I just finished reading It's Called a Breakup Because It's Broken: The Smart Girl's Breakup Buddy, by Greg Behrendt & Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt, and I want to highly recommend it to anyone who has either recently broken up with someone, or not-so-recently broken up with someone but is having trouble "getting over it." This is a fun, easy read that will tell you the things that you need to hear to move on. I'm not a huge fan of self-help literature (at least not contemporary self-help literature--I took a great class my freshman year in college on the origen of the genre). But this book was good. So good that I'm breaching the rarely-breached public/private divide that I maintain on this blog to plug a book that will tell you something about my private life.
Go get 'em, Superfox! That is all I have to say about that part of 2006.
May 2007 bring health, happiness, gratitude, joy, peace, fulfilling work, good friends, and loving family to all!
Everyone is doing it!: A Blogging Year in Review
1st: My first post in 2006 is about 2005. What does that say about me? I'm not sure.February:
last: This article from Friday's New York Times states that "Income Gap in New York Is Called Nation's Highest." It's sad, but not surprising. Read it and weep.
1st: I want to share this link to the history of the Kenyan Jewish community, based in Nairobi. It's interesting.March:
last: Chayyei Sarah has posted something interesting on her blog in response to an article in the London Jewish Chronicle about Orthodox bloggers.
1st: I'm about halfway done with the promised post about "A Tale of Two Men Who Spoke in Shul and Incurred ALG's Considerable Wrath," but the act of putting it down as written words is pissing me off so much that it's going to take a little longer until it's presentable.April:
last: I think I might need to not post for awhile...like a few days or something. Work, life, family stuff all keeping me busy through the weekend. In the meantime, so you don't get too bored at work...
1st: I am so rarely rendered speechless that it takes something truly wonderful or truly horrendous for it to happen. [This is a post that I would really rather not revisit, since it's so sad. Far and away the most tragic thing to happen to me personally in 2006. Only three things of any real consequence happened to me in 2006, and this is one of them.]May:
last: Moxie wrote a post to use as a forum for discussing the "public and societal expectations of marriage, of feminine beauty and masculine strength."
1st: Please keep the comments coming on my last post! I'm finding them interesting.June:
last: Check out dictionary.com's Word of the Day for today!
1st: Asyndeton is a great word! It won't come up much in conversation, but if it does, boy, will it be useful! [I cheated. This is the third post in June. The first two were just direct quotes from other people, so I felt justified in not posting them.]July:
last: Funny. And true. I don't drink too much soda, though, so this doesn't really affect me.
1st: Last year, I wrote this. I've gotten over being embarrassed about tooting my own horn on my birthday.August:
last: I wrote this a few weeks ago, but I thought it was particularly apt for the erev Shabbat before Tisha B'Av, as it deals with both Shabbat and fasting, at least somewhat.
1st: Lord knows that there is plenty to talk and think about this Tisha B'Av. Here are two good places to start.September:
last: If you missed yours today, try these links from Cat (who has her own humanoid cutie).
1st: I feel the urge to write about teshuva (repentance), but I have been thinking about it so much that I haven't had time to write about it!October:
last: ...you have a dream about the Rema (Rav Moshe Isserles). This is definitely the first time that I have had a dream in which either a rishon or an acharon has been mentioned.
1st: Via Shanna at Devarim, a recent postcard sent to PostSecret... This is actually the first Mishna and the first Gemara that I learned, in seventh grade. Learning Mishna, Gemara, and a lot of other stuff opened more doors to disbelief than one might assume.November:
last: If I had $25 to blow, this would be fun. On the other hand, here is a very good reason to boycott chocolate from countries where forced child labor (i.e., child slavery) is rampant. [Good news! I found fair trade hechshered chocolate when I was at the Hazon food conference! May blog about this at some later point. You can have your chocolate and eat it, too!]
1st: Read "The modern world killed off the nap" from the Toronto Star. [Hat tip to Nafka Mina.]December:
last: Read it here. Then read the comments. Interesting. Especially about the weight control.
1st: It's been years since I was last called upon to do this. Actually, less than two years. But, still, I'm rusty. I used to be able to do this in my sleep! How the mighty have fallen...
last: One last 2006 blog post, just under the wire... I just finished reading It's Called a Breakup Because It's Broken: The Smart Girl's Breakup Buddy, by Greg Behrendt & Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt, and I want to highly recommend it to anyone who has either recently broken up with someone, or not-so-recently broken up with someone but is having trouble "getting over it."
In conclusion, it turns out that this blog is either a lot more boring than I thought it was, or my first sentences could use some serious improvement. On the other hand, I do this mostly for fun, and it's mostly been fun, so maybe nothing needs to change. I struggle, sometimes, with the tension between posting things that other people have written vs. saving this blog just for my own (original) writing. I am afraid that if I only blogged when I had something of consequence to say, then I would blog infrequently, get out of the habit entirely, and find myself with fewer interesting things to say. For now, at least, I shall keep to my current mix of the holy, the mundane, the silly, the inspired, and the insipid.
Self-Cleaning Kitchen Floor Wish and Unrelated Recollections
If I could wish for one thing, and I didn't feel compelled to wish for halving extreme poverty worldwide, ending the AIDS epidemic in Africa, providing primary education for all of the world's children, etc., or for a loving spouse and multiple healthy children for myself within the next ten years, or for a long and healthy lives for my family and friends, or for...well, anything particularly meaningful like that, I would wish for a self-cleaning kitchen floor. The closest I could find in real life was this, but I don't think that quite does it for me.
