Friday, January 02, 2015

Finding the Good: Parshat Vayechi

Today is my oldest son's birthday. This week's parsha (also spelled parasha) — Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26) — was his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah, and he and I spent months examining and re-examining it, talking about it, occasionally arguing about it. He chose to speak about whether or not Yaakov was blessing his sons or rebuking them, and what exactly constituted a rebuke. He also chose to avoid speaking about how the legacy continues of the younger son receiving the older son's blessing (much to my younger son's consternation). You can read the full text of his d'var Torah here.

Last year, the part that stood out for me was the passing on of one's legacy — knowledge, wisdom, beliefs, hopes, and dreams — from one generation to the next. Of course that made sense: my eldest was claiming his place in our community, accepting the legacy I and others were handing down to him.

And this year? This year a different part spoke to me. That's as it should be. That's why we read it again and again, year after year. The text doesn't change, but we do. Where we are in our lives a year later allows us to see messages that we weren't ready to hear a year earlier.

This year's gem is a short phrase that Joseph utters when his brothers beg his forgiveness after their father, Yaakov, has been buried. The brothers are worried that Joseph might still hold a grudge against them, and they send Joseph a message saying that their father (allegedly) instructed Joseph to forgive his brothers. And Joseph responds by claiming that he is no substitute for G-d, and further, in part:

וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה השם חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה
And you intended evil upon me but G-d intended it for good...

For many of us, our lives are filled with a succession of adversaries. Some are small and easily overcome. Some are lifelong struggles that, G-d willing, when we look back in our final days, we'll see that we finally triumphed against. Overcoming the messages from my childhood (particularly the notion that no matter what I did, or who I became, I'd never be good enough) was a big one. Dealing with my depression, which I did actually liken to the yetser hara — the evil inclination as an adversary — here, was another. Coming to terms with having chronic physical illnesses is yet a third.

It's so easy to cry out, "Why me? It's not fair! Haven't I had enough?" It's even easy to look at others who have battled (or are still battling) cancer, loss of limbs, loss of their entire family in a tragedy, or other horrendous experiences and write off our own as not worthy in comparison. But pain is pain. Loss is loss. We're not in a competition. And I'm wondering if there's more to be learned from the adversaries I now face.

Somehow, I drew the genetic straw that gave me physical limitations that are sometimes severe, and a few even life-threatening. I can imagine speaking to them, to the genetic code, to the physical health legacy passed down through my biological ancestors, and saying to them, v'atem chashavtem alai ra'a, Hashem chashabah l'tovah. You intended me harm, but G-d has intended it for good.

And some day I will look back and see, clear as day, what the good was, and why this obstacle is so necessary to my growth.

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Counting What Counts

Image: Flickr/Christine Urias
Last night, while at a small and lovely New Year's Eve party with friends, we counted down to 2015 three times. Once, at about 10:30pm, to King Julien's (Madagascar movies) New Year's Countdown on Netflix. Once, at 11:00pm, to one of the local news stations that airs the New York countdown in real time. And once at midnight, local time. At the first two, I felt a bit like I was playacting. At the third, I had to blink back a few tears.

"You can never have too many countdowns," said Sharon, one of the hosts of the party.

She's right.

What made the first two countdowns seem insignificant had nothing to do with the discrepancy with local time. They seemed insignificant because I didn't allow them to have meaning. Only the third met my criteria for being "real." Which means I'm missing out on a lot of potentially meaningful moments. It's time to change my criteria.

We celebrate a lot of transitions in Judaism. Marking time with lit candles, with specific prayers and blessings, we don't just wait for meaning to hit us; we carve meaning into the fabric of our reality. And sometimes it feels like playacting, and sometimes it's a deep, heart-wrenching shift from what was to what can be.

We're not wired this way. Left to our own devices, the days blur into one another, weeks into months into years, with the occasional lit countdown ball or birthday greetings to remind us that another year as passed, another year we've walked the earth, another year gone that we could have made holy.

As it says in Tehillim (Psalms): "Let us then know how to number our days, that we may obtain a heart endowed with wisdom. [...] Oh satisfy us in the morning with your kindness, that we may be glad and rejoice throughout all our days. Cause us to rejoice as many days as those wherein you have afflicted us, the years wherein we have seen unhappiness." (Ps. 90:12, 14-15).

It's a mindful act, to attend to each day. It requires thought, focus, intention. Each evening deserves its own countdown, that "there was evening, and there was morning" — a new day, a new chance to start over, a new opportunity to be the person we are each intended to be.

