Monthly Archives: August 2014

Elul 4

Yesterday, I wrote about khutzpa – and as I was in a house with no internet, I couldn’t send it out, so you are getting two posts at once (how Shabbat appropriate is this? Remind me to do more Shabbat resting this year) and I figured I may as well stick with the topic. Why? Because khutzpa – that supreme self-confidence that powers our crazy but beautiful actions – khutzpa is necessary.

Last year was a hard year for me as a teacher. I wasn’t sure if I was doing a good job, if I was reaching my students. There was rarely the gratification of an explanation leading to sudden bursts of understanding and comfort with a topic that had seemed overwhelming. The feedback from students was limited and some of it, pretty negative. So, I lost my confidence in my ability to be that teacher – the inspirational one that one remembers 30 years later, the one that changes the direction of your life with his wisdom and the way he has of saying things, the one that inspires your writing. (Thank you, again, Mr. Waldman – you remain the best of the best.) I still had the need to teach, the need to give – but without the confidence that it was good.

And oddly, it became less good. I could teach less when I didn’t believe in myself.  I found myself being more impatient with my students, being more confusing in my explanations, being more random in my preparation. I started doubting my choices of vocation, of life. I thought – well, I have lost my confidence and there is nothing I can do about this and I am stuck with this ugliness. Only, I am not.

Today, I know I am a terrific teacher. Yes, I can improve. Yes, I have much to learn. However, I am a great teacher. Furthermore, I am great at all sorts of things that up to now I thought I wasn’t very good at. Organization, cleaning, style, meeting people, dancing and singing – these are now things I am good at. I am not perfect, and I am not as good as many people, and there is room for growth, yes. However, I am done being weak in all sorts of areas. It isn’t working for me. As of today, I have no areas of weakness. I have decided so and thus it will be so. I have done so, simply by an act of will.

I didn’t believe the ‘act of will’ thing would work – but oddly, it does. When I say it, firmly, definitely, clearly – to as many people and as many times as possible – I get that khutzpa, and with that khutzpa, I can write. I can teach and work and learn and grow. I need khutzpa to function. I refuse to live in the land of humiliation for even one more minute. I am *good* at what I do. So now, when I apply to job after job after job (which I do), I treat each application as an opportunity – a chance to say one more time that I am terrific. The more I say it, the more I believe it – I *am* terrific. If the world gives me different feedback, I will use it solely as a tool to improve and become more terrific, not as information about by lack of talent or worth in an area.

This last week of job search and writing has been transformative for me. I found my khutzpa again. You, who were hoping for a more humble me – sorry. It’s just not happening. I rock. I’m good at what I do and I’m going to keep on doing it.

Elul 3

Sometimes I wonder how I write. I am not the most intelligent person in the world – there are so many that think better. When I read the words of really good writers, I am abashed and embarrassed to even put pen to paper. I know my words don’t sound as good or as flowy. I know that I don’t know enough to write. Especially, I don’t know enough about Judaism. I like to study and read – but I am not as regular or as determined about it as I should be and so my writing isn’t based in years and years of solid study. There are so many better qualified.

Yet, I love writing. Whether with a pen on paper or with the simple clicks of my computer keys, I like producing long flowing sentences, phrases that correspond to the thoughts in my head and the emotions in my heart. I like the connection with you – by the way, yes, it matters if you hit ‘like’ or comment. It’s the only feedback I get, and negative feedback is, as every parent knows, way better than none.

So, how do I have the khutzpa (brazen pride, hubris, daring) to blog? It’s a big question. It’s a question that underlies my life right now because everything I do requires an incredible amount of hutzpa. How can I parent beautiful, clever children full of their own feelings and ideas? How can I tell them to do this and not to do that? Am I sure I’m right? It’s not like I always eat my vegetables before having my dessert. What gives me the right to tell them to eat theirs? How can I teach, knowing the information I pass on is partially inaccurate and possibly not useful? How can I tell people that something is a certain way when it is only sometimes any which way whatsoever? How can I teach subjects I don’t even know? A substitute’s life is full of adventure, as is a parent’s. I have given instruction in such hilariously inappropriate areas as Italian and figure skating and I know so little of either one that it would be funny – if it wasn’t also scary that I was the best equipped to teach them at the time.