Every time I scrub down the kitchen floor (not often enough, apparently), I wish I never had to do it again. Apparently, I could use some ergonomic help with the sponge mop, because I seem to have given myself the start of a blister on my right thumb just from washing the bathroom and kitchen floors. (We have a large kitchen and I was scrubbing pretty hard--it needed it--but, still. I don't feel that washing floors should give one blisters. Perhaps my hands are too soft and delicate from the way they usually spend their time--hitting smooth keyboard keys and holding books. Quite likely.)
I don't feel this way about sweeping, dusting, doing laundry, doing dishes, or cooking. I don't even really feel this way about scrubbing out the toilet bowl or about cleaning the inside of the fridge, although I'm not particularly keen on those tasks either. But there's something about washing the kitchen floor that is just...a pain in the neck. It's kind of physically demanding (as things I do go), involves moving all of the chairs out of the kitchen first and then putting them all back after the floor has dried, the amonia smells, and I know that it's going to be all dirty again within days. The same is true of some of those other things, but I guess they just seem like less work to me. Maybe because I do them more often.
It was also really strange think about all of the intervening things that have happened since I last saw BATB: high school, year in Israel, starting college, taking a semester off, resuming college, writing a 116 page senior thesis, being unemployed for six months after college, moving to a new city, two different apartments, two different jobs, a grand total of six different roommates (in three years), and some fun traveling to keep things interesting. If you had asked me, at twelve, to predict what my life would look like in fifteen years, I would probably have been way off the mark. I remember being asked, at some point in junior high, to imagine what my life would look like in one year, in five years, and in ten years. I couldn't get much past one year, and certainly not past five. It was almost impossible to imagine anything ten years into the future when I was in junior high, since ten years before that I had been, what--three years old?
If you could have told me, at twelve, what my life would be like at twenty-seven, I don't think I would have understood it, really. And it would have made the past fifteen years so boring! I'm not sure that I understand the desire that some people have to see their own futures. What would be the point of getting there if you already knew how it was going to turn out? Me? I'd rather have a self-cleaning kitchen floor any day!
Bringing Back the Shechinah
Shabbat shalom, chodesh tov, and chag urim sameach!
YES to mess!
An anti-anticlutter movement is afoot, one that says yes to mess and urges you to embrace your disorder. Studies are piling up that show that messy desks are the vivid signatures of people with creative, limber minds...and that messy closet owners are probably better parents and nicer and cooler than their tidier counterparts. It's a movement that confirms what you have known, deep down, all along: really neat people are not avatars of the good life; they are humorless and inflexible prigs, and have way too much time on their hands.At the end of the article, David H. Freedman explains that rather than attempting to eradicate mess, we should simply manage it better. He described a few different mess-management styles: "the pile builders and the under-the-bed stuffers; of those who let their messes wax and wane--the cyclers, he called them; and those who create satellite messes (in storage units off-site)." I am probably mostly an under-the-bed stuffer and a cycler, but have my fair share of piles as well. I think that approaching messes from a "How can I manage this?" perspective rather than a "How can I get rid of this perspective?" is very useful. It would certainly save me the money of buying any more issues of Real Simple (occasional impulse-airport purchase, with a hope and a prayer of never living with mess again) or more products from The Container Store (the promise of a proper place for every thing!).
"Total organization is a futile attempt to deny and control the unpredictability of life. "
As a corollary, the book's authors examine the high cost of neatness -- measured in shame, mostly, and family fights, as well as wasted dollars -- and generally have a fine time tipping over orthodoxies and poking fun at clutter busters and their ilk, and at the self-help tips they live or die by. They wonder: Why is it better to pack more activities into one day? By whose standards are procrastinators less effective than their well-scheduled peers? Why should children have to do chores to earn back their possessions if they leave them on the floor, as many professional organizers suggest? In their book Mr. Freedman and Mr. Abrahamson describe the properties of mess in loving terms.
Mess is complete, in that it embraces all sorts of random elements. Mess tells a story: you can learn a lot about people from their detritus, whereas neat -- well, neat is a closed book. Neat has no narrative and no personality (as any cover of Real Simple magazine will demonstrate). Mess is also natural, as Mr. Freedman and Mr. Abrahamson point out, and a real time-saver.
In the semiotics of mess, desks may be the richest texts. Messy-desk research borrows from cognitive ergonomics, a field of study dealing with how a work environment supports productivity. Consider that desks, our work landscapes, are stand-ins for our brains, and so the piles we array on them are "cognitive artifacts," or data cues, of our thoughts as we work.
To a professional organizer brandishing colored files and stackable trays, cluttered horizontal surfaces are a horror; to cognitive psychologists like Jay Brand, who works in the Ideation Group of Haworth Inc., the huge office furniture company, their peaks and valleys glow with intellectual intent and showcase a mind whirring away: sorting, linking, producing. (By extension, a clean desk can be seen as a dormant area, an indication that no thought or work is being undertaken.)
His studies and others, like a survey conducted last year by Ajilon Professional Staffing, in Saddle Brook, N.J., which linked messy desks to higher salaries (and neat ones to salaries under $35,000), answer EinsteinÂs oft-quoted remark, "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?"
Any of you who agree with me can print out and post it over your delightfully busy desks:
|“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?” |
Finally, as a nod to the holiday that I am currently celebrating (but haven't blogged about thus far) as well as the one that I am not celebrating...watch this cute YouTube video on ChayyeiSarah's blog. Indeed.
