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Every day, something to think about and to learn!

In November, there’s a big push in Jewish outreach and education to teach people to read Hebrew. I am going to be signing up for one of these classes because that is one of the things my rabbi said was very important. Since I can’t afford to pay for regular classes, a crash course seems great. Get the basics, and practice.

In today’s Jewish Treats, the theme of choosing your friends wisely is revisited.

The Company You Keep
Immediately following the morning blessings, there is a short prayer that asks God for protection from “arrogant people and arrogance itself, from a bad person, a bad companion, a bad neigbor, a bad mishap, a destructive adversary, a harsh trial and a harsh opponent…”

In this short prayer, we learn the importance of guarding our social environment. And while this supplication requests that God not lead us into situations in which we might be tempted to err, we are, after all, free to choose our circle of friends and acquaintances. It is therefore extremely important to think carefully about the people with whom we associate.

It may seem obvious to say that we should choose friends who share our values. Yet people often find themselves in difficult situations when a social acquaintance acts in a less than admirable manner. What does one do about a cousin who shoplifts or a co-worker who gossips?

Ideally, we should separate from that person. Such was the example set by Abraham when he chose to separate from his nephew Lot after discovering that Lot allowed his herds to graze on other people’s property. (Genesis 13)

Unfortunately, separating yourself from such situations is not always feasible. Sometimes the best we can do is to try to avoid them (e.g. not going shopping with a would-be shoplifter or staying away from gossipers). Since walking away from such situations can take a great deal of emotional strength and fortitude, and is sometimes impossible, we ask God to help us avoid them in the first place.”

This goes into what I was talking about yesterday, choosing to avoid friends who are gossips because I know that it encourages me to slip into bad habits. But what about when you are with people and the gossip starts? What do you do? Stay silent and hope your obvious discomfort discourages the behavior? Forget yourself and dive into the juicy details? Speak up and mention that you are not comfortable gossiping? I think maybe I’ll make the commitment to take door #3 and try to have the courage to speak up. We’ll see how that goes.

I asked my Torah mentor about why newly observant Jews can’t celebrate secular holidays even if they celebrated them non-religiously before, and she said this week’s parsha held the answer.

I am filled with mixed feelings and realizing that there will be a letting go and some grieving along the way, but also some anger and resentment. I’m feeling a little angry and resentful about it, honestly. I love some of our traditions.

There are traditions my children have grown up on. That I grew up on. They are family and home and important. They are part of my center. The kids would be heartbroken and angry if I told them we were not doing those things this year or next. It would create chaos and resentment and drama. This is one of those things that I am not sure I want to do now, or later, when they have moved out of the house but I am leaning towards observing the usual family traditions for the next couple of years, to preserve peace in my home, shalom bayit. But maybe easing into new traditions and observances at the same time – playing those up and creating new good rituals for us, while beginning to shift the old, gently over a course of time.

This is one of those issues where personally I feel like a slower evolution is healthier than an abrupt change, and that at each step we will need to let it find a level and grow familiar before we make more changes. I know we’ll find our balance.

on loshon hara

My Torah Partner suggested I sign up for this daily email lesson about loshon hara, which I am enjoying a lot and which is giving me a great deal of fuel for thought. I’m reprinting part of it here, but if you’re interested you can sign up for it here [linked site has audio] and there’s other content on the site that is interesting.

Day 38 – The Habitual Speaker of Loshon Hora
“The primary prohibition against speaking loshon hora is: Do not go as a gossipmonger among your people (Vayikra 19:16). However, the Chofetz Chaim demonstrates that this sin can involve the transgression of numerous positive and negative commandments. The baal loshon hora, habitual speaker of loshon hora, can easily accumulate a multitude of transgressions at a rate unparalleled by any other sin. That is why the Sages say that speaking loshon hora is worse than even the most severe sins.

Furthermore, it is virtually impossible for the habitual speaker to ask forgiveness of everyone who was affected by his sinful speech; thus, he will find it difficult if not impossible to achieve full repentance for his sins.

The Sages caution us to avoid associating with a baal loshon hora, and not to live in the vicinity of such people.”

There are people I avoid because they are terrible gossips and seem to thrive on speaking ill of others. Whenever I am with them, the discussions invariably turn to gossip about other people. I would love to say that this is all on them, but in all honestly, I think that I allow them to totally bring out the worst in me in that regard. When we’re together and I gossip, it isn’t their fault or responsibility, but mine. I avoid them because yes, it makes me uncomfortable, because yes, I don’t want to speak loshon hara, but also yes because I acknowledge that I’ll probably give in to the temptation when we’re together. I’m surprised at the things that make up loshon hara. Sometimes saying nice things is loshon hara, it isn’t just gossip or being mean and petty. It’s a very complex thing and I didn’t fully understand it before. Well, I still don’t understand it, really, but at least it is here for me to learn now. I’m so grateful to my Torah Partner for hooking me up with this, I’m learning something every day and it is just the right sized “bite.”

