Monthly Archives: September 2015
I didn’t make all 29 days of Elul this year. I was two short. This adds to my other failings and was one of the things I mentioned, with only a tiny smile, yesterday when I said my confession. I still want to do the two topics though and I was thinking a lot yesterday about God’s gifts; God’s gifts and mine.
Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day marked on the Jewish calendar to say sorry to God. (Saying sorry to people is a separate thing, more important and should be done regularly; Yom Kippur is for those bits we forget to do regularly, as a reminder.) Before the day, people wish each other an easy fast day – really, they don’t mean that you shouldn’t notice the fact that you’re not eating – that it shouldn’t trouble you. That would defeat at least one of the purposes of fasting. They mean that you should have an easy time connecting to God, that the inspiration provided by fasting and praying – the insight into your life should be a clear and easy one.
It was not an easy fast. Some fasts are. I’ve had Yom Kippurs where I’ve gone in strong and come out stronger and more open, ready to face the world with a new tenderness. Some fasts are not. Sometimes, I pray and pray for God to replace my heart of stone with a heart of flesh, to find forgiveness in my heart for all the ways I’ve been hurt just as I want to be forgiven, to put others first. I pray for all the good that Yom Kippur should bring – and all I can think about is the hours until dinner. It is hard to reach that broken, open place on those Yom Kippurs; this year’s was one such.
I was angry and unforgiving, and it took a full day of hard work – hard prayer – to even make the smallest dent in that anger. I was angry at God, among others, because sometimes the questions She asks seem too hard, the challenges She poses too great. No, they don’t compare to Moses or Abraham. I’ve never been asked to free a nation from slavery or sacrifice my child on a mountain. Still, they seem insurmountable to me. And when I ask for help – because it’s what I do when things are too hard; I ask God for help – sometimes, there is no answer.
So, I was thinking yesterday about parenting and gifts. I was thinking that the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a parent is the thing I’m doing this year – giving space. We have moved far away from 3 of my children. I’m not there. I can’t help, most of the time. I can’t give any more concrete gift than my love, whispered again and again over the distance. It feels like the opposite of a gift. It feels like abandonment, cruel and harsh. Yet, they’re doing all right. They’re doing the things they need to do and learning the lessons they have to learn and they’re doing more than they would have if I was there telling them what to do and how to do it. They’re growing up, my babies, and this is a good thing.
It’s a hard gift to give, that of giving space. It’s a letting go that feels so contrary to the wishes of my heart, where I’d rather hold and help, support and sustain. I know it’s essential – that my children need the quiet in which to make their own decisions and find their own answers. I know that they even need to fail if they’re to learn. It’s my job now to give them the space they need. But oh, it’s hard. I want to give them more. It’s hard for me in all relationships – I prefer companionship, closeness, intimacy. If I just give that, however, I can become overwhelming and annoying. So, I must give the space people need and want. It’s a lesson I’m trying to learn, but it makes for long, long, painful Yom Kippurs.
It’s a hard gift to receive too. I’ve never been good at graciously receiving gifts anyway. “Oh, you got me a hideous whatchamacallit that I’ll never use? Why? I mean – oh, how nice, thank you for the lovely gift, it’s the thought that counts.” Receiving space – well, I’m not big on being abandoned. I want to scream, “I’m not ready, God. I still need support. I still need to be held. I still need answers to those questions I ask over and over again when confusion seems to overwhelm me.” How is this a gift? What is the difference between this and the complete abandonment it feels like?
It took me most of the day to feel the difference, to hear the whispered love that God was sending me again and again over the distance. It was not until Neila (the final service at the end of the day, where we ask for one last chance to pray rightly and have our prayers be accepted that day) that I saw the shape of God’s gift. This wasn’t an empty space God was giving me, this was a space full of quiet love and listening; the same kind I give my kids. There was assurance in that space and comfort, if I could access it. I wasn’t being abandoned, I was being asked to grow. This did not make it any easier – I still think it’s cruel and harsh and I’m not ready, actually – it was a hard fast. It helped, though, just a bit, to let me forgive some of my anger at God and others, to let me ask for forgiveness, at least in my heart, for all the times I haven’t given space when it’s been asked for or given it when closeness has been needed. I am not perfect so I can’t know the best time to give space or closeness like God can. All I can do is try and believe as hard as I can that God, at least, is doing it right.