Parshat Vayeishev - Dvar Torah From General Anna
The future of New York City and one more problem with suburban sprawl
It fully convinced me that New York City needs to plan now for sustainable, healthy, livable living into the future. I'm not sure what it was supposed to do beyond that--prime me for MTA fare increases to subsidize construction of new lines and repair of existing ones? Prime me for higher taxes? I mean, it wasn't very difficult to convince me that New York City needs to clean up empty polluted lots ("brownfields"), build more affordable housing, maintain existing and construct new public transportation stations/subway lines, and make sure that every child lives within ten minutes of a playground. After perusing the website, I see that there are ten suggestions [PDF] for increasing the sustainability of life in New York City. They all seem reasonable, and if 8.2 million people all did some, most, or all of these things, New York City would clearly be better off for it.
I have mixed feelings about cities, especially New York City, although I am clear on typical American suburbs. I don't like 'em. I was lucky enough to grow up in a suburb that really functioned more like part of a city. It had many parks, excellent public transportation, sidewalks everywhere, and, at least in my neighborhood, mixed residential-commercial zoning. (That is, one could pick up milk and bread at the little grocery store down the street.) Our six-person family always had one car, which my mother used to bring us to school and activities, and to get to work. My father walked or took public transportation to work (about three miles away). If I wanted to go to the movies or shopping with friends, I walked or took public transportation. When I was in summer school in high school, I walked to and from school (about a mile). I also had the suburban advantages of a stand-alone house with a large backyard, and plenty of trees, fresh air, and quiet. I'm not sure how many places there are in the world where one can live that way.
The suburban lifestyle very briefly described in this Scientific American article is anathema to me. I spent nearly every summer of my childhood in Palo Alto, California, and while I loved the wide, quiet streets, fresh air, and financially-sound municipality, everything with the exception of the grocery store seemed so far away! One could ride one's bike around and around the many cul-de-saqs, but to really go anywhere, you needed to be driven.
The suburban culture of driving is so pervasive that people drive even when walking is possible. I was surprised, when I was in Palo Alto recently and walked to the grocery store, that they packed everything into one bag. In Manhattan, they always pack groceries into two bags unless you specifically ask for one, assuming that you'll be walking some distance. It's much easier to walk with two equally-distributed bags of groceries than with one heavy one. At the time, I was carrying milk and other heavy things, and it was hard to carry it all in one bag, mostly because the plastic handles were really cutting into my hands. I ended up carrying it in both arms in front of me, which felt sort of silly. There was really no reason for me to drive to the store for the amount of groceries I was buying, although I'm sure that most suburbanites would. Something similar happened when I was in another spread-out, sidewalk-less suburban environment. I needed to get from the house where I was staying to the shul, and it was a five or ten minute walk. It was a little bit chilly out, but I would never think of driving that distance. My hosts thought I was sort of whack for preferring to walk it, but they let me!
When people in New York question my mile-long trek to Fairway and back, often carrying heavy groceries on the return trip, I joke about it being my weight-bearing exercise for the week. Weight-bearing exercise is particularly important for building strong bones. Ingesting calcium isn't enough. Sometimes I even do bicep curls on the way back. I don't really have time to stand around in the gym doing bicep curls, but I need food anyway, so I figure that this works just as well if not better.
In addition to the fact that adolescents living in cities or tightly-packed suburbs seem to weigh less, there is also the issue of environmental impact. PlanNYC2030 includes a section on the "greening" of New York City and promotes the idea that urban living is best for the environment (more people living closer together means: less energy waste, less rural land taken over from animals for people, more efficient delivery of goods and services, etc.). The problem for me, and one reason why I don't plan to live in NYC forever, is that while it may be best for the environment as a whole, it might not be better for the individual living in the city. The soot levels in New York are much too high. New York City is the third-most polluted city in the US if measured by the exposure burden of air pollution on children. The air we breath is very dirty [PDF], although not as dirty as it once was.1
In conclusion, my ideal living environment would be a walkable city, where a family needs only one car, and where you can walk to the grocery store and do bicep curls on the way back should you desire. I would love to live in a city with excellent public transportation for getting to places that are too far to walk. I would love to live in a city that's not as noisy or smelly as New York City. I would love to live in a city with a lot of parks and green spaces.2 Based on the PlanNYC2030 people's literature, it looks like they want New York City of 2030 to be that city. I wish them the best of luck!
As for myself, I still feel that New York City, no matter how green it becomes, will still ultimately be too large, fast-paced, and expensive for me.
1. I just looked up San Mateo county on Scorecard's website, to see how Palo Alto compared to New York City. There didn't seem to be a way to directly compare the air pollution in the two counties, but it did say that "Based on EPA's most current data, this county ranked among the dirtiest/worst 10% of all counties in the US in terms of an average individual's added cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants." So I guess my idyllic childhood memories of Palo Alto don't stand up to science. And, now that I think about it, I remember my grandfather showing me the grey haze rolling in over the hills and telling me that it was air pollution.
2. I guess I would also really love to live in a city that has apartments, town-houses, and stand-alone houses with backyards, even though that's probably my lowest priority. (I just can't imagine living in an apartment forever, and I like the idea of having a yard for playing in and growing things in, either back or front.)
