House Showings and Passover Cooking

I had just put a huge brisket for Passover in the oven, the kind that you have to cut just to fit in the pans.  Two glorious full sheet pans where covered and ready to go and the oven was heated.  My cell phone announced a text.  It was from our realtor.

“Can you do a showing at 2pm?”

I looked around my kitchen, the counters covered for Passover, potato starch seemingly everywhere and a pile of dirty dishes in the sink.  We had only hours to prepare for a showing and this was just the kitchen.

“Of course,” I texted back.  Because, this is what you do when you really want to sell a house in a tough market.

My husband, who works from home, pitched in and together we put the house back to show-ready condition from top to bottom.  Carpets were vacuumed, produce put away, counters uncovered that would just be covered again after the showing.  The one thing that I couldn’t do, though, was hide the brisket.  It would have to just keep cooking.  Soon, the entire house was clean and ready…and smelling completely of brisket and onions!

We packed up Sam the beastdog and left, the brisket in progress.  I hoped that the buyers weren’t vegetarians or vegans.

These are just the kinds of decisions that anyone taking on observance has to make, Jewish or conversion candidate.  There are times we have had to go on a walk on Shabbos while our house was shown, hoping that they didn’t turn off or on too many lights.  Others have spent a Shabbos in an airport when their flight was delayed.  Still others have had to use the ocean as a mikvah in remote areas.  Observance challenges us all in different ways, but sometimes it’s those stories that are the best ones to remember when things seem difficult or too much to handle.

I have a few Jewish friends who are down this week.  It’s a tough week for everyone, with all the cleaning and cooking and preparations.  I’m reminded just how fortunate I am that I have supportive family around me.  My kids are helping me when they can and are enthusiastic about our upcoming Seders.  How much harder would this be if they were sullen and sarcastic?  My husband is brushing up on all the laws to lead the Seder and is handling all the preparations for the Seder plate even as he works this week.  How much harder would this all be if he wasn’t engaged and looking forward to it?  My dear Mother in Law in Arizona even overnighted me 3 containers of potato starch when we couldn’t find it locally.  That’s a lot of love from a woman who is busy with her own Seder prep!

Yes, I may have periodic interruptions this year, but I also have so much love and support that it seems silly to complain about them.  I’m sure they’ll make for great stories in the years to come, too.

And the brisket turned out amazing, even if the people looking at our house didn’t make an offer.  At least they didn’t take the brisket!

May everyone have the freedom to see their blessings this Passover!

“Turning Over” My Kitchen…and Turning Over my Pre-Passover Anxiety

The same thing happens EVERY year without fail.  I always plan to “turn over” my kitchen (that is, clean and kosher it for Passover), as close to Passover as possible so that my family doesn’t have to either eat kosher for Passover food longer than necessary or eat their floury, chametz-leaden food in the garage.  I plan and think I have everything down and scheduled.

Inevitably, I always wind up beginning my cleaning and then just turning over the kitchen a few days earlier than I’d planned.  Every.  Single. Year.

I’m not even sure why, but at some point, it seems less stressful to just get it done.  Maybe it’s that I hear of other women turning their kitchens over earlier and I begin to worry I won’t have time to cook?  Or, perhaps it’s just that the cleaning begins to take on its own momentum?  I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with a discomfort with living “in between.”

At a certain point, you begin to have some areas cleaned and some things kashered and some things not and in that state, it gets harder and harder to keep things separate and not make any mistakes.  I feel a sense of relief when the kitchen is all turned over and set for Passover, even if my family is huddled around the toaster oven in the garage or eating potato kugel for an extra week.  I’m fine before I begin turning things over, but once it’s started, I really feel this need to get it all finished as quickly as possible so that the wrong spoon doesn’t wander out or someone cooks in the wrong pot.

I think that probably says a lot about me in general.

There is a discomfort that comes with living in any half-completed state.  I think we feel this in the last weeks of school before a graduation or those rushed weeks before a wedding.  A big life transition is taking place, but, at least for a short while, there is a space where you’re between and there is a mental and emotional discomfort that accompanies that state.  It’s a feeling you’d think our family would be accustomed to by now!