I prayed all of yesterday for the grace to accept God’s gifts. Maybe I can learn to forgive and to live with the world I have. I have a lot further to go. I will spend this year learning how to give and receive space. Hopefully, like God, I can shape my silence, so that the love within it can be felt and heard; so that those whose questions I don’t answer realize that I am not abandoning them, I’m offering a gift. Maybe, next year, if I do it well, I will have an easy fast – but if not, maybe it will be once again a meaningful one.
I bless you for a sweet new year, one full of promises fulfilled. May your heart be strengthened through courage and love. May your mind be filled with questions and ideas. May your body remain healthy and strong, able to accomplish what you ask of it. May your presence – your words, your ideas, your actions, just your being there – may all of it be a blessing to others. May you find comfort and serenity in your life. May your actions be successful – may this year be a gainful one for you financially. May you be free from hunger and loneliness.
May you find purpose. May the work you do transform the world around you. May it be meaningful and more than just a way to earn an income. May it be a life, not just a livelihood. If you are studying, may you learn well enough to use what you learn successfully and gainfully. May your footprint on earth be a gentle one, one that contributes to the well-being of all that is..
May you enjoy the world around you the way you wish to. If you want to travel, may you travel. If you want to find a home, may you find one. If you want change, may the parts of your life that need changing undergo profound transformation. If you want stability, may you find traditions that work for you and help keep you sane.
May you get enough sleep. And for those that think this is a small blessing compared to the others, congratulations, and don’t visit me first thing in the morning after one of *those* nights. May your life be free enough from stress and worry that sleep is possible. May you have time enough for all that you want to accomplish, and a comfortable place to rest. May you have the people in your life to fill in when you just can’t, to hold you should you need help.
Maybe I’m quoting here. There is a song Cradle Song by Shriekback, which in itself comes from older folkloric sources, that I just love. It’s a haunting blessing song, and I’ve copied the last few lines, because it says the right stuff:
May you hold to your truth
As you walk the dark night of unreason
The stone walls which surround us – may your spirit fly round them
Like the wind from the sea…
May the fire be your friend and the sea rock you gently,
May the moon light your way – till the wind sets you free
May you never know hunger: may you love with a full heart –
The light stay in your eyes…
May the fire be your friend and the sea rock you gently,
May the moon light your way – till the wind sets you free
Or maybe it’s the Irish blessing I’m quoting:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Both blessings make me think of my little ones, now not so little. Some of them are far away from me this Rosh HaShanah and it’s hard not to want to hug them and bless them and hold them.
Eh, maybe it’s just the way blessings are, full of our desires for ourselves and for each other. So I send blessings, both to the kids and to everyone. I bless you. This year may you pray with sincerity and act with kindness. This year, may you sing, freely and often, and be strong enough and be full enough to bless others. This year, may you break through any limits that keep you from achieving your dreams. May you succeed. May you dream. May you love. May you live. May you be.
I’ve been thinking about creation quite a bit, because there’s this blog, and I’ve been writing, and writing is a form of creation, so I’ve been creating stories and essays. That makes me a creator, I guess. Oh, not like God. Who created the whole universe in 7 days. As opposed to me, who takes 7 days to create a math worksheet. God does it better, you know? Still, I create. I make new things that weren’t there before exist. I bring them into the universe and change the fabric of the world around me just the teeniest bit with my writing.
I think it’s amazing, really, that we have the power to create. We take the most simple things – little sounds made by striking things on other things, marks left by one material on another, strings that tie up together – and we turn them into music, painting, writing, weaving, sewing, and so on. We seem driven to do this, to put the Lego pieces of the universe together. Each time we do, we transform the universe.
It took me a while to realize what I could create. It’s not always obvious. For a long time, I figured that I was simply not creative. I always did better in the maths than in the arts after all. I was a left-brain (that’s how science used to describe things as I grew up,) analytical, systematic sort of person, and while I could construct following a set of instructions, I couldn’t create. Over time, however, I saw tons of ways in which I could and did act creatively, and wondered how I could have missed it.
