Elul 7 – Understand
It’s hard to understand the kids. They use different words to mean different things (like “sauce” to mean pass – really?) They present things in different ways. They don’t share my goals or my dreams. Things that I strongly dislike or that make me uncomfortable are perfect for them. And each different too! I can’t even say “kids these days” because all 3 of my big “I left home and I’m grown up now” kids are so different. Frankly, my small kids aren’t that small any more. With one already Bar Mitzvah and one about to hit the double digits, all my kids are “grown up” in their own very different ways.
And so my relationship with them must change – I hate change, but this year, it seems to have shown up as a theme. I need to listen more carefully than ever to them. I can’t assume anything except that I’m often wrong.
In particular I have to think the best of the kids. I must replace “they are lazy” with “they are taking the time they need” and “they are shiftless” with “their ambitions are different.” It’s easy for me to see very little things – a mess left in a room, a brusque comment, a delay in texting back – as a sign that their differences are wrong, that they’re careless and self-focused, that they need to be corrected and taught and advised.
It’s what I did for so many years! I tried hard to give good advise, set useful rules, teach correct lessons. Now, they don’t need that. They just want to be understood and accepted and loved. It’s confusing! How can I be there for them when sometimes that means giving them a great deal of space?
I know part of it is to keep reaching out, keep communicating, keep connecting. Building a bridge with my kids – I can’t imagine a more important activity. It’s also very rewarding. They are infinitely interesting, intelligent and successful young people. They are excelling in ways I never could (and making mistakes I never made, but that’s growth, right?)
Part of it is letting them set the timing, the content and everything else about our conversations. I need to be there for them – but just in the way they need me. If I push, I lose that connection. That’s a bridge I treasure – the fact that my kids can confide in me is what I feel one of my biggest successes is.
Most of it though is about understanding. I listen to them, I work to understand them, and I recognize the divine shining through them. It’s hard work – but it’s the work that I have before me. I may as well enjoy trying to understand.
You know what gets a bad rap, and undeservedly so, in our society? Obedience. Yeah, that old-fashioned concept of just doing what you’re told. It’s totally fallen out of style – and for good reason! It’s dangerous. No, seriously, the most horrible atrocities have been committed by people “just doing their jobs”. People have killed and tortured others just because they were “following the rules.” So, many people take the approach that following the rules is bad. It gets extended to all sorts of weird situations – from parents who let their kids make their own decisions about everything to artists who spend so much time breaking rules that there’s no rules left to break – just an ugly mess of paint splotches and random clay lumps.
It surfaces in religion too, where people only do the rituals they want to when they feel like it and then wonder why they get nothing out of their rituals (and then do their rituals less and so get less out of them and…). It’s common in education, where rote learning – following formulas (which is another name for rules) – is disparaged in favour of creative thinking. In our society, obedience is evil.
We laugh at parents who say, “because I told you to”. “Surely you can come up with a better reason that that!” we think to ourselves and determine that we will always make sure our kids understand the reasons for our requests, and that they will always be requests, not demands. We praise independence and original thought and talk about how much better things are when people think for themselves. We turn independence into the paragon of virtues and focus on it to the exclusion of its dark twin, obedience.
Obedience is stupid, really. It’s doing what someone else told you to do, just because they told you. Who wants that? Either you’re obeying without understanding (bad) or you understand and then you’re not obeying, you’re just doing the thing you understand to be right. What is the point, what is the value of obedience?
Well, morality is formed early in life, and so, I remember my dad telling me, “do what I ask first, then ask me why!” I asked him if that wasn’t a rather dangerous approach (I was a precocious wise-arse even then) as it could lead to my doing bad things without knowing anything. My dad asked me if I thought that he would give me bad instructions – ones that would lead me into danger and disaster in the time that I did it and then asked why. He then pointed out that sometimes, a situation is inherently dangerous, and obedience is required to prevent disaster. For instance, if a toddler runs into the street, and the parent says, “get back here this instant,” it is a terrible idea for the kid to stop in the middle of the street and say “why?” (Of course, he explained all this after I had obeyed whatever irritating little instruction he had given me (and oooh, was I angry about that) because he categorically refused to have the discussion with me otherwise.)
We talked about the fact that my ability to understand was still essential – it is the way I could decide who to obey and when. My mom screaming ‘stop’ as I was running into the street should be obeyed, a stranger who had tried to grab me screaming ‘stop’ as I ran from him, not so much. My friend saying, “stop” as I came down the slide? Trickier – probably not, but maybe – could at least slow down a bit. I had no real reason to disobey in the case of my dad asking me to put on tights – yes, they were itchy but they were the only ones available, it was cold and my short skirt really shouldn’t have been worn without them. I pointed out that if he had explained it to me, I might have done it anyway – but he said the obedience was important. Not all situations afford explanation or have time for discussion.