I find comfort in the idea that there is a purpose to such states, though.  Hashem certainly could have simply brought the Jews out of Egypt and directly to Israel.  It would have been simple given all the other miracles He performed.  Alternately, He could have just led them on the most direct route right to Israel.  Instead, the Jews had to wander for 40 years in the desert.  They needed to dwell in the discomfort of being free from slavery, but not yet having their own land.  As uncomfortable as that state was, it was necessary for so many reasons for them to become the nation they were meant to be.  Similarly, when we individually make big life transitions, sometimes, as painful and awkward as it can feel, we need to live in a state between one thing…and another.

I have a friend currently experiencing this in a very personal, visceral way.  Her marriage has ended, but both her civil divorce and the process of getting her get have stalled (to be clear, she is not an agunah and it looks like everything will work out…it’s just going to take more time than she ever imagined).  She has to live in an awkward place between being married…and being single and not really being either.  A chapter in her life has ended, but she can’t yet begin the next chapter and she’s stuck at the turning of the page.

Life just simply isn’t as orderly as the numbered pages of a book.  My rush to turn over my kitchen is my small way of trying to make it more like that, to make the world simpler for me to understand, where the change between one state to another is so much easier to see and so much neater and cleaner.  That anxiety I feel where things are halfway turned over and my kitchen is not quite kosher for Passover but also already contains things that need to remain kosher for Passover is such a mirror of the powerlessness I often feel when I feel like I’m stuck at the turning of a page.  In my kitchen, I have the freedom to rush through and my family is patient enough with me to allow it.  In fact, they know by now that when I say I’m going to turn the kitchen over on X day…they might as well subtract three days from that.  They just smile knowingly.

In life, we rarely have the ability to control the big transitions of our lives in this way.  I’m sure it’s for the better than we can’t because who would willingly choose to live in-between for any longer than they had to?  Still, within that tension of not quite being what we were and yet not being able to step fully into who we are becoming is where we find some of our deepest growth.  We’re off balance between steps, essentially falling forward until our foot catches us, but that’s how we move forward in this life.

As I finish turning over my kitchen tonight, I will pray that I become more graceful when it comes to these in-between spaces and try to resist the urge to rush through them so much.  Who knows what I might miss along the way?

Soon, My Children Will Not Be Mine

Orthodox Jewish conversion has a lot of fascinating quirks that a lot of people aren’t aware of unless they’ve dealt with the process directly.  One of them, which I mentioned in relation to my husband yesterday, is the fact that once you emerge from the Mikvah as an entirely new, Jewish person in the eyes of Jewish law, you also emerge with a new set of parents, Avraham and Sarah.  An interesting twist in this happens when a child converts in that, when it comes to Jewish law and ritual matters…they’re technically no longer their parents’ child anymore, but a child of Avraham and Sarah.  When an entire family converts, this means that, from a halakhic perspective, technically, the parents and the children all suddenly have the same spiritual parents and are also spiritual siblings.

This can lead your mind down some uncomfortable, very West Virginian paths if you let it and it is important to have a Rav that can advise you on things like laws of yichud and such if you have older children and are in this situation, but I think those details are best left to Rabbis who specialize in this particular and peculiar area of Jewish law.  This also applies to non-Jewish children who are adopted by Jewish couples and converted as infants or children, too.

The aspect that I struggled with early on in the conversion process was the idea that my children wouldn’t be prayed for with my name, but Sarah’s.  For some reason, that ached in my heart, that if my children were sick or hurt and needed prayers, they wouldn’t be prayed for as MY children, like any other Jew.  My son wouldn’t be called to Torah as the son of my husband, but as someone else’s son.  I have heard, in passing, that there is such a thing as “halakhic adoption” after conversion, but I also had to face the prospect of this being yet another thing I would have to work through letting go of in order to become a Jew and so…I set to thinking very deeply about it.

Like my husband’s journey to letting go of his attachment to his names, it took years and I can say that it’s only this winter that I’ve finally come to a place where this feels good, not just something that I’ll grit my teeth and make it through, but something I see as a positive good.

Part of it is the growing up my children have done since we began the conversion process.  7 years ago, when we first approached a Rabbi, my daughter was just 5 years old and my son 7.  They were still very much attached to me and needed a lot of care.  Over those 7 years, they’ve grown more and more independent.  My son, in particular, is now a 14-year-old, an adult in Jewish law and more and more, he craves his independence as he becomes his own man.  He needs space from me and our relationship shifts and changes as he grows into being more and more my peer than my child.  My daughter turns 12 next week, which is the age she would have become a bat mitzvah.  There are moments where she is still my baby and then the next, I see glimpses of a beautiful, bright young woman, strong and capable in her own right.

