Monthly Archives: October 2014
Simhat Torah is a time to end and start, a time of cycles, a time when change and continuity meet, spiral each other, and resolve their differences. We repeat the cycle of Torah study, the same way as we have done for so many many years. We look for and discover new ways to see the Torah, new eyes to see it with. So, this seems an opportune moment to share a story of cycles. It was written for a different holy moment, that of making candles between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Still, it is a story of cycles, and appropriate for a day that commemorates learning and Torah study. This story was written for two women in my life, one who taught me the candle making ritual, and one whom I taught it to. Though neither is ordained, these women are among my Rabbis, in the truest sense of the word. They are my teachers and I honour that.
Toyva always loved candle-making. She loved it when she was a tiny girl, loved it with a depth and a strength none could understand. She loved the smell and the wax dripping over her fingers and the extra glow that the light took on. She loved the candles themselves appearing from the chaos and the mess. She loved the feeling of creation that the candles gave her – she was powerful, like God! She could turn nothing – mere bits of melted wax in a big cauldron, little pieces of string – into beautiful, useful candles.
She didn’t think much of the people, though. There was her sister, giggling with some friends about her new husband, her mother fussing, forever fussing. There was her aunt complaining about some ache in her neck or arm and her grandmother who just sat there, not making a single candle. None of them seemed to really care about candle-making.
Toyva jumped with the excitement and joy of it all, only to get hit on the head by her mother’s knuckles. “Don’t you care about the candle-making, Toyva?” her mother said. “Stop jumping and squealing.” Toyva sighed. Her mother didn’t understand anything about her or about candle-making.
It didn’t matter. The candle making was beautiful. She had made a perfect candle – creamy, straight, with a flower petal pressed in when her mother wasn’t looking to give it a beautiful scent.
Toyva was so excited – candle-making was coming up and she always loved candle-making. Candle making was so important. Her papa had picked a groom out for her, and she was going to be married! So, she needed to bless him when she made the candles. This was essential. She’d make a perfect candle – shaped just so. Just right for a new husband’s blessing. She needed God to bless this marriage. She was scared and she wanted to put all that nervousness into her candle, lock it in tight. She wanted to build connection to the family she was leaving too – the candles would do that.
If only her family wasn’t so difficult! Why did her niece have to jump around so? And her mama was straightening out the table cloth. Clearly, the elderly people couldn’t help their sighing and complaining and muttering – but she wished they could. She wanted to focus in on the candle-making that she loved. No one else cared about the actual candle-making.
Toyva went back to picturing her perfect candle and hopefully, her perfect bridegroom. She giggled softly, only to be met by her mother’s disapproving glare. “Don’t you care about the candle-making, Toyva?” her mother said. “Stop giggling and talking.” Toyva sighed. Her mother didn’t understand anything about her or about the candle-making.
Toyva looked at the table, proudly. Her candle-making table was ready, and she was pleased. She always loved candle-making. She hosted it for her whole family – her sister, her nieces and cousins, her aunt, her mother…They all came. It was a big responsibility – making sure the Shul had enough candles, making sure the other people made theirs nicely, and putting her worries, her hopes and her dreams into the one she was making. Her big strapping boy, working hard in Heder, her husband who was a good man, her little girl – such a jumpy scatterbrain! The two babies…two! God bless them, she hadn’t slept in months. And a candle for the little one that never was, the one that she had laid under a shroud before the Rabbis even had a chance to name him. She desperately needed this time to talk to God and get the strength and comfort she needed.
She supervised the table – she had better get everyone settled. “Quiet” she hissed at her nieces and the other young girls. What was it with that age? Always about husbands. What was to giggle about? They get picked for you, you lived with them and that was that. She put both hands on her daughter’s shoulders. “Calm down, Rebecca, love, it’s almost candle-making time” she warned. Maybe next year, she should leave the child with her father? She got her mother and her old aunt cups of tea, and brought another one for her sister. Poor thing, she was getting older, and Toyva could see her back was hurting her – she just wished, a bit, she didn’t have to know. It would be her turn to complain soon, she realized. Well, all of them would go into candles. All of her women and the way she knew them…
“Don’t fuss so, Toyva” her sister fretted at her as she took the tea with a weary thank you. “Try to focus on the candle-making.” Toyva sighed. She wondered why her family couldn’t understand her or the candle-making just a little bit more.