First, even the most basic tasks are tiny creations – when I clean, I create order out of chaos, beauty out of mess. Then, something properly constructed according to plan *is* a creation – it takes skill to put it together and makes me a collaborator with the person who made the plan. So, when I cross-stitch, put a math formula together, play a board game – these are creative activities too. I also create with words. It looks like my brain has both halves after all, because I can certainly put words together to present ideas. Finally, I create with people. I build friendship and family, relationships and loving connections. That’s part of the point of my writing, and anything else that I do too.
It’s a big responsibility. Oh, I realize I’m writing primarily for myself. My readership is 6 people and a dog (and that guy in Spain – I don’t know who you are, but keep reading; you make my stats page more interesting). Nevertheless, I made a commitment to those people that I would create – and so I must, and must attempt to do a decent job.
Sometimes, I don’t. I fritter away that ability to create. Instead of putting words together to make a beautiful new part of the universe, I consume – I sit back, and enjoy other people’s creations, not as an active participant but as a passive receiver. It’s tempting, because it’s easier. There’s no responsibility, no chance of doing a lousy job, no chance of disappointing those who are expecting my creation to be good. It’s a trap, though, because I do have that responsibility, and when I just consume, I am automatically failing at what I’m supposed to be doing; I’m automatically disappointing those expecting more from me.
The only way out of that trap is to accept the mantle of a creator, and to realize that the point isn’t to do it perfectly, it’s just to do. Flowers and people aren’t perfectly symmetrical – they have differences and blemishes, and we appreciate that. If God can get away with being an imperfect creator – well, so can I. I don’t need to just be another consumer; the world has enough of those. Together, God and I, we will continue to create and transform the universe for the better.
I’ve never trusted intentions. I kind of agree with that saying about the road to hell being paved with them. Seriously, the number of students I have who totally intended to get all their homework done and to really study before that test can only be matched by the number of times I earnestly intended to accomplish something important, and then didn’t.
And that’s just people who don’t fulfil their intentions. It’s even worse when well-intentioned people do the cruelest things just because they think their intentions let them get away with it. Ugly things get said and done with the phrase “it’s for your own good” thrown in. Without being aware of the consequences of the actions one takes, one runs the risk of seriously hurting someone in the name of helping out. Psychological studies have been done that show most people are well-intentioned and have perfectly good explanations for the things they do – even when those things are truly horrible. It seems that people don’t go around saying, “how can I be a real evil, no-good, scumbag and hurt others?” Many people have lovely, positive intentions for all that they do.
In Judaism, there is more of an emphasis on proper action. One way I would explain the difference between Judaism and Christianity to those who asked me (when I was young and thought I knew stuff and didn’t have as much of an understanding of the consequences of actions or good intentions) was that in Christianity, one is asked to love aunt Sadie. In Judaism, one is asked to act in certain appropriate (and there are books that spell it out) ways with aunt Sadie, whether one loves her or not. This is, I have since realized, about as accurate as explaining the difference between Canada and the US by saying that Canadians say “eh” and Americans say “youse”. However, it does touch on the Kavanna (intention) versus Keva (action) debate, that the Rabbis have had such fun with.
We all agree that best would be to have both. If you act in good ways and you have good intention, bingo, you win! The question is, in an imperfect world, what does one focus on? Both have issues – Keva without Kavanna is like body without soul, says one Rabbi. And as for Kavanna without Keva – well, the road to hell continues to be paved with that! Society veers one way, then the other. Sometimes, everyone focuses on form and laws are written and expanded upon and clarified and codified. Over time, the laws take over, and bureaucracy rules, and find themselves stifled and limited. There are those who take advantage, and find loopholes and do horrible things which are technically within the letter of the law. So people break away, throw out all the laws, put flowers in their hair and dance freely through the streets, which works really well until one realizes that no one is washing the dishes and no one is being safe and just as many horrible things are being done in the name of love as were being done in the name of law. So, someone draws up a chore chart to let the dishes get done and puts in a few rules and slowly those rules build up into law and society veers the other way again.