It’s already becoming the time of stepping back and letting go of my children so that they can be the people they were meant to be.

That process is so bittersweet.  I worry over them.  I’m intensely proud of them.  I’m annoyed by them.  I long to just pull them back into my lap and cuddle them.  I even ask them for help, particularly my son with jars I just can’t open.  I love them just as fiercely, but often, it’s appropriate to hold back some so I don’t embarrass them or cross the boundaries they’re beginning to make in their own lives.  They change so quickly and most of the time, I’m clumsily trying to keep up with it all.

A big shift happened this winter when we went to visit a Yeshiva and a boy’s High School with my son.  For years, I’d been resistant to the idea of sending him off to Yeshiva.  It felt like I was abandoning him to others to finish raising.  However, visiting these schools and watching the boys there interact with their Rebbes and seeing my son interact as well, I suddenly realized that this could be something really healthy.  Perhaps boys need to go off into a world of men that aren’t so close to them to be stifling and have more influences than just my husband and I.  I realized that my son could not just survive, but really thrive in this environment.  I also saw that he’d have even more support and guidance than we alone would be able to give him.  I suddenly felt like it was time to open up, let others into his life in a much deeper way, and take steps back of my own.

Up until now, my husband and I have been his coach, calling the plays in his life.  Now, it looks more and more like we need to be on the sidelines, just cheering and supporting him from more of a distance, but still his biggest fans.  He needs new coaches to take him to the next level.

I can think of no better spiritual parents to entrust my precious children to than Avraham and Sarah, the very people who helped to guide so many people of their time to the revolutionary concept of monotheism itself.  I also realize that as a spiritual newborn myself, I’ll need to depend on others now to give my children what I can’t, what I’m still in need of myself.

In my own life, I’ve struggled with the transition with my own parents from child to a sovereign adult.  I can now see more clearly from the other side of the equation just how difficult that transition must have been for them, too.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been asked spiritually to make that transition with my own children in a very literal way at the same time that they’re at the age of adulthood in Jewish law and I really feel blessed by all the lessons there are for me in this.

Sometimes the very things we feel the most initial resistance to are the things we most need, the bitter medicine that is our cure and, it’s absolutely fitting in a Jewish sense that this cure comes before I have to let go of my children in other aspects of our lives together and accept them as the adults they are growing into.

Plus, I can’t imagine that there couldn’t be a blessing from serving as a handmaiden to a woman as righteous and great as Sarah, giving over to her two new Jewish children that, G-d willing, may grow to bring her blessing with their lives.  It’s almost like being a commoner and raising your children to adolescence and the Queen of the realm seeing them and how special they are and how well they were raised and adopting them into her royal family.  It’s bittersweet to let them go, but such pride at seeing them ascend and knowing how much more able they’ll be now to reach their full potential.

So yes, I am letting my children go, but in the end, I realize they were only ever lent to me to care for and always belonged to Hashem.  I was just entrusted with these treasures of His for a time and it has been an honor.  I’m sure I’ll still be needed for many years to come in different ways and I’ll be so happy to step in, but I’m also glad I’m not alone in raising them the rest of the way.

Mother Sarah, I gladly and happily share my children with you and I know that you’ll love and worry over them with me and together we can daven for them.

What greater gift could I ever give them?

The Darker Side of Kiruv

I hesitated writing this post.  I never want to speak ill of the Jewish people, even isolated parts because I understand how someone reading my words might take that to be all Orthodox Jews, particularly if they’ve had little to no experiences with other Orthodox Jews.  I also hesitated because I kept wondering if what happened was my fault, just like how my son didn’t tell us when a man at shul just picked him up during the High Holidays, scaring him.  I feared if I said anything about what happened, it would either be dismissed as minor or it would somehow have been my fault.

But that’s exactly why things like this happen.  Not every Jew that comes to a kiruv organization wanting to learn more about their Judaism is a good person, but we are commanded to assume that they are.  In this case, though, I was placed in a situation with someone who was known not to behave appropriately.  I’m fortunate that very little happened to me, but I feel like it’s something that BT’s and conversion candidates need to be aware of and to feel like they can stand up for themselves if they’re in a similar situation.

