Blah Blah Blahg

A little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of blah blah blah....

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Parshas Vayechi: Reveling in the Hope of What is Hidden

Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph by Rembrandt
This past Shabbos we read Parshas Vayechi, the final Torah portion in the book of Bereishis (Genesis). In this segment, we bid a final farewell to our forefather, Yaacov (English: Jacob), who from his deathbed, blesses each of his children, assigns them all a unique and personal mission and prepares to explain the events surrounding the future coming of the Messiah. It is explained, however, that when he proceeded to tell about the End of Days, "G-d removed his Ruach Hakodesh (gift of prophecy) precluding him from making that revelation (Bereishis 49:1)." The question arises, why was it necessary to take away Yaakov's gift of prophecy? One response from the Rebbe of Radomsk explains that it was not actually so that Yaakov's gift of prophecy was taken away by G-d, but that when he saw the tribulation and strife that his descendants would face, he became so pained that his ruach hakodesh actually departed from him. As such, we are now a generation that is experiencing the very tribulations that Yaakov foresaw. We live in an era of much darkness and at the same time, great light. The answer of when the Messiah will come is hidden to us; the answer of how we might bring forth Redemption is revealed.

Another point worth mentioning is that at the end of reading this parsha and the book of Bereishis, we all say in unison "Chazak! Chazak! V'Nis'chazeik!" "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!" Why do we say this at the end of this segment rather than at the commencement of our journey? This in and of itself highlights the importance of retaining momentum. We must complete our undertakings with the same level of zeal and enthusiasm with which we embark upon them. But how and where we direct this zeal and enthusiasm is crucial. Inherently, we exist in a world where much is hidden from our perception. We see only part of the whole picture. At times it can feel like standing too close to an Impressionistic painting--it's all a blur of texture and color but makes no sense to our human intellect, which craves a whole image. We feel disoriented and disconcerted. At other points, it can feel like we are standing at too broad a distance, too far to touch, feel or perceive anything real. We feel alienated and disconnected. In either stance, we can feel lonely, isolated and confused.

I can remember as a little girl the joy I would feel any time I brought a helium balloon home. Nothing was more exciting than watching it float in the air, gently grazing the ceiling. So full of life and shiny and red and real...and inevitably the day would end, I'd wake up the next morning and the balloon had fallen. I felt a sense of melancholy at the inevitable demise of each balloon but more than anything else, I desired to know exactly when that moment had occurred. How did it fall? Did it just feel tired and let go? Did it long to float just a little longer and give in to the night? Did it hurt or suffer? Did it go silently or with a song of dignity?

When I was a little bit older, I noticed one night at bedtime that a firefly was caught in a spider's web outside my bedroom window. Every few seconds it glowed with a light so intense and fierce that I imagined if I could just stay awake all night, I could preserve this perpetual bliss. I was old enough at this point, however, to know that by morning that light would be extinguished. At some point I gave in to the pull of childlike sleepiness and in the morning I woke up sobbing. The firefly might as well have never been there at all. Perhaps so taken under by the sadness of losing that small bit of light I even missed the boundless rays of sunshine peering through that very same window...

Cape Cod, May, 2000
As a teen, I visited a beach on Cape Cod. I remember sitting at the shore as the sun set. I squinted my eyes and strained my glance to try and perceive exactly where the ocean ended and the sky began. I watched that golden ball of daylight fall lower and lower, determined not to blink. I did not want to miss the moment at which the sun fell behind that line. But as nature has it and intends it, I blinked and the sun was already gone.

These are the pivotal moments of childhood. We attempt to adhere and apply life and meaning to everything around us. At once, we toss our caution to the wind living with a fearlessness and carefree demeanor that in seemingly only moments, we will lose and long to get back. As we grow, we learn to scoff at the silliness of thinking a balloon can feel or the pettiness of crying over the inevitable demise of a firefly. We learn that undoubtedly the sun will fall and at times, so will we. It seems better in the long-run to attempt to brace ourselves for that. But then we live in that constant state of waiting: an exhausting readiness to at once both wage war and surrender altogether. Red balloons start to shine a little less vibrantly. Fireflies seem a bit less mysterious. We turn to science and logic to place parameters around the beauty and richness of the salty beach air blowing in with the tide.

And suddenly, almost without warning, we are no longer children. Growing up, as it turns out, was not something that happens gradually or takes forever. It was as instantaneous and implausible as all of the balloons, fireflies and sunsets we'd ever known. And instead of seeing the limitless possibilities we once were sure accompanied a later bedtime and the right to cross the street alone, we only perceive the boundaries that suddenly box us in. No more are the possibilities endless; it's time to start crossing things off the list. I won't be a dinosaur or a firefighter or a ballerina. And as we grow bigger, our world grows seemingly smaller. We start to temper our boundless zeal with protective parameters of caution. We put up some mighty big guard rails, and we're now more careful about who and how and what we let inside...

