Our seven weeks of counting up from Pesach to Shavuot are nearly at an end. Shavuot, the holiday upon which our Israelite ancestors received Torah at Sinai will arrive at sundown on Sunday, May 16th. One of the practices of the holiday is to stay up all night studying Torah, in preparation for the holiday. Our Israelite ancestors went through rigorous preparations before the thunderous light show of revelation at Sinai; so, too, are we invited to step outside of our usual patterns in preparation.
If you are reading this you are likely the parent of a small child, and staying up all night to study Torah, or even to do something more categorically fun, probably sounds like the worst thing ever.
Torah, as a concept, is far broader than the Five Books of Moses. Torah shares the same root letters as the verb L’hora, to teach. We teach our own Torah, our own lessons, our own insights, when we tell our stories. Just like the maggid (story telling) section of the Pesach seder, this holiday invites us to open up our repositories of learning. Have you shared your oldest memories with your children? Stories of how you learned big lessons, or small ones? Tales of adventure, or sorrow? Shavuot is an invitation to do just that and more. Maybe your family creates a “scroll,” of what this year has looked like and felt like. Or perhaps you recreate moments of your lives together in your imaginative play time.
Torah is yours, and nobody knows your children like you do, so there is no wrong way to do this. Share stories that you think will resonate. Let the spirit of revelation, that which is revealed, encourage your creativity in teaching your children about their roots; the ones they cannot see, and reminding them of the ones which they can.
Often, in the course of my conversations with parents of young children, there comes a moment when one of them sheepishly says, “we try to do shabbat, but it doesn’t always happen.” They usually mean that they don’t light candles on Friday night, and that Saturday is just a herculean effort to keep their kids busy. So I ask, “what would make it feel more like Shabbat?” Answers range of course, but the great majority of them fall into something along the lines of, “more rest.”
Before the pandemic, many of our weekends were full of playdates, social and family engagements, leaving us very little time to actually rest. On weekends, we often feel as though we have to do everything as a family, especially if that concentrated family time isn’t possible during the week. What if, instead of doing everything together for those 48 hours, we build in time for each parent to have a break? I have one friend who does this quite well. Each weekend they figure out a half a day that she can take for herself and another for her husband. It narrowed the windows of time to be together with friends, but it kept them both feeling taken care of. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that I love my friends and family, but I need to love myself first and foremost, or I’ll have nothing left to give.
This week in the counting of the Omer we turn our attentions to the divine attribute of foundation, yesod. If our foundations are worn, then structures we build will fall. Shabbat rest is a radical act of self-love, but also a practical matter of keeping our foundations strong. Shabbat rolls in on Friday night and exits slowly on Saturday, but if that timeframe doesn’t work for you and your family – find another one that does! There is power in living by the Jewish calendar, but toddlers and infants rarely care about calendars (nor can they even conceptualize time!) so do what you can with what you have and create pockets of rest, moments of Shabbat, for yourself and those you love wherever possible.
Faced with another quarantined holiday I have spent the past week going back and forth between grand plans of making seder dinner on my own, to thinking, “maybe matzo ball soup and Manischewitz gefilte fish will be enough.” Even though I’ve been writing about it here for weeks, Pesach has snuck up on me, and now it feels like I’m already too late to make it happen. My neighborhood grocery store is out of beet horseradish, the one Manischewitz endcap didn’t even have matzo meal, and I just want to throw my hands up and say, “whatever.”
Hannukah felt this way, too.
So did Sukkot.
It’s not that I don’t love these holidays, I do. It’s that these holidays evoke a sense of family & community. Pesach has typically been the one holiday where I didn’t have to lead anything, but could be a participant, letting myself fall into the comfortable and predictable embrace of family rituals. We are faced with another Pesach where, for many of us, that is not an option. God-willing, some of you have been bubbled up with extended family and can safely re-enact ancient rituals both national and personal. Some of us will be going it alone this Passover, for the second time around.
Here’s my plan: I’m going to hunt down the remaining things on my grocery list, and on Saturday afternoon I’m going to carefully set my table, as generations before have. I’m going to place my laptop at the head of the table and let the faces and voices of my community keep us company as we make our way through the Haggadah.
And I’m going to make and eat so much matzah-bark. (https://thecolorfulkitchen.com/2017/04/07/vegan-chocolate-salted-caramel-matzah-bark-passover/)
Rituals anchor us in time and move us through spaces that otherwise lack boundaries. We’re coming up on the holiday most laden with at-home, DIY rituals. Passover is known as Chag HaAviv, the Festival of Spring, and is considered one of the four New Years of the Hebrew Calendar.
The egg on the seder plate symbolizes this cycle of return (it’s why there are eggs at Easter and before that Ostara, the celebration of the Spring Equinox).