Kiruv is an overwhelmingly good thing.  It’s the word for the process by which non-observant Jews are brought back to observance and thousands of Jews have increased their observance as a result of outreach efforts by observant Jews.  As a result of so many attacks on Jewish identity, generations were raised with little to no idea of what being Jewish could mean for them.  Kiruv organizations like Aish and Chabad work hard to help bring that message to secular Jews who might not even know what they are missing.

However, there are some downsides and I experienced one of them recently at a Shabbos table.

I was a guest, alone in an unfamiliar city and staying with a Rabbi and his wife.  I was already feeling down and unwelcome for other reasons, but I hoped that dinner would help me connect here and feel the warmth of Shabbos.  They had one other guest who showed up late and by the fact that he drove and his dress it became clear that this man was someone they were hoping to bring to greater observance.  He sat down between me and the Rabbi at the head of the table and initially I welcomed him the same I would anyone else.  That’s when things steadily went downhill.

This guest began to make offhand, inappropriate comments and eventually began touching my arm and shoulder to punctuate these comments.  I felt very uncomfortable and I looked to the Rabbi at the head of the table, hoping he would say something to his guest…he didn’t.  I saw him uncomfortable and trying to steer the conversation elsewhere, but it continued until I finally benched (said the blessing for after eating) and went to bed.  The fact that the guest had mentioned that he’d been told by the Rabbi to “behave himself,” told me that this wasn’t surprising behavior from him.  When I spoke about what had happened after Shabbos to a friend, they asked me why I didn’t stand up for myself.  I really felt at a loss.  The Rabbi and the Rebbetzin were right there and I didn’t feel it was my place to cause any conflict at their table.  I told myself it was nothing, just some words and he’d only touched my arm and shoulder.

The fact is…often kiruv Rabbis are in a tough situation.  The person who is acting inappropriately might be a major donor, someone who helps keep the doors of their shul open so that they can do the work they need to do in their community.  Tolerating bad behavior from one might allow them to serve many.  In other cases, the person acting poorly might be someone they see badly in need of help, a Jew on the edge.  The person might be related to someone who is powerful or wealthy.

My host and hostess didn’t speak to me about what had happened afterwards.  They avoided me the rest of my stay there.  I wonder if it’s because they felt awkward about it all or if they somehow blamed me.  I can’t know.  I try to judge them favorably, assuming they were probably in one of those difficult situations or unsure how to handle what was happening.  They were younger and perhaps this was something new to them.  I also thought a lot about how I could handle things differently.  I could have spoken up for myself.  I could have asked him to stop touching me or to stop talking about lewd topics.  Instead, I laughed nervously, trying to find the best time to politely get out of there.  I felt unsafe, jetlagged, and alone.  I couldn’t blame the experience on my halakhic status or lack thereof since it had never come up.

Kiruv is hard and difficult work and I admire the people who engage in it.  They also must often tolerate so much directed at themselves and their families to do what they do.  It may have been that what I went through was minor compared to what they’ve endured.

My husband and I also talked about how we would handle a similar situation at our Shabbos table.  What would we do to keep any female guests feeling safe and comfortable if there was a male guest who crossed the line?  Would that change any if it was a Rabbi or someone important?  (It won’t.)  Are we willing to deal with the fallout if we made someone feel unwelcome for their behavior?  Where are our lines in the sand and where can we compromise?

I feel like this experience, as difficult as it was that weekend, was important to have.  I walked that Shabbos day, my guests having left me on my own after services, and cried, but I also thought a lot about what had happened and what I could learn from it.  I knew I didn’t want any woman traveling alone or whose husband was away to feel that way in my own home.  I also looked at all the complicated layers to the situation, acknowledging that I couldn’t know all the details, either.

To me, it’s here, in the murky place between being a good host to a Jew who obviously badly needs Torah and allowing that which I cannot stomach that the rubber meets the road.  Can I love my fellow Jew while still keeping my home a safe and welcoming place?  Is there a point at which my fellow Jew has separated himself so much from what is good that I can no longer attempt to bring him close?  I would guess that everyone has different lines.  I needed this experience to show me where mine are.  I left the home before my guests had returned after Shabbos, relieved to drive away.  I left my thank you card and hostess gift just the same, still questioning whether I had done something wrong for them to leave me with the lockbox code and avoid me.  I needed this experience to clearly show me what I don’t want in my home and what I don’t want people to feel in my home.