There is no way to succeed without both. I want to scream that sometimes at the politicians currently trying to convince us that they are either well-intentioned and will help us live in a lovelier place or that they are serious about good law and government and will help keep us functional and safe. Both, people, I want both!
I’m big on order. I like my traditions, and I’m happy with the same thing happening day after day, so if I had to make a choice, I’d say I’m more on the rules and laws side of this fence. Nevertheless, I recognize the importance of acting whole-heartedly. So, I try to act more on the side of intention. I hope to one day achieve that balance of action and intention that actually means I’m doing it right.
We interrupt this blog post for a happy announcement: My kid is learning to read! (My youngest – my older kids are learning fun things too.) It’s amazing. Just seeing that expression when a kid realizes that the letters in a word can be put together into words and the words can be put together into a story and stories are fun and there’s so much that she can do now that she couldn’t before and…it’s magic.
Mostly, the world has a lot of ordinary stuff in it – tasks to do and things to clean, people to take care of and children to teach and I do them and then there’s more of them and life goes on. Magic is rare. It wakes up a part of me that mostly, stays a sleep. It could be a kid that actually gets something I’ve been nattering about for days. Maybe I’m enjoying a beautiful summer day. Possibly, I’ve mastered something new, or completed something difficult. These are all possibilities for magic moments.
The ones the kids bring – well, they’re my favourite. All the crustiness of the everyday melts away, to be filled with tenderness, with hope, with excitement and wonder. Kids see more magic, they know it better and they are the ones who make it happen. Especially when they learn. That’s the reason I teach, you know – to allow the magic that is learning to happen. You can see it. Their faces glow, they speak faster, the excitement is huge, and there’s no stopping a kid who’s in that learning groove, gaining ideas one by one. Something complicated becomes simple, something that held no meaning becomes clear, something impossible now seems not only doable but fun.
When they do, my body responds – I get hugely excited, I glow, I speak faster. It’s happy making and I know that magic just happened.
It doesn’t happen all that frequently. There’s a lot of head pounding, explaining things again and again, looking at it from other perspectives. There’s the pain of failure, and frustration and the desire to give up. (This is a bad one. It’s hard to fight the “I can’t, I won’t and I don’t wanna” goblins. I hate that more than any actual difficulty. I fight it with all that I have – prizes and treats, stickers and smiles, force and determination. I say, whisper, scream and push “you can, you will, and someday, you’re going to wanna”. ) The pace is slower than molasses in January. Mostly, my teaching is a lot of hope balled up together with positive thoughts and wishes. I think up of new and creative ways to present concepts. I give examples and practice opportunities. I ask questions, I show things, I explain, and I hope like crazy they get it. If they don’t, I cope with that and smile a bit and do it again, hoping that this time…
And then they do. They understand a thing and all of a sudden, my hopes get fulfilled, the lightbulbs go off, magic happens. I love that.
This Elul, my focus seems to be on things I’m doing less than well, and how I can improve on what I do and move closer towards a goal of being closer to God, to who I want to be. So, when I saw the word ‘begin’, instead of thinking of all the wonderful things that are beginning – from school to shul, from family growth to personal, I thought of all the things that needed doing that I haven’t even started yet. There is so much more to do! There are courses and blogs to write, people to invite to things, areas to clean and organize…the list seems endless.
I really should just begin. I should start somewhere and continue on working until I finish, but above all, I should start. I don’t, though. I discover hundreds of tiny ways to avoid doing the next thing, from open time wasters like computer games that accomplish nothing to secret time wasters like sorting the pens by size and lid colour. I swear I’ll stop procrastinating one of these days – maybe tomorrow…
It’s amazing how many things I’ll get to tomorrow. I’m going to be way more efficient, not waste any time and just start all the things that need to happen, one by one. I’m going to balance them all and divide them into small manageable portions and tackle them with vim and vigour, and of course, none of it will overwhelm me – tomorrow.