Time can either pass us by and run roughshod over us, or we can hold on for the ride. Even if the past year has felt like the former, I invite you into the possibility of the latter. Grab hold of this season of newness, embrace the light, relish in the remaining dark, nourish yourself with the promise of new things to come, and turn it all into a ritual. Do it daily. Marvel in the changes happening in the world around you; point them out to your children and teach them about wonder and newness.
For even though the pandemic wears on, the Daffodils have sprung once again from the earth, and the blossoms are bursting open on the trees. We can either let it pass us by, or we can be present with it, knowing that this season will turn into the next, and the next, and the next.
Being of a minority religion is hard. We feel this most keenly around the Christmas season, when the default greeting from grocery store clerks to neighbors is “Merry Christmas!” We might begin to feel it around this time of year, as well, as endcaps take on a more pastel hue, and when in a few weeks folks will begin to wish each other a “Happy Easter.” We see and feel the Christian holidays coming in America whereas there are no greater cultural cues when our Jewish holidays arrive.
All this is to say: we have to work for it a little harder.
Consider this your friendly reminder that Passover, arguably the most (second-most?) important holiday in the Hebrew calendar arrives on March 27th. That gives us about two weeks to get our proverbial ducks in a row. It’s not too early to start engaging with this holiday with your littles, nor is it too early to start making your plans for what will be, yet another, socially distant holiday. Last Passover was the first holiday to get a Zoom Makeover, which means it is the first holiday that we will celebrate for a second time in these Covid times. Check in with friends and family about how you can celebrate your Passover traditions in a safe and responsible way. What worked last year? What didn’t? What new traditions do you want to incorporate this year? Chances are, you are in charge of making this holiday for your family, so start dreaming…!
This week I’ve been feeling rather unsettled. There is a shift in the air once more, and while it is all welcome, it requires an internal shift and those are hard.
As more and more vaccines roll out, I feel the anxiety rising in and around me once more. We have entered into another in-between period with this virus. Many of the most vulnerable folks are now safer and older relatives are itching to be reunited with our little ones. Teachers have been bumped up the list so that they might safely return to school, giving our children back a sense of normalcy that they so need. But all of this newness comes with the questions of last spring; how do we stay healthy and stay safe? What feels right for us, in this moment, right now?
If you’re feeling this uncertainty about the next many months, and beyond, know that you are not alone.
May you stay healthy and well, for your little ones, of course, but most of all for yourself.
2021 has already been a long year, huh? I, along with millions of others, have been coping by practicing mindfulness. When the world around me feels chaotic, (and let’s be honest; life with young children is rather prone to chaos,) creating mindful moments is extremely helpful. When I say “mindfulness,” I just mean an awareness of my breath, and my thoughts. Taking on that Role of the Observer takes some practice but can give a frantic mind the space it needs to make different choices. It is perhaps a cliché to say that we need to put on our own metaphorical oxygen masks before we can help others, but it is entirely true. Our little ones are looking to us not only for care, but for examples of how to handle stress. They will pick up our habits, good or bad.
Balancing every aspect of parenting, especially during a pandemic, is hard. What’s the best time to head to the park? When, between naps, will it be the least crowded? Will my child agree to bundle up and head out the door? If not, what means to I have of persuading him? Just navigating the day-to-day feels like solving a complicated math equation. These weeks of Winter holidays are made all the more challenging by the fact that everyone in the world is on vacation and, it seems, wanting to be at my park at the exact time I’d like to be there.
I have no solutions, but I hope the rant above resonates with you and helps you to feel seen. We see you, parents. This work is hard, and while we know we can do hard things, sometimes, we just need someone to tell us that it’s hard.
Or maybe that’s just me?
Either way; may the fresh calendar pages of 2021 be full of hope and possibility for you and your family. May you navigate the rapids of pandemic parenting with grace and compassion for yourself and, your children and of course, for others.
My life has been transformed by a new pair of glasses. The first day I wore them felt like I was living in a 3D movie - everything was too sharp, too close, and really difficult to keep in focus. The information overload hurt my head (quite literally), and made me a bit motion-sick, but I persevered with encouragement from fellow eye-glass wearers. Being nearsighted, I’ve grown accustomed to fuzzy edges along the horizon, and in the middle distance, and have only recently had to rely on glasses to see up close. At some point during the past seven years I had simply accepted the world’s blurry lines, come to prefer them in many cases. Preoccupied with whatever has been right in front of my face, literally and figuratively, these past many years, I failed to notice that I was losing perspective. Driving south today on the 101, a stretch that I do everyday, I noticed the jagged treeline running along the horizon line where before there had only been a grey blur. Where my brain once made-do with the information from my eyes to deduce “forest,” now it exploded at the sight of individual trees along that ridge.
