Monthly Archives: August 2017

Elul 4 – Choose

Bible story time:

“I suppose it was a choice when he came for me. I suppose I could have said ‘no’. He was offering light work and enough to eat, comfortable housing and better situations, not just for me, but for my family. He was threatening to make our lives miserable if I said ‘no’. Still, I had a choice and I could have said ‘no’. I didn’t. I chose peace and wealth and comfort and life and said yes, and went to live with him. After, they said he killed my husband or committed adultery with me. After, they said he was the very man Moses killed. Mostly, though, this was the choice I made. I did what I could with it. I was a voice for care and restraint in the Egyptian’s house, and many a slave lived because of a word I said here or there. Was it the wrong choice? You can judge all you want. You weren’t there, you weren’t young, you weren’t threatened. I was, and I made the choice.

I made other choices too. I chose to keep my baby, to raise him as an Egyptian noble, to give him the best life had to offer. He was my gift, my compensation. I called him Matani, because he was my gift. I didn’t send him away to live in the fields with grandparents. It wasn’t safe for him in the fields – sometimes, Jewish boys got killed and I wanted my son to live. So, I raised him to fit with his community, to know what he needed to be a good Egyptian boy and man. I did teach him the law of God – of course I did – but it was secret and quiet and whispered, and what boy listens closely to the whispered instructions of his mother? I made a choice to have him be alive, and happy and taken care of. How could that have been the wrong choice? It was the same one Joheved made for Moses and you don’t condemn her.

I could have stayed in Egypt, I suppose. Again, though, I wanted life for my son, and being an Egyptian first born was unhealthy at the time. I fled the plagues with my son to my parents’ home. I tried to fit back in. I tried to help my son fit in. We worked hard to be part of the community. Matani joined the other young men of our tribe and family, and we did what we could to be part of the family of Dibri.

It wasn’t easy – our family isn’t the Dibri (chatty) family for nothing. All of us like to talk, and Matani had a hard time with finding the right things to say. When he expressed dismay or confusion around elements of his new life, it just led to anger on the part of the others. I used my ability to talk to negotiate, to make agreements between people, to build peace (it’s my name after all). I became an accepted community member, and even had enough of a role that my name was known – and not many women’s names were.

Not Matani, though. His tongue caused nothing but trouble. There were many disagreements, many fights. Even then, you say, I had choices. I could have told him to lay low and to be quiet, to wait it out and hold his peace.  I tried – but you are probably right, there’s probably more I could have said. I am certain you were the perfect parent with your children.

I was determined that we would make it, mind you. After Sinai, Matani fought less and listened more. He joined in to the family activities and he even met someone and married. I was so happy when I heard that I had a grandson!   Surely those choices – the ones filled with tears and anguish, the ones where there really was no good way to turn – surely they were behind me now.

It was not to be. The people of Dan, the whole of the children of Israel couldn’t handle one small part-Jewish family settling in their midst. All of a sudden, everywhere they tried to be it was “you can’t live here, you aren’t one of us, go away.” Even Moses ruled against Matani. Matani so wanted a decent life for himself and his son – why couldn’t they just have let him have that? I started careful, quiet negotiations to fix the situation – but Matani was impetuous and his anger just kept growing. Well, you know what happened next. Matani got into one fight too many and said one thing too many. He cursed God in anger and he was arrested and stoned on God’s orders.

If God wanted me to pay for my poor choices, I could understand. But they were mine! Not Matani’s. Not his wife’s. Not my little grandson’s. I spent my life trying to keep him alive – to keep him safe; and it was to no avail. It makes me want to scream at God – then they can stone me, and I’ll be with my son, instead of in this lonely harsh desert with these lonely harsh people and this lonely harsh faith.

I refuse to give up, though. I have a grandson, young Kolel, and I intend for him to have the safety and success I couldn’t give his father. Kolel’s mother has nowhere to go – she too is someone who people don’t accept because of family – many came from Egypt when we left and not all of those were born to a tribe.

You will probably find it ironic that she and Kolel have been offered a tent among the tents of Dan. The shamefaced person who told us so can keep his apologetic mumblings. I do know how to negotiate and at this point, I will use that guilt, I will use anything I can to build the life for Kolel that his father could not have. I will teach him to negotiate, to speak softly and persuasively, and I will teach his mother, too, and together, we will carve out a niche for ourselves in this tribe, in this family. I am Shelomit, daughter of Dibri in the tribe of Dan, and neither I, nor my family, will be forgotten, abused, neglected. We will even make God accept us. That is my choice, as it has always been. I choose life.

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Elul 3 – Prepare

When I saw that word, I thought of cooking. Because my wife – she cooks really yummy stuff, and she can do it by waving a magic want over the kitchen and whipping something up. My housemate, she too can make amazing things by noticing 3 leftovers and a piece of dry bread, and turning it into dinner. Not me. For me, cooking is a painstaking process, involving carefully finding a recipe, getting the ingredients, making the substitutions (hey, what’s cooking without a bit of creativity), chopping and preparing all the ingredients and only then starting the cooking process. Rather than being something I can whip up in 30 minutes based on whatever random ingredients got left in the fridge, I require hours upon hours in order to make the most basic meal.

