TWTSTW*

This is a post that will need to write itself since I want to write about the seder, but have no idea of where to start. First of all, the logistics: Israeli homes are on average, the size of US elevators so our seder configuration was roughly equivalent to an elevator at Macy’s on the day after Thanksgiving, except that the average age was about 15 months. OK. I exaggerate. The children’s ages: 15, 15, 12,12,12,11,9,7,4,4,3,1.5,1,7 months, 3 months. The fact that the youngest 5 were 3 and under led to a substantial amount of motion and noise. The truth is that all of them were super-adorable. But imagine 5 super-adorable puppies… you get the point. This entailed less barking and a bit less biting, but just as much action.

But all that aside, the family was beautiful. Each and every one of them looked wonderful. We enjoyed reading and chanting and singing together, even when one or more of us were off-key and/or making up our own melody that was similar to but not identical to the ones we are accustomed to singing. There was a feeling of happiness and a real sense of tradition. It all really was worth it. I only pray to enjoy many many more with the ones I love!

*That was the seder that was

Ahhhh

A sigh of relief. It’s almost done. Can’t wait to see all of the happy smiling faces. It’s worth it. All of it.

Nothing to say

This week has been a difficult one. My daughter and her husband are faced with a difficult decision. A child in our city was killed in a traffic accident. People I know have lost loved ones. And I feel impotent- unable to provide the right answer, the right words. And who should know what to say? Surely a family therapist, an “expert” in human interactions, a person who should know how to phrase things properly, how to say exactly the right thing, surely I should be able to respond in a meaningful, thoughtful, helpful way.

But I can’t.

Because, there is nothing to say. There is nothing that makes a difficult decision easier other than expressing one’s confidence that whatever people choose to do will be the right choice for them. There is nothing to say that removes grief. No one else can feel the pain of the bereft. No one can know what that family member meant to them. No one can know what words might heal and what words might hurt.

A long time ago I worked in the intensive care unit at a hospital. My supervisor, a chaplain, had talked to us about “a ministry of presence.” He told us that just being there and being with was in itself, a ministry. There was one very old woman (I think she was 92) who was in a coma. Each day I went and stood by her bed. I would take her hand. I would sometimes talk to her, although I knew she most likely wouldn’t hear me. I would stay there for 5 or 10 minutes and then I would wish her well and leave. One day I came to the unit and she was gone. I thought she had died. I was about to leave the unit after visiting some other people when one of the nurses came to me and told me that the woman had awakened. She told me that the family had asked her to thank me for being with their mother and for having been so kind. I never thought to ask how they knew. Did she hear me? feel me? Had the nurses told them? I don’t know.

But after that I understood that sometimes, when there is nothing to say, being there, being with is the best thing we can do.

Predictability

It’s interesting what we humans do. We are born into a world that has some degree of predictability– the sun will rise in the morning and set at night, but a very large degree of randomness. If we look at our lives, we realize that very little is in our control. We cannot control the other driver- who may be talking on his cell phone or just not paying attention. We cannot control the illnesses that we are subject to. Oh yes, researchers work on treatments and cures, but aside from taking precautions not to do things that are dangerous to our health (smoking, excessive use of alcohol, tanning, eating large quantities of artery-clogging foods), we have very little control.

But we long for control. We long for predictability. We try to find reasons why others have hardships and heartaches and disabilities in order to protect ourselves from the realization that all of us are vulnerable. But when we are being rational, we know that the terror victim happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We understand that cancer began to grow in someone as a random occurrence. We comprehend that we are vulnerable.

We teach our children that this is an ordered universe- that if they behave nicely, good things will happen to them. And, we hope, we pray, this is true. We want so much to create for them a world without pain. And then the randomness of the universe once again shows itself.