 I’m not necessarily always the best equipped. Really, there are so many people who are better than me these days that I sometimes think I’d be better off with a job where I did something simple that didn’t affect people much (painting widgets, maybe or putting stickers on fruit). Yet, instead, I write. I teach. I parent. And I do them all in the full knowledge – with the fear and trembling that comes with that – that I’m probably doing them wrong.

It is an awe-filled gift and curse to want to write, to want to teach. Those who need to communicate, whatever form they use, be it art or ministry, child-care or well-written memos, massage or cakes – those who need to communicate know that it’s impossible to do as well as one would like. It’s equally impossible not to do it and to live truly, though.

That’s why I write. What God gives me is limited ability, great responsibility and a need to express myself through this medium. So, I put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), pray to God for guidance and let the poor, misformed, clumsy words come forth, knowing that I don’t know what I’m doing. It is my way of giving myself to my community, to God, to my world. I don’t know that the gift is a good one or a worthy one but it’s what I have to give and I think for me, it’s my responsibility, my need, my purpose to do so.

Elul 2

So, during the High Holidays we say the equivalent of ‘may no one be punished by You, God, because of something done to hurt me.’ That’s sort of kind of vaguely forgiveness of a sort. I was thinking about forgiveness – it seemed like an appropriate topic. Different rabbis talk about different levels of forgiveness, mekhila – letting go of any obligation between people, selikha – pardon, truly accepting the other person again despite mistake, kapara – granting atonement, reaching a level where the connection and relationship are fully restored. There are different words used and different ways of explaining forgiveness – release, exoneration, acceptance, forbearance, reconsiliation – and I found it all useful as a way of helping me through anger this year.

I have a fantasy of full forgiveness. The true apology, the reconciliation, that moment when I understand and am understood, when the fight was actually worthwhile and we end up closer than ever. It’s happened. I treasure the moments when it has – but it’s rare. There are few people who will stay through the pain and misunderstanding to reach that level, who will fight, even when it is irrationally emotional, to ensure that they are heard just because the relationship they are fighting about matters and must be maintained. Most people will back away, will take the space they need, will accept the preoccupation with the everyday and will never get to full forgiveness. Oh, but it’s beautiful on those rare occasions when someone is willing to go the distance, to truly understand and accept – to know the other. This is the forgiveness that says ‘I am glad you exist, and gladder than ever, and the hurt I suffered was worth the closeness I gained.’ It translates that Yom Kippur line into ‘don’t punish the one I love – I’m not angry any more and it’s better than it was.’ That kind of fighting, and the forgiveness that the apologies can then lead to; that is the key to trust and to love. I wish it could always be that way.

But it can’t. There’s children to take care of after all, and dishes to do and work to go to and besides, there’s the need for safety and protecting one’s pride and maintaining one’s boundaries…If one opens one’s heart with a true apology and it isn’t heard, why would one ever do so again with that person? So, the apologies become more guarded and more safe. “I’m sorry if anything I said there was hurtful – there was no intention…” There is forgiveness here too. It’s not that the relationship is back and stronger than ever. It’s just that we find a way to go on. Like the oyster, we wrap the problem in layers and layers of protective stuff so that it stops irritating us. We connect – but there’s an area where we ‘agree to disagree’. There’s space there and a break in our connection that wasn’t there before. I might choose to not mention that topic with a person whom I have this kind of forgiveness with. I might watch for signs that things are getting stressful and back away from confrontation. This kind of forgiveness says ‘Let’s have a good time together because there are many things we do well and I am glad to be with you – but let’s avoid this area because it’s a sensitive topic.’ The Yom Kippur line becomes ‘Don’t punish this person on my account even though I was hurt because I care about her and we’ve found a way to live with this hurtful situation or to avoid it’.

