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Posts tagged ‘Jewish thought’

Mikvah Mysteries

Mikvah Entrance in Djerba Tunisia-Avi AlpertMikvah Entrance in Djerba Tunisia
(by Avi Alpert, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I recently read a blog post by Lieba Rudolph, “What Makes the Mikvah So Mysterious?” She discusses misconceptions and perceptions of the ritual immersion that married Jewish women perform after their monthly menstruation cycle has finished.

My take on what makes the mikvah so mysterious is just that: mystery. Our secular culture infantilizes sexuality and our holy Jewish culture keeps it hidden and refined. Modern Americans do not sit easily with mystery and the sublime. We want facts, entertainment and unfortunately, enjoy titillation. Jewish children are not educated about mikvah until they are ready for marriage… or in the playground, if at all.

How can something associated with the duties of the High Priest be associated with family life? After all, in school they learn about mikvah in the context of the services of the Holy Temple. Readings in the Torah mention immersion numerous times. Any connection with marriage does not compute. I’m not an educator or a Rabbi so I do not have suggestions how–or if–to introduce the topic to our young adults with the needed sensitivity and seriousness. But I think there is a place for that type of education so we raise a community of people committed to marriage and not, G-d forbid, opting to choose divorce or promiscuity.

The real issue relies upon inculcating our children and immersing them in authentic Jewish culture (not low humor, nor bagels and lox jokes of the Borscht Belt). TV Jews are secular ones who can’t differentiate between customs and merchandising. Any Torah-observant (i.e., Orthodox) Jews in the media seem to be strange-minded, oddball characters, with quaint customs, or criminals with misconduct unbecoming anyone let alone a G-d-fearing Jew. The home atmosphere is important because we cannot shield them from outside influences. The more aware they become of how irreverently and ridiculed authentic Jewish practice is presented in modern secular media, the more they will value our way of life.

The mystery is part of us, and part of our connection with G-d.

 

 

Happiness is My Choice, 10

There’s a lot to be said about the practice of contemplation and self-improvement. In these days between the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur—the so-called Ten Days of Repentance—we turn our thoughts toward our actions and character traits which have allowed us to act in a particular manner. This period is a time for appreciation of our freedom to use our wills for good or for selfish ends. We don’t flagellate ourselves when we find ourselves lacking; rather, we contemplate the means to change ourselves for the better.

I liken this week to an employee performance review. Like the yearly progress assessment, we review our success in achieving goals set in the previous season and we formulate future goals. Where do I excel? How can I parlay this strength toward future endeavors? Where can I be better? What tools can I use to improve what is sub-par? Have I failed utterly in any area? What is taking me off track? And if I just can’t proceed in that positive direction yet, what is holding me back? On Yom Kippur, we give a full accounting to the Boss and state how we may improve ourselves toward fulfilling the Company’s goals.

Rather than castigate and flagellate myself for perceived imperfections, I can choose to look at this annual review as an opportunity to learn more about myself. Others may quake in their shoes, fearing punishment and retribution, but I choose to take the opportunity to reboot myself as it were, and get a fresh start.

Rabbi Ezra Schwartz reminded us on Rosh Hashanah that we are not bad people. We just need improvements.

Improvements. This thought makes me … happy. Otherwise, I would be so despondent all of the time, wallowing in guilt and unhappiness for my failures and inconsistencies. If I could not take the opportunity to move on from today into an improved tomorrow, I would feel like the executioner’s sword was inching closer and closer—sure doom—defining my fate. We have so many characteristics that make us who we are. Some are expressed at the wrong times, others are not expressed often enough. Our characteristics are many, like the seeds of the pomegranate which—once you find them and use them—can be a delight for the eye and palate.

Instead of facing severe punishment, we are given a chance to take our measure accurately, and alter the pattern. The Hebrew word middah (מִדָה) literally means “a measurement,” and also refers to character traits. How poorly clothing would fit if the tailor could not make adjustments to the pattern. So, too, we are given the ability to contemplate the pattern and adjust the reality. We are given a new chance at life, forgiveness, and our eyes are opened to our true characters!

Yeah, it’s scary facing our shortcomings. I don’t like admitting where I’ve failed, fallen short, not risen to the moment or shown the darker side of myself. but rather than quake with trepidation, I’m calculating, building, planning, adjusting. I’m using my Ten Days of Repentance to adjust the template and shift the pattern.

Hope! Everyone gets a second chance; not everyone can use it properly. I’m taking this opportunity to increase my internal awareness and assess how good it can get. This is my choice, leading to happiness.

For all of my friends and not-yet friends, I wish you a meaningful period of contemplation, leading to a fulfilling Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement, to be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year!

What Mess? What Noise?

 

Whatta lotta matzah!

Whatta lotta matzah!