We don't just wait for meaning to hit us; we carve meaning into the fabric of our reality.

My days used to be ruled by to-do lists, responsibilities and obligations to others, a never-ending litany of tasks like laundry and dishes, tasks that seemed to benefit no one in the long term, yet still needed to be done. Work was predominant in my life, and the fact that others were waiting, counting on me, was the only taskmaster I could hear, driving me on to the detriment of all else.

This year — this day — is an opportunity to change that, to attend not only to my work, but to the rest of my self: my physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual needs. It's a new year. It's a new day. It's a new now.

Let the countdown begin again.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mystical Judaism

This past weekend, Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN hosted Rabbi Art Green as their scholar in residence, to teach about Jewish mysticism and Neo-Hasidism. Jewish mysticism is enjoying a resurgence in interest, due in part to the Jewish Renewal movement, as well as the yearning of younger, often unaffiliated Jews who see contemporary synagogues as legacies of their grandparents and want to know if that's all there is.

My personal interest in Jewish mysticism goes way back. There were definitely signs of my interest when I was a young child, and by my high school years, I was meditating daily, asking Big Questions, and searching for signs beyond Uri Geller's spoon bending.

Add to this the fact that I've interviewed my characters, some more than once. These interviews would be part of what I've always thought of as the "bonus material" on a DVD—the deleted scenes, interviews with the director and actors, and how-it-was-made videos. So it should come as no surprise that I have an interview (albeit brief) with my rabbi character David about mystical experiences.

When I attended Rabbi Green's talk Friday night about how he came to be a scholar on Jewish mysticism, during the Q&A I asked him the same question that I'd posed (fictionally) to David. What I found most intriguing is that Rabbi Green's answer was, in its essence, the same response.

Here's the fictional interview, from April 2006:

I knocked softly on the mostly closed door, feeling a little hesitant.
“Come in,” came the response.
I entered the small study and saw him behind his desk, a legal pad full of doodles in front of him, along with the stubby end of a roll of Tums and enough other books and papers that I feared they’d tumble down onto the floor. An immediate grin brightened his face.
“Sheyna! What a pleasant surprise! What brings you here?”
“I was wondering if you had a few minutes.”
“For you? Of course. Is this business or pleasure?”
I considered the question. “Depends on how you define them. But I suppose the short answer is a bit of business and a bit of personal.”
He set down his pen and stood up, and I was suddenly aware of how much taller than me he was. When I write, I’m seldom in the same room, and observers aren't nearly as cognizant of height. “Let’s sit down,” he said, his arm indicating the chairs across from his desk.
We sat and I knew the ball was in my court. “I’m sorry for the unexpectedness, David. Let me do some explaining. Or at least try.”
David cast a curious look at me but remained quiet.
“First of all, I have some questions for you regarding the next book. That’s simple enough. Second, I have some personal questions for you. And third, I have a confession to make.”
David raised his eyebrows. “You realize you’re in the wrong religious building for confessions?”
I smiled. “My confession is directly related to the personal questions I have for you.”
“Where do you want to start?”
How do you feel about Jewish mysticism?”
Surprise was evident on David’s face. “That’s a question I wasn’t expecting. How do I feel about it? Well, I haven’t had much personal experience with it. But my own psychology training leaves me open to it. There’s so much we don’t know about the human brain, about the development of the personality, about where body ends and soul begins. So, do I think it’s possible to have spiritual experiences? Absolutely. Do I believe in reincarnation? I don’t know, but there’s a precedent for it, and I’m comfortable leaving it as a possibility. Do I believe in alternate realms and journeys to Pardes and conversations with Elijah?”
He let out a long breath. “I believe strongly in God – obviously, or we wouldn't be sitting here. As far as I’m concerned, alternate realms and the existence of Pardes in some form comes with the territory. As for the rest, I believe that people have encounters with the Divine all the time, usually without knowing it. And I’m sure sometimes people are quite conscious of it, though I think it takes a certain level of spiritual understanding to not just be aware but interact with what’s going on and not be psychologically injured by it.”
I nodded. “I figured you were pretty open-minded. What do you think about angels and other messengers of God?”
“I've never met one to my knowledge. But to deny their existence is to deny part of God, don’t you think? I don’t take the Torah literally; you know that. But angels and other divine messengers and helpers are so central to religious Judaism that I have to accept the possibility, if not the probability. Where are you going with this, Sheyna?”
“I’ll get there, David. I promise. If a congregant came to you and said they'd had a mystical, spiritual experience—been visited by an angel or had some encounter with God’s presence or had a conversation with an ancient Tzaddik—what would you tell them?”
“Not a congregant scenario I've anticipated, but on the spot, I’d have to evaluate it in context. I’d be very concerned, and very doubtful, if this hypothetical congregant’s life was in chaos, if there were other red flags: difficulties at work, in relationships, legal troubles, isolation, self-harm or threats to others. But if this experience somehow enriched the person’s life, led them to greater self awareness or connection with God, brought them closer to community in a healthy way, I’d take them at their word. It’s not my place to judge someone else’s experience. I've heard stories of people who, after having a profound religious experience, suddenly also experienced a resurgence in their business and a new commitment to religious observance and the needs of their community. I can’t in any way consider that a bad thing. And to reduce their experience to a skeptic’s scientific explanation might somehow take away from the good it did in their lives.
“The bottom line, if I may, is that when your life’s work centers around religion, you have to be open to all the ways in which people experience that religion, and when your primary goal is to bring people closer to God, you have to be open to all the possible ways that God might also approach those very same people. If I wasn't open, I couldn't believe that we have a covenant with God, that Torah is somehow God speaking to us, that our prayers mean something to someone other than ourselves.”
“But you have colleagues who would disagree,” I prompted.
“Of course. There are rabbis who got into the business in spite of the spiritual aspects. I personally don’t think you get to pick the pieces you like about Judaism and reject or label the rest as impossibility. Becoming a rabbi, in my opinion, means accepting the gift handed down through centuries, even if you don’t understand it all, even if you have doubts. It means committing to a lifetime of learning, and being willing—even eager—to say that God is so far beyond our understanding that we can’t possibly say that an experience of God’s presence is out of the question. We should be seeking them, not trying to explain them away.”