And what if there’s no apology? How can there be forgiveness then? It’s still important to let the anger go because anger and resentments are unhealthy – but oh, it’s not easy! The best I can do in those cases is just work on not thinking about it, not dwelling on the problem. Yes, I’m furious. But I don’t have to live there. I can accept that the person I’m fighting with is a person with his own problems, and that there’s nothing I can do about that. I don’t have to forgive him. I just have to be able to live in the same world, and to function without trying to think of ways to get back at him. The Yom Kippur line changes again and now it’s, ‘while emotionally, I might like a ton of bricks to fall on that schmuck’s head, nevertheless, she’s a person, and people don’t deserve bad things, so may God not punish her but instead bless her and keep her…far away from me.’ This is an internal letting go, for my piece of mind. It does nothing for the relationship except allow it function on a very superficial not-trying-to-kill-each-other level. Sometimes, this has to be done. It is never the best option.

I have used all 3 types of forgiveness (and coincidentally received all 3 – I put my foot in it more than most and I still have trouble getting out an ‘I’m so-o-er-um-o-um-orry’.) They’re all useful and necessary. I will not hide from that. However, I will say that I always hope for that first kind, actual reconciliation and growth. It’s rare, it’s hard to get to, it’s often loud along the way, but it is worth everything one puts into it.

Elul 1

As Elul starts, all I can think is ‘not yet!’ I am not ready. I haven’t done all the things I want to be judged on this year. In fact, looking back over my post in Tishrei (here is a link to last year’s Elul and Tishrei – where I hoped this would be the year, I can say definitively – this was not the year. This was not the year I became a full-time teacher. It was a hard year, as far as work goes, and I am happy to have done as well as I did, but it was not the sterling success I thought it would be. This was not the year in which I tithed. Yes, I increased my charitable donations from none to 2% of salary, but I certainly didn’t tithe. This was not the year in which I lost weight – in fact, I gained a few pounds. This was not the year where my relationships magically became perfect. There was noise and distance and difficulty. This was not the year in which I became super-organized and had a magically clean room. My room continues to be a disaster at times, liveable at others, too much stuff always.  My budget didn’t magically become perfect either. I still seem to spend about what I make and not set aside the lovely amounts of money I should. This was totally not the year.

So, I’m not ready. I’m not ready for Elul or the High Holidays. I’m not ready for all of the people I will need to deal with. I am not ready to start another year of constant change and constant unknowns, as I substitute wherever and whenever and teaching whatever someone else needs. I’m not ready to carry this load, which feels like it is getting heavier and less manageable all the time.

Maybe if I hurry, I can do it all in Elul? I can find a full-time job, which will pay enough to cover all my debts and have enough left over to save for a course, and I’ll lose tons of weight, give a bunch of spare money to charity, call all of the people and do all of the favours I haven’t had enough time to do, perfectly clean my room, and oh, master 3 languages, 2 instruments and a martial art? Maybe I can do it all while remaining friendly and positive, getting enough sleep and plenty of exercise and spending a lot of time with my children.

But I didn’t manage it in the other 11 months – what makes me think I’ll do it now? And if I can’t do it now, what makes me think I’ll do it ever? What’s the point of Teshuva, of repentance and trying to do better, of goals and plans – if I just make the same mistakes, don’t do any better and fail to meet any of my goals. I am not spiritually ready to say sorry for my mistakes, because I know part of that is not making the same mistakes in the future, and I don’t know if I can do that.

So, I focus on achievements. I look at what I did accomplish. Was it enough? Some tzedaka. Some teaching. Some writing. Some talking (quite a bit of talking) with people in my family. I look at what I talked about trying. Some of it, I tried. Some I didn’t. A lot of it – just holding on. I stubbornly continued to try to be a member of my family, to be a good parent, to be a good friend, to be healthy, to work, to be a good teacher. I stubbornly continued to try to be a good Jew and a good person. I wrote, I sang, I smiled, I taught, I talked, I prayed – I lived every day of those 11 months, and I held on. Maybe that’s meaningless. Maybe more letting go would have been better. Still, that’s what I chose and that’s what I did. That is what I have to bring to judgement.

It’s not enough. The mistakes outshine the achievements, and it’s embarrassing to even try to list where I should be according to my standards (which, for myself at least, are somewhat high, I know that.) It’s nowhere near enough, but it’s what I got, and maybe, it does as a starting point for teshuva. Maybe that’s a place I can turn from, the knowledge that I will persist in my path, and keep trying even if I don’t always succeed. Focussing not on my successes but my attempts – that gives me courage and helps me to be ready for doing the work that Elul asks me to do.