And that particular gentleman, in our home, would have been politely shown the door if a kind warning hadn’t put a stop to his behavior.  He wouldn’t have been invited at all if his behavior was known, Jewish or not, wealthy and powerful or not.

I found my line.

 

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?

Simchas Torah From My Side of the Mechitza

I’m about to log off, finish my cooking, and prepare for another 3 day Yom Tov, this time including the holiday of Simchas Torah.  Simcha means joy and this holiday is all about the joy that Jews feel when it comes to the Torah.  Other religions certainly have their holy books, but I’ve never seen quite the affection for them that Jews have for the Torah.  Physically, they treat each Torah scroll as something precious and fragile, clothed in soft, rich velvet and crowned with silver and bells.  They reach out to touch it, kissing their fingers or reach out a prayer book to touch it, considering it too holy for human fingers.  If a Torah scroll is ever dropped, the entire community is commanded to fast.

The Torah is one of the gifts that the Jews believe was uniquely given to us, along with the Sabbath and a few others.  It’s also called a “eitz chaim,” with eitz meaning tree in Hebrew and chaim meaning life.  It’s a tree of life, something to cling to in the stormy lives we live, something solid to live by.  Love of the Torah is encouraged from an early age with even tiny children being brought to kiss the Torah and their first learning of it accompanied by sweets.  When disaster has struck Jewish communities, men have risked their lives to save Torah scrolls, smuggling them out under risk of death.

It’s safe to say that the Torah occupies a unique place in Judaism of joy, love, and reverence.

Simchas Torah is the end of the High Holiday season.  It’s the day we both finish reading the Torah, the 5 books of Moses that are in a Torah scroll and begin right again.  The entire holiday is essentially like a wedding reception, the community celebrating their union with Hashem and the Torah and, like any good wedding reception, there is singing and dancing, with the Torah scrolls brought out of their ark and danced around the Synagogue or, in some places, even out into the street.  It’s a joyful day…except for many women who stare longingly at these celebrations, wishing they, too could join the men and dance with the Torah scroll.

While I’m sympathetic to these women, I’m not among them.

One thing that my long time in conversion has taught me is that we all have different parts to play.  Even after conversion, converts, at least converts today, have a very different set of expectations than born Jews.  I was discussing this with a newer conversion candidate some weeks ago, who was chafing at the inequality she saw.  She realized that while a born Jew can vary in their observance and even simply choose not to observe some mitzvos, that option is not as open to converts.  In our community, the majority of people who attend the Orthodox Chabad Synagogue drive on Shabbos to get there.  Few married women cover their hair.  Most men don’t wear a kippah outside of shul.  Most families eat non-kosher food regularly.  Yet, for a conversion candidate to do any of these would mean they wouldn’t be converted and, after conversion, if a convert decided to make these choices they might have their conversion questioned or they might cause those who were involved in their conversion to be tougher on future conversion candidates.  It’s simply the way things are and I found that being upset about the double standard didn’t help me or my family at all.

Orthodox Judaism is not egalitarian, which is in stark contrast to modern sensibilities.  In the Western world, we’re raised to believe that equality is our birthright and that everyone should be treated exactly the same regardless of their gender or family name.  Orthodox Judaism is more nuanced.  A man may be born a Kohen or Levite and have certain privileges that other Jewish men aren’t born to as well as other restrictions on his life that other Jewish men aren’t constrained by.  Men have different privileges and responsibilities than women.  There is the underlying idea that every human life is equally important and precious, but there is also the idea that what that looks like isn’t always the same.

Among the laws that impact the differences between men and women are the laws that a woman above bat mitzvah age may not sing or dance in front of men, besides very close male relatives.  How strictly that is observed depends a lot on the community.  In actual Orthodox weddings, there is often a separate area for women to dance together, cordoned off with a temporary barrier from the men and I have seen some Synagogues that do something similar for Simchas Torah as well.  To me, having grown used to the idea that some things are not for me as a non-Jew, some things are not for me even after conversion as a convert, the idea that some things are not for me because I am a woman…really isn’t revolutionary.  I am able to watch and enjoy my son and husband dance with the men without envy or jealousy in the same way I can watch my husband wear a tallis without envying him.