It can actually be physically painful to make myself start doing something I don’t want to. Every pore of my body and every thought in my head join in to fight the starting, to distract me. The busywork starts seeming very necessary. The need for a rest is evident. I simply can’t – it’s impossible for me to start this today. Surely, you can see that? It’s impossible!
Oddly, once started, the work itself isn’t bad. I’m good at writing and inviting, organizing and all those other things I simply need to focus on and get done. I may be slow as molasses in January, but I keep plowing forward, and sooner or later the work gets done. Usually, it’s even something I enjoy – a lot of the tasks in my life are tasks I like to do. I love writing, for example. I like the doing. I like completing – I like the feeling of success when I’m finished. The starting, on the other hand – that’s an uphill climb every time.
Why this reluctance? Is it that I am fundamentally lazy and think I won’t have to do it if I just keep from starting it? Is it that I’m a lump and just don’t want to move? Is it a short-circuit of the brain, that when things get too much, the brain shuts down and I can’t think past “pretty bubbles – pop the pretty bubbles”? Is it that I prefer to sabotage my every effort than admit that I can’t actually do all that and I’m better off with less? Frankly, I have no idea, but there’s a key word somewhere in here – fear. It comes down to fear, I guess. Starting stuff is scary. It’s new. What if I do it all wrong? What if I do it well and then can’t again? What if a bear eats me because I went and got off the couch? It’s just not safe to do anything big and new and scary! Sorting pens is safer.
Mostly, I try to trick myself into starting. I offer prizes for overcoming laziness and inertia. I write lists of tiny tasks to circumvent the inertia and I tell myself (often) that I’m doing fine as a way to limit the fear. Sometimes, however, if I can recognize the fear and look at it and make friends with it and laugh at it – then that seems to be the start, and once I’ve started – well, frankly, I’m a-ok. I can keep going and be successful. It’s just that looking at fear – well, who wants to begin with *that*?
Things end. Good things, beautiful things, things I really enjoy. Things that are good. Relationships, people, places to live in, all of it ends. It’s part of the changing nature of the universe. But it is hard on us. It makes the work we do seem so meaningless. What is the point of all the dishes? They just get dirty again. It’s all futile. In Kohelet, (Ecclesiastes) everything is described as hevel – a breath, a bit of air, nothingness, nonsense. It is the name of the first man murdered, according to the bible, since Abel has the same root. What’s the point of life, his name asks, if you can just be murdered at any point?
Things end, and I hate it. I clutch on to them with both hands, both feet and anything else. It can’t end! This can be salvaged, repaired, resuscitated. The problem is that refusing to accept an end – that’s one way to make a mistake according to the Jewish faith. That’s a way to do it wrong, or, if one accepts the Jewish definition of sin, to miss the target. It’s good to care for the way things are, if you’re Jewish. It’s good to love that and hold on to that, to cherish it and protect it. We are a religion of tradition and continuity, of preservation and safe-guarding. So, holding on is good – it’s an excellent target. However, if it is overdone – if one refuses to acknowledge the hevel, one can find oneself shooting a bit off-target, missing the mark and so, sinning.
Because it’s easy to get stuck. There’s a story about a boy that I read to my students last year – all he wanted to do was to build a snowman. It wasn’t effective, however, because that year was unseasonably warm and there was no snow where he was, month after month. He hadn’t been OK with there being no snow – with that particular end of a pattern of snow in winter. So, he tried to make snowmen out of inappropriate materials – like covering his sister with icing sugar or dumping hundreds of Styrofoam packing peanuts on the lawn and attempting to build with them. He got in trouble, not because there’s anything wrong with wanting to build a snowman but because it was impossible to do so right then and there and he had gotten so stuck that he was missing the mark.
The results can get ugly. This particular kid, when praised for the beautiful snowman he drew got so frustrated that it wasn’t the real thing that he tore his artwork into a bunch of tiny pieces. He didn’t even hear or recognize the praise he had gotten, because his head was full of the impossible, of something that had ended.