Categories: New York City, environment
Food challenges global and very, very local
I wasn't incredibly excited about attending this conference, partly because I like to use Shabbat to decompress/unwind, and I'm not great at decompressing/unwinding in large groups. I travel a lot to see friends and family, but if I'm not going to see friends and family, or some exotic locale, I'd just as soon hole up in my apartment. That was sort of a minor consideration, though, and was more than balanced by the enticement of a weekend out in the woods of Connecticut, far away from the grime and noise of Manhattan. I love being in the woods, and so far in two and a half days here, I've been up the "mountain" (read: hill) into the woods alone twice. Heavenly. Truly. It was so quiet.3
The main reason I wasn't overly excited about attending this conference, though, is sort of embarrassing. It's that I feel like sustainability, the precarious position of the small family farm, and attempting to eat exclusively local, seasonal produce is more than I can handle. Like all of the major challenges facing our world these days (Darfur, AIDS in Africa, access to safe abortions in the US), I often take the approach of avoiding educating myself about these things, because then I would feel terribly guilty about not doing more about them. As long as I don't know, I feel complacent in my inaction. And I didn't particularly want to spend 72 hours in a place where I would be unable to remain ignorant!
I doubt that educating myself about the world's problems would empower me to go out there and change the world. There are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week, and I seem to have enough trouble doing the things that I need to do to take care of myself, never mind saving the rest of humanity. I subscribe to the belief that one must take care of oneself before taking care of others, and I don't really feel like I have the "taking care of oneself" bit down as solidly as I'd like. That's not to say that I don't make it through life intact--I do, and more, just not always with daily exercise, eight hours of sleep a night, and three square meals a day (with five servings of fruits and vegetables, grams and grams of fiber, and only spare amounts of fat). So, I am just somewhat-embarrassingly content to bury my head in the sand about these enormous, monstrous problems facing humanity, until the day arrives when I feel like I have the capacity to do something about them. I do reach out to the world around me and try to make a difference, but only in doing a few small things that I feel are within my capacity.4 It's these big things that intimidate me into intentional ignorance.
But something interesting happened to me here. I watched a film on Thursday night about the apple farming situation in Wenatchee, Washington, called Broken Limbs. The first half of the movie was predictably depressing, about how big agri-business is buying up all the small farms, and how you have to be able to produce x bushels of apples in y amount of time to even talk to the big grocery store chains, and how the small farmers are chopping down their apple trees because they can't afford to pick the apples, and, God, it's depressing! But what are you going to do? Who can blame Safeway or Kroeger's for buying their apples from the cheapest source, which is, by economic necessity, going to be the humongous farms who have big packing plants and ship and market their own apples? It just seems to be the way of capitalism, and what can you really do about the small farms? Convince Americans to pay more for their apples? Not bloody likely.
The second half of the film turned things around, though, especially towards the very end. The film described a new model for eating, where people think about what goes into their mouths and care about who grew it and where it came from. This new model for eating might be called mindful eating.
I was turned onto the general idea of mindfulness when I was a junior in college. It was presented to me as a way to reduce stress and anxiety, but it had the ancillary benefit of making me enjoy and appreciate life more. Like meditation, it is something that I know from experience is good and helpful for me, but isn't something I currently integrate into my life on a daily basis. It requires a certain, well, calmness and present-ness that I often don't achieve. Saying brachot (blessings) before and after eating promotes mindfulness to some extent, and I love the brachot connected to eating for that reason.
This movie and other things that I've heard over this weekend have shown me a way that I can
make a small difference in a big problem while also doing those things that promote the self-care that I'm still working on. One of the problems with eating, for me and I daresay for much of this country, is that we eat without thinking. Even those of us who say brachot often glance at the food, mutter the appropriate incantation, and then shove it in, chewing it while reading the paper, making lunch for the day, finding our gloves, and taking out the trash. And that's on a good day! A bad day finds me eating for emotional reasons, and that kind of eating happens completely without tasting what I'm eating. (And, hey, to be honest, it usually happens with trans-fat-laden highly-sugared foods that were imported from a great distance.)
What would happen if I adopted the spiritual practice of noticing what I'm eating, how it tastes, and how it makes me feel? Through reclaiming daily prayer, I've already shown myself that I can make a decision and stick with it. That doesn't mean that any particular day unfolds in the exactly ideal way. It just means that I've set a new standard for how I would like things to be, and if I don't reach that standard today, well, there's always tomorrow.
So what if I started practicing mindful eating, not as a way to combat the monstrous problems of how food is produced and distributed in this country, but as a way to reconnect to food in an entirely positive way, in a way that promotes the multi-sensory enjoyment of food, rather than my sometimes haphazard way of eating that leans more towards cramming it down because God I'm hungry and I've forgotten to eat lunch today and whew my blood sugar has crashed and I'm irritable and shaky and it's already 3 pm and I'd better eat lunch now so that I'm hungry for dinner at a reasonable hour and don't bypass dinner and head straight for the junk food? (Okay, most days don't look like that, but I wish no days did.)
What if I made deriving pleasure and experiencing wonder the goal of at least one of my three daily meals? How might that change my buying habits? I know that I value the bread I buy from the man who sells (kosher, parve, pas Yisroel) bread at the local farmer's market over the bread that I buy pre-packaged in the grocery store. I enjoy its taste more and I take more care not to waste it by letting it mold before I can eat it. It means more to me when I know that I can shoot the breeze with the man who has some hand in its production and delivery. I guess it's a little bit more expensive than grocery store bread, but that price is worth the additional pleasure I get out of talking to the bread man, and the convenience of being able to pick it up at the farmer's market that's down the street from my apartment. Also, it tastes better! So fresh and soft on the inside, so deliciously crispily crusted on the outside! I don't see myself switching over to all organic, all local produce any time soon, but if I articulate a goal of appreciating the sight, sound, taste, and smell of all of my food, then I might move in that direction not out of fear of the world coming to an end, but out of self-love and self-care.