Where is G-d in all of this? I wish I had an answer. I know that I cannot understand. I am not sure that humans are meant to understand. I have read more than once of life on earth as a tapestry. Just as a magnificent tapestry may have areas that are dark or bent or frayed, but when seen in the full context, they only add to the beauty, so we may see our lives. It’s a beautiful metaphor, but it doesn’t answer the question. Why can’t all of the people I love be part of the bright and beautiful part of the tapestry?

I think the answer to the lack of control is to take control of the part that we can. We CAN be kind to each other. We CAN help each other. We CAN value each other. We CAN provide the listening ear, the gentle touch, the warm embrace. We may not be able to control the world, but we can control how we act in it. And we have the ability to make it a better place.

Rachel in Gaza

Since the military operation in Gaza, there have been rumors of a woman appearing to the Israeli troops and guiding them away from danger. David Hazony has written this most beautiful piece about the belief that it was mother Rachel, protecting her children. The original appears here on the Commentary web site

This is his article:

Did Rachel Appear in Gaza?
David Hazony – 01.25.2009 – 1:37 PM

For weeks now, we have been hearing rumors about a mysterious woman who appeared before Israeli troops in the thick of the Gaza battles. Not just any woman, mind you, but the biblical Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob, matriarch of Israel. (My nine-year-old daughter gave me an excellent speech about the pluses and minuses of believing these rumors.) Israel’s former chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliyahu, announced that he himself had sent her. And now another former chief rabbi and Shas spiritual leader, Ovadiah Yosef, has confirmed these reports.

This is the point where I’m supposed to say how ridiculous it is. A hoax, or a superstition, or something. But I’m not gonna do it.

I don’t care if you call the appearance of Rachel a metaphor or a miracle. There is a point in rabbinic discourse where miracles and metaphors all mingle together, where the word “literally” loses its meaning, making room for midrash — the art of saying something illiteral and literary. To say that Rachel was with our soldiers, that our matriarch was protecting her boys, is a deeper statement than anything that can be made by a professional reporter with a camera.

Let’s give the religious spinmasters the benefit of the doubt. Of course she wasn’t there. But, of course, she was.

Preparations

Tomorrow night it begins– Rosh HaShana, the New Year. And, as usual, it will be a busy and full holiday with my son and his 6 children staying with us, with both daughters and their families joining us for a meal each, not to mention the 3rd of our 2 daughters and her family who will join us also for a meal.

I actually enjoy cooking and when I designed my kitchen I made sure to have a huge working area on one counter. It stretches about 7 feet long. Today I filled the entire area with flour, oil, sugar, salt , potatoes, baking soda, eggs, corn, vanilla, soy milk, margarine, a food processor, a mixer, and various measuring implements. The oven performed overtime heating one after another of the creations (challah, potato kugel, corn pudding). The fridge will soon be filled as it plays home to all of the vegetables, the defrosting turkey, and roast, and all that I’ve made today once it all cools down.

And tomorrow it will be soups (chicken and sweet potato), the turkey and the roast, probably cole slaw and potato salad, and of course all of the salad vegetables. Then it’s opening out the table, setting it, making up all of the beds, and general cleanup.

It all seemed overwhelming until I had a realization: We are celebrating the creation of the world. I can’t help thinking of all of the preparation G-d had to do for Rosh HaShana. There was the heaven and the earth to create, the lights (sun and moon), the seas, the plants and trees, the fish and the birds, and humankind. … and I think that I have a lot to attend to?

Instead, I think I will say that He did an excellent job, with only a short amount of time to work with. Sure there were areas that could have used more thought (teeth and feet come to mind) and there’s that whole nine months of pregnancy thing not to mention other womanly issues, but all and all, job well done! The blue sky- gorgeous, the cleansing, life-giving rains- brilliant, the variety of flowers, trees, bushes- exquisite, the ability to give and receive love with family members and friends- perfection.

I remember reading e. e. cummings who said:
I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.

Shana Tovah– may you and your family have a healthy, happy, new year!