What I noticed, however, wasn’t these obvious ways he was missing the mark but the fact that the illustrator had carefully put in another problem with refusing to accept endings into the pictures that wasn’t in the story. Somewhere in the background, there were always kids having fun in other ways, from playing with fall leaves, to baking together, from playing board games to enjoying art. He could see none of that, he could participate in none of it because he was too busy holding on to the snowman he wanted. It ruined his snowman-making of the past, too. Those memories began to be filled with frustration and bitterness, instead of happy thoughts and positive nostalgia.
Endings are needed, much as I hate them, because they make way for beginnings. The year ends so a new one begins. My time in one place ends, so I can learn to live in a new place. An idea, a way of functioning must end so we can have space for a new thought or idea. This is not easy or fun – or always clear: is this a time to hold on to tradition, to be stubborn and persist, to repair? Or is this a time to let go and move on? Because while Kohelet is right and there’s a time for everything, he doesn’t necessarily say how to know what that time is.
So far, for me, there are no obvious answers. I’m a holder-on. I err on the side of tradition, if I can. I know I sometimes miss the mark when I do so. I think that the key is awareness – paying attention to the hints that the world is presenting. The reason I liked the snowman story is because the hint was nice and simple and obvious – there was no snow. One should not be focusing on snowmen when there is no snow. Simple. Most of the time, the hints are more subtle, and it’s harder to know whether this is an obstacle one can jump or a reason to turn back.
I am trying to listen to God – in whatever shape She chooses to tell me – for when it’s time to allow an ending. Through nature, through people, through my feelings, God (or intuition or whatever you will) communicates ending and I know I need to accept. The trick is to do so gracefully. Mostly, the best I can manage this Elul is to acknowledge how often I miss the mark, and try to turn away from those behaviours, to do teshuvah towards a path that includes paying attention to forks in the road and letting go of the ones that I pass and can’t take.
Love – it rocks. No, seriously, looking at someone and knowing they love you and seeing that love shine from their eyes and get reflected back from mine, it’s awesome. It adds colour to a black-and-white world, and gives everything an added dimension of wow. It changes the appearance of everything – all of a sudden, wrinkles become laugh lines and skin splotches become birth marks and everyone looks beautiful.
It’s like that children’s story I was told as a kid – “the most beautiful woman”. So, the town was having a party and everyone gathered at the park to enjoy the town picnic. As kids do, little Tanya wandered very far from her mama, got lost, and she was very small – just three, and having just learned what words are all about. She found a grown-up and said she was looking for her mama, whose name was Marsha. This wasn’t very helpful, of course, in that 80% of the women in that town had the name Marsha. The adults asked about her mama and she said that mama was very pretty – prettiest in town. Then she burst into tears and they could get no more out of her. ‘Pretty Marsha’ was found – but it was not her kid. Nor was it ‘Tall Marsha’s’, ‘Plump Marsha’s’, ‘Young Marsha’s’ ‘Sweet Marsha’s’ or any other Marsha that the townsfolk could think of. Then a woman hesitantly walked up and said, ‘have you seen my daughter? We were in the fields and…’ It was ‘Ugly Marsha’, known as the most homely woman in that town, who generally stayed on the sidelines. ‘There she is,’ said Tanya! ‘Prettiest mama in town.’ That’s what love does.
Sometimes it stinks. It hurts to love someone and not have that love returned. It can rob everything else of flavour. It can cause people to do silly things that are unhealthy or dangerous. It can lead to tears and explosions, broken things and broken hearts. Even when everything seems to work, love hovers near obsession and possessiveness, jealousy and manipulation. Making sure that one is on the right side of that thin line is not simple. You can try to ignore the negative stuff but it sneaks in.
It’s not a four-letter word for nothing, you know! I’ve heard so many people weigh in on what it means and when it’s appropriate to use it and to whom, that it’s become almost meaningless. I’ve been told to take it lightly, to make it real, to give it my all, to be careful with it, to embrace it wholeheartedly, to make it casual, to treat it lightly, and to treat it with care. I’ve been told just about everything.