Rabbi Steve Greenberg spoke at the conference, representing the "normal" people who don't manage to cook their own dinners most nights (opting for microwaving veggie burgers instead), who head for the Haagen Dazs after a long day, who aren't quite on the "organic or bust!" bandwagon. He spoke about how change that comes from fear or anxiety isn't really sustainable, and that the only change that can be sustained comes from:
- expanding our desire to figure out what we really want
- experiencing gratitude
- seeking joy
1. Yes, Jewish farming. I'm actually finding the whole concept of Jewish farming to be more inspiring than I had expected. I've heard several Jewish farmers speak from the heart this weekend, and it was great.
2. Even some real meat-eaters. Not like me, who eats meat maybe 2-4 times a month, and that's almost always chicken. I eat beef maybe once a month, if that.
3. In answers to Heschel's questions as quoted in the previous post ("Many are the opportunities for public speech; where are the occasions for inner silence? It is easy to find people who will teach us how to be eloquent; but who will teach us to be still?"), I often feel that the occasions for inner silence occur mostly in the woods or the desert. I learn how to be still most when I can stand still and hear only birds, running water, or the rustling of the wind in the trees. Learning to use the woods as a place to quiet my mind and still my sometimes crashing, racing thoughts has been one of my greatest lessons over the past year.
4. Like visiting residents at the nursing home, using real dishes instead of paper, recycling, walking everywhere humanly possible (rather than, say, taking public transport and then running on a machine at the gym), and attending the occasional Darfur rally.
In Memory of Shira, a"h: R. Abraham Joshua Heschel on Prayer and Song
I find it especially appropriate to contemplate tefillah (prayer) and shira (song) in Shira's memory for a few reasons.
When Shira died during my junior year of college, on the first night of Chanukah, the idea of davening at all, ever, seemed preposterous. What words does one really have for God after a tragedy such as that? I didn't say Hallel that Chanukah at all, because my mouth could not physically form the words. The first time I went to shul for kabbalat Shabbat after her death, I had to leave the room. It was too painful to even be witness to the tefillah of others. It was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back of an already-weakened commitment to regular prayer, and I no longer pretended to daven even an abridged shacharit every morning.
And thus I lived my life from December 2000 until this past August, when I decided to start going to morning minyan again, regularly, for the first time in quite awhile. My goal was to go to a weekday shacharit minyan a few times a week, and it's been an uphill battle on many days, since I am definitely not a morning person. Some weeks I go three or four times (usually late, timeliness is also not a particular strength of mine); some weeks I don't make it at all. I never regret it when I go, despite the few minutes of sleep it might cost me. Davening mostly consistently for the past few months, whether in or out of shul, has had a palpable difference in my life. It markedly improves both the rhythm and focus of my days. I hope to both continue davening and improve my timeliness and attendance at morning minyan over the coming months.
One of the many, many things that is so hard when people die tragically is that the tragedy sometimes seems to rip God away from us just when we need him most. Being angry at God is a natural response to tragedy, but when that anger makes it impossible to even contemplate speaking to God or to continue in one's spiritual practices, it's a double tragedy. Not only have you lost a person you loved very much, but you've also lost a way of connecting to something greater than yourself, something outside the all-encompassing world of your grief. You've lost the connection to one of the few things that might help you through your grief.
The only way to face the fact that we all die, that human life is incredibly fragile and unfairly arbitrary, is to embrace the idea that we were all created in the image of God ("ויאמר אלהים, נעשה אדם בצלמנו כדמותנו"), and that we all contain Divine sparks and therefore aspire to connect to something that exists beyond death. One of the ways that human beings are different from animals is that we are terrifyingly aware of our own mortality. This could paralyze us, or it could empower us to imbue whatever time we have here with meaning. One of the things that I learned from Shira and from people who spoke about her after her death was that Shira lived in the present. By doing so, she invested every moment of her short life with beauty, insight, laughter, friendship, song ("shira"), and dance. She was a force to be reckoned with. May we all aspire to do the same, even as we mourn her absence.
The following piece was shared with me by Rosh Kehillah Dina Najman, and its beauty literally gave me the shivers. It is why I daven, why I sing, why I listen to music, and why I go to shul. In many ways, this passage describes why I have returned to a more consistent spiritual/religious/halachic practice in the first place, after slip-sliding a bit in college and after.
I hope it moves you, too. The parts that gave me extra-shivery shivers are in boldface.
What does a person expect to attain when entering a synagogue? In the pursuit of learning one goes to a library; for aesthetic enrichment one goes to the art museum; for pure music to the concert hall. What then is the purpose of going to the synagogue? Many are the facilities which help us to acquire the important worldly virtues, skills and techniques. But where should one learn about the insights of the spirit? Many are the opportunities for public speech; where are the occasions for inner silence? It is easy to find people who will teach us how to be eloquent; but who will teach us to be still? It is surely important to develop a sense of humor; but is it not also important to have a sense of reverence? Where should one learn the eternal wisdom of compassion? the fear of being cruel? the danger of being callous? Where should one learn that the greatest truth is found in contrition? Important and precious as is the development of our intellectual faculties, the cultivation of a sensitive conscience is indispensable. We are all in danger of sinking into the darkness of vanity; we are all involved in worshiping our own egos. Where should we become sensitive to the pitfalls of cleverness, or to the realization that expediency is not the acme of wisdom?