Interestingly, even though this Torah portion highlights the death of Yaakov, it clearly states the following: "Vayechi Yaakov," meaning, "and Jacob lives." The beautiful message we can glean from this is that much in the way of the whens and how-longs of life are not revealed to us. Even the hows and whys are often disguised. We, being human, crave measurable boundaries and limiting categories. If we are to feel close and vulnerable with someone, we want to know for how long they will be with us and how exactly we can define that love. If we are to appreciate the beauty of a sunset, we want to know exactly where it will end. If we are to enjoy the childlike charm of a balloon or the mysterious light of a firefly, we want to know exactly how long it will last. And we can't. We shouldn't. We're not supposed to. To see our connections through the limiting lens of linear time would inhibit us from ever loving fully and selflessly. To be present in that moment that the sun fades behind the horizon, that the balloon falls, that the firefly's light is forever extinguished--would all be too painful to bear. We would never be able to cling to those moments with the same level of intensity and childlike lack of restraint. Instead, we are given a gift. Through living with death, like Yaakov, we will someday die with Life.The finite aspects of this world are hidden to us such that our infinite hope can be revealed.  And through that, albeit in a very limited and human way, we can experience the boundlessness and wholeness of a loving, compassionate and infinite Creator.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Prison & The Palace

"Life does not tell stories. People do.
Life provides no more than raw materials. Raw enough for us to look back and construct at least two versions of our own biography: one a prison, the other a palace.

This is the greatest kindness the Master of Life has given us: He has placed His own pen in our hands, so that we may enjoy the dignity of a palace constructed by our own design."

-From the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory.

I read the above words of wisdom here.

I cannot help but feel the awe and inspiration of this gift we all receive on a moment by moment basis. Our lives begin as the story others tell about us and little by little, we grow to own the story we tell about ourselves. Given these raw materials, we not only have the responsibility to build upon our foundation, we also enjoy the dignity of free will. We choose the prison or the palace, and we get to make this choice again and again--in each and every moment.

But what separates the prison from the palace? Given the very same raw materials to work with, why is my structure a prison and his a palace? Or why, in this moment, does my edifice feel like a palace but tomorrow it resembles a prison?

The Raw Materials are just that--raw. Some raw materials exist in a natural state of beauty, and require no further manipulation. Others arrive in an unattractive lump of coal which requires significant refinement before a diamond might emerge. Is the diamond any less real because we cannot yet see it? Of course not! But our eyes can only perceive its inherent beauty after it has undergone a unique transformation that requires time, pressure and heat. We, too, carry within us a distinct and inherent beauty. It is only completely revealed through self-refinement. This requires time, proper encouragement and the ever burning fire of our own inner longing.

We All Put Up Walls. We write our heartfelt prayers and somehow fit them in the cracks. Some of these walls are necessary. They keep us safe. They protect us. They keep the warmth and the light inside and they shield us from the outside elements. Some are unnecessary altogether. They keep life's fears and wounds inside. They keep love and healing at an insurmountable distance. These must be destroyed. Still others served a function at one time, but are no longer necessary or helpful to us. They inhibit us and stunt our growth, but their familiarity falsely gives way to feelings of security. We know full well the bounds and limits of existence on the inside; what we don't yet know is the extent of possibility that lies just beyond our line of vision.

Written prayers placed inside the Western Wall
We All Incur Some Structural Damage. As time goes on, our story evolves and walls decay. Where our edifice may have been a bit weak, sometimes things completely fall apart. We choose to rebuild, or move on, or sometimes to stop altogether and mourn that loss. Maybe we only need to patch up a few areas. Maybe we need to tear more down and locate the last spot that is strong enough to build from. In these areas of structural integrity, even the signs of age look charming, quaint, and beautiful. Sometimes they look like laugh lines. Other times they look more like tear stains or battle scars. In either scenario--and all the scenarios in between--these are the images that illustrate the story of our becoming. They tell of our accomplishments, our hopes, our dreams, our hurts and our joys. They are visions of where we came from, of who we already are, and who we strive to be. These are our Truths and no one else can build them or tear them down.

Our Age Gives Us Wisdom That Our Youth Tempers With Hope. And then there comes a time at which we realize that the monsters underneath the bed never really go away. The same monsters that kept us awake at night as frightened little girls and boys show up again and again even as we become adults. Suddenly, the obvious culprits--with their gargantuan hands and yellow teeth and spiky fur now look more and more like the girl next door or the guy across the street. They are cunning and deceiving in their familiarity, they catch us unawares. And sometimes, frighteningly, they look a whole lot like our very own reflection! What do we do? Where do we turn? How does the story continue?

We Take the Pen In Our Own Hands and Simultaneously Loosen Our Grip. We do hold the pen and there is inherent dignity and responsibility in being our own autobiographer.  But in reality, telling and retelling that story all alone--that is how prisons are made. The palace emerges out of the thick of the fog when we come to realize, understand, and trust that our story is best experienced when shared. We were not meant to build a city of solitude; we were meant to create a vibrant and flourishing community. What looks like coal to one person is clearly a diamond to another; inherently we depend on each other's vision to view the picture as a whole. And together we create this tapestry that is woven out of threads in every color--shades of love, shades of loss, shades of joy, and shades of sadness. There are shades of success, and failure, of hope and regret, memories and dreams. At once they both color our past and give light to our future. This truly is the greatest kindness of our loving Creator!

