|December 29, 2016||Goodbye 2016||no comments|
|December 22, 2016||What's the Spin?||no comments|
|December 15, 2016||The Other Holiday in Kislev||no comments|
|December 08, 2016||Conquering My Second Worst Fear||no comments|
|December 01, 2016||Legacy of Mumbai: Is It Light Yet?||no comments|
|November 24, 2016||The Jew and the Turkey||no comments|
|November 17, 2016||Five Phrases Every Lubavitcher Wants You to Know||no comments|
|November 10, 2016||Finding G-d in the Elections||no comments|
|November 03, 2016||Why Are You Reading This?||no comments|
|October 27, 2016||Out of the Box and in the Air||no comments|
Zev and I were outside of Walgreens in North Hollywood, California, where our son-in-law Nachman was putting up signs for his Chabad community's Chanukah event. He wished the obviously Jewish-looking man a Happy Chanukah.
"I'm not Jewish," he answered, "but everybody thinks I am." He went on to tell us that his ancestors were from Ecuador and how he had lots of Jewish friends. He knew about the Jewish expulsion from Spain, too, adding that his family could have been among the Jews who fled. The more we chatted, the more Jewish he seemed. When he told us his mother was still alive, I suggested he ask her about her family's background.
"Yeah, maybe I'll do that," he answered sweetly, naive about the sometimes big implications of a little knowledge. Will anything change in his life as a result of our meeting? It's a long shot, but you never know what even a small encounter can spark in the soul of a person, Jewish or non-Jewish.
The soul is said to be a lamp of G-d, although for any number of reasons, a soul's flame can be very dim, even on autopilot. But as long as that person is alive, the flame can potentially be turned up so that it burns with its own full strength. It just has to be ignited.
I thought of this soul/flame analogy many times in 2016 since my mother passed away in February; Jewish tradition suggests keeping a candle burning for an entire year after a parent passes away. I have followed this tradition like my mother was watching over my shoulder.
It's not as easy as it sounds. I learned after a few weeks that a seven-day yahrtzeit candle can burn for slightly more than seven days, which is why I spent more time than I care to admit staring at a flame before going to sleep, wondering if it would make it through the night. (My mother wasn't one to waste, so I have her to thank for my frugal tendencies.) But woe unto me if the flame didn't survive until morning, which is why I often preferred to light the new one just to be safe. Not wanting to burn any more yahrtzeit candles than I had to, I was careful to first light the new one, then extinguish the old one's tiny remnant at the bottom of the canister. Several times I thought I'd suffocated that small flame, only to watch it rise up at me, big as ever. One thing was for sure: When the flame was out, really out, there was no bringing it back.
The flames and I had many conversations about life and death in 2016. As the year comes to a close, the world reflects on those we lost, and I am no different. I can't say I "lost" my mother, because I couldn't lose her even if I wanted to. She is with me in my head and right there watching over my shoulder. In 2016, 2017, and always. She is still teaching me, too, because that's what mothers do.
You've heard the classic joke about every Jewish holiday: "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat." There's truth to that, but it's never the whole story, especially with Chanukah. In the Chanukah story, the military victory is the "body" of the story. There's also the "soul" of the Chanukah story, which revolves around the death decree issued by Syrian tyrant Antiochus against Jews who observed the supra-rational mitzvos, mainly Shabbos and kashrus. The way of the Syrian world was that you had to be able to enjoy it or understand it in order to do it; Jews wanting to keep all the mitzvos created a G-d-sized problem. There was violent Jewish infighting regarding how to deal with this challenge, but a small group known as the Maccabees refused to be deterred. The Maccabees waged war on the Syrians, crying, "Let us fight unto death in defense of our souls and our Temple!" (See what I mean about the "soul" stuff?) Despite being "the few against the many," the Maccabees miraculously won.
But that's not the only miracle; it's not even why we celebrate Chanukah for eight days. The eight day miracle of the oil occurred when the victorious Maccabees set out to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem. But this miracle needs clarification, too.