We are constantly in need of self-purification. We are in need of experiencing moments in which the spiritual is as relevant and as concrete, for example, as the aesthetic. Everyone has a sense for beauty; everyone is capable of distinguishing between the beautiful and the ugly. But we must also learn to be sensitive to the spirit. It is in the synagogue that we must try to acquire such inwardness, such sensitivity.
To attain a degree of spiritual security, one cannot rely on one's own resources. One needs an atmosphere where the concern for the spirit is shared by a community. We are in need of students and scholars, masters and specialists. But we also need the company of witness, of human beings who are engaged in worship, who for a moment sense the truth that life is meaningless without attachment to G-d. It is the task of the Cantor to create the liturgical community, to convert a plurality of praying individuals into a unity of worship.
Pondering his religious existence a Jew will realize that some of the greatest spiritual events happen in moments of prayer. Worship is the source of religious experience, of religious insight, and religiously some of us live by what happens to us in the hours we spend in the synagogue. These hours have been in the past the wellsprings of insight, the wellsprings of faith. Are these wellsprings still open in our time?...
We are not alone in our acts of praise. Wherever there is life, there is silent worship. The world is always on the verge of becoming one in adoration. It is man who is the Cantor of the universe, and in whose life the secret of cosmic prayer is disclosed. To sing means to sense and to affirm that the spirit is real and that its glory is present. In singing we perceive what is otherwise beyond perceiving. Song, and particularly liturgical song, is not only an act of expression but also a way of bringing down the spirit from heaven to earth. The numerical value of the letters which constitute the word shirah, or song, is equal to the numerical value of the word tefillah, or prayer. Prayer is song. Sing to Him, chant to Him, meditate about all the wonders (I Chronicles 16:9), about the mystery that surrounds us. The wonder defies all descriptions; the mystery surpasses the limits of expression. The only language that seems to be compatible with the wonder and mystery of being is the language of music. Music is more than just expressiveness. It is rather a reaching outward toward a realm that lies beyond the reach of verbal propositions. Verbal expression is in danger of being taken literally and of serving as a substitute for insight. Words become slogans, slogans become idols. But music is a refutation of human finality. Music is an antidote to higher idolatry....While other forces in society combine to dull our mind, music endows us with moments in which the sense of the ineffable becomes alive...
The siddur is a book which everyone talks about, but few people have really read; a book which has the distinction of being one of the least known books in our literature. Do we ever ponder the meaning of its words? Do we seek to identify our inner life with what is proclaimed in the nishmath: 'The soul of every living being blesses Thy name, Lord our God...'? And yet, there are those who claim that the siddur does not express the needs, wants, aspirations of contemporary man.
We must learn how to study the inner life of the words that fill the world of our Prayer Book. Without intense study of their meaning, we indeed feel bewildered when we encounter the multitude of those strange, lofty beings that populate the inner cosmos of the Jewish spirit. The trouble with the Prayer Book is that it is too great for us, too lofty. Our small souls must first rise to its grandeur. We have failed to introduce our minds to its greatness, and our souls are lost in its sublime wilderness. It is not enough to know how to translate Hebrew into English; it is not enough to have met a word in the dictionary and to have experienced unpleasant adventures with it in the study of grammar. A word has a soul, and we must learn how to attain insight into its life. Words are commitments, not only the subject matter for aesthetic reflections...
The art of giving life to the words of our liturgy requires not only the personal involvement of the Cantor but also the power contained in the piety of the ages. Our liturgy contains incomparably more than what our hearts are ready to feel. Jewish liturgy in text and in song is a spiritual summary of our history. There is a written and an unwritten Torah, Scripture and tradition. We Jews claim that one without the other is unintelligible. In the same sense we may say that there is a written and an unwritten liturgy. There is the liturgy but there is also an inner approach and response to its, a way of giving life to the words, a style in which the words become a personal and unique utterance.
--Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, pp. 242-248
Categories: Torah, life
"Because you have struggled with God and with people and prevailed": Thoughts on Parshat VaYishlach
As a compromise, I am going to write about something very personal, but in such general terms that it could be about almost anything or anyone. We'll see if it works or is irritatingly unsatisfying. (You can let me know in the comments if you feel so moved.)
One reason that I persist in writing, despite receiving no remuneration and precious little feedback, is because once in awhile, someone sees their own life or issues reflected in mine and reports having learned something about themselves from what I've learned about myself, and that is one of the best feelings in the world. So I'm hoping that by writing in general terms, that effect isn't lost.
In this week's parsha (Torah portion), Jacob prepares to encounter his arch-enemy for the first time in over two decades. His arch-enemy happens to be his brother Esau, from whom he stole both the birthright and his father's blessing. In preparing to meet Esau, Jacob was so afraid for his safety and that of his family that he did what my grandfather, ztz"l, used to do while flying: he divided his family into two so that if one should perish, at least the other would survive. He then beseeches God with a very simple, direct prayer. (I like it because Jacob tells it like it is.) The heart of his prayer is:
|יב הצילני נא מיד אחי, מיד עשו: כי-ירא אנכי, אתו--פן-יבוא והכני, אם על-בנים.||12 Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children.|
You can imagine that he does not sleep very well that night. In fact, in the same verse that reports that "Jacob was left alone," we find out that "a man struggled with him until sunrise." The story is sufficiently succinct and beautiful that I feel it's worthwhile to include it here in its full glory.