“As an adult,” I said to him, “I will not have to obey anyone.” My dad smiled slightly, knowing that authority and hierarchies, needs and priorities would probably increase as I approached adulthood. And now, well into Elul, I know how right he was. That balance between blind obedience and excellent understanding – that’s what I strive for when it comes to God and God’s rules. I won’t follow the rules I think are just pure wrong, but there are many others that are no more uncomfortable than itchy tights. I try to learn to obey them.
Because there is always something I don’t want to do – and making myself do it, that’s me obeying myself, which is something I never thought about as a kid. It’s hard. When I want something, I want it, and listening to myself when I say ‘stop’, well, it’s still not a walk in the park. I need to do it – and sometimes I do, and a blog post gets written – and sometimes I don’t and 3 children’s novels get read.
So, I speak up for obedience – obedience to our own best selves, because sometimes we have to do a hard unpleasant thing even if the “I want a cookie” voice is super-persuasive, and we no longer remember or understand why the hard unpleasant thing needs to be done. Obedience to the rules of nature, which, if you don’t obey them will lead to a crash no matter how much you think you understand about the rules of gravity and why this shouldn’t have happened. Obedience to laws even if I mildly disagree with them (but not if I strongly disagree with them – there is a time not to obey too – it’s a balance.) And obedience to God, because God is an authority figure I can trust, who, like my dad, has my best interest at heart. I thank my dad for teaching me (among all the other things he taught me) that sometimes, doing something just because “he told me to” is a good thing.
#BlogElul – Understand
I don’t. Understand, most things, I mean. That’s my starting position. Oh, I understand basic stuff. I know how to do calculus and I understand that acceleration makes things move faster. I can conjugate a sentence in English, French, Russian and Hebrew (although not very well), and I can learn what the exports and imports of various countries are. Most things in school, whether I know them or not, at least I understand.
No, it’s people I don’t understand. In particular, how can they be so fundamentally different from me? I have no problem if they like a different flavour of ice cream, but completely different values? How can people not want to need and be needed by others, how can they not like kids, how can they not enjoy touch and sharing closeness or intimacy? If they do share these values, how can their priorities be so different in these areas that it looks like they don’t? Why isn’t everyone religious? Or bisexual? I am. It’s good. I don’t really, entirely get why you’re not.
I question how I’m supposed to be friends with people I totally don’t get. I mean, there might be huge other discrepancies as well – what if I can’t find a way to relate? These are people who hurt me every time I expect anything, not because they are malicious (although what do I know – I don’t get them) but because they don’t work the way I do, so my expectations are always thwarted. Friendship without expectation is tricky. I can’t say in my head, “I’ll meet up with so and so, and then we’ll hug, and then we’ll have a nice game of dominos, and then we’ll have ice cream together” even if that’s what we did the last 4 times we got together, because this time, the friend doesn’t feel like hugging for some mysterious reason, no longer plays dominos and has decided to eat ice cream less often. I just don’t understand why, and the result leaves me hurt and bitter, angry and confused.
I don’t even understand myself, really. It’s not just others that are a problem, I am too. Every day, my sensible logical mind comes up with useful, sensible, logical ways for me to be in the world, and every day, I proceed to act in ways that are totally and completely contrary to those my sensible logical mind came up with. I succumb to useless whims, I avoid work in lazy ways, and sometimes, I spend a good ten minutes, just sitting there, trying to convince myself to do the next right thing rather than something easier and more brightly coloured. Really, how can I be that immature? What’s wrong with me? I ask myself these questions and usually, the result is that I get stressed out which I can’t handle very well and the best way of dealing with that stress is a shiny, brightly coloured dessert or computer game and…
I don’t get God at all – but I expect not to get God. The tiny cells in my fingernails would have no idea why I cut them off every so often or what my random movements of fingers meant, even if they had consciousness. But still – God, You’re supposed to be nice, right? So why is there too much to do, too many people to deal with, friends that don’t share my values, and shiny distractions that I get caught up in?