Rationally, love makes only a limited amount of sense. We do not pick a beloved because she’ll be the most useful, productive, intelligent, compatible, caring person we know. We pick someone we love. There is no real good reason for us to love our siblings, our kids or our parents – we just love. Of course, there are those who say that that love is a complex collection of hormones designed to ensure we have a compatible physical mate and an adrenaline based reaction that ensures the propagation of the species. To me, this is a cheap answer – one that doesn’t address all the complexities of emotion, that doesn’t inform, and most importantly – that guides poorly. The thing about love is that it just is.
And I believe in it. For better or worse, in sickness and health, I believe we love, and we should love. I work hard to put love at the top of my reasons for behaving a particular way. I think it’s worth dedicating oneself to love, and looking at actions and asking, “will this increase the amount of loving there is in the world?” I believe in excited first-blush-of-discovery love and tender kiss-on-your-little-head love, and painful the-whole-world-is-a-void love, and all the other loves big and little in the world.
I won’t give up on love. I’m going to keep doing whatever it takes to make those connections happen. For those times when love rocks, I will give it all I’ve got and all I am. Loving someone takes precedence over getting work done, over any other activity. In fact, I try (mostly I fail) to have it inspire those activities – why am I working on this project? Because I love doing it, or because I love so&so and it will make her happy, or because I love myself and it will make me healthier or happier.
I think if I was going to make a religion, that would be the one word I’d use in it. “Love.” I know. It’s tired. It’s overused. It’s boring. Blah, blah, blah, love your neighbour, blah – but then, let it in and it’s crystal clear and funny and beautiful. “Love your neighbour. Love yourself. Love anyone. Love.” It’s worth it.
I had forgotten. When I was a little girl, I saw the babies with the distended stomachs in various distant countries on TV and it made me really sad and I wanted to give them all my porridge. (Showing pictures of starving children in distant countries is *not* a good way to get someone to eat their porridge. I wouldn’t touch it and kept insisting it be sent right away to the starving children in question.) After that, I grew up and the images affected me less. I realized things like political realities, limited resources, interference with self-determination, and the fact that porridge could not be sent through the mail.
So when I saw the little refugee kid who had drowned, my first response was exactly that. “Well, Canada cannot take in every person in the world,” I thought. “Resources are limited. There are real reasons why this child’s country and surrounding area were so politically messed up that he died, and I can’t change them. The parents should have done something differently. After all, my parents brought me to Canada. Porridge can’t be mailed. A single person can’t help.”
I read the news, I saw the controversies, I thought about all the things that people were doing and not doing, I had reasoned opinions, I even thought about stuff to write – and then all of a sudden the words, “how dare you?” came in to my head and stayed there. How dare I? How dare I think that I was smarter than that little girl that knew that starving kids is a sad, bad thing? How dare I not be affected by a baby dying from drowning? How dare I not give all I could to this situation? I had better be trying to do something! Maybe porridge can’t be mailed, but there are so many things that could, from cards to petitions, from money to letters. That girl – she knew, right away, instinctively that it was not OK for little kids to die because they had no place to be and no food to eat. She knew that. How on earth could I have forgotten?
Judaism has a lot about welcome. Being welcoming is the not only a Jewish virtue, but considered one of the key ones. Many days in service, after saying the blessing for Torah study, we say “and these are the deeds whose benefits are both for this world and the next, the ones we should pay attention to” and in that list is welcoming. So, we have to find some way of welcoming strangers.
We cannot say, “this is not our problem.” Judaism is clear about that. As non-starving reasonably all right residents of a wealthy country that benefits from the resources and labour of other lands, we must share in the responsibility – not only for that drowned boy, but for those pictures of starving children that so affected me when I was little.
Will I tell you what to do to fix the situation? No. The best I can suggest is, “do not mail cooked porridge – it is not effective.” I don’t have answers as to the best way to handle any political situation. My political acumen is so miniscule as to be laughable. I don’t have much time or money to give much more than I already do. Still, I do know something must be done. I know that I need to be affected by tear-jerker pictures no matter how cynical about them I’ve become. I think we all do. All of us need to look at those images and be affected and let them bother us. Whether it’s through private sponsorship or the way we vote, volunteering or letters and petitions, we need to do the right thing, the Jewish thing, the welcoming thing. Maybe she could do nothing sensible, that kid I used to be, but at least in her expression of horror, she was on the right track. This Elul is a good time to get back on that track, to return.