But what I do know is that I derive great comfort and strength from this story, particular from this one line, pronounced by the man after he changes Jacob's name to Yisrael (Israel): "כי-שרית עם-אלהים ועם-אנשים, ותוכל"--"Because you have struggled with God and with people and prevailed." (Each verse could spawn at least one meaty post, but I'm focusing on verse 29 today. )
Each and everyone one of us struggles with something in our lives. Nobody is born and goes through life all "lah-di-dah" with no problems.1 Sometimes it appears that people go through life that way, but it's an illusion. People struggle with God and with people, with physical illness, poverty, fear-of-poverty, social difficulties, overwhelming isolation, disability, mental illness, infertility, difficult children, difficult parents, violent neighborhoods, domestic abuse, difficult bosses, difficult subordinates, exhaustion, sexual harassment, sexual assault, verbal abuse, war, famine, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, blizzards...Shall I continue? The poor struggle. The rich struggle. The young struggle.2 The old struggle. The secular struggle. The religious struggle. Democrats struggle. Republicans struggle. Ordinary people struggle. Extraordinary people struggle.
In Judaism, we have this great story to along with the struggle: When you struggle, and prevail, you become a new person with a new name, even though you might limp forever because of your struggle.
Sometimes I fear that my particular struggles in life mark me as defective or deformed in some way. Like Jacob/Israel, I find myself walking with a pronounced limp at times. I recently decided, though, that prevailing after a struggle has defined who I am only in good ways. I do not consider myself to be "damaged goods" because of my struggles, despite my limp. My struggles are one part of my experience of life, just as everything about me is part of my experience of life--my childhood, my parents, my schooling, my friends, my relationships, and my jobs. The fact that I have struggled--as Jacob and so many others did--does not reflect negatively on me, any more than the fact that I have three siblings and went to a particular day camp do. They are just additional facts about my life, part of the complicated stew that went into making me who I am today.
Although I would never voluntarily undergo the struggles that I underwent, I can't imagine turning out this well (modest I ain't!) without the struggles over which I have prevailed. The depth with which I feel my pain and others' pain, the joy I have upon arising every morning, the overwhelming gratitude I sometimes feel for the sun, the moon, even the ducks in Central Park, and the deep and persistent desire I have to form a family and be a parent one day are all inseparable from my former struggles. Maybe I would have achieved those things or more without struggling, but something tells me not.3
I love the phrase "כי-שרית עם-אלהים ועם-אנשים, ותוכל" because it is said from a position of strength after a difficult time. That is how I finally feel about myself. I had a stand-off with a an enemy when I was all alone in the middle of the night, and I won. That doesn't mean I won't ever struggle again. It would be stupid to hope for that because there are no promises like that in life.4 All it means to me is that I will win again. I will win again because of the person I've become as a result of having prevailed in the past is a person who knows how to prevail. Because of my ancestor Israel (he who struggled with God [and man and prevailed]) and because I call myself a child of Israel, by definition I am one who prevails.
There is no silver lining, no lesson to be learned from the death of one so young, except, perhaps, that none of us knows how long we have here, so you'd better make every moment count. It's hard to remember that when you're actually busy living your life, though. Things like laundry, grocery shopping, commuting to work, and scrubbing down the bathroom tile all get in the way.
I did learn a few things over the past few days, though. The first is that the human spirit is incredibly resilient. The idea that a parent could lose a child and still go on living a productive life is nothing short of miraculous. I don't know how my aunt and uncle go on. Yet, somehow, they do. Not, of course, as they were before the tragic loss. But, still, going on itself seems like a miracle after the loss of a child.
The second thing I learned, which I sort of already knew (but it was good to be reminded), is that family is an amazing thing. These people, some distantly related, will come and be there with and for you when you need people to be there the most. The caring, compassion, and warmth exhibited by all of my relatives over the past few days was incredible. Just the act of showing up--of being another warm body on a cold day at the cemetery, staring at the gravestone that marks a tragically short life--is sort of incredible. I feel so lucky to have these people in my universe, these first cousins twice removed and second cousins once removed.
Go on! Tell the people you love how glad you are that they're alive. Tell them that you'll be there for them whether they need you or not. And be aware of their struggles, big and small.
[For some beautiful thoughts on suffering, healing, and the scars that remain forever, read this post by DoctorMama. Read the comments, too. They touch on a lot of what I wrote about here.]
Categories: Torah, parsha, life
1. "You won't have to struggle" is not something God ever promises us either individually or as a nation. In fact, he sort of promises the opposite in Deuteronomy 15:11, where it says that there will always be poor people and therefore there will always be a need to give to them. There will always be people who struggle and suffer in this world and thus we will always be compelled to help them in their struggles and alleviate their suffering to the best of our ability. In doing so, we emulate and honor both God and humankind. See Proverbs 14:31 for a nice succinct statement to that effect:
|לא עֹשֵׁק דָּל, חֵרֵף עֹשֵׂהוּ; וּמְכַבְּדוֹ, חֹנֵן אֶבְיוֹן.||31 He that oppresseth the poor blasphemeth his Maker; but he that is gracious unto the needy honoureth Him.|
Also, possibly my favorite line in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah is from Sefer HaMada, Hilchot De'ot 1:11:
I read it at my high school graduation, and it resonates as much for me today as it did almost ten years ago.
One final parenthetical note: This story tells us that struggling is, in some ways, the core of our existence as Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel. Anyone who won't accept the status quo of the universe is bound to struggle, and one thing about Jews is that they don't accept the status quo, or they ought not accept the status quo.
2. If you look at a third-grader and see someone who has never struggled, you clearly don't remember the myriad frustrations of being an eight-year-old. All the things you couldn't do, all the rules and regulations that dictated what you had to do! All that face-washing and teeth-brushing. I shudder just to think of it. (Oh, don't worry, I cheerfully do those things now. They just seemed entirely unnecessary when I was eight.)