Hopefully, as a result of Rabbi Green's visit, and an openness to those Big Questions, we will be doing more seeking. I know I will.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

BUT


Buffy: [to Giles] Uh-oh, you have but-face.
[Giles looks confused]
Buffy: You look like you're gonna say 'but'.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "A New Man" (2000) 


Words are important to me. I'm a writer; words are my life. As far back as I can remember I've enjoyed some word games (puns, limericks) and detested others (guilt trips, shaming statements). I'm a card-carrying member of the Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say Club.

Which brings me to but. This has come up countless times, often as I'm parenting. I've made a point of being very mindful in my parenting, which includes being very careful about what I say and how I say it. Dozens (!) of people have asked me to write more about parenting (though I can assure you this will not turn into a mommy blog!) and my philosophy on it, especially after they meet my kids. It is very nice to know that when people meet my kids, they immediately want to know what I did—or didn't do—as a parent. And one of those things is the use of but.

But is a course correction, a turn in the road, a change in the meaning of what preceded it or in what we expect to come after it. 
  • He was going to answer the phone but then thought better of it. (He didn't answer the phone.)
  • She went with her friend to the restaurant but didn't order anything. (She didn't do what one normally does in a restaurant.)
  • Pilots thought they spotted debris on the water, but it turned out to be fishing equipment. (The objects were not what they thought they were.)
  • I wanted to go out with you, but I was busy. (I didn't want to go out with you at that time.)
What does this have to do with parenting? These:
  • I know you want your toy, but we didn't bring it with us. (You can't have your toy.)
  • You may say you're warm now, but it's cold outside and you'll need your jacket. (I know better than you.)
  • I'm sorry I hurt you, but you shouldn't have made me angry. (It's your fault.)
It's that last one that I promised myself I'd never do. Because if you say you're sorry and then follow it with but, no matter what reason you have, you're really saying you're not sorry.



Instead, replace but with and. It changes everything.
  • I know you want your toy, and I forgot to bring it with us. (I empathize.)
  • You're warm now, and I know it's cold outside so we'll bring your jacket just in case. (You are warm now, and I could be wrong about how the cold will affect you. Just in case, we'll have the jacket.)
  • I'm sorry I hurt you, and I felt really angry. (I'm taking responsibility and apologizing, though there should be more to the apology than this.)
I'm not the only one who has this problem with but:

I'm Sorry, but "I'm Sorry" Isn't an Apology

Try and next time. Just try it and see what a difference it makes. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Purim: Legislating Joy?

It's almost Purim.

I've been invited to costume parties, drinking parties, dancing parties, book parties, and one Lent observance. All I really want to do is burrow under the bedcovers with a pint of Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream and not think. Or feel.