I do not need to dance to have joy or to express my joy, but I understand how it can sting to feel excluded from something, particularly when you are coming from a majority culture where exclusion is always seen as a negative thing.

So, as my online world as I scour for last minute recipes becomes filled with women lamenting the inequality of this holiday, I can pause and relate to how they are feeling, but I also realize that I’m not one of them.  I live my life already in a tangle of restrictions and exceptions and I have learned to find joy and fulfillment within that framework.  If I had felt similarly and remained in that place, I probably would not have lasted this long in the conversion process.  Every week, my family, in ways large and small, are excluded and if I dwelled on just that, I would soon be overwhelmed with sadness and frustration.  The same way I choose instead to focus on the joy that still is there in my life even now, I choose to focus on the joy of Simchas Torah, which goes so much further beyond dancing.  There is the joy that of all the nations, the Jews were the ones to accept the Torah and to be given it as a gift.  There is the joy that yet again, we have finished a year long journey through it, reading and studying it and that Jews have been doing this very same thing for thousands of years.  There is the joy of watching new generations encounter the Torah, wrestling with it, and making it their own.

When I think of everything that the Torah represents to Jews throughout the world and generations, as well as to my family, in some ways, I feel more comfortable with just a reverent kiss than with dancing.  There is a joy that is more intimate and personal for me that doesn’t need an audience to be real, that isn’t improved or made greater by any more movement than the movement of my siddur to the Torah and to my lips, as if everything I might have expressed in wild dancing is now concentrated and distilled down into this small act.

And in that act, I am perfectly content and envious of no one.

The Power of Perception and Choosing Piglet Over Eeyore

I have a very wise, non-Jewish friend who often will say something profound and then later I’ll discover that the idea she’s spoken of already exists within Judaism.  It’s become almost a running joke with us.  One of the ideas that she believes very strongly in is the idea that our perception of reality has the ability to shape our reality.

You can see this in science, where they’ve proven that the very act of observing something with a preconceived notion will make a researcher more likely to see outcomes that support their preconceived notion.  We all experience it much more concretely in our lives when we have a friend like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh who is very negative and can see only the worst in every situation or when, as children, we decide to look for something.  As a child, my family would pick morel mushrooms in one of our small forests on our land.  It never failed that none of us would see mushrooms until one of us had found at least one, but then suddenly, we’d see them everywhere.  When you’re looking for something in the world around you, you tend to see more of it.

This idea also plays out in Judaism, where often we’re told to focus on the good and it will be good, to not dwell on a possible negative outcome and to always believe that the good will happen.  I see this play out among my friends as well, with Orthodox friends frequently giving a “Baruch Hashem” when something unfortunate happens, instead focusing on the idea that it could have been much worse.  Most recently, I had an Orthodox friend in Israel who had a pipe burst in her kitchen over Rosh Hashanah.  Instead of being upset that her kitchen was a mess for the holiday, she was instead grateful that it happened over the holiday because everyone was home and able to find what had happened soon after the pipe had burst, minimizing the damage.  She was able to see the good even in a soaked kitchen.

Conversely, I have friends who are bikers who view the world as a scary and violent place and are always fearful of a fight.  Consequently, they often do find themselves in fights.  I have other friends who view the world as a very unjust place and as a result, everywhere they look, they find injustice that must be fought against.  I have friends who feel that men are oppressing women and find evidence of this all around them and others who fear the world is being destroyed and again are granted all the proof they need to support these fears.  It is as if there are seeds all around us for whatever flower we want to see, just waiting for our attention to sprout.

To me, it is a testament to the power of co-creation that Hashem gave each of us when He made us in His image that we have such amazing power to shape the world around us just by the lens through which we choose to view it.  I’ve had some amazing examples of this in my own life.  One was the recent storms and watching my friends react to them.  One friend was focused on how unprepared most of the cities were and how much better the response should have been and as a result, he was very upset about the storms even though his home was left untouched.  Another was focused on how many people were helping each other and all the volunteers rushing to offer aid, as such, she was inspired by the kindness of all these strangers.  Both were looking at the same events, but both came away with a completely different experience of them.