I have over the years, found no answer to my lack of understanding. It doesn’t break down into a nice, simple collection of basic subtasks like a good jigsaw puzzle or a fun math problem would. I can’t compare it to something I can solve – “Oh, my friend’s lack of interest is just like this trigonometry question, and my inability to focus can be fixed using the cue cards I use for studying chemical elements.” Nope. Instead, I am down to playing guess and check, as an approach. Try this. Does it work? No. Try that. Does it work? No. Cudgel my brain to come up with another thing to try. Will it work? Probably not. Just saying…
The only thing that seems to work is laughing. I find I do better when I find it all pricelessly funny. It is really – here I am with my dominos set all laid out, and the ice cream chilling in the freezer, and my friend is standing there in a salsa dress saying, “time to go dancing, you ready?” Scenes like that are hilarious.
As for God’s idea of humour, there are high school kids with more class. “Anna is having trouble getting this project accomplished? Send her four more just like it that she’ll feel are necessary. And for kicks, give them all the same dead-obvious name. And make each one harder than the one before. Hmmm – one of them should be in another language, on brightly coloured paper….now make them all due today! Oh, and let’s give her a tummy ache so she feels like farting and puking when she’s nervous. I made a fart joke! Ha, ha!” Really, God? Really? It’s not that it’s hard, or anything – it’s that it’s silly. I would have expected better – but I guess all I can do is laugh at the jokes God makes at my expense.
I think that this year isn’t going to change this much. Maybe if I can be conscious about the fact that I don’t understand and I’m not going to, then at least I can switch to laughing about it sooner. Maybe if I try, I can appreciate the tacky jokes the universe comes up with faster and better. Then, while I still won’t understand, I’ll at least enjoy myself a bit more. A life filled with constant laughter – even if it’s mostly about myself – can’t be that bad!
Barukh ata Adonay, Eloheynu Melekh ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’zivanu al s’firat haOmer.
Blessed be the Eternal God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy through Mitzvot and has commanded us to count the Omer.
Hayom yom shloshim ve shesh laOmer, shehem hamisha shavuot ve yom ehad laOmer.
Today is day thirty six of the Omer, which is five weeks and one day of the Omer.
khesed be yesod – kindness within intimacy; love within lust
We saw “Hair” yesterday. There was this song. (OK, so my belief system is part-Jewish, part-novel, part-musical…) “How can people be so heartless? How can people be so cruel? Easy to be hard. Easy to be cold. How can peole have no feelings? How can they ignore their friends? Easy to be proud. Easy to say no.” Yeah! How can they? Not me! I’d never. Until someone points out that I was – that I treated casually or carelessly something that was important to them and they can only assume that people who do that hate them so clearly… And that hadn’t occured to me! I was thinking of the time that someone said this thing which was really hurtful and I got super-upset and only people who really hate someone else (or are generally nasty) would do that so clearly…And that person was thinking about the one who was too busy to hang out and spend good time together and this was obviously because they weren’t actually friends and hated each other, no other reason so clearly…
Nothing is clear in the yesod week. Yesod means intimate. It also means private or secret. (And yes, someone made the joke about ‘privates’ already, you don’t have to.) In relationships, when I try to be the most loving me I can possibly be, I am still often so very wrong. I still hurt people and act like the nasty friends in the song. Here, kindness comes with a great deal of thinking – of trying to figure out what the other person wants or will need. Sometimes it’s trivial. Sometimes – hard to the point of impossible. It’s a worthwhile task, though for us to keep trying to approximate actual caring and love until we are no longer casually stepping on everyone’s toes in steel-tipped construction boots.
Today, I will try to give those I love what they want, rather than what I do.
I’ve been teaching a number of students lately who don’t speak English. I am not a bad ESL teacher, having some idea of what it is to be an ESL student and some idea now of how to speak well in English and how to teach. The big challenge is, of course, that when my student and I don’t speak each other’s language, we don’t understand each other.
That’s frustrating. We get through it, with humour, games, much pointing and silly gesticulating, pictures and a weird sign language that seems to get made up on the spot. Still, it’s annoying and maddening and hard and I remember that the temples destroyed on Tisha B’Av were not the first attempt we made to build a temple to be close to God. The tower of Babel was destroyed by God because we got too close (and too obsessed) and we’ve not understood each other since.
It’s even more annoying and maddening and hard when I think of how many times I find myself cursing language barriers, even when I’m speaking to a person in a language we’re both supposedly fluent in. This seems to be a much too frequent occurrence, described by enough people that I don’t think I’m the only one it happens to. It’s easiest to see it in movies, of course, where everything is exaggerated so we can all understand. This one says “I guess we shouldn’t see each other any more,” and you can tell that the real meaning is “please hold me and tell me it’s going to be OK, and love me and this is the only way I can tell you that I’m scared and worried about our relationship and feeling a little hopeless.” That one says, “well, let’s give it one more try,” and it’s clear that actually, it’s more like, “ew, you smell funny and are way too clingy, and I only went out with you because my Mom asked me, but I’m too polite to tell you how uncomfortable you make me.” You have this strong desire to climb through the screen and bash their heads together and explain it to them. Of course, if it’s a comedy, you laugh.