I just want to say how nice it is when people don’t. Judge, that is. I know this one is obvious, and yet it isn’t. We all judge. We have to. There are billions of decisions to make each day, from the tiny and utterly unimportant (which sock should put on first, the left or the right?) to the life-changing and essential ones. (Which city should I live in? Which person should I marry? Where should my kids go to school?) Those decisions require us to judge – to decide not only our preferences but also our opinions of other people and their preferences.
So, we judge – and sometimes, we only have a few minutes to make our opinion. What? That person talks slowly, stutters, and takes a long time to figure out what to say? She’s probably not very bright. This other one reacted with a smile and asked “can I help you”. He’s likely to be a kind person. Here’s someone yelling and throwing things – she’s an aggressive person with difficulties controlling herself. We have to make these decisions, because if I need assistance, I’m more likely to go to the smiling person asking “can I help you?” than the person throwing things or the one stuttering. Of course, we can be wrong. Maybe the stutterer is an autistic genius, the person saying “can I help you” is smiling because he can see you’re weak and he wants to take advantage of you, and the person throwing things is angry at a criminal who just stole your purse. Still, we need to make decisions and we do.
That’s expected – although for the parent of the brilliant but stuttering child or the aggressive but justice oriented child, it can be utterly heart-breaking. There are many people who decide such children are slow or bad, when actually they’re lovely people who just have different ways of doing things. Often, these people are teachers or advocates for the child, and their decision has huge life changing effects on the child’s future. It’s hard when a kid is dumped into a “bad kids” classroom (by whatever name one is sugar-coating it these days), or kept out of certain programs. It’s hard when teachers expect less from a kid or other kids tease and ignore. It’s hard when there are no aids or supports that would make it possible for the child’s actual brilliance and caring to shine through.
So, when one finds a person who doesn’t judge harshly, who wears rose-coloured glasses and sees us all as good people, it’s pretty special. Such a person assumes that the stutterer is a brilliant kid who needs help with speech and that the supposed bully is someone kind who needs clear routines and limits and guidelines. (Of course, the other kids around need to be kept safe – that goes without saying. There is just more than one way to accomplish that.) Such a person finds a way to include everyone and bring those traits out. Even if the bully is mean, she probably has a nice streak somewhere – most kids do. Even if a child is delayed in an area, there is probably something he can excel at – most kids can. Such a person is a treasure, a true mensch, someone who sees people the way that God intended us to see them. Of course this person is acting according to some of the better tenets of Judaism. In the Pirke Avot, Rabbi Joshua ben Perachya is quoted as saying: “…judge everyone favorably.” Maimonides, explains: each person is believed to have goodness within them, and anyone who judges is obliged to look for that goodness. Teachers and religious leaders judge.
So, it’s a blessing when they don’t, or rather, when they judge everyone favourably. My kids can occasionally require a great deal of favourable judgement. I have kids who could be described on alternate days (and as alternate kids) as sweet or nasty, super-slow or super-fast, brilliant or struggling with learning, friendly or anti-social. When I find a community where my kids can fit in, it’s a god-send. I am so happy to say that the Jewish community has been there again and again. In two different Shuls (yay, Temple Iyr HaMelech in Kingston and Temple Emmanu-El Beth Shalom in Montreal) and counting have my little ones been accepted, included and welcomed. There, I have rarely had to face that heartbreaking moment when I know as a parent that my children have been judged, and harshly at that. There are schools on both sides of the judgement question. There are afterschool activities on both sides. (Again, yay, for amazing piano teachers.)
I am nowhere near that much of a mensch. In my head, I form opinions about the children I teach and the strengths they can bring to the table. The best I can do is apply a filter between my brain and my mouth. However, I’m sure some of those opinions show! I try. I make a concerted, daily effort to judge everyone as good. This has ended me up in some bizarre and rather fascinating situations, in fact, but I have never regretted it. It’s a character trait worth developing, and one that, when I see it in others, is worth admiring.