face of all this evidence that the akeida is exactly the sort of thing a man like Avraham would never do, would outright refuse to do and argue with Hashem over…he obeys without doubt, certain that Hashem has a plan and will cause everything to turn out for the good.

It’s precisely because an act like sacrificing his own son is so opposite what we learn about Avraham’s character that it is so powerful, but on deeper reading, it seems like the changes that Avraham needed to make to reach that point spiritually began with the command to GO.

I think the reason why Avraham’s journey has resonated through three different faiths for thousands of years is because we each have a similar journey.  Some of us are called to travel further than others, but we all must go and leave behind some aspect of ourselves to continue to grow and move forward.  We can all relate to that idea that we often do have to leave behind what is familiar and comfortable to become the people we are meant to be.  For Orthodox Jewish converts the journey is so similar to our spiritual father’s, even if we are never to reach such spiritual heights.  We’re still called upon to move beyond the spiritual place we were born to in a radical way.  It’s easy to see the families, faiths, and cultures we leave behind, but often harder to see the ways in which we also have to transcend parts of ourselves as well, our very nature, our habits, and even at times, our rational selves.

In ways large and small, we all make leaps of faith into an unknown future.  Could Avraham have known with absolute surety that Hashem would keep his promises?  Did he sometimes worry he’d lost his mind or way when the commands he received didn’t seem to make rational sense?  Were there moments during the long walk up Mount Moriah with Isaac where his heart was troubled and he simply prayed that Hashem would find a way to save his son?  Did he look back with regret when he left his homeland and the family he grew up with or did he walk on, confident and certain?

I can bet that there are stories in Midrash that answer many of these questions that I have yet to learn, but for now, I find the Avraham in my mind is often a reflection of where I am in my faith.  When I am wavering, afraid that my trust is misplaced and I’m making a huge mistake for my family, Avraham is a man who worries and prays a lot, silent prayers as he follows Hashem’s commands.  He lifts the knife reluctantly, fervently praying for Hashem to stop his hand.  When I’m full of faith and feeling strong myself, the Avraham I see is certain and confident and he never loses any sleep with doubts.

What is important, I think, is that both my Avrahams keep going forward, in the direction Hashem has commanded them.  Their bravery and faith may be rattled, but their commitment and obedience is not.

For now, I suppose that is enough to keep me going on my own journey, following Avraham’s footsteps through the snow.



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  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 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.