I laugh too. I laugh because I remember how lonely and awkward and sad it can feel when this happens – and how often it does – and the alternative is getting depressed and laughing is better. It’s hard to make words say what we want them to! I can think of any number of times when I’m trying to express, “wow, your last sentence was irritating but not enough to make me want to say anything so I’m not but I’m still feeling a bit uncomfortable and I’d say something except it’s too late, and you’d react really negatively and also I have this uneasy feeling that I’ve said something similar, but it really does bother me and I wish you could know that .” Instead, what comes out is an expression that mostly looks constipated.
That might be a small example, but they build up, leaving me feeling shut in to a world that’s much too small and much too lonely. I can’t stand it. It’s painful and annoying, angry making and disappointing, and broken that I can’t communicate to people. I’m reasonably good at English these days. I’ve learned many words. I can tell you the difference between a conjunction and an interjection, and what to do if you meet either one in a lonely, dark paragraph. I can explain the difference between turn on, turn in, turn up, and turn out and why none of them have much to do with rotating one’s body. I can edit essays, proofread poems, and review resumes (call me if you need any of those done). Yet still, I often feel unable to communicate.
God, I’m sure had a reason for making this so hard. Maybe humility? (“Are you feeling a bit constipated, sweetie?”) Maybe to make us work harder? Maybe to reinforce the importance of independent action? Or to teach us that communication matters? Maybe to teach about caring. It’s caring that lets those people in the romantic comedy get through that awkward conversation and finally end up happy with the partners they want. It’s caring that lets me let go of that confusing reaction to what was actually an utterly unimportant statement.
It’s Elul, and working on communication is important. I use my best language skills to write and talk about how I can connect to people. In the end though, I don’t have much. Just when I write my most brilliant words ever, I realize that no one understood a word of what I said! (“You could try some prunes…”) I’m left with exactly what I’ve got with my ESL student. We get through it, with humour, games, much pointing and silly gesticulating, pictures and most of all – caring. It’s not a fix for the tower of Babel, but it helps us laugh and it gets us through, together.
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.”
I remember a couple of friends in university who simply could not understand each other. Anything the one would say, the other would misinterpret in a truly, fantastically dreadful way. I couldn’t even believe how off they were. We finally coined a description of their communication: ‘Can I help you clean the floor?’ ‘Stop trying to steal my vacuum cleaner.’ In fact, it got to be that among my entire bunch of friends, whenever someone felt misunderstood, they might say, ‘hey, relax; I’m not trying to steal your vacuum.’
So often, assumptions, resentments, expectations, emotions, selfishness and self-centeredness get in the way of understanding. For me, also, there’s the fact that I’m less adept at reading body language and verbal tone than some (not that I’m dreadful – I’ve had years of practice, and I would say I’m getting better all the time – but I still miss quite a bit that some others catch.) Since that’s 95% of communication, I have the potential to miss a lot.
Lack of understanding is a big factor of what then leads to hurt feelings. If I didn’t understand how important something is, I may not have taken the proper care to ensure it happened. I may think ‘oh, I missed this one little task – no biggie, I’ll take care of it later.’ The other person might be thinking, however, ‘she doesn’t care, for if she did, she’d know this was important and wouldn’t miss it.’ I might think I’m helping when someone else thinks I’m being in the way. I might be trying to give someone space and he might see it as coldness. All in all, misunderstandings lead to hurts.
I’ve been looking for a way to understand better and to be better understood for years. The Jewish tradition says study of Torah helps with understanding the world, so I try to study. On the other hand, learning only from a book can lead to that cobweby bookstore feeling where one doesn’t know people at all. Experience is needed too.
A lot of understanding, mind you, is getting rid of dignity. No one wants to say ‘you’re in the way’ or ask ‘did I mention that already?’ It’s embarrassing to have to ask. I feel like I should just know, instinctively. Since I don’t though, asking is my best bet, and the only way I can do that is to be cool with the chance of embarrassment. It also means I have to admit my imperfections. Yes, I do forget the things I have to do sometimes. Once I accept that I’m human and they’re human, once I up the questions – I increase the understanding.