I started to feel better on Monday, to the point of being able to go to an afternoon meeting at school, despite trembling and perspiring from the sheer effort of being in public. Tuesday I felt well enough to take my older son to the regional competition for History Day, where he competed for a spot at the state competition. (His website, Disney and the Responsibility to Oppose Racism/Sexism, did not move on, but several of his classmates are going to state.)

Today I'm back to dealing with fatigue, anxiety, physical pain, and a talkative negative inner critic. Two steps forward, one step back. Overall it's improvement.

And Purim is still coming.

Online and on the doors of Jewish organizations around town are the signs ubiquitous at this time of year: Be Happy — It's Adar! I blogged about this seven years ago, writing, in part, "some people have really good reasons for being unable to be happy and are not necessarily in control of whether they are happy or not. When I'm in the midst of a depression, I simply cannot just be happy."

Yet Jewish practice places a great emphasis on happiness. Rebbe Nachman said,
מצוה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד
"It's a great mitzvah to be happy always!"

If you accept that a mitzvah is a commandment from G-d, then G-d wants us to be happy, which I'm totally down with, but if G-d wants me to be happy always, then why do I have depression? If we were happy always, happiness would become the norm, and there would be nothing to which to compare it. It would cease to be happiness. So perhaps depression is a way of savoring happiness, when it favors me with its caress, far more than if I didn't experience depression.

Image: Flickr/Brian Snelson: exfordy

But before we get comfortable with that, a couple of years ago, fellow author Amy Ariel wrote about how Purim is not just about how we Jews survived, or the piety of Esther, or the eventual triumph over the evil Haman, but that it's also a very serious story about sex trafficking. Francesca Littmann on Orthodox Social Justice writes,
"A closer look at the texts shows that the search for the new queen is far from the innocuous beauty pageant that was told to us in Hebrew school. Women are captured from their homes, rounded up into a harem, and given one by one to be raped by the king. After that one night, they are imprisoned as concubines, their freedom and dignity stolen from them. This part of the Purim story mirrors the cruel reality of human trafficking today."
If it was hard to be jovial during the reading of the megillah before, it's really hard now. And with this year's neverending winter, cabin fever and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder—a form of depression), it's unclear if Purim is coming at just the right time or at the worst time of year.

But perhaps I'm just taking Purim too seriously. Or perhaps this is the real reason alcohol goes hand in hand with Purim. Drink until you do "not know the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai.'" (BT Megillah 7b) Drink until you do not know the difference between a beauty pageant and sex trafficking. Drink until you do not know the difference between depression and ecstacy.

And don't give up drinking just yet; the four cups of wine at Pesach are just around the corner. It's really too bad that Jewish Disability Month was back in February, because I would imagine that Purim and Pesach are landmines every year for anyone who must avoid alcohol due to an addiction.

Maybe I can fulfill the mitzvah of not knowing the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai" by curling up under the bedcovers with a pint of Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream. And not thinking.

Monday, March 10, 2014

What's in your book?

I'm not talking about novels. I'm talking about a life book. We all have one.

Growing up, I learned very quickly that credibility and legitimacy were earned only by having letters after one's name: PhD, MD, JD. D's count for more than M's: MA, MS, MEd, MSW, MBA. I have two master's degrees, and half of two more, but you can't trade them in and level up.

And so, after re-releasing Destined to Choose last year, after winning my company's sixth award for books I've published, it was odd when someone from my past congratulated me on my second master's. It's been 13 years since I was in school.

At the time I didn't know what to think about it, so thanked them and went on. But I started thinking about it again, in a general sense, and thought, "My personal and work accomplishments count for more than a handful of letters after my name, in my book."
Image: Flickr/Mike Licht

Then I realized: What book is this? What is in my book?

So here are a few entries:
  1. Nobody gets to bully me. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. No more.
  2. I have a right to be acknowledged.
  3. I have a right to my own opinion.
  4. My experience is my experience and doesn't need supporting documentation.
  5. I have a right to be angry, disappointed, or otherwise upset when I am snubbed by someone else.
  6. I have a right to state my anger, disappointment, or upset, in an appropriate manner and venue.
  7. I have a right to expect others to respect me, my opinions, my experience, and my knowledge.
  8. Nobody gets to make me feel "small" or "less than" or "unqualified" because I have years of experience rather than a university degree in my specialty.
  9. Nobody gets to snub me, insult me, degrade me, or disrespect me just because they have letters after their name.
  10. I have a right to my own boundaries, and I have the right to set those boundaries where I wish.
I've been nice. I've been diplomatic. I've given respect to teachers and rabbis and community leaders because I believe people deserve 1) respect for what they've accomplished, and 2) respect for simply being human. Have they returned that respect? No. Not all.