…and sometimes, just like that, He changes His mind

I have seen a decent number of films in my life. One of them that became iconic for me was “The Frisco Kid.” In it, a young, somewhat foolish, certainly naive new rabbi is sent by his eastern European yeshiva to serve a congregation in San Francisco. Our hero, played by Gene Wilder, arrives in the US in Philadelphia and the film covers his journey across the US where he meets the Amish (and thinks they are chassidim), a thief (Harrison Ford), and Indians, among others. He has many adventures.

At one point, the Indians, having decided that he was worthy of continuing to live because of his courage in preserving his sefer torah, ask him to ask his G-d to make it rain. It seems there has been a very long drought and they have prayed and danced and drummed, all to no avail. Our hero says, “My G-d doesn’t work like that,” meaning that he did not believe that his prayers would produce the much desired rain on demand. They insist he pray. He responds again, “My G-d doesn’t work like that” and then the heavens open up and the rain begins to fall- lots of it- and the people are ecstatic, and our hero says “…and sometimes, just like that, He changes His mind.”

I think of that whenever I am in a situation that seems hopeless. Things are not going well and despite a lot of effort, nothing seems to help. And then, all of a sudden, things get better. It happens to therapy clients. It happens to people in interpersonal relationships. It happens to people who are learning to do something that is awkward and difficult and then suddenly, it is second nature.

Life seems sometimes to offer discontinuous results. Things pop out of the air– things that one might have wished or hoped or prayed or worked hard for- and suddenly, at the most unexpected time, they happen. Good things.

Each year, just before Rosh HaShana I try to think of what I would like to wish those I love. Maybe this year, it be that these types of wonderful surprises will happen for them.

Please join my cult

It has come to my attention that there are a number of cults here in Israel that are run by “rebbetzins” (rabbis’ wives). It seems that their followers believe that these women have a direct connection with the Creator of the universe and that by being part of their group, they will reap some benefits. For example, these leaders know what G-d is thinking, and that’s pretty important knowledge. In return for being a member of these cults, men have left their wives, mothers and fathers have been willing to beat and torture their children, and women have been willing to dress up in layers and layers of scarves and clothing that not only cover their whole body, but also their faces including their eyes.

So I got to thinking. My husband is a rabbi. In some weird way, that means that technically I am a rebbitzen. I certainly have as much access to the Creator of the universe as anyone else (who knows? maybe more….) So I have decided to start a cult.

Here’s what my loyal followers must do to show their devotion. I think it will be a bit easier in some ways than some of the other cults.

1. Respect the people around you. Treat them with kindness. Be patient.
2. Love the people in your family. Really love them. Smile when they enter a room, hug them when they are feeling sad, listen when they need to talk.
3. Take care of yourself. Eat healthy foods, get some exercise. Find time for some pleasurable activity. Don’t judge yourself or be too hard on yourself. You are human.

As to the contributions usually required to hear the prophecies, please give them to meaningful charities.

If you join my cult, I cannot promise you a trouble-free life, but I can promise you one that is meaningful and worth living.

Enough to go around

A long time ago I came across the Warm Fuzzy Tale (highly recommended) and it was the first time that I realized that there really is enough love and kindness and good feelings to go around. In fact, the more that one gives away, the more one has. A couple of years after reading the tale, I became aware of the same thing as a lactating mother: the more milk my baby took from me, the more milk I would produce. In the act of giving, I was actually participating the in process of creating even more.

The other day I was talking to one of my daughters. She said to me that she really doesn’t subscribe to the mystical beliefs that many people in Israel seem to share. In Israel many people, both those who would describe themselves as religious and those who wouldn’t, believe in the power of: blessings from certain rabbis, prayer at the graves of righteous people, water blessed by certain rabbis, saying prayers at a specific location (the Western Wall, Rachel’s tomb), buying new mezuzot and/or tfilin, wearing special amulets or wristbands, etc. She told me, however, that she does think that good things she does, in some way will increase the goodness in her environment.