Also, I love the weekly parsha from G-dcast and this week’s is great – I tried to embed it but for some reason WordPress won’t let me, so clicky the link and enjoy the brief animation.

Parshat Lech Lecha from G-dcast.com

More Torah cartoons at www.g-dcast.com

The band in the episode, Stereo Sinai, is great. I want to buy and download their music, but unfortunately the widget they use keeps crashing Firefox, and they don’t sell CDs. Woe!

on eating pork

I’m reading this book called “The Kosher Pig” by Richard J Israel, which was recommended to me by, surprisingly, a non-Jewish friend who had just read it and enjoyed it a lot. He thought I’d get a kick out of it and find it interesting and he was totally right. It is basically a collection of essays and observations about Judaism and modern, secular society, written by a rabbi. Funny, witty, insightful, it gave me a lot to think about.

I was struck by one of the essays in particular in which, and I am paraphrasing here, he basically tells this story about how someone fed his dog half a ham sandwich and got this huge laugh out of feeding the “Jewish dog” ham and told him how much his dog loved the pork every time they met. Like this dude got a huge kick out of it and could not drop it. And the author says that while this person was probably innocently just finding some humor in the situation (because a dog cannot be Jewish), actually giving a Jew pork is an incredibly anti-Semitic and hateful act. That it is that deep rooted hate and anti-Semitism deep down in our culture that makes the joke “funny” to his friend, even if hate and anti-Semitism were not the conscious intent.

And what of the Jew who chooses to eat pork? Hrm. Shellfish, mixing meat and dairy, well, those are not good and you are disobeying G-d if you eat them, he says, but pork? The author contends that for a Jew to eat it is a self hating act. It made me think. Because, you know as I’ve written here before, I really kind of love pork. It was one of my favorite meats before I became observant and giving it up was hard. Is still hard. So this is a lot of food for thought. I get a lot of cracks about dietary laws from my friends, for some reason people seem to find my former love of bacon double cheeseburgers to be hysterical. I used to find it hysterical, once upon a time. Like, it was funny to me because I was specifically breaking not one, but two dietary laws. And honestly? I’d go get them after sundown on a Friday, just for extra laughs.

Ouch.

Now? I don’t see that as funny, more sadly disrespectful and clueless. I feel sorry for doing it. I see, I think(?), how it was a hating thing, how it devalued everything Jewish in me. I’ve joked before, “Dear G-d, sorry for the cheeseburgers and lobsters.” but you know what? I really am sorry for the bacon cheeseburgers. I was clueless. Now I’m not.

I don’t think it’s going to be quite as hard to walk past that BBQ place anymore.

good stuff

I had a really nice session with my Torah partner today. She’s such a nice lady and we finally were able to line up our schedules and make this happen. I’m so glad we stuck with it through all the missed connections and were patient, because she’s great and very inspirational. I’m going to enjoy working with her SO much.

I think we’re going to start with daily life/running a traditional observant Jewish household, and not start with Torah right away. I need to learn to pray, I need to learn the prayers, and I need to kind of immerse myself in the flow of a Jewish day. I’m excited about this. Next week we will reconnect and figure out exactly how we’re going to go about it and what texts we’ll be using. She suggested I buy the pocket women’s siddur from Artscroll, so I totally did. That should be here in a few days. I also bought a handwashing cup, which I am ridiculously excited about, given that it’s a crappy $3 handwashing cup, but we’ve been using a coffee mug and I like the idea of a dedicated cup just for spiritual purposes. I really wanted one of the gorgeous ceramic cups they had, there was one handthrown one with Hebrew on it and a couple of glazed ones that made me squee, but, you know it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. And I’m broke. Plastic at $3 is fine for now. Maybe when we “graduate” from studying Jewish daily life and move on to studying actual Torah, I’ll buy myself a pretty handwashing cup to celebrate. It will be more special that way.

So I’m going to start with morning handwashing and the morning prayers that women traditionally say. I think, even though this is not traditional, I am going to set up a small table in my bedroom for this. As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, I love setting up special places, and I think maybe having an area where I can keep my siddur, a vase of flowers, maybe a candle, that might be nice. Maybe having it set up in my room, away from the busy rest of the house, will help me get into more of a mindset where davening is a special and set aside time.

I am avoiding studying for an algebra exam.

I am also avoiding studying for an anatomy exam.

Exams are like that. You know you have one on the horizon and suddenly updating your Facebook or organizing your sock drawer becomes really, really urgent.

So… Shimeni Atzeret! Let me just say that shul was five whole hours long on Saturday. There was praying for rain, there was mourners prayers, there was a lot of standing, and while I found it hard to follow on my own, my shul buddy came through and kept me informed as to what was going on. And the rabbi’s words were inspirational and amazing, as always. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that man speak on a Saturday morning and not come away feeling as if some idea has taken root, some minor transformation or pathway of understanding reached. I feel so fortunate to have been led to his shul and to the community that makes it up.