The Temple, the Beis Hamikdash, was more than a big synagogue. It was THE edifice where G-d's presence was openly revealed. But the Syrians had totally ransacked it. Now here comes the clincher: When the Jews entered the Temple, they actually found several vials of oil, but they had all been defiled. Out of their hatred for ritual purity and all it represented, the Syrians had intentionally broken all the seals placed by the High Priest, which made the oil unfit for use in the Temple's menorah. Now according to Jewish law, ritually impure oil is permissible if pure oil is unavailable. But because they were rededicating the Temple-- where all holiness emanates from in the first place--the Jews refused to cut spiritual corners. They searched until they found the one vial of ritually pure oil to use and that's the oil that miraculously burned for eight days.
The miracle of the oil represents something to all of us, from an opportunity to eat latkes to a time for pondering what G-d wants from us. And since this isn't a cooking blog, here's something to ponder: Just like the Chanukah miracles defied all natural limitations, when we go beyond our limitations for G-d (and we all know what our own limitations are), we can ask G-d and look for G-d to go beyond all limitations and make miracles for us, too.
Everyone knows Kislev is the month of miracles, with Chanukah as our emblematic holiday of Jewish victory over all physical and spiritual opposition. Less well known is the holiday of Yud Tes Kislev, the nineteenth day of Kislev (corresponding to this Monday), a day of victory celebrated in the world of Chabad as "the New Year of Chassidus." On this day in 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the "Alter Rebbe") was liberated after 53 days in a czarist prison. If you're at all familiar with Chabad Chassidus, you know that everything occurring in creation reflects something deeper, something higher, something G-d wants us to understand so we can figure out what we're doing in this world. Yud Tes Kislev is celebrated as the day that revolutionized and clarified what it means to be a Jew--it's a good day for everyone.
It's hard to imagine exactly what life was like in czarist Russia, but we know that being Jewish wasn't easy. Those Jews who followed the emerging Chassidic movement faced the added challenge of harassment from some among the religious elite who disapproved of the movement's emphasis on pious humility and serving G-d in the mundane. The Alter Rebbe wove these ideas together into the “Chabad” way of life, an accessible method of study, meditation, and character refinement, only to be arrested and jailed for being a threat to the czar.
The contentious events in this world reflected a holy war in heaven: Should his teachings be disseminated or should they not?
Spoiler alert: The fact that I'm writing this gives away the answer. When the Alter Rebbe was vindicated, so were the teachings of Chassidus; G-d approved this message. Ever since that day in Kislev in 1798, saying a person is "a good Jew" has been like saying a woman is "a little bit pregnant"--they're both essential conditions beyond qualification. Every Jew is equally and inherently precious to G-d. (Chabad Chassidus shares a powerful message for non-Jews, too: Everyone is precious to G-d, just by virtue of having been created.)
But being a Chassid is no simple feat, as evidenced by the letter the Alter Rebbe sent his followers immediately after his release from prison. He thanked G-d for "the many kindnesses" and urged people to "humble your spirits and hearts with the truth of Jacob..."
What is the "truth of Jacob"?
When our patriarch Jacob, the father of the Jewish nation, petitioned G-d for help before meeting his adversarial brother, Esau, he recognized that G-d had already shown him extraordinary kindness in his life. He acknowledged, “I have become small from all the favors You have done to Your servant.” (Genesis 32:11) Jacob questioned whether he had responded appropriately to G-d's previous benevolence and whether he merited its continuation.
To me, in those few words, the Alter Rebbe lays out my life's work, explaining what it takes to be a mensch: I am like nothing next to G-d, yet He still wants to bring me closer to Him, which He shows me through His kindness to me. My gift to Him in return is to first recognize this dynamic, then to try to respond with the "smallness" of our forefather Jacob--with genuine and gracious humility.
People used to comfort my aging father, of blessed memory, telling him that getting old isn't great, but "it beats the alternative." To this, he answered, "Yes...but not by much."
Two of my biggest fears as a teen-ager were dying young and getting old. Now that I have successfully beaten the first rap of dying young, I am working on the art of staying young.
I have already researched and written about the Jewish antidote to aging.* The trick is to live with childlike enthusiasm about life, especially about life in the present moment--which is also experienced as "G-d." New activities facilitate this mindset, so when my cousin Rochel asked me to help her with the weekly pre-Shabbos program at Weinberg Terrace, a nearby assisted living facility, I agreed to try.