Toyva always loved candle-making. She needed it this year. Her knees hurt and hurt and hurt, and she hated it. She had to walk slower and with more care – and she couldn’t host things any more. Good thing the babies were almost married. She just needed to sit, to be with the wax, to let her hands still create, still, like God’s hands, make the shapes and images and colours come together. All this change, these days! She liked that they pressed on pretty colours of different beeswax lumps, and it was a good idea, really, but she missed the simple white of her beloved candles. Eh, it was still candle-making – still time to talk to God, and ask for just a little more time, a little more strength. She still had a lot to do!
She looked around. Yes, everyone was there. They held it at her niece’s now, and invited a whole lot of friends, but her sister still sat in a corner with the coverlet spread over her knees. Poor mama – she had passed away and was only there in the cemetery and in the candles now. There was her daughter worrying about the baby, and the young girls (some friends’ daughters or others) worrying about their boyfriends. Boyfriends! What was wrong with having a husband picked out for you? It worked for her – didn’t it? The little ones were jumpy and excited. She loved these women. She was glad of candle-making to bring them together. If only they were a little less noisy…the noise gave her headaches.
“Oy, my head!” she muttered, only to see the accusing glares of some of the others. “Auntie thinks more about her head than the candle-making” she overheard. Toyva sighed. They had no idea about anything, these young people. Her, the candle-making, life, anything…
Toyva always loved candle-making. Her hands shook too much to do it any longer, even with the simple sheets of sweet-smelling bees-wax that the children were using. Today, she just sat, with a candle on her lap – it was an old candle, that had lain in a memory chest for many years. She had added wax to fill in the cracks, a while ago when she still could, and now, it lay in her lap as a memory. She dozed a little as she watched the others move around the table. She knew every one of them – their hopes and joys, their worries about their boyfriends or their husbands, their school or their children, their backs and their hair-cuts. She breathed in the scent of the wax and sent blessings to her family for every candle she saw made. She blessed the men, too – the ones who weren’t there because they were playing with the babies, and the ones who weren’t there because age and life had taken them from her. She cried a little over her son, dead from the new cancer that took what the war hadn’t gotten. She cried about all of them, living and dead, memory after memory, cried and smiled, and dozed, watching the busy girls turn wax into candles with God’s power in their hands. Oh, she missed having hands that held God’s power!
But why was Surale crying? Her little one mustn’t cry, mustn’t weep! She wouldn’t tell this to anyone, but Surale was one of her favourites – so full of energy and strength and bounce and joy. She was a pleasure to watch. She called Surale over to talk to her, to hold her and comfort her until the tears stopped. “Mama doesn’t understand about candle-making!” Surale wailed. “I just wanted the light blue wax – I needed it to make the perfect candle.”
“Shhh, shhh, my little one,” whispered Toyva, holding Surale until the tears stopped and the sobs were quiet. “Shhh…” Toyva pressed an old, yellowed candle into Surale’s hands, and ignoring the glares from the women making candles, she whispered, “let me tell you about this candle.”
Have you ever been shopping with a kid? At some point, the kid gets tired and is done with shopping.” I want to go home,” he or she wails. You know, home. That place where there are snacks and toys, smiles and cuddles, where one feels safe and loved. There’s a fuzzy pink cloud surrounding it – the child remembers the good things more than the others, and the smaller the child is, the more ‘home’ seems like a place of safety. After all, the things are familiar and belong to the child and are placed in a known way. The whole layout is comfortable and familiar, not overwhelming. There aren’t too many people there – and the people there love you. It’s a good place, home. No wonder the child cries for it.
Often, we am tempted to agree – or at least I am. ‘I know where you’re coming from, little one,’ I think to myself. ‘If I was less mature and grown up and responsible, I would totally join you in that wail.’ We wish for home when we have those challenging days in the office, or when the commute makes us scream inside, or when the line-up is way too long. Sometimes, even in our houses, when the chores are keeping us up or the bills are piling up or the kids are being overwhelming or we are discussing (never arguing, it’s counterproductive, right?) the kids and the chores and the bills with our partners, we long for that place of security and comfort. “I want to go home,” we wail in our heads, plaintively. No point saying it out loud – we’d be told we are home. But that primal cry – almost a baby’s wail is so fundamental, so much a part of people that I know more than one adult who, in the supposed comfort of her or his house, has said, “I want to go home.”