My heartfelt prayer for us all today--myself included--is that we can tap into the genuine gratitude we feel for this gift of 'raw materials' we receive in each and every moment. May we all courageously take the pen in one hand and the hammer in the other as the authors of our story and the carpenters of this world we collectively call our home. May we cultivate the kindness, compassion, and patience to build upon our unique and glorious foundations. May we also have the wisdom and clarity to know when it's time to burn down that final wall and overcome. And lastly, may we all merit to see and to articulate our story in the image of a palace where we shared the Truest parts of ourselves with loving others--and not a prison in which we suffer alone.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Only Simchas! Lessons Learned from my Seventh 4th Birthday

 Many of life's most important lessons have come to me from the preschool classroom---either during my own preschool years or now as a teacher. My class had a sweet little celebration for me today in honor of my birthday. When asked how old they thought I was by another teacher, the most common responses I got were "maybe three or four." There were a few other guesses, like "16" and "11" and "25" and then one "29," but we won't talk about that one
At 28 (shh, don't tell them!!!) there are certain things I've learned having been four-years-old seven times now...

I'm still young enough to think that two "Ps" are hilarious when placed adjacently...
I'm old enough to light candles all by myself...
I'm too old to light said candles and not set off the smoke alarms in my apartment!
All beverages, including alcoholic ones, taste best in a birthday cup daintily sipped through a silly straw.
Waiting until the day of your birthday in 2012 to open your presents Totally makes up for that stunt you pulled in December of 1993!

When others try to guess your age, NEVER let the answer offend you. If they low-ball it, it's your striking good looks. If they aim a bit high, it's your overwhelming maturity and intelligence!

But with age and experience come wisdom--the inherently beautiful ability to know that we must not take our time here for granted or waste a single moment. And therefore...
Don't futz around, eat dessert first!!!

But now on a more serious note...

I found myself reflecting this morning on what I expected life to be like by the time I reached this age. I must be honest; for a moment, I felt a pang of sadness, disappointment even. In my earlier twenties (28 is still early twenties, FYI--Late Twenties begins at 30 and continues indefinitely...) I concocted an idea of what I thought this age would look like and it looks different than that image. The details don't matter because everything is from G-d and everything is for the good, and that is exactly the point that encouraged me to realize how truly blessed I am. 

In reality, I am right. At 28-years-young today, my life is NOTHING like how I thought it would be and I am eternally grateful to G-d, to my supportive family and friends, to a vigilant medical team and  to the many mentors, inspirations, personal heroes and even complete strangers who've walked this path alongside me and with me. In reality, there was a time I was not expected to graduate high school, let alone obtain a college education. There was a time I was told I would never live, work, or exist functionally in society. There was a time I was told I would spend the rest of my life swallowing a cocktail of medications just to maintain a life free of pain and minimal control over my body. And, sadly, there was a time I believed that. 

But thank G-d, there also came a time at which I questioned it. There also came a time at which I longed for more. I opened my lips to speak and finally--in only my own words, and not anyone else's--the most genuine Truths came forth. From the time I was a very young child, it came in the form of music and song; this still accompanies me today. It came later in the form of prayer and faith in a G-d who could be and is in control when I could no longer support that burden. That trust and that closeness is the light which illuminates my path as a now observant Jew. No more would I place my trust in man alone for we are human and inherently imperfect. No more would "experts in their field" determine my future or define my past.

One can contemplate the verse found in Devarim (Deutoronomy) 30:15: "Look! I have placed before you life and goodness as well as death and evil...and you shall choose life!" It is beautiful, simple, and at the same time gloriously complex. For it's not a choice we make just once. We don't just 'see the Light' and continue gracefully forward. It's a much longer tunnel than that! There is most definitely a Light, and with G-d's help, the tunnel will be very long (ad 120!), but life and goodness are things we choose and create in each and every moment.

Faith is the momentum that keeps me going. Torah is the light by which I see the way. Twenty-eight is not at all what I expected. It's not at all what I planned. Thankfully, G-d has a sense of humor. I planned; He laughed. I walk a path of health, success, and answered prayers that is at once humbling, moving and well more than I deserve. I also walk a path of trust that He is with me and I have nothing to doubt or fear. G-d only knows what my life will look like one year from today and I am actually quite alright with that! I pray for the strength, health, and courage to pursue my rightful path with kindness, love and patience. And I pray for the clarity to see it realistically as it truly is: only simchas!

Monday, December 17, 2012

An Open Letter to Adam Lanza & My Call to Action for Educators of All Kinds

Adam Lanza,

My instinct after the horrific and selfish acts of violence you committed on Friday was to respond in anger. I wanted to write words of disgust, wrath and vitriol. But my anger was fleeting. As soon as it arose, it dissipated, leaving behind only my deep sadness. And the truth is, you don't deserve my words at all. Neither of rage nor sorrow; you do not deserve the attention, the effort or the thought. Because of that, I wish to clarify that this isn't really a letter to you or even really about you. It is a plea for kindness, for peace, for compassion.  It is a cry from the soul of every warm blooded human being--not just other teachers like myself--but educators and helpers of all kinds. This letter is for any person who at any time has an opportunity to make a child feel safe, secure and worthy; in that sense, this letter is for everyone

But as for you, Adam Lanza--I tried to imagine some big, bad, scary creature I could deem capable of such evil and I just now saw your picture. You'd barely escaped the baby-fat of boyhood! Your eyes had this deer-in-the-headlights look of frenzy--as though life itself somehow caught you by surprise. And suddenly, faced with your childlike demeanor, I imagined you at four years old. Spilling your milk, skinning your knees, climbing the monkey bars--doing all of the things that my four year old students do each and every day. I tried to imagine what has to go so horribly wrong for all of that to turn into what you became. Maybe you spilled one glass of milk too many? Or when you skinned your knee, no one was there to kiss your boo-boo better? Perhaps there was no celebration when you finally made it across the monkey bars to the other side? The fact of the matter is, it's too hard for me to imagine any little boy or girl growing up and becoming you. And it is both impossible and overwhelming to try to measure the vast depth of human suffering.