The first few weeks were difficult. My own mother had passed away in February, and many white-haired ladies with walkers reminded me of her. I couldn't help wondering if her last few years would have been more enjoyable had she lived in a facility like this.
There was also the challenge of getting ready for Shabbos an hour earlier. Theoretically, I could do the math (subtract one hour) and plan accordingly, but whether Shabbos starts at 4:30 in winter or 8:30 in summer, I'm always rushing at the last minute. So far, I've been able to get to Weinberg Terrace on time (well, almost), and I enjoy an unexpected benefit before I even arrive: in the ten minutes it takes to drive there, my whole body sighs with relief. I've got one whole hour before candle lighting (well, almost) and all I need to do is bring Shabbos to my new friends.
The residents probably don't notice that I'm wearing the same black dress I wore the week before. (I haven't managed to leave enough time to look for something else to wear.) And if they do notice, they certainly don't care. This is the gift of wisdom that comes with years. (In Hebrew, the word for "old" when applied to people is zaken. It's defined as, "one who has acquired wisdom," a contraction of the phrase zeh shekanah chochmah.)
It's also what makes this program so powerful for me. How many years worth of Shabbos blessings have these women said? How much joy and pain have they shared with G-d? I don't need to use my imagination; I can hear the songs of their lives come through their blessings. In the hour we spend lighting candles together in the chapel (fire laws prohibit residents from lighting candles in their rooms), we transcend time, space, and of course, age. In our essence, each one of us is our matriarch, Sarah.
The residents are easy to please. We reminisce. Sometimes we sing songs. And we make Torah relevant. Last week we established that if we're still alive, it means that G-d wants something from us here in this world. (They liked that.) We discussed how G-d especially appreciates the efforts of someone who is not naturally virtuous but becomes virtuous. (A few of us then shared our challenges in trying to do the right thing, after which I assured everyone, "What happens at Weinberg, stays at Weinberg.") But when all is said and done, the residents probably get the greatest joy from seeing the young girls who come from our community to help with the program,.
You don't have to be Jewish to know that when you give to others, you're the one who gains. This is true for me every time I rush home to light my Shabbos candles after being at Weinberg Terrace: I feel my own heart somehow fuller and I feel my own flame somehow burning brighter.
*For more on aging, read my 60th birthday post, What Makes a Happy Birthday?
For reasons known only to G-d, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivkah were murdered in their Chabad House in Mumbai on November 28th, 2008. Along with four of their guests, they were brutally tortured and killed, targeted for death simply because they were Jews. Like millions of Jews before them and too many after them, they died al kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of G-d's name. But martyrdom is the antithesis of what G-d wants from us: He wants us to live as Jews, happily, in fact, just like the Holtzbergs did in their Chabad House. Gabi and Rivky provided a simple home away from home for Mumbai's Jewish residents and travelers, hardly a bastion of the city's infrastructure. Why did the terrorists single them out?
While I don't know why G-d does anything, I do know He has a reason. And I know I'm supposed to try to learn from everything. But for me, this event was more than a learning opportunity. It may sound like an exaggeration, but I really do divide my life into "before" and "after" the terror attacks in Mumbai.
I started hearing stories about the Holtzbergs, and I understood how they were more than extraordinary people, more than extraordinary Jews--they were also extraordinary emissaries of the Rebbe. I couldn't imagine how Gabi rose before dawn to slaughter chickens for his guests to have kosher food or how Rivky gave her jewelry to a woman who needed money, but I knew they epitomized the selfless behavior the Rebbe prescribed for all of us in order to bring Moshiach, the Messiah.
The terrorists' bloodthirsty hatred, in absurd contrast, provided me with a clear wake-up call: I needed to do more in my own world to help redeem the greater world from this sorry state. I needed to care more about life's p'nimiyus (the inner dimension) and less about chitzonius (the outer dimension). Why had I never realized that I had enough "stuff" to last into my next lifetime? Who was I trying to impress anyway? I was exhilarated thinking of new ways to spend my time and money.