Oh, we try, even as adults. We have an office that’s all ours – or maybe the car – or at least a bag that no one else is to touch. ‘If I have my bag, then I have my stuff, then I have that feeling of safety.’ Maybe we pick a person instead and know that the love that person offers is our familiar, calm oasis of safety. ‘When I’m with so & so, I’m home’ we think. We defend our ‘home’ as hard as we can – ‘Please stay out of my bedroom.’ ’Don’t touch my purse.’ ‘You can’t leave.’ Those are all the grown-up versions of ‘I want to go home‘ that are culturally sanctioned. It doesn’t always work, of course. The kids wander into the office, or dump the purse upside down, the well-meaning partner pops into your car or your travel bag to put something away, the person you’ve been depending on gets sick or bored or simply leaves. None of the places we, as adults, call home are truly permanent or safe.
And then there’s Sukkot. This is a time when we deliberately move into a house that is NOT permanent, that cannot be permanent or safe or protected. When the house has no door to lock. When the rain WILL come in and so will random neighbours and squirrels, so your stuff won’t be safe. Where we cannot possibly feel at home using any of the ways we’re used to. And then, God tells us to be happy. No, seriously, it’s a rule to be happy on Sukkot. How the heck is that supposed to happen? It feels so much as if God is mocking me again. (One of God’s favourite pastimes, according to me.) ‘Na-na-na, boo-boo – you don’t get a home! And you have to be happy about it!’ That’s what I hear in the ‘leShev BaSukah’ blessing.
And then I remember the praying I had been doing on Yom Kippur, just 4 days later, where I called God my loving Parent – and I get it. (I know, this is obvious. What can I say, I’m slow sometimes.) Because when I’m with God – with that awesome Power that can love me and guide me if I let it – when I can access the love and comfort that God provides, then I have that sense of ease and security that I’ve been looking for. Then, even in a drafty, rainy (but extraordinarily well built and decorated! Yay, family) Sukkah, with no stuff or familiar layout, even in the midst of chores and bills and screaming people – so long as God is there, I am home.
You know what? Writing 29 essays for Elul is something. I start thinking I’m pretty hot stuff, actually. Then, I go to Shul. It’s Rosh HaShanah – and we’re singing Avinu Malkeynu,(our Father, our King) and I’m saying `ki eyn banu ma-asim’, ‘for we have no deeds’ and again, it hits me that I have no real deeds to bring from this year. The things I did are so minor – so small. It’s not the realization of sin that hits me – I’ve been working with sin all month and I know how much I did that I could do better on (tons). No, at Shul, on Rosh HaShanah, it’s the smallness – the flower withering in the grass, the dust speck blowing in the wind – those contents of the other pocket that got me. (You know the Jewish saying involved: Carry two truths in your pockets, “the world is created for me” and “I am but dust and ashes”.)
I work very hard to know as much as I can. I study and practice, I explore and think, I debate and analyse. It’s hard to realize that actually – all my knowledge is that thimbleful compared to the ocean out there. On Rosh HaShanah, that awareness was brought to me, not in a philosophical or intellectual way, but viscerally, immediately, overwhelmingly. I felt the emptiness of my hands as I reached out to God – a whole year of work, and what do I have to show for it? Nothing really. A certificate, some bruises, a few misunderstood words in a foreign language. I can see how much more there was to learn, to do.
There were so many opportunities I missed this year. There were times I surely could have worked a little harder, planned a little better, loved a bit more, focused on God rather than just on me. There were so many times when I could look back and say, “oh, if only I had taken care of that.”
My deeds are not enough to offer. That truth becomes so apparent, so obvious that I can’t hide behind my delusional belief in my own abilities. My abilities were never mine anyways, but gifts from God, so the achievements I have made are only partially mine to claim. So, on Rosh HaShanah, I offer empty hands. I offer broken-ness, and crying, and confusion and lack of answers. I offer what little I did – the certificate of training, the experiences, the mumbled words – even while knowing that it is not, that it cannot be sufficient.
I offer my smallness. “Here I stand, God,” I say, “and my hands are empty before You, and I have nothing better to offer than these empty, open hands.” It is my Avinu Malkeynu prayer. I am always amazed by the fact that despite my smallness, despite hands which remain empty no matter how hard I try to fill them, God continues to put up with me. Year after year, I keep feeling that closeness, that certainty that I am loved. Year after year, God accepts what little I did. Year after year, God takes my empty hands and heart and mind – and God fills them with light.