My job and my passion as an early childhood educator is to instill and impart a sense of personal security and self-worth on each and every student. Seemingly not that long ago, the most frightening aspect of childhood was the potential for your fresh scoop of ice cream to fall off the cone and into the grass. Perhaps that is a naive belief; perhaps there has always been and always will be darkness and evil out there. But on the same token, the feeling is unmistakable. Something was lost. Call it innocence or sweetness or whatever you want, but the world is different when four year old children talk about "the bad man who came into a school and shot the children dead." The world is different when police officers and maintenance men patrol my preschool building to adhere chain locks to our classroom doors and bolts to our windows. The world is different when instead of planning for ice cream parties and birthdays, we plan for emergency evacuations and where to hide inside the classrooms if, G-d forbid, such an act should occur here.

And, the world is the same. Because today, like every day, I learned with my students. I laughed with them. I played with them. I sang and talked with them. When milk was spilled, I grabbed a paper towel and with a soft tap to the shoulder, I reiterated, "It's ok, it happens." When owies occurred and tears were shed, I gave a hug and a band-aid and a gentle reminder that "It's ok to cry and feel scared. I'm here now, you'll be alright." In moments of success, I smiled, gave a high five and words of praise. Today, like every day, I encouraged my students to ask for help and to be helpers. I truly believe at the core of every child--and every adult for that matter--is the desire to feel loved, known, and understood. 

I could choose to dwell in the sadness and anger of innocence lost. I could choose to live in fear of and frustration over the realization that even inside my school, I cannot necessarily keep these children safe. Or I can take a cue from the children, for they are the true teachers! For them, only kindness matters. Toys, games, friends and even feuds are all temporary and fleeting. What is BIG and IMPORTANT in this moment might not matter so much in five minutes and might not matter at all in ten.  What will matter is who was there to play, learn, talk, and sing with. Who was there to help clean a spill or wipe up tears or celebrate milestones? 

I often ask other adults to think about the important grown-ups in their own childhood. Who were the special people who loved you into being who are you today? If we are lucky, we can name one; if we are truly blessed we can name many! Often their actions were not necessarily grandiose nor their words so magnificent. Often, these special people were simply the parents, relatives, caregivers, teachers, community members, or other individuals who took the time, effort, and sensitivity to remind us we were loved, known and understood. They made us feel safe, they made us feel secure. They taught us we are worthy and capable and good. 

For that reason specifically, this truly is more than a letter to a face behind an act of evil. It is a call to action and service. Whether or not education is your profession, we all have the potential and responsibility to be educators in a variety of realms. We have enough "education" out there about hatred and violence. I call upon myself and my fellow teachers (of all types!) to offer education on kindness and compassion. We teach as much with our actions as we do with our words. If we turn inward in despair, evil and darkness has won. Rather, let us reach out and spread the light of kindness. I encourage all who are able, to thank the special people who's acts of compassion--no matter how big or small--shaped you into the person you've become. And I encourage all of us to smile more, practice more patience, and exude more sensitivity. You never know when your seemingly minute act of kindness could be just the leverage necessary to pull its recipient from the depths of despair to the safe-haven of hope.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Final Chanukah Post: Only Light Can Do It

The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the following:

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

The terrible news we heard of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut arrived on the east coast shortly before Shabbat was to begin. On Shabbos Chanukah you must light your menorah before sunset and this time of year that happens early in New York! Suddenly faced with such painful news, many asked, how can we light the Chanukah and Shabbos candles in joy when so many others are in pain? When, whether close or far, we are in pain? The Hebrew phrase b'simchah refers loosely to the idea of acting in joy. We are supposed to go into Shabbos b'simchah, to remember the miracles of Chanukah b'simchah, to fulfill all of G-d's commandments b'simchah. Many of us struggled as the sun went down on Friday night to act, let alone feel joyful.

In a remarkably appropriate time, I recently received as a gift a copy of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' To Heal a Fractured World. After I moved somewhat numbly through the motions of preparing a few last things  for Shabbat, lighting my menorah, then lighting the Shabbos candles and praying, I sat down on Friday night with the book I'd waited (impatiently) to open all week. R' Sacks begins his brilliant work by talking about the ethics of responsibility. And in an impeccably worded statement in his opening chapter he explains:

"There is a Hebrew word, a key term of the Bible, for which there is no precise English translation: simchah, usually translated as 'joy.' What it really means is the happiness we share, or better still, the happiness we make by sharing."

In that moment, it occurred to me that every mitzvah I've taken on is a means to connect and share. To connect and share with G-d and with my own G-dliness. To connect and share with my ancestors and roots. To connect and share with my past inasmuch as I do with my future. It is imperative to connect and share with my fellow Jew and also my fellow man on a broader, more holistic spectrum. That is not just the basis of why I keep Shabbos and do so b'simchah, but it is the basis of how I live my daily life. For inherent in our ability to share in human pain as, in our own way, we all did on Friday afternoon is also our unique ability to share in human joy. That is the beauty of the human race and that is my responsibility not just as a Jew, but as a person.