Mumbai quickly became a verb in our home, synonymous with over-the-top kindness. I would "Mumbai" by doing things like making meals for people without being asked and giving away possessions to family and friends, no holds barred. In fact, my life-changing response to Mumbai emboldened me to start my writing career. (Fortunately, I cared more about sharing my journey than earning money.)
Then came the day, exactly eight weeks after the attacks, when I got annoyed over something trivial: it was almost Shabbos, my house was a mess, and my housekeeper decided not to come. I lost my focus and my stride, and was never the same soldier after that. But I wasn't disheartened. I knew that inspiration doesn't last forever, and that my job as a Jew is to harness my energy throughout all of life--the highs, the lows, and the in-betweens--to try to do what G-d wants. That means one more mitzvah, one more act of kindness, even when I don't feel like it, because that's all it could take to bring Moshiach, who will transform the entire world's darkness into light, forever.
It's eight years after Mumbai, and the Holtzbergs still inspire me to stay focused on that goal.
Yes, it's true. I didn't always appreciate "the most wonderful time of the year." But times have changed and I've changed.
Let's start with Thanksgiving. Traditionally, when our kids were young, my real objection to Thanksgiving was that it's on a Thursday, when Shabbos starts shortly after breakfast the next day. That's a lot of kitchen time for someone who doesn't like to cook, doesn't like turkey, and isn't looking for opportunities to overeat. And while celebrating an American holiday commemorating religious freedom may sound like a no-brainer, don't forget, we were raising our kids differently than the way we were raised. Our overarching goal was to raise kids who would want to be observant, and we weren't sure whether to emulate our friends who celebrated Thanksgiving or our friends who didn't. I never did manage to come up with a real Thanksgiving tradition, other than to try to avoid cooking. Thank G-d, we now have adult children in town who love to cook, love turkey and don't mind overeating in the name of religious freedom. This year, we even decided to celebrate together on Wednesday because some of us are going away; it is not lost on me that they also enjoy being together, so I happily take my assigned Thanksgiving job and remember that I can never be thankful enough.
Then comes the "other" holiday season. This one was tougher on my Jewish soul during the early years of observance. It was hard not to feel sorry for myself when I walked through the stores, knowing the words to every Christmas carol, also knowing that I couldn't sing a Jewish song if my life depended on it. Nowadays I don't read into things so much: if a cashier asks me about my plans for Christmas, I don't feel the need to announce that I'm Jewish. But I'm not afraid to either. Plus, now more than ever, I appreciate every small gesture--mine included-- that promotes peace on earth and good will to everybody. After all that humanity has been through, how could I not?
It's a wonderful time of year indeed. And that's even before I tap into the joy that's on the Jewish calendar. The month of Kislev, which begins on December 1st this year, is imbued with the strength of Chanukah, the time when G-d performed open miracles on behalf of the Jewish nation-- weak over mighty, small over many, pure over impure, light over darkness--you name it, He did it then and He continues to do it now.
And if I needed any further proof that G-d can actually make everybody happy all at the same time, this year, the first night of Chanukah, the 25th of Kislev, coincides with December 24th. Who knows? It could be the start of something wonderful.
When my husband and I decided to become observant through Chabad thirty years ago, I was overwhelmed by how much I didn't know. By memorizing a few key Hebrew and Yiddish phrases, I felt more authentic around my new friends. I also felt more scholarly around my old friends, in case they asked why we made such a radical decision. (Hardly anyone did.)
Today, almost everybody is familiar with the world of Lubavitch. Here are five phrases worth knowing if you're talking to a Chabadnik. (It's also good to know that "Chabadnik" and "Lubavitcher" are synonymous; they both refer to a member of the Chasidic movement that began in the 1700's with Rabbi Shneur Zalman.
1."We will do and we will hear"--"Naaseh v'nishma" is how the Jewish nation answered G-d at Mt. Sinai; these are the words that bind every Jewish soul that will ever grace Planet Earth in an eternal covenant with Him. We agreed first to "do" the mitzvos, and then to "hear" them by delving into their meaning. Mitzvos are not meant to be busy work, but they're not a smorgasbord either. And not all mitzvos are meant to be understood; by observing the mitzvos that transcend reason, we show G-d that our relationship with Him goes beyond our intellect.