Passover is done for another year.

I loved it. I loved having five of our children around and various guests. I loved the planning, cooking, and serving. Even the cleanup after meals didn’t faze me. I was “in the zone.” I felt connected and fulfilled. My shopping list on Google Drive made me ecstatic in the stores. I felt efficient and prepared. I loved the crumbs on the table, the potatoes, and having to reach into a different cupboard than usual for a plate. I loved the seeming mess, having things displaced, needing to walk new paths, searching for equipment. A change, a shake-up. Spring-cleaning for the mind. Last year we were slaves; this year we are free.

And oh my–the second batch of chicken soup was one of the best I’ve ever made! With matzah balls! (The first batch was great, but this second batch… ummm yummm!)

Single-Bottle Wine Caddy
Last Sunday I “turned my kitchen over,” i.e., boxed up and sequestered all of the Passover plates, cookware, and equipment so I could bring out the year-round items. I discarded unused equipment: the wine bottle caddy my husband received with a Purim package ages ago but is not useful at the Seder; his Chinese-patterned melamine plates from before we were married that we used before we bought the new purple ones; and the decorative metal and glass serving box for machine-made square matzah because we predominantly eat handmade, round matzahs. I climbed up the stepladder to the cupboard above the refrigerator–which is closed year-round–and lovingly tucked the Passover supplies to sleep for another year.

I wish there had been more noise. Crazy? I wish there had been more visitors. I wish the apartment had been full of our children and their friends laughing, playing games, and squabbling. Although we played Settlers of Catan one afternoon, people drifted away for naps instead of digging in for the noisy, competitive, seemingly endless tournaments we’d played in younger years. The friends live elsewhere and a small New York City apartment gets crowded quickly.

I have memories of family meals from my childhood. Adults babbled in important adult tones; children laughed and shrieked while spilling drinks and tracking crumbs. Blotchy with wine stains, the tablecloth reminded us of years past. There’s a photo of my sister and our cousin, both about 5 years old, pouring soda and laughing. That’s what I remember.

Don't open! חמץ (Chometz; leavened items) may be lurking there!

Don’t open! חמץ (Chometz; leavened items) may be lurking there!

That’s what I hope to recreate.

The noise, the mess, the planning, the excitement. The expectation of the Seder meal, retelling our exodus from slavery in Egypt. The drama of one whole week of the year dominating our minds so thoroughly. That is Passover of the past, present, and of the future. I hope our children will retain happy memories of this year’s holiday. Doesn’t every parent wish this to be so?

We pray: Let us all be reunited in Jerusalem as One People, celebrating the Passover together, giving thanks to the One Who freed us and continues to sustain us throughout all time.

לשנה הבאה בירשלים

Next year in Jerusalem!

Video

Happiness is My Choice, 5

I can act and do one small thing in my corner of the world to make a difference for the good without world-changing impact.
A new beginning starts within me.


Few will have the greatness to bend history
But each of us can work to change a small portion of events

—Prince EA1


(c) Prince EA


 

The world is coming to an end
The air is polluted, the oceans contaminated
The animals are going extinct, the economy’s collapsed
Education is shot, police are corrupt
Intelligence is shunned and ignorance rewarded
The people are depressed and angry
We can't live with each other and we can't live with ourselves
So everyone’s medicated
We pass each other on the streets
And if we do speak it's meaningless robotic communication
More people want 15 seconds of fame
Than a lifetime of meaning and purpose
Because what’s popular is more important than what’s right
Ratings are more important than the truth
Our government builds twice as many prisons than schools
It’s easier to find a Big Mac than an apple
And when you find the apple
It's been genetically processed and modified
Presidents lie, politicians trick us
Race is still an issue and so is religion
Your God doesn’t exist, my God does and he is All-Loving
If you disagree with me I'll kill you
Or even worse argue you to death
92% of songs on the radio are about sex
Kids don’t play tag, they play twerk videos
The average person watches 5 hours of television a day
And it's more violence on the screen than ever before
Technology has given us everything we could ever want
And at the same time stolen everything we really need
Pride is at an all time high, humility, an all time low
Everybody knows everything, everybody’s going somewhere
Ignoring someone, blaming somebody
Not many human beings left anymore, a lot of human doings
Plenty of human lingerings in the past, not many human beings
Money is still the root of all evil
Yet we tell our kids don’t get that degree
The jobs don’t pay enough
Good deeds are only done when there's a profit margin
Videos of the misfortunes of others go viral
We laugh and share them with our friends to laugh with us
Our role models today
60 years ago would have been examples of what not to be
There are states where people can legally be discriminated against 
Because they were born a certain way
Companies invest millions of dollars hiring specialists to make 
Little girls feel like they need “make up” to be beautiful 
Permanently lowering their self esteem
Because they will never be pretty enough
To meet those impossible standards
Corporations tell us buy, buy, buy, get this, get that
You must keep up, you must fit in
This will make you happy, but it never does for long
So what can we do in the face of all of this madness and chaos?
What is the solution? We can love
Not the love you hear in your favorite song on the radio
I mean real love, true love, boundless love
You can love, love each other
From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed
Perform an act of kindness because that is contagious
We can be mindful during every interaction
Planting seeds of goodness
Showing a little more compassion than usual
We can forgive
Because 300 years from now will that grudge you hold against 
Your friend, your mother, your father have been worth it?
Instead of trying to change others we can change ourselves
We can change our hearts
We have been sold lies
Brainwashed by our leaders and those we trust
To not recognize our brothers and sisters
And to exhibit anger, hatred and cruelty
But once we truly love we will meet anger with sympathy
Hatred with compassion, cruelty with kindness
Love is the most powerful weapon on the face of the Earth
Robert Kennedy once said that
Few will have the greatness to bend history
But each of us can work to change a small portion of events
And in the total of all those acts
Will be written in the history of a generation
So yes, the world is coming to an end
And the path towards a new beginning starts within you