Recently a rabbi told me that if my kids weren't in his class, it would be a shame because then they would "forget so much of the skill learning that [they] worked to get over the years."

Excuse me?! 

Why does not being in this one class mean that my kids will no longer learn Torah or speak Hebrew? Does he think that his class is the only Jewish learning my kids get? (He shouldn't. He's known me for nearly two decades.) See Entry Numbers 2, 5, 7, 8, and 9 above.

I taught my oldest both Torah and Haftarah trope for his bar mitzvah, even though the shul offers a tutor. My son didn't work well with the tutor, and I had the skills, so I taught him. It was a lot of fun. He knew most of the prayers from being in shul, and I taught him some of the fun, non-standard tunes for the prayers he'd be leading. He met with a different tutor occasionally to show that he did, in fact, know the prayers.

The day of his bar mitzvah, after services (in which he was, of course, awesome and mistake-free), the tutor with whom he didn't work came up to me and said, "He did really great. Now everyone will think that we taught him, but that's okay. We'll take whatever credit we can get."

Excuse me?!

It is a Jewish value to give credit where credit is due. The Talmud goes to great lengths to specify who learned what from whom, which is why you read things like "Said Rabbi Elazar in the name of Rabbi Chanina" in the Talmud. (Because everyone reads the Talmud, right? Of course right.) So, we have Jewish teachers, preparing kids for their bar or bat mitzvah, doing the exact opposite?

The Jewish school to which I sent my kids for eight years, and to which we paid many, many tens of thousands of dollars (even going into debt to do so), to which I donated hundreds of hours of time, drove dozens of field trip carpools, worked in the office, brought snacks, wrote marketing material, helped with fundraising, and even designed a custom science/Jewish image, has done a spectacular job of pissing me off. Again and again. I've been ignored, snubbed, insulted, and had my contributions gone unrecognized (and I'm not asking for a plaque; a thank you would have been quite sufficient—something beyond an email saying, "Oh, and thank you for that thing you did last month."). 

I've noticed that in our community, having volunteered in nearly every Jewish organization locally at one time or another, that they are very good at tapping volunteers until the volunteers are tapped out, then spitting them out and moving on. Those plaques I mentioned? They're only for those who give a lot of money. Bonus points if they have letters after their name (though one could argue that many of those D acroyms—MD, JD—also usually come with plenty of donatable income, at least once they pay off their student loans).

The funds are necessary; that's common sense. But so are hours of effort, expertise, passion, time given to do the things that the generous checks don't pay for. 

Those who give of themselves are at least as important as those who give of their money. 

In my book.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Smile and the world smiles with you . . .

. . . cry and you cry alone."

That was a popular refrain in my house, growing up, and it persists to this day, especially in English-speaking countries where people Do Not Talk about what's really going on with them. It's from a poem called "Solitude" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850 - 1919), and that saying has done society a great disservice. Many interpret talking about personal things as "airing dirty laundry in public," yet that's only if it's real people talking about real things. It may not apply to gossipy tabloids, reality TV shows, or TMZ. 

Image: frontriver/Flickr
At the other end of the spectrum is oversharing, something that, if you count Facebook users as a representative population, over half of people don't like. But oversharing can consist of anything from blurting out relationship status changes to the status of the baby's diaper.

The line between what should be kept private and what needs to be talked about, despite some discomfort, is imprecise. In the Jewish community, where there is already a concern about how we're perceived by other communities, the list of things that we Do Not Talk about is long and the stigma is real. But it is slowly changing.

The fact is that as much as 25% of the population, 1 in every 4, will experience a serious mental illness. In Israel, 14% of men, 25% of women, and even 3-5% of teens suffer from depression alone. And many, arguably a majority, don't seek help.

Talking about depression using statistics and quoted sources is all fine and well, but it's removed, sanitized, impersonal. It's one thing to say, statistically, one person in every family of four will experience a mental illness. It's quite another to read about someone's actual experience, the downs that evade description and the successes, both big (I wrote a book!) and little (I took a shower!). Sometimes those little successes are just as meaningful as the big ones.

Today I had a few little successes: attended a webinar, made some website updates, did some more tax-related work, and stood in a hot shower for twenty minutes, feeling for the first time in more than two weeks like I might relax just a bit. Maybe.

Tomorrow I'm supposed to be out in the world, and right now that is very, very frightening. It's hard to feel competent, able, proficient. It's hard to find the strength and the momentum to keep going. So tonight I will try to rest, and tomorrow, I hope—I pray—it will be better.