Which brings me to my re-entry into the “real” world from my holidays.  Yesterday I wrote about an experience with our own home, both here and on Facebook.  My intentions were to share something positive, given that so much of what we are fed as information lately is negative.  I wasn’t intending to upset anyone or brag and, Facebook being what it is, I limited the audience of my post there to only my Jewish friends, people I thought would be most likely to understand the lens through which I viewed what had happened.  I expected that a few people might notice or comment on my post, but that many just wouldn’t be interested, but I didn’t really expect anyone to be upset.

Oddly enough, some people were.  Most were relatively mild and it came down to them wanting someone to blame.  Why didn’t our painters lock the house for us?  Why didn’t we leave a key with a neighbor or call someone before the Yom Tov?  Why didn’t we plan better?  For them, there was comfort in thinking that it was human negligence alone that led us to the situation we were in and they were satisfied when I freely admitted that there were several things we could have done differently so as not to be left in that situation again and that we were working on those things now.  The way I see it, their concerns and objections were well-intentioned and reasonable.

Then I had one friend whose objections to what I wrote were more theological and she was much more upset.  To her, my entire interpretation of what had happened made me a bad person.  To her, it was extremely presumptuous to credit divine protection for the fact we hadn’t been robbed when during that same weekend, a hurricane and earthquakes had left other people in other parts of the world homeless.  Did we think we were so special or that us observing the Yom Tov so worth of reward while these people deserved death and destruction?  How could I be happy about our belongings being safe when mothers in Mexico were mourning their dead children?  How in the world could a just G-d save my home while destroying theirs and how could I believe in such kinds of calculations?

I really was taken aback by the passion in her arguments.

I had written what I had written before even checking the news, having been offline through the holiday.  As a non-observant Jew who is very involved in social justice, she had been online throughout and following the news carefully, so she and I were coming from very different viewpoints.  I was not intending in any way to minimize the suffering of anyone, but merely thanking Hashem for our good fortune.  I don’t live in a world where there is only a certain amount of good fortune to go around where somehow my family receiving goodness subtracts from the amount of mercy available to others.  A friend wisely pointed out that many of those families who had lost their homes were probably thanking Hashem that their lives had been spared with just as much sincerity as I was thanking Him for our possessions being saved…were they too in the wrong since other lives had not been so fortunate?

In the end, I realized that nothing would help my friend feel any better or better understand my perspective.  We simply live in very different worlds and, glimpsing the hurt and anger in her world for a moment, I don’t think I would want to trade mine for hers.  I can celebrate one friend’s success or good fortune without feeling that I have let others who are suffering down and I live in a world where suffering and joy can both exist and where I choose to focus on joy while still doing what I can to relieve suffering.  I can’t imagine how hard it must be to feel like you must focus only on whatever is “wrong” in the world until every problem is solved before you can be happy over the smaller things, where suffering and injustice must constantly be ranked and weighed to decide who is allowed to rejoice and who must be silent.

There is much we can work on in this world to make it a better place and so many places where we can work to help those less fortunate than ourselves, but I don’t think we need to deny our own gratitude for what goes on in our own lives to do it.  I believe Hashem created us with the capacity for far more complexity, for the ability to reach out in concern for others while still feeling joy within ourselves.

I also can easily admit that I can’t explain why my house was spared and so many other homes destroyed this weekend.  It’s far beyond me to know why so many earthquakes have shaken Mexico lately and not Anchorage or why hurricanes just keep pounding Puerto Rico.  I don’t automatically assume that the people in either place have done some great evil that deserves divine punishment…I simply can’t know why they have been chosen to suffer these things and I do feel compassion for them.  And, without any contradiction to me, I am also grateful that no one stole our belongings.

I choose to look for the good and to look for things to be grateful for.  I choose to look for the people who rise above disasters to help each other.  I choose to be inspired and to donate what I can to help them rebuild.  I choose to believe that Hashem is good and that if I can’t see the good in what has happened, it’s a matter of my perspective not being wide enough to see all the ripples from whatever has happened.

I make these choices when I look at the events of my life and the world around me because those are the choices that bring me joy and make my life more meaningful and help lift me up more to a place where I feel like I have more to offer the world around me, rather than dragging me down to a point of feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.  Perhaps that is childlike or simplistic, but I’ll also freely admit that my Jewish learning is probably more at a child’s level right now, more at what a 7 year old might know…and I’m ok with that.  I’ll keep on growing and learning and I feel like being an optimist is a better way to help me continue doing that.

I can let someone else be Eeyore in this story.  I’m content to be piglet, albeit a kosher version.