Wes Anderson’s masterpiece "Moonrise Kingdom," features a young heroine, Suzy Bishop, who is rarely seen without her binoculars. My newfound farsight (is that a thing?) reminded me of my favorite scene in the film when Sam, our young hero, asks her about them. “It helps me see things closer,” she says, “Even if they're not very far away. I pretend it's my magic power.” What a magic power, to suddenly be able to see clearly the things that are far away, what’s ahead, what’s coming? I mean, this is something I understand on a metaphorical level, but sheesh - how can I practice “seeing the forest for the trees” when I LITERALLY CAN’T MAKE OUT THE TREES!?
I must admit that I feel like a bit of an idiot in all of this, and can't believe that it took me so long to a) realize that I needed new lenses, and b) go out and get them, but I’ll resist the shame-game. Instead, I’m freaking out about this whole new perspective-thing! I had no idea how myopic I had become, literally and probably figuratively as well. I’ve suffered from clumsiness since childhood, and my share of scraped knees has got me in the habit of looking down at my feet whenever I walk. Today, upon discovering this newfound magic power, I decided to look up a bit more on my walk to the Bay with the dogs, and what do you know?! By looking ahead I could actually see the bumps in the path coming my way - was even able to jog around or over them as they approached, because I could see them, you see.
Way back in the early part of Genesis (chapter twelveish) God tells Avram to "Lech L'cha" - typically translated as "go forth," but more accurately spun as "go towards yourself." It is the kind of travel that Rabbi Norman Hirsch referred to as a "radical leaving":
Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech lecha — Go forth.
God disturbs us toward our destiny
By hard events
And by freedom's now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.
We don't like leaving,
But God loves becoming.
Yes. Right?! Yes! I love the idea of a disturbing force (the irritating grain of sand that ultimately turns into a pearl) as an agent for change and opportunity for growth. But sometimes, that irritating force just irritates, and we can't seem to extract it; we simply can't shake it. It takes an act of Trust to take a leaving and to make it truly radical, and there comes a moment where we simply have to jump. To take the step into the great unknown - away from the structures that we believe to be sustaining, normative and "good" - is to have a whole lot of Trust in the outcome. To engage Trust is to excise fear; but to excise fear entirely is to remove a part of oneself - and besides, fear ultimately serves a purpose. In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert urges the reader to write a letter to Fear telling it that you understand its purpose (to keep you alive), and letting it know that you appreciate the work it does (namely, keeping you alive), but that you don't think it should be in the driver's seat, because sometimes it misses really great opportunities and holds you back from exploring what lies on either side of the narrow, one lane highway that it's keeping you on.
In a conversation with the Judeo-Shamanic Reb Gershon he asked the following: "Why do you think the Jewish people love the fruit of the vine so much that we use it to bless and welcome the Sabbath? Because," he replied to his own question, "it is a plant that grows up the wall - taking that which would impede it and using it for its own growth." When fear is no longer in the driver's seat, we can be smart, savvy, cunning, even - like the vine that crawls upward toward the sun simply because that is what it is supposed to do, instead of cowering in fear at the base of the wall. For the plant, it takes only instinct, because it knows no fear (although apparently plant life can feel negative energy - check out the film, "What the Bleep Do We Know" if you haven't yet - it'll blow your mind). The plant doesn't even need trust, per se, it just grows toward the sun... like you do when you're a plant. We, on the other hand, have a more complicated relationship with Trust. In our culture of rational-thought-as-king we have learned to trust only that which we can see, or that about which we can reason. It narrows the focus, and creates an overinflated sense of self, of power, of ego.
The Mussar tradition understands Trust, or Bitachon, as one of the core character traits that a person must have in proper measure in order to lead a well-balanced life. In Modern Hebrew, bitachon means "security." When I lived in Israel, there was usually a "bitachon" fee tagged on to the bill at dinner - a few extra shekels to pay for the security guard stationed at the entrance to the restaurant or cafe. Bitachon, in that context, implies a real life-or-death kind of safety to one's physical being. So when I am engaging in bitachon, I trust that despite challenges and unforeseen twists in the road, everything will work out for the best. I trust that my life will have meaning because I live it in alignment with my values, my dreams and my hopes. In this Freaking Lech Lecha moment, Trust is what it takes to step from the safety and comfort of known, the present, into what I hope will be the safety and comfort of the unknown future. On July 1st I will say farewell to the people and places that have become Home for these past three years. I will lay down my intentions as a path before me, and trust that the "road will rise up to meet me," because to do otherwise would be to let fear do the driving - and that's just not how I plan to do this Radical Leaving Thing.