 
*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-
1. Richard Williams, better known by his stage name Prince Ea, is an American rapper and activist. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Ea>, accessed February 2, 2015.
2. Lyrics on Genius.com. “Why I Think This World Should End” by Prince Ea

Happiness is My Choice, 3

Crutches

my crutches” by dmitiri_66, used under CC BY-NC 2.0

Chanukah is over but its lessons are not.

One of the great lessons of Chanukah is rededicating ourselves to thanking Hashem on a daily basis –‟V’Ahl Nissecha SheBeChal Yom Imanu” 1 — for all of the ‘little’ and not so little miracles that are with us every day. 2

Thankfulness. Gratitude. Awareness.

The body is an amazing creation yet I wake into it daily and walk it about, taking it for granted.  I never thought about what a miracle it was that my knee could bend … until one day it couldn’t bend, after the anterior cruciate ligament had torn.  Why and how it snapped, I’ll never know.  One day I was clambering about on Puerto Rico’s rocky shore, capering for the camera, preparing to leave after a successful business trip. Hours later on the jet homeward there was a moment of blinding pain and the knee ceased to function. When I couldn’t bend my leg by my own volition, I thought I’d never walk again. I was who-knows-where over the Atlantic Ocean, in the darkness, a zillion feet above the icy water, when it happened. Nobody saw anything, nobody noticed me falling onto the empty seats in my row, not even the coworker I’d spent four days with. I couldn’t fathom what had happened.

Gratitude at that pain-filled time? Yes!!!

2012-12-13 17.57.23 HDR

Chanukah menorah lighting in New York City.

Strangely, I remember feeling blessed, taken care of and calm. At that moment I was spiritually-centered and had a flash of clarity. I realized that I could have been liable for a worse outcome, such as a hijacking or a plane crash and death in the freezing waters, two of the most dramatic scenarios possible. I knew that G-d had spared me from worse. G-d gave me the clarity to acknowledge His kindness at that moment where I could have despaired but instead saw His hand in the works.

After momentary searing pain I notified the air crew, assuring them that nothing due to the operation of the flight caused my injury. An unscheduled landing sent me to a Baltimore hospital where a screaming woman in the next cubicle with a dislocated her knee was getting it realigned. I wondered if that was my fate, but they released me with splints and crutches. The airline picked up the tab for a hotel room, rescheduled my return flight, arranged a cab to the airport, and I winged back home the next day. I started physical therapy and ultimately had surgery. It took a few months to reestablish nerve pathways and relearn walking. Twenty-some years later, I walk mostly unimpeded, thoughtlessly, expecting my foot to contact something solid where I guide it. Bending my knee. Walking. Little things? Actions taken for granted?

I choose to dedicate time to acknowledge my gratitude every day. 

I’d like to be disciplined enough to write a daily gratitude journal. From time to time I start one but don’t carry through. Despite this, I’m able to focus on gratitude daily, even if I don’t write it down. I’ve made a choice. When I’m outdoors, perhaps rushing to the subway station past a few blocks of apartment buildings, parked cars, and piles of trash set out for collection, I whisper to the Creator, “Thanks G-d-for giving me the ability to walk.” I’ll hear a bird chirping or see one flying overhead and give thanks for the ability to enjoy its sweet song or follow the arc flight. If the train arrives after I get to the subway platform, instead of leaving a moment before I descend the steps, my lips smile, recognizing where this boon originated.

Everybody loves a cup of coffee!

My cup is neither half-empty nor half-full.

Does this mean I see my cup as being half-full?