3. I actually think that there would not have been any way to avoid these struggles or really any struggles in life, so it's sort of a moot point. Another observation: People who contort themselves to avoid one struggle most often find themselves smack dab in the middle of another. So my feeling is that you might as well face the challenges you were dealt in life.
4. "Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."
A man dedicated to his art
Labels: New York
Source Sheet: Teaching Women Torah
This time around, it wasn't someone suggesting that women not be taught Talmud, but someone, bless his loving heart, who didn't know about the whole "women shouldn't be taught Torah Sheh Ba'al Peh" thing. As a result, he didn't really understand my conflicted feelings towards a corpus of law that, until a century ago, systematically denied women access to education despite the existence of equally or more compelling halachic sources that encouraged or, sometimes, required it. He hadn't been exposed, at the young and impressionable age that I was (18), to the systematic denial part of the picture.
So I decided to enlighten him. Since I no longer remembered all the relevant citations by heart, though, and didn't feel like going to a library to find a concise and well-organized secondary source, I had to cobble together the relevant sources from memory, the trusty Internet, and actual books I had on hand (namely: Tanach, Shas, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, and Mishneh Torah but only Rambam L'Am, without any commentary). I must say, I had a blast. There is something extremely joyful, for me, in chasing the path of various gemaras and rishonim through traditional reference tools.
So, what am I missing? I'm including both pro and con voices on women and the permissibility of teaching them various kinds of Torah. They're at least roughly in chronological order, and I've included some of the actual texts for some of them. Thanks!
I. Biblical sources
- Deuteronomy 31:12
- Deuteronomy 11:19
יט ולמדתם אתם את-בניכם, לדבר בם, בשבתך בביתך ובלכתך בדרך, ובשכבך ובקומך. 19 And ye shall teach them your children, talking of them, when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
- Tosefta Brachot 2:12:ב,יב ...הזבין והזבות והנדות והיולדות מותרין לקרות בתורה ולשנות במשנה במדרש בהלכות ובאגדות
- Talmud Bavli Chagigah 3a, Tosfot there (explication of Deuteronomy 31:12)
- Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 29b (explication of Deuteronomy 11:19)
- Talmud Bavli Sotah 20a and 21b, Rashi and Tosfot there
- Talmud Yerushalmi, Sotah 3:4מטרונה שאלה את רבי לעזר מפני מה חט אחת במעשה העגל והן מתים בה שלש מיתות. אמר לה אין חכמתה של אשה אלא בפילכה דכתיב (שמות לה) וכל אשה חכמת לב בידיה טוו. אמר לו הורקנוס בנו בשביל שלא להשיבה דבר אחד מן התורה איבדת ממני שלש מאות כור מעשר בכל שנה. אמר ליה ישרפו דברי תורה ואל ימסרו לנשים.
- Rav Yisroel Meir HaKohen (Chafetz Chaim), Sefer Lekutei Hilchot Sotah 21a (1838-1933), as quoted in Rabbi Arthur Silver, "May Women be Taught Bible, Mishnah and Talmud?" Tradition, 17 (Summer 1978):
- Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Lubavitcher Rebbe), Likkutei Sichot, Vol. 14 (NY, 1978), pp. 37-44 (20th c. USA) (available here)
- Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “Fundamental Problems Regarding the Education of the Woman” published in Halacha V’Chinukha. Edited by Ben Zion Rosenfeld, published by Emunah, Ulpanot Bnei Akiva, Kfar Saba, 1980 (20th c., Israel) (excerpted here)
“It seems that all this [the Rambam’s law] only applies in times gone by, where everyone lived in the same place and where our forefathers and the tradition of our fathers was very strong for each and everyone one to conduct themselves in the proper ways. As the Sages say, ‘Ask your father and he will tell you.’ In this situation we can say that women may not be taught Torah and she will learn how to conduct herself by emulating her righteous father. But today, when our father’s tradition has become very weak and it is common that we do not have the same living traditions as our fathers did and women learn to read and write a secular language, it is an especially great mitzvah to teach them Bible and the tradition and ethics of our Sages like Pirkei Avot and Sefer Menorat ha-Meor and the like, so that the truth of our holy heritage and religion will become evident to them, for if we do not do this they might, heaven forbid, leave the way of the Lord and come apostate.”
- Rav Chaim Joseph David ben Isaac Zerachia Azulai ("the Chidah"), 18th c. Turkey
- Rav Samson Refael Hirsch, Sefer Ha’Chorev, Ch. 65
- Prisha, Tur Yoreh Deah, 246:6
- Rav Eliezer Waldenberg [who passed away very recently], Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 9, sec. 3:2
- Rav Moshe Feinstein, Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 3:83 (20th c. USA)
- Rav Baruch Epstein, Torah Temimah, Deut. 11, 48 (20th c.)
- Rav Zalman Tzurutzkin, 20th c., Poland and Israel (teshuva to a Beis Yaakov school)
Oh! Look at what I just found. It's good to know that someone has done this already, and apparently in a more complete fashion than I have. Also, here is a more extensive list of sources in a post to mail-Jewish on this topic from Maidi Katz, z"l, whose tenth yahrzeit recently passed.
(I would say that my efforts were for naught, but they definitely weren't, since I learned a lot, had fun, and remembered how much I used to like to do these kinds of spur-of-the-moment research projects about things that interested me. Which is what this is really all about, isn't it?)