We had lunch in the sukkah after, and that was kind of nifty. I’d never eaten in a sukkah before! The food was incredible and there was an interesting group of people. I did feel like I was drowning in overwhelming anxiety for a lot of the time, but that was entirely my own response to “holy jeepers, Batman! I am in a room full of strangers!” and not anything anyone did or said. I do see now that it will be important to take people up on their invitations to holidays and shabbos meals, even though not understanding a lot of what is going on makes the anxiety even more intense and frightening. It seems that the way through that is to gain understanding and the way one gains understanding is by doing. Maybe at some point in the afterlife I will be standing before G-d, and that’s when I hope that I can say, “Well. I was not a perfect Jew. I was my own worst enemy, my own worst barrier, my own biggest obstacle. But I did climb over as many of the roadblocks I set up, as I could. I tore down as many of the barriers as I could. I had some integrity about it and fully engaged in the process.” and I hope I can say that with some veracity. Es verdad.

My goals this week are to sit down and fully understand the benching bit that comes after the meal, and what parts of the little book you are supposed to use, and also, to memorize the handwashing prayer that you say as you wash, before you sit down and bless the challah.

Also, we’ve been lighting the shabbat candles where ever we can find space on a Friday night near the dining room table and I realized that what I’d really like to do is set up a small area that is dedicated to just those candles, and maybe where my kiddush cup can live during the week, too. A small table, maybe prettily decorated, where I can leave the candlesticks out on display from week to week. Something visual, a focal point to help me remember my intentions and why I chose to take the path I have taken.

Someplace hard for tuxedo cats to get to, so that my cat does not light himself on fire again, like he did twice this past shabbos night, due to his endless fascination with flame.

drowning.

Please throw me a life preserver.

Ok, I’m really not actually drowning. But, I have come to a kind of harsh realization that I am not going to really progress here unless I commit some time and energy to studying, and that’s exhausting to contemplate. I’m so tired. I’m drowning in so much homework. Yet, I don’t want to lose my momentum. It’s hard to make time for everything I want to do. I know it should be easy to prioritize, but it all seems so vital. I may be drowning, but I have precious few outlets for joy and giving even one up to make time for shul and studying yet another bunch of topics plus Hebrew, that’s tough. Sometimes the idea makes me want to weep with exhaustion, but that could also be that it’s forty minutes to shabbos and the end of my week and I’m just tired.

Things with my Torah partner are not going great, we keep missing each other. I think it is a byproduct of two busy lives on two opposite coasts, but we keep setting up appointments to study and then something happens and it falls through. I certainly don’t blame my Torah partner who I know is really busy, but it’s disappointing to keep getting excited about this and then not getting to start. Well, I’ll just keep at it, hopefully we’ll get a breakthrough soon. I had hoped to be learning by now.

I haven’t been back to shul in forever. The social anxiety/fear of people keeps kicking in. I’m going tomorrow because my friends are in town from NYC, and have invited me to eat lunch in their sukkah. It will be more challenging when they go back and I don’t know anyone anymore. God forbid someone tries to talk to me casually, when I haven’t prepared. Fishmonger at Whole Foods asked me how I was today, and I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to run away. He made direct eye contact, he was warm and friendly and kind, and I felt threatened and unable to respond so I hurried away after some awkward small talk. Have resolved to go back next Friday and ask him how HE is doing, but, it will not be as genuine because I will have prepared. What can I say? People scare me when they roll up on me too fast. This means I am lonely and often ill prepared for unexpected social contact. Shul is sometimes tough because it is a LOT of unexpected social contact and chitchat. If I can’t handle the fishmonger, how can I handle a room full of people at shul? It builds up in my head and every week I confront it. Usually it wins. Tomorrow, with the promise of friends, lunch and a sukkah, I hope it loses.

The food thing is going really well. Now my big struggle seems to be avoiding inadvertently mixing meat and dairy. We’ve gone ovo-lacto-vegetarian at home, with fish once a week, so I think that actually makes us pescatarians. The point is, I’m not buying or cooking meat or poultry any longer, so it’s easier to avoid mishaps. I found some great kosher cookbooks and have been experimenting. We are by no means ready to kosher the kitchen, but we’re learning a new way of eating and I am compelled to cheat less and less, or rather, I am compelled to honor the mitzvah more and more despite temptation.

I’ve started to rather pathetically look forward to each Friday night, to lighting my candles and letting it all drop away, all the responsibility and work. It’s tough because I feel guilty. I have homework. I should study. I’m not studying enough if I’m not studying during shabbos. It’s a terrible feeling. But at the same time? I so welcome the respite. Conflicted, a bit.

There wasn’t really a point to any of this, as much as I just wanted to say, “Still Jewish.”