I always thought this made me a very bad cook, and under certain circumstances, maybe it does. However, people have been telling me I cook well – this shocks me. How is this true, what does it mean and how am I to take it? Well, I can live with the idea that I cook well – just differently from others. It may not be the best approach to a busy family, but may be adequate as a way of getting a dinner made every now and again.

Of course this brings us to the soul-search that we’re supposed to be doing this month. Some people can just do it. They naturally feel the inclination to do the right thing. They snatch the baby out of the burning building, jump into the raging torrent to rescue the drowning man, and get the cat out of the tree, all with a smile. Not me. My natural inclination is for reading trashy novels, playing video games and snacking on potato chips. I can’t rely on natural inclination. I need a recipe (the Torah), ingredients, a method, a plan. It will take me a while, and I will need to break the steps involved down if I want to get anywhere.

So, I am preparing to prepare. It is why I blog Elul, really. I put in all the prep, so that I carefully, slowly, painstakingly and with much effort start myself on the path of Teshuva again. I haltingly accept that this doesn’t make me a bad person, just one with different abilities and different needs. If I need more preparation, I need more preparation; but the meal can still be a tasty one, and the year can still be a fulfilling one, lived according to God’s recipe.

Elul 2 – Search

Sometimes, my students have trouble finding the answer to a word problem. ‘I can’t find “x”,’ they tell me. Sometimes, if I’m feeling sarcastic, I answer “look under the table, maybe it’s there.” Usually, I’m much nicer, however, and help them walk through the steps of finding the answer to this kind of problem. Because usually, there’s a method. There are steps and if you follow the steps, you get a lovely answer. Even if there are no steps, there is a general approach – draw a diagram, identify the variables, look through the notes, ask for help, do some guess and checking – you need never just sit there! That’s why I get sarcastic – sometimes, my students haven’t tried any of that and are already giving up.

 

Of course, a bit of creativity is also in order. It’s essential to be comfortable enough to experiment, to make mistakes, to get messy and take chances as my role model from “the magic school bus” will occasionally say. Blindly following the steps is also no way to arrive at an answer – sooner or later, you will run into a question that doesn’t fit the generic mold and requires an additional bit of creativity or a deeper understanding. When my students don’t do that, again, I get sarcastic. I want them to think beyond their little boxes. I want them to try looking in unusual places – like under the table, even.

 

So when it comes to Heshbon HaNefesh – the examination of the soul that one is supposed to do all the time but in particular during the High Holidays and Elul, I sometimes can almost hear God saying to me, “Anna, you whine about this characteristic being intractable, like there’s no way to change yourself, like there’s no improving this. Humph! Have you tried looking under the table for the answer?” Because there are methods in Heshbon HaNefesh too, and they’re oddly similar – draw a diagram of where I am spiritually, with some humility and visualize the better way, identify the variables keeping me from achieving my goals and even more important, the positive variables at play through gratitude lists, look through the Torah for similar examples, pray for help, do some trying things out – l need never just sit there!

 

Again, I suspect my problem to be a lack of creativity. I am scared of experimenting and getting messy when it comes to my life and character. This is my life, after all – not some silly math problem. I prefer to blindly follow a set of steps and then complain it didn’t work.

 

Maybe, this year, I will tackle my character traits the way I do math problems, and other puzzles – I’ll use my knowledge and follow the steps, but I’ll do so lightly, with humour and creativity, ready to change my approach if I recognize it isn’t working and try something else. I have to remember every day that I am good at puzzles and games. I can keep using those puzzles and games as my way to grow as a person, as my approach to Heshbon HaNefesh. Eh, who knows? Maybe the answer really is there, just as readily available as the answer to a simple math puzzle. I should try looking under the table.

Elul 1 – Act

I didn’t want to do an Elul blog this year. I didn’t even finish last years. It’s a lot of work, no one reads it, and I don’t have time. (I sound a bit like my students – I don’t have many answers for them either, and I’m not even being marked.) I’m a big believer in tradition, though, being Jewish (still balancing on that roof) and I hate change, being Jewish, and so here I am. These posts might be a bit pathetic this year – but they will be written.

Some days I have lofty dreams – the ones where I’m totally going to reorganize the filing cabinet and have all my papers put together and start running each day for health and contact family and friends daily and then be a real leader at work with everything done ahead of time and… then I go back to what I’m doing – whether that’s usefully washing the dishes, or uselessly reading just a bit more of that novel.

It’s like the Elul blog. I have big plans and big ideas until it comes time to put them to paper and then I don’t. I am highly annoyed by that. Oh, I know what to do. Break the task down into painfully small bits. Put it on your to-do list. Schedule it. Commit to yourself and others that you’re going to do it. Visualize it done. Yes, yes, yes. And still, I don’t.

And I doubt very much I will. But this is Elul, darn it all, and Rosh HaShana is coming and this is a time to totally revamp goals, to focus on the ones I really want, to confirm that I’m going to do them, and then to act – to start to get them done. It’s a big task, but isn’t that the point of Elul? To break the cycles that don’t function, to create habits that do, to do the writing and the planning, and the thinking and the breathing that will finally, on Rosh HaShana, allow me to act.