I thought this evening, as Shabbos ended and as I lit my menorah for the final time this year of Dr. King's words. It's time to let a little light into this room--and then a little more. And it's time to let a lot of that light out of this room and into the world at large--a fractured world that glistens in radiant beauty like shards of glass. A world that already has enough pain, enough hurt, enough darkness. All it really needs is a little light and a whole lot of love. I also reflected on the natural sense of wistfulness that accompanies the final night of Chanukah when, almost paradoxically, the menorah lights shine at their brightest. Today, the fight is no longer a physical battle against a ruthless other, but a silent war we wage within ourselves. It is the inner voice that too frequently tells us we are not strong enough, not pure enough, not many or mighty or righteous enough. The battle is lost when we begin to believe that voice that speaks too loudly, too harshly, too hastily. The war is won when we come not only to feel, but also to reveal and BE a light unto this darkness. We are surrounded by miracles every day. We are not just here to experience and take in the light--we are here to emanate it from within and outshine the darkness. Only then can we and can this very broken world begin to heal.

Chanukah 5773

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shabbos Schmooze: Illumination

I read the most beautiful pearl of wisdom this morning based on the writings and words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

"In truth, there is no need to change the world, but only to illuminate it. For each thing has a place, and in that place it is good.
There is only one problem: It is dark. In the dark, there is no way to find the place for each thing. No way to know what belongs in your closet, ready for use, and what belongs in the laundry, waiting to be cleaned. And so, that which could be washed and used for good is despised as hateful, and that which is wholly good is used for evil.
Torah is light: it tells us the place of each thing. Shine it bright, and heal the world."

As Thursdays go, this was, as usual, a busy one! I powered through the workday, ran some errands on my way home to pick up a few items for Shabbos and rushed back. I slowed down to light my Chanukah menorah and ponder how truly grateful I am for  G-d's many miracles even (and especially) in this time of darkness. I caught up on calls and correspondence and picked up the pace to prepare my home so I can return after another workday tomorrow and enter the Holy Shabbos b'simcha (i.e. with joy, specifically in relation to serving G-d). One thought kept returning to the forefront of my mind tonight, the 6th night of Chanukah--as much in the moments of slow contemplation as in hours of hustle and bustle: 

Sure, when it's Chanukah, it's easy to feel and express the light of Yiddishkeit (i.e. Jewishness). Of course, on the Holy Shabbos, it comes naturally! But what of the hours of the week we are lost in the monotony of the mundane? What of the moments between the hours that we are immersed in the physicality of this material world? And it came to me that the real journey toward illumination begins when we can maintain and express the light of Torah in any environment at any time, regardless of where we are or whom we are with.

When we feel holy, we act holy. When we feel on fire, we shed the light and spread the warmth. At times, for better or for worse, the feeling isn't there or we just can't tap into it. We get caught up in the  human fear and angst of what that might imply and we forget, we are no different on Tuesday than we are on Saturday. We are the same on the streets of the city as we are in the solace of the woods. We are as complete and whole on a public bus as we are in the sanctuary of the synagogue. We are holy through and through because this is how Hashem made us! We are always capable of feeling, seeing, and spreading the light because this is our Divine mission. So as we savor the remaining nights of we briefly get a glimpse of a world with more light than darkness...and especially as we light the Shabbos candles tomorrow evening, let us remember and take comfort in the light within and around us all. This G-dly light is what illuminates our darkest hour and that is what will truly heal this world.

A Freylechen Chanukah and Gut Shabbos!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Chanukah Night IV: Finding Meaning at the Midpoint

Tonight is the fourth night of Chanukah. The midpoint. As a little girl, on this night my excitement suddenly became tempered by the wistful awareness that the holiday was halfway over. As an adult, I see it in a new light; a light tailored by a couple more decades of life experience and candles that naturally burned out long after I'd left the room. The fourth night is not inherently a time of greater sadness or necessarily even greater joy for me. It is a time, however, of palpable--even visual anticipation. I almost experience a sense of urgency. It is a sense of standing on the threshold of something both long awaited and barely known. Tonight as I dwell comfortably in the quietude of my apartment--a silence only occasionally broken by the soft sizzle of the hot oil tickling the flames in my menorah, I am both comforted and inspired by the meaning one can glean from The Midpoint.

Four candles lit, four left to go. Come nightfall tomorrow, we will have surpassed this unique intersection at which there are (not including the shamash) equal parts of both light and darkness--equal potential, in a sense, to go either way. For me, it highlights a very human characteristic. How often in life do we meet this intersection? How often do we come to that proverbial fork in the road?

Faced with The Midpoint, we are like the Chanukah candles in that we have a G-dly ability to spread light on our path. We are, however, unlike the Chanukah candles in that we also have the human quality of free choice. A candle has only the will to burn when lit. As humans, we are all Divinely lit and yet, we live in a world of such darkness, sometimes this light does not seem to be enough to guide our footsteps. Perhaps we become afraid and we make a decision in haste. Perhaps we ponder the decision so cautiously that, G-d forbid, we become complacent. At times we stumble and even fall. The light that is yet to be revealed can be as blinding as the darkness itself.

There is, however, another unique difference between human light and candlelight. A candle, once it burns, has nothing left. Its flame, its heat, its light and life are all gone. Its body is no more and it is as if it never existed at all. Like the candle, our bodies are a vessel that face the test of time. Unlike the candle, however, we enter and exit this physical world with all of our light and potential intact. Even as the vessel ages and weathers, the light within it only grows stronger and more complete. Time eliminates the barriers of filters and dilution. We are in a perpetual state of becoming in which time can only complete us, not destroy us.