And I would agree.

When I was in driver’s ed class in high school, they showed us a corny movie about driving courtesy (for the Israelis in the audience — no, that is not an oxymoron). It showed someone driving down the street and seeing someone in another car trying to get into the flow of traffic. The first driver smiled and let the second one in. The second driver,when faced with a similar circumstance also smiled and allowed another driver to maneuver past him. One by one, there was a chain created of people being generous and kind to each other. Back when I was contemplating the meaning of life– something that preoccupied me for a period of time– I came to the conclusion that the real meaning in my life was the increasing of goodness in the world. I wanted through my actions, to set off chains of kindness and caring and generosity. And it seems to be true- that for the most part, the more kindness and caring one can give, the more one will receive.

Of course there are people who are bitter and angry and hurtful and malicious, but if we allow them to change our behavior, then we become a part of a cycle that brings increasing negativity to the world. And after all, there really *is* enough kindness and love and caring and gentleness to go around and the seeds we spread can grow and bloom and produce more seeds and more blossoms for us, and our children and our grandchildren.

Choices

It occurs to me that during this penitential period, we Jews are asking G-d to make some choices. We implore Him to have mercy on us and our children and we ask Him to remember us and give us health in the coming year. This implies that there is order to the universe- that things are not random or predetermined, but that there are elements of choice.

But how often in our daily lives do we hear people talking as if there is no ability to choose. How many times have you heard people say, “I just had to do it” or “I couldn’t help myself”? Worse yet, how many times have I heard in my office, “I just don’t love him anymore”?

When I tell my clients that love is a choice, they usually look at me with the same level of comprehension as if I were speaking Chinese. “What!” they say. “Love is something that happens to you.” Actually, no. It is not. Infatuation is something that happens to you. It usually happens in concert with a dose of pheromones, a sense of loneliness, a need to be loved, and sometimes a little too much alcohol.

In many cases, infatuation turns to love. But what is the mechanism? Well, I believe that mechanism is a conscious decision to put the other person in the center of one’s mind and heart. It is a commitment to care for that other person, to want to make that other person happy, to want to share one’s life with that person. It is not a magical force field that descends on someone. It is a choice.

Let’s look at some proof of that. If you were raised with a religion or ethnicity that is important to you, even though you might meet/have met wonderful, beautiful, clever, intelligent people of another religion or ethnicity, chances are, you did not let yourself “fall in love” with them. You may even have said to yourself, “He/she is really nice; too bad he/she isn’t [fill in the blank] because otherwise, I might really be interested in him/her”

Yes, there are exceptions, but in general, when one marries “out,” it is because of a choice too.

So when people say to me “I just don’t love him anymore”, I say, “You have chosen not to love him anymore.” In the recent film, “The Painted Veil,” the wife disdains her husband until she sees him through others’ eyes. Only then does she realize that all along he was a good and kind man. She at first had chosen not to love him and later on, chose to love him. When she made that choice, she began to see how kind and caring he was. She was able to appreciate him. Before the choice, he was the same man, but her feelings for him were very different.

It is like that in marriage. The person we are married to is not perfect. If we choose to see the negatives, he/she will supply us with many opportunities. If we choose to see the kindness and the caring and the love they feel for us, that is what we will see.

Similarly, with children, we often make decisions early in their lives as to which ones are the winners and which ones are the losers. Sometimes all I do when people come to me with “problem” children is help them to see their children as winners. When parents believe in a child, he/she can grow and develop into a winner. When parents give up on a child, the child gives up on him/herself.

People have choices. Will they value the other people in their lives or will they not? Will they interpret the other’s shortcomings as human and normal or will they blame and punish? Will they choose to be kind and loving or will they choose to be judgmental and rigid?

People hold the keys to their own happiness and to the happiness of those around them. The choice is theirs.

As we pray for G-d to make the right choices, may we too make the right ones.