Av 5

You know, words are a special sort of thing for me. I like words. I like writing them. I like reading them. I like playing with them (please come over and ask for a game of boggle any time.) I like working with them.   It’s why I blog after all. So, I like prayers. Prayers, after all, are words that I say to God. They are words worth playing with – the best game ever, really. I like the words in prayers and I like what I hear in them, because it’s something different every time and it’s always exactly what I need.

Take the Shma for example. I’m going to just look at the first line – so much in it. “You shall love the Eternal your God with all your hear heart/mind, with all your soul, with all your might/ strength/ being/ possessions.” So, when I come to it fretting about a person in my life, I hear “you shall love the *eternal your God* – and not a person, so think bigger than so & so and focus on God instead.  When I am uncertain of my next choice of action, I find clarity and simplicity in an instruction to love God and do things that God might approve of. If I find myself depressed and defeated, not feeling like I can get through another day, I see the prayer as hopeful, with an emphasis on the *shall* – not as a command, but as a promise that soon I will be able to. I can simply resonate and celebrate with it, then, when I am feeling positive, hopeful, or optimistic. Yes! I shall love God, and it will be easy to do so!

I turn to the prayer to deal with anger for when I am angry, I remember that I should love God, and the people made in God’s image. It’s a reminder to do tzedaka, for the word m’odekha can be translated as belongings. On the other hand, it can also be translated as physical self or being, reminding me to take good care of my body, for how else can I love God with it? I know, when days are busy, that I need to take time for spirituality – to love God with all my soul. Should I have much work to do – well, mind, body and soul need to be doing it in honour of God, as the prayer says. 

Always, it is a call for balance – too much work, and are you really being loving with all your heart and soul? Take time for study, so that the heart/mind can love God as well. However, don’t spend all day in a library, or your soul and your might don’t get their opportunity to love God. Wherever I am, whatever I’m working on, I can take a second to dedicate it to God, says this prayer. It’s a good reminder, an added spiritual dimension to what I do, and a necessary part of everyday life.

This of course, is just the first line. I can (and have, and do, and will) make the same analysis of each of the others. (In fact, here is a thought for you, my readers and followers – give me your favourite line or prayer in the Siddur, and I will do a blog about it. How cool is that? And no, I’m not smarter than you. If you want to write the blog, I’d be happy to feature it.)

Words – prayers – are fun. That’s why the facebook games of looking at the first line of page 45 of the book closest to you to understand your love life – or putting together your favourite flower and ice cream flavour to find out your magic fairy name (I’d end up being Forget-me-not Sweet cream – try to say that with a straight face) work. Words are powerful and prayers, even more so. As the people of the book, playing with words is our heritage and our destiny. I, for one, intend to embrace it.

Av 4

This is the time of consolation, Tisha B’Av being over and the hefty work of Elul teshuva not yet in full swing (although, of course, you do teshuva all the time, right? I’ll try to be more like that in the future.) It’s also the time when we’re coming home from vacations. It’s been an amazing time of relaxation, of change, of opening up, of expansiveness. That is how I need to find consolation this year. For our vacation, we went camping in the Maritimes. We jumped through ocean waves and walked the ocean floor, hiked through trees, picked wild berries, ate meals overlooking gorgeous vistas of rock and water, saw bears and blue jays, hermit crabs and seals. It was a fantastic, incredible experience, and I loved every minute.

The people were incredible. We made random friends playing in the park and washing dishes. We saw bits of history that made Canada more real and more homey and more funny and more cute. I was connected to my last year of work – and to my childhood memories through forts and historic homes, The interpreters (facilitators? animators? Gosh, I like language in Canada) were interesting and funny and informative.

And God, God was just there. In the waves and vistas, in the berries and fresh local PEI fries (incredible,) in the trees and rocks and water (yay, Canada,) in the bears and hermit crabs, the interpreters and the memories. Each touch, each taste and smell and sight and sound was a little bit of ‘it’s OK.’ There may be things I don’t like in my life and things I feel I can’t handle, there may be challenges and crazy questions, decisions and changes, too much work and too much alone time, too many people and too many responsibilities – but there are also wild blueberries.