Perhaps if we truly knew and felt how full of light we are, it would be impossible to contain it. We would glow unfiltered, uninhibited, and untainted. Maybe there already are moments in which we experience that to the truest degree possible: moments of pure and unadulterated bliss. In these moments it doesn't matter if the glass was half full or half empty because the vessel is overflowing! Unfortunately, we often see these moments as part of the journey when, in reality, they are the journey. We aren't merely here in this darkness trying to get to the light; we are the light!

So tonight, on the fourth night of Chanukah, may we all glean inspiration and comfort from the pending reality that tomorrow, the amount of light will officially outweigh the amount of darkness. At the Midpoint, the energy of anticipation wells up inside. Imagine for a moment how life might be different if we could see with the same certainty with which we see that another candle will stand tall and aglow tomorrow that, so, too will we stand tall and aglow tomorrow. That fail is just another 4-letter-F-word. That there's no need to quantify whether the glass is half full or half empty because it's OK for it to spill over! It's OK to live abundantly and wholeheartedly and to throw caution to the wind--even if just for a moment. And whether we choose in that moment to turn left, turn right, or turn back around altogether--home is wherever we make it and the light is always on.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Caution: Oil Spill Ahead--A Potentially Controversial Post for the First Night of Chanukah

I am by nature (and sometimes to my own detriment) a peacekeeper and peacemaker. I have used this blog up until now for purely personal purposes and softened my words around anything that I perceived could spark controversy or confrontation. So, when I was asked by someone to write a response post to the common and controversial issue of expressing holiday greetings this time of year, I balked at the idea. There are not too many topics which get me utterly fired up, but year after year--especially with the advent of social networking and similar modern innovations--I feel increasingly on edge. Since tonight is the first night of Chanukah as well as my Jewish birthday, I feel it is appropriate now to step out of my comfort zone, to cut through the caution tape, and to tackle the proverbial beast...

It's impossible given the time and mood of the season to escape it: the inevitable, albeit well-intended and heartfelt greeting of "merry Christmas." Also inevitable is my own response of, "Thank you, and happy holidays to you, too." Sometimes the conversation is over. Other times, it's just begun. Do not get me wrong, I think open dialogue is both useful and vital. However, I wish to clarify a few things purely from my point of view.

  • I do not feel a casual wish of "happy holidays" takes away from my joy in celebrating Chanukah or anyone else's joy in celebrating the holidays of their given or chosen faith. If I know you celebrate a certain holiday, I am pleased to greet you accordingly. If you know I celebrate Chanukah, please feel free to greet me accordingly! 

  • I respect the unique traditions behind the holidays that others may observe and I cherish the unique traditions around the holidays that I observe. There is a colorfully vast realm of diversity painting the canvas of this season! 

  • Chanukah is NOT Jewish Christmas. Chanukah is it's own unique holiday that happens to fall around the same time as a few other unique holidays, including Christmas, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, the secular new year and more.

  • Being that there are so many celebrations in this season and many meanings behind them, wishing someone "happy holidays" is not just a way to be politically correct or culturally sensitive, it is a way to encompass the many occasions for celebration this time of year.
That said, now let's talk about cultural sensitivity: 

I do not wish to be insensitive to anyone's feelings, beliefs, or opinions. Know that I speak here only for myself and not for anyone else, particularly not on behalf of the Jewish people as a whole. My journey has landed me in some amazing locations alongside some amazing people who challenge and inspire me. I pray today, and every day, that my journey continue to bring people across my path who will inspire and challenge me in this way! I have had conversations with individuals, groups, and panels who strive to cultivate an interfaith dialogue through the lens of kindness and compassion. I have also been privy to conversations that were not as kind or compassionate. The question that often comes up and rarely gets resolved is this: 

"If it bothers you so much to be wished a merry christmas rather than happy Chanukah, why not just wish everyone a happy Chanukah and call it good?"

And here, in a hopefully well-articulated nutshell is my answer:

The Chanukah story is unique. It is not different in that oppression of the Jewish people is at all uncommon, but rather that unlike many other instances of persecution in Biblical times--or even afterward, the Greeks did not primarily seek to eliminate the Jewish people. Rather, they sought to assimilate the Jews. They did not necessarily have an issue with the Torah or with mitzvos, particularly if they were inherently logical or meaningful. They did, however, have a huge problem with the aspect of fulfilling mitzvos that was supra-rational. They could not accept the idea that the Jewish people did such things for the purpose of infusing the world with holiness rather than the purpose of infusing the world with logic. So rather than seeking to kill the Jewish people, they sought to make us just like them. However, for the Jewish people, assimilation is death to the soul. And spiritual death is equivalent to if not worse than physical death. The violent war emerged only after the Jewish people's refusal to assimilate; through the victory and strength of a few, the miracles of Chanukah emerged and are, to this day, remembered and celebrated. 

Today, sadly, is not much different from the times of the Greeks. In our extended exile, the Jewish people are frighteningly closer to assimilation than ever. At the same time, however, the threat is no longer the proverbial Greek army--it is an internal threat significantly closer to home, our own selves. For as much as I or others like me wish to be peacekeepers and peacemakers--often to our own detriment--we are by our G-dly nature meant to rise above that much in the way that oil rises above water. While many other faiths proselytize and encourage conversion, Judaism has been and remains insular. Conversion is permissible and welcome in specific circumstance, but it is not outwardly encouraged or sought after.