2."The main thing is the deed."-- "HaMaaiseh hu ha'ikker." Lubavitchers are taught to love doing mitzvos, and they're taught to love encouraging others to do mitzvos. Because every mitzva brings G-d's presence into this world, and that's the whole purpose of creation.
3."They believed in G-d and in Moshe His servant,"--"Va'yaminu b'Hashem uvi' Moshe avdo"are the words describing the Jewish people's response when Moshe split the Red Sea. I memorized this line within weeks of our encounter with Chabad. I had no choice--the idea that G-d operates through a chosen leader made everyone I knew uncomfortable--including me. Growing up, I didn't have a rabbi who I evened listened to, much less followed. But this Torah passage clarifies the basis and need for a Rebbe.
4."Think good and it will be good."--"Tracht gut vet zein gut."--This fundamental Chabad precept is more than the power of positive thinking. This expression refers to a Jew's innate spiritual power known as bitachon, sincere and complete trust in G-d. It is through this trust that every single Jew, regardless of personal merit, can be assured that G-d will come through with a completely good outcome.
5."When your wellsprings spread to the outside."--"Lichshayafutzu mayanosecha chutza."-- This mouthful of strange syllables is the answer Moshiach gave to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, when the Baal Shem Tov asked Moshiach for his arrival date. It was an other-worldly encounter that launched Chabad's mission to combine heaven and Earth. The "wellsprings" are the mystical secrets of the Torah, essential to Chabad teachings. The "spreading" explains why you find Chabad everywhere around the world.
With Chabad's growing ubiquitousness--thousands of emissaries will gather next week in New York for the men's annual convention--a little background can help everyone understand why these Jews are so committed to doing what they do.
"I hope you don't mind my asking, but how are the Orthodox voting?" She was an older woman with cropped grey hair and a New York accent; we left the polls together on Tuesday.
I was surprised by her assumption--how was she sure I was even Jewish?--but I had to think quickly. "People are pretty much deciding for themselves," I answered politely, hoping to end the discussion. What good would it be to debate politics after we both voted? In truth, though, I try to avoid talking about politics with anyone, Orthodox or otherwise, so I had little idea how people were voting (with the exception of some of my more vocal friends and relatives).
But I do know this: As Jews, we can all be comforted and empowered by this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha. In it, G-d tells Abraham that the best way to guarantee an outcome that is "good for the Jews" is by "voting" for G-d, because G-d can do anything, including perform miracles. When Abraham questions how he can fulfill G-d's promise to become a great nation-- he is one-hundred, his wife Sarah is ninety, and they're unable to have a son--G-d tells him to go outside and gaze at the stars. There G-d informs Abraham that his fate is not determined by astrology, or anything else in the natural order.
As Abraham's Jewish descendants, we also have the ability to bypass all limitations. Through our prayers and our mitzvos, we connect to the infinite, supra-rational, and living G-d.
The idea that G-d is living was a game-changer for me personally; He's not just watching what I do, He's right there with me, involved in what I do. This relationship also makes room for miracles--and not just for me in my life. By behaving as G-d wants, I strengthen His rulership over the entire world, increasing the likelihood that He will inspire the hearts and minds of leaders to promote peace and prosperity for everyone. That may be implausible according to the way of the world, but my job as a Jew is to affect the way of the world--and one way is to believe in miracles and help make them happen.
Miracles explain the birth of Abraham's son Yitzchak--according to nature, it wasn't supposed to happen and yet it did. Miracles also explain the survival of the Jewish people--according to nature (as in, persecution, expulsions, pogroms, and attempted annihilation) we shouldn't be here and yet we are.
Nobody knows with certainty who or what will be "good" or "bad" for the world. As Americans, we are responsible to vote for the candidate we prefer. After that, we remain hopeful and, ideally, involved. It's not so simple for me as a Jew: G-d wants me to "vote" for Him in everything I do. But I know He is with me and I know He helps me. Miraculous as that may sound, it's always been the Jewish way--and when I make it my way, I help to make it the way of the world.