A world that has the sun rising over the trees in the morning, that has waves coming up on shore and tiny salamanders – that world is enough. There is enough beauty there to counteract the ugliness of paperwork and broken furniture at work. There is enough stability and continuity to counteract the change that sweeps through my life. There are enough gifts of pure joy to counteract the sneaking suspicion that God gets a kick out of laughing at my trials and tribulations. There is enough in the ocean and the history and the forest and the rocks to say, ‘wow, my problems are tiny.’ This world is fantastic, and I am so, so, so very lucky to have a few short moments now and then in which to enjoy it.

This Av, the world is my consolation, and I will hold the trees and the jays, the bears and the snails, the history and the salamanders in my heart to see me through the challenges of the coming year.

Av 3

When I was little, I went to a Jewish school – but I was completely unobservant at home. We didn’t light candles or eat kosher. We weren’t Shomer Shabbes & I never went to Mikvah. Still haven’t actually – remind me to do so at some point. Once or twice a year, we went to a Shul for holidays. The Shul was, of course, an orthodox one. In fact, the one time we saw some people walking into a nearby Reform Shul, and I asked about them, I was told they weren’t real Jews. “Why, their Shul has a parking lot!” one of the people with me said, with derision. Even then, I noticed something was somewhat odd about all that. I didn’t see why it was better to drive to Shul and park a street or two away, rather than having a parking lot. However, it was explained to me that at least we understood that there were rules, even if we couldn’t follow all of them.

I grew up clear on the concept that I may not go to Shul often but the Shul I didn’t go to was an Orthodox Shul. Then, I fell in love with my wife and I needed a Shul that was all right with that. So, I ended up in a Reform Shul. It was a shock. They had female singers! No one seemed to maintain any of the traditions! The prayerbook had some Hebrew but more English, and the English words weren’t always definitions. There were people there who said words and sang songs with *no* clue what they said. On top of that, while the Rabbi was welcoming, they *still* had trouble with two women being a household (this was 22 years ago.)

Nevertheless, it beat the alternative – being nowhere, religiously. So, we stayed. We found people we could relate to and study with – people who cared for us, and in response, we for them. We learned together, as my partner took a Jewish information class and I learned new tunes and ideas. (The bible wasn’t just given to Moses on a mountain? Are you sure?)

As I stayed, my attitudes changed. They changed again and again and again, and I wasn’t even conscious of them doing so. Sometimes, I found so much to admire in my new-found way of worship. The first time I went up to the Torah and said the blessings, my heart and soul opened and I found myself on an entirely different level of connection with God. It was startlingly beautiful. Sometimes, I laughed at my old ways of thinking – a shul that was exclusionary, that focused on form rather than spirit, that supported prejudice in any way – that became unacceptable to me. Sometimes, I despaired of them ever being the community I wanted. I couldn’t explain why it was a good idea to pray and study weekly to my friends. As my brother chose another direction, and found a modern-Orthodox Shul he was comfortable in, I felt mildly jealous – that could have been me, having people over or being over with the same large group of friends, week after week; prioritising Shabbat, saying blessings at every meal. It was so achingly beautiful too.

Was it possible to have both? Why could I not find tolerance and freedom to grow in the same place as community and strength of scholarship and tradition? Why did opening up have to mean watering down? I was talking to someone new to Reform the other day, and hearing those same opinions I had held 15-20 years ago. The high-pitched singing, the women, the lackadaisical approach to observance, the lack of true community and tradition – these were all so familiar. I realized then and there, however, that in me, enough had changed. I was proud, fiercely proud of where I was. I pointed to the holidays we celebrated together as a family and as a community. I talked about being able to express love for the Torah and for tradition without having to put up with obvious male/female barriers. Our small but mighty study group. Our choir. Our kids, growing up with the morals and knowledge I wanted them to have. I realized this was my home, here in my Reform Jewish community, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of work to do. My brother and I talk about it sometimes. He works to get his community to be more open and more modern – to accept women in more places, to understand why environmental approaches are important, to bring social consciousness into the minds of the people he’s with. Mostly, he does it by his actions – he is a feminist, vegetarian, environmentalist, Orthodox Jew and he’s proud of that.  I try in my own way – to hold holidays with my community, to ask questions about tradition, to participate in and encourage Torah study with the people around me. Mostly, of course, it’s my actions that make the difference – so, I wear my kipa, pray daily, say the blessings at meals, and go to Shul every week, even if that means driving on Shabbat. I am proud to be Reform. I am proud to be traditional. The two are not incompatible – I just have to work at them both.

Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Av is coming up. It’s a day to be sad, to ask ‘what happened’, to think about tragedies. The Temples were destroyed on that day. Many Reform Jews don’t mark Tisha B’Av. They say that while the loss of the Temples was hard, it was necessary to build the Jewish society we have today; one in which Judaism does not include animal sacrifice, strict religious hierarchies, or reliance on place. Others do commemorate it, for it is tragic, and many other tragedies (such as the expulsion from Spain) have been tied to this day as well. We do. We fast and we read ‘Aikha’ (the best translation for that remains WTF, excuse the language, though most people know it as Lamentations.) We sit on the floor and we are miserable. We will, this year too.

That means I have to find a way of connecting to those Jews – the ones that had a Temple, a beautiful, clear-cut way to reach God, with a Holy of Holies, and gold vessels, and many rooms and all sorts of details. I have been studying the building of the Mishkan (not the Temple, but a precursor which gives us ideas) this year, so I still hear God’s instructions about curtain rings in my head. Then, someone destroyed it and it was gone. I find myself thinking about the fall of the Temple and matching it to the castles – the temples – in the air that I have built and that have fallen this year.

Those of us with faith, our castles in the air are temples. If God wills, we add. Relationship temples – “and then we’ll be together forever”, family temples – “holding my baby in my arms”, career temples – “and I’ll be the head of the institute”, security temples – “a nice house, and no mortgage” – we build them and then we decorate them. There are gilded vessels (“that’s me, up there, on the podium”) and many rooms with details, including those blessed curtain rings (“after I get married, we’ll need a house with 4 rooms, so we can have one for each of our 3 future children – no 5, my partner will need a studio…”). There is also a Holy of Holies where we can meet God, after proper preparation, not frequently but maybe once in a while. For me, the Holy of Holies in my life is the Divine peering out of another’s eyes. Sometimes, I can look at someone, be it partner or child, friend or student, and see God and know that our connection really does sanctify and bless the world. That spark is what makes everything worthwhile. It is what turns my castles into temples. I love that moment of connection.

And sometimes, the temple falls. Maybe it is destroyed by an enemy or by a careless army which didn’t even notice me, maybe I tore it down through my own sins and errors, maybe an act of God destroyed it. I try to deny it. “It can be patched,” I proclaim. I am the queen of fixes, of repairs. I can retake that test, we can work out that fight, I can reapply for that position – whatever it is, a bit of mortar here and there, some paint; if the Maccabees did it, why can’t I? Then Tisha B’Av comes, and I have to acknowledge that my beautiful temple is a pile of rubble with one forlorn wall standing. I have to see that it is unsalvageable, that there is no Holy of Holies here anymore for God seems to have left, that wild beasts wander through the plowed fields where once beautiful towers stood. That is the sadness of Tisha B’Av.

The work starts there. I need to do that acknowledgement, admit the grief, celebrate the memories without living in them, and find some way to go on. Maybe, like the Jews, I can reconceive my faith and learn to live in the community where I find myself. Maybe I can find God in other ways. Perhaps in time, I can again find the holiness in someone’s eyes, in a connection I make. For now, there is the heartbreak. It hurts. Over and over, year after year, we acknowledge the pain of broken temples – lost dreams, ended relationships (whether by death or distance,) missed opportunities, failed attempts.

That is a day that needs to be marked. On Tisha B’Av, I do my acceptance work, so that I can start the painful process of consolation and rebuilding that I will need to do through Elul to prepare for a New Year. I cry – a lot – and I let go. It’s all that is left to do.