Chanukah commemorates the historic event of the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. Rededication of the Temple itself, the edifice, required preparation of the building (i.e., removal of idols, cleaning up pig blood, restoring order) and having the proper tools (e.g., menorah, pure oil) to do so.  Rededication was not limited to the structure; it required intensive preparation by the priests for restoration of the order of prayer. The worshipers, too, needed to be in the frame of mind to take on this holy duty and be immersed in the Temple experience. They reconnected with the Source of All Good in that time and place. I resonate to the message of Chanukah because it is my birthday and validates a fundamental truth: we are not in control of the world but He is.

How do I maintain a spiritual connection today? My attitude sustains my connection, and my choices produce my attitude.  Happiness is my choice, satisfaction with my lot. Gratitude propels me toward happiness. It’s my choice to look at things with a good eye.  It’s my choice to  remember to be grateful. Those choices bring me happiness.

My cup is neither half-empty nor half-full; rather, it is brimming over with gifts and delight.

—————


1. Part of the “Modim” מוֹדִים אֲנַחְנוּ לָךְ prayer in the Amidah prayer, recited three times daily by devout Jews.

2. Hakhel Organization, Hakhel Email Community Awareness Bulletin – Rote Map?!?‏, December 26, 2014.  [To subscribe: send an email to majordomo@hakhel.info (leave the subject line blank) with the the words “subscribe list” (no quotations) in the body of your email message.]

Happiness is My Choice, 2

sailorsWhat is success? Does success equal happiness? Can I find happiness through success?

I’m responding to a blog post I read the other day. Allison Marie Conway wrote the following around the topics of success, ambition, creativity, and spirituality in a post entitled “I’m Chewing Stale Gum Successfully – Can We Please Talk About Ambition Now?”:

I guess I’m developing narcoleptic tendencies around the word success. It seems to have been putting me to sleep lately, all the use and overuse of the word ‘success’ and everything, everywhere, all the time.[…] The numbers and the stats and the ranks and the followers and the attention and all those figures that we too often accept by default as marks of what we traditionally call ‘success’ are fine but quite honestly at the moment, I’m over it.[…] It’s like the piece of chewing gum you’ve gnashed every last bit of worthwhile juice out of. It was freshly inviting at first and enjoyable for the first few hundred munches, but now it tastes more than a little bit like the underside of a cardboard box. (One might imagine.)

If I met you at a cocktail party (gosh I would seriously so love that!) I would not be all that interested in hearing about numbers that somehow rank you in some kind of obscure success-shelving system. I would, however, love to hear about what stealthy initiatives you have going and about what invisible-ness [sic] you imagine moves you toward the otherwise daunting blank canvas. I’d especially love to hear you talk about the way you create your music or your poetry or your designs. I’d be enthralled to learn about what ideas came to you and how and why you molded your thing the way you did. I’d lean in tight to hear about how you got mixed up and pushed around and then back on your feet again as you tried to get your art out just the way you envisioned it. I’d love to know why any of it matters to you; what shifts inside you when you do your creative thing. What keeps you coming back?

Stale gum: who would have thought that lump of plastic would lead to inspiration and introspection? Where Allison is discussing creativity, she is also discussing life and happiness.  What measures we track ourselves with, how we compare ourselves to the outside world, indicate our happiness levels. These measures are artificial, however, and happiness does not equal success. To the contrary, happiness is success.

Meaningless measurements include grades, job titles, salaries, popular votes, or any externality that assigns a rank to ourselves, a comparison against others, subjective values that place worth on our existence.

We can only be compared to ourselves, to the evolving person that G-d wants us to be.  Admission that we are imperfect — but can make constant progress toward improving ourselves — is the first step to happiness.

What the Sailors SeeWhat elusive measure is success? I don’t buy into it. Rather, I think in terms of being fortunate, being satisfied, and improving my little corner of humanity. By these measures I reap success and satisfaction in so many ways.

  • Standing in a long grocery store line is a time to exercise patience. Success.
  • When I get off the bus I thank the driver… and mean it; he got me to my destination safely. Success.
  • The old lady in the crosswalk smiled because I complimented her hairstyle. Success.
  • I will make you laugh to lighten a sober mood. Success.
  • I see beauty in a raindrop hanging off a leaf. Success.
  • When you mourn I will sit with you and share your sorrow. Success.
  • I can be happy for you when you marry off a child or get a new car. Your good fortune is reflected in my eyes because I despite that I am not blessed in the same manner. I don’t have to have what you have to be satisfied. Success.
  • I raised children who are loving, caring, thinking and civilized beings. Big Success!

sailors 2Having a good name and a good eye are the only measures of my life that will have any lasting impact. Others can make a difference by grand inventions or forging peace treaties. Me? I just take care of my own corner … with a smile. And with this, I choose Happiness.

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