And so, it is as simple as this: being wished a 'merry Christmas' does not offend me if the greeter does not know I'm Jewish. It's a pleasantry and well intended. Being asked, encouraged, or forcefully told to only express that greeting to others at this time of year does not sit well with me. Additionally, this is not and cannot be one of those reciprocal two way exchanges. Me wishing one and all a happy Chanukah does not solve the issue. This is the very essence of what Chanukah signifies and recalls--an essence which is still frighteningly ablaze in modern times. It may not be logical, it may be supra-rational altogether. That oil-to-water quality is the same unique quality that preserved the Jewish people in the time of the Greeks, and also in the story of Purim, as well as in the story of Pesach... It preserved the Jewish people during the Inquisition and the crusades. It preserved the Jewish people during the Holocaust. It preserved the Jewish people during the wars in Israel. And right now, across the world-- from every menorah-lit window, this quality preserves the Jewish people today. 

I wish everyone--regardless of faith, creed, location, or destination--a meaningful season. May we all find the strength and courage to rise above that which is ostensibly easy, natural, or logical for the important purpose of education and advocacy. May we also cultivate the kindness and compassion to infuse this darkness with a little light. And lastly, to my Jewish family and friends, Chanukah Sameach!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Releasing Joy One Light at a Time

The date on the Jewish calendar corresponding to my birthday is the 25th of Kislev, which also happens to be the first day of Chanukah. My 28th birthday and the beginning of Chanukah is exactly a week away, starting at sundown after next Shabbos. On that night, Jewish people near, far, and in every corner of the earth--people who identify as religious, secular and varying degrees of in between-- will light the first candle on their Chanukah Menorah. It is truly a beautiful vision in my mind to imagine this little bit of light illuminating such a vast and widespread darkness. In a time in which we are so far from--and yet so close to redemption, the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah is one that spans age, generation, level of observance, gender, socio-economic status, education, geographic location, you name it! It is a mitzvah that spans the very boundaries of time itself. In the instant that those candles begin to brightly burn, we say the same brachos that have been said for thousands upon thousands of years.

I've spent some time over the past weeks in study and reflection on the idea of Chanukah particularly in relation to my birth-date. One characteristic of Chanukah that has always fascinated me is this idea of light in darkness. Even in the darkest room, the flame of one tiny candle is totally unmistakable. It doesn't take away the darkness, it merely adds some light. However, in a true and total state of darkness--that one little light is completely invaluable. On the first night of Chanukah, the world is very much like that darkened room; we are surrounded by pitch black and this vast abyss we cannot even begin to decipher. We light only one candle, and together with the shamash, two flames rise in their humble flickering dance.

That room is still enveloped by darkness and yet, all of a sudden--through only the tiniest amount of light--we can begin to see. Over there is a door. And two windows. There's a bookshelf against the wall. There are pictures on that mantle. There's the sofa, and the table and two chairs. Now, all of a sudden, we recognize this room--this is our home. So, too, can the Chanukah candles illuminate the darkness masking that which might be familiar in ourselves.

Born into a world of darkness, it is ostensibly impossible that we make it through unscathed. We all carry the wounds and scars of battles past. In some areas, a new, thicker skin has developed. In others, a tenderness and vulnerability remains. Within us all is this flame that burns so very hot but sometimes burns quite low. We can get so immersed in the darkness--so hung up on what we cannot see--that we all but lose sight of the other ways in which we are able to perceive the world around us. We can forget that in this darkest hour when our eyes fail, our other senses heighten. We do not need to see where we are going, we only need to touch it, to hear it, to recognize the smell and taste and feeling of home--whatever and wherever that is for you. And then, out of desperation, or longing, or trust, or desire--or maybe all of the above--then we see that light.

At first it is a humble dancing flame in a room still engulfed in darkness. Then it becomes a song that pours from within our soul. Soon, we can smell the sweetness that is undoubtedly to follow--we are on the cusp of something so very big. And before we know it, we can even taste it on our lips that seemingly out of nowhere now call out a Name we thought we'd long forgotten. It is in that moment of self-recognition and G-d recognition that, at last, we are home. We carry the wounds and scars with pride and perseverance; we come to understand that we weren't put here to light up the world in one fell swoop--we were put here to light up one space, one room, one heart at a time.

And so, with renewed energy and a burning, unshakable faith, I hereby release the joy and light that for so long I held inside me. I smile--first with my eyes, then my mouth and before I know it, my soul is laughing. I light up this room, then the building, and then I move on to the neighborhood. The world is my playground and I am only 28 years young! There is something truly unique about being born on what is declared a Day of Joy. For many, it is natural to notice the darkness; for me it is impossible not to see the light. For this and the many other blessings G-d has bestowed upon me, I am truly and eternally grateful!

 "The lights of the Menorah have the power to heal our eyes, and to rectify and undo the damage of any negative sight or vision." --Rabbi Dovber Pinson, Eight Lights: 8 Meditations for Chanukah, page 24 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

RUN! Don't walk!