There were many arguments in favor of our return to Jewish observance, but the most compelling one was physical. I loved the idea that G-d wanted me to have children, because there was some innate, womanly part of me that had an undeniable and tremendous desire for children as well. Some aspects of the mitzvah to "be fruitful and multiply"--commanded in this week's portion of Noah-- were more challenging for us than others. (Raising our kids gave new meaning to the term "Jewish survival.") But when I see the twin girls our son Mordy and his wife Rivkee welcomed into the world this week, it reminds Zev and me all over again that we are very blessed to have made the decision we did.
Because if I didn't buy the whole Torah package, trusting that G-d always knows what He's doing even if I don't, I could easily despair over the kind of world these twins will inherit. Then again, a wise rabbi once reminded me, there's nothing new under the sun: Cain slew Able within days of creation, effectively annihilating 1/3 of the world's male population. A tendency towards behavioral dysfunction, including jealousy to the point of murder, is intrinsic to humankind. But what is inarguably new in the world today is the way we receive information about the family of man--thank G-d for the good news we can easily share now, too--since the advent of the internet and social media.
And through Noah we learn why this change is happening, and why it's good news, especially for the Jews.
Here's what it is:
The flood began in the six hundredth year of Noah's life. The Zohar predicts that in the six-hundredth year of the sixth millennium (corresponding to the year 1840, the peak of the Industrial Revolution), the world will be "flooded" with wisdom--which is exactly what happened. Not as well known is that in 1840, the mystical teachings of Chasidus also "flooded" the world, revolutionizing how Jews understood G-d, themselves, and all of creation. Together, these spiritual and material advances prepare the world for the seventh millennium, the Messianic era. (In case this is your first time reading this blog, that's the good news for the Jews. And everyone else, too.)
It's obvious how Jewish mysticism gets us ready for the time when we will all be able to openly perceive G-dliness. But how is technology making it easier to perceive this spirituality? Just replace "Google" with "God" to get a sense of how everything in creation will be understood in the Messianic era. Think how the "Share My Location" feature on an iPhone is analogous to God seeing everything we do. (It's also a great way to show your kids how much you love them by following them around.)
We may not fully appreciate that God knows everything, sees everything, and IS everything until Moshiach arrives, but today's technology reminds us how close we are. (So please share this and make technology great again!)
My husband Zev and I arrived at the airport gate for our morning flight to California. He typically goes to shul to pray, but our flight was too early. He decided he had enough time before boarding to "daven Shachris," pray the morning prayers while we waited to board. It's times like these that I admire his commitment to praying three times a day--morning, afternoon and evening-- no matter what he's doing or where he is.
He was standing with his huge prayer shawl, his tallis, draped over his head, with his tefillin strapped to his head and arm when a sweet-faced little girl skipped up to him and asked plainly, "What are you doing?"
"That's a good question," he answered in a teacher voice I've never heard him use before. "We're Jewish, and this is how we pray." He told her how the tefillin are special boxes he wears every day. ("Except on our Sabbath," I chimed in.) She seemed to be satisfied with that answer, and after we both praised her for her curiosity and boldness, she skipped back to her father to share her lesson.
Tefillin are known in English as "phylacteries," but few people know what that word means either, and certainly not a six-year-old. But they make a strong visual statement, especially when worn with the prayer shawl, and especially to the uninitiated.
Like every mitzva in Judaism, tefillin are packed with spiritual energy, purpose, and meaning. Inside the boxes are written parchments with passages from the Torah; a Jewish man wears tefillin daily to remind him that, in everything he does, his head, his heart, and his actions should work harmoniously and with proper intent. (In a nod to the power of Jewish women, G-d knows we don't need to be reminded of this.)
The little girl wasn't the only person who noticed my husband praying. Traveling home, Zev stood up on the plane to "daven Mincha," say the afternoon prayer. When we landed in Pittsburgh, a stranger from across the aisle smiled and said, "thank you for your work." (If I didn't know better, I would have thought he knew I was sharing this.) Zev and I both laughed demurely as I answered, "we try." We laughed even more demurely when he called us "G-d's messengers." The stranger was just reminding me of what I should already know, that G-d wants me, as a Jew, to be a light unto the nations--in everything I do.
Some days this work is harder than others, but I try.