About four years ago, I was hitting the gym on my college campus most days of the week, determined to train for Bloomsday, a 12k race in Spokane, Washington. I was first beginning the lengthy process of decreasing and eliminating the massively high doses of medications doctors had prescribed to me under hopefully good intentions but overall poor judgment. The process was arduous at best and came to a screeching halt when my body just couldn't take it anymore--the pain, the increasingly overwhelming fatigue of my still-yet-to-be discovered sleep disorder... I stepped off the treadmill and decided to classify myself into the category of People Who Only Run When They, G-d Forbid, Are Being Chased.

In a sense, I was being chased--by the ticking time bomb that is deteriorating health. Running back then felt very much as though I were trying to escape that pending reality. As much as I felt the aspects of my life that were hard or impossible to control were all external, the environment that was becoming hardest to maintain and exist in was my own physical body--very internal. No matter!  Even in my poorest of health and especially as I began to finally, with G-d's help approach wellness, I found other ways to remain active. I found a love and passion for Yoga, for cycling, for swimming and water based activities and eventually, learned to love other forms of cardio, strength and resistance training. Actively and intentionally moving my body helped me regain the strength, balance and function lost in the midst of severe neurological symptoms. Finally, with the help of a trainer and my own focus and determination, I was as much in control of my active movement as I was of my desired stillness.

And then there is the issue of weight--which I have actively avoided discussing on this forum. I was, growing up, always very underweight. I did not even surpass 100lbs until I was nearly a senior in high school. The ill-suited medication regimen I swallowed like a cocktail for over 12 years did quite a number on my body in more ways than one. It didn't matter if I exercised, ate well or entirely the opposite. Despite being told it was not the medications but rather poor choices leading to this weight gain, as soon as I cleaned a few of those culprits out of my system, without actively trying, I dropped 40lbs like a hot potato. It was a lot of weight to lose in a very short amount of time--less than six months. Right around the time I was finally diagnosed with my sleep disorder and began treatment, the pounds started to creep on again. Now I was eating well and working out, but the stress of adrenaline still pumping through my body each night and the lack of restorative sleep took its toll. I decided to continue going to the gym, continue eating well and let go of any further expectations. I worked with the trainer to shift my weight proportions into higher lean muscle mass and lower body fat and did so successfully. Still, by the time I left Washington at the end of July, I'd only actually lost 5 pounds. To my utter astonishment, since moving to New York in mid-August, I've lost over 20 more. This time, however, I sense that my body is finally just letting go and settling into its natural state rather than reacting in shock to being overloaded. (How is that a metaphor for life?!)

And before this past Shabbos, with a new pair of sneakers, I ran my first mile in over four years. I hadn't planned to. I am in Massachusetts visiting family and my father has a small home gym. I'd planned to get in a good long walk and then some Yoga, but a change in Shabbos plans left me with only half an hour to work out. Before I knew what had hit me, I was running--and loving it! And after Shabbos, I hit the treadmill again, this time to run for about two miles. The difference now is like night and day; I am no longer running away from illness, but very much running toward wellness. It is at once exhilarating, exciting and, somehow, calming; healing.

I wish everyone a good week--a week of peace, of wellness and balance. Sometimes we take these things for granted. They come easily, we push the envelope. Sometimes they feel immensely out of reach. We push against that, we draw inward, or give up altogether. They are not far at all; they are states of being that are in fact within and around each of us. And the only difference between a 12k and reaching peace, wellness and balance is that the latter is not a race to the finish; it's all about how you get there. For now, however, I'm going to run, not walk!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Upon Arising...

Sleep: it is a topic near and dear to my heart--and for better or for worse, it's often close to my mind as well. It is just a couple of months shy of my Two Year WellniversaryMy battle with sleep apnea is one that for the most part, I've kept somewhat private. I have used this forum as a means to educate, advocate, and at times process, but there is much more that goes on 'behind the scenes' so to speak.
Additionally, it is not a struggle, thank G-d, I've had to fight alone. As much as I have let them, my family, friends, and medical team have not only been behind me in this battle but very much fought alongside me. And on the front-lines, ever ready to guide me, when necessary, to wage war and also, when necessary, to surrender, is the loving hand of G-d Himself.
In a recent conversation with a friend, I shared how the experience of being so sick in and of itself was something that heightened my awareness of how close I truly am (and already was) to G-d. Throughout the worst of the neurological symptoms and in times of great uncertainty - when even the most menial tasks were a challenge, I didn't have the energy for anything other than to want. To want more. To want health. And to want to live. And once all of the extraneous layers of "me" were peeled away, all that was left was the very core essence of who I am: a person of great passion, fervent love and true kindness. What a gift, albeit in unusual wrapping paper, to be able to see that.

And yet, with all my gratitude, all my humility and all of my experience, I had an appointment with my new sleep doctor last week that totally threw me for a loop. I am an expert on my story. Sharing it has earned me opportunities and won me awards. I like to think that, G-d willing, sharing my experience has helped at least one person half as much as experiencing and retelling it has helped me. However, after I finished that part of the appointment, the part I am "good at," the part I am "bad at" happened. The doctor said "sit down, and make yourself comfortable." He opened up my charts and began to read the results of the polysomnogram (sleep study) I had about two years ago. There was nothing inherently bad or good or even indifferent about it--just things I hadn't known, things I had preconceived notions about, things that two years ago would have stopped me in my unbalanced, twitching, pain-riddled tracks.
Thank G-d I didn't know! Thank G-d I had almost two years to get so strong and so healthy that I actually don't have to think about sleep all day and night anymore. Instead of living in irrational fear of what could be lurking behind my sleep apnea, I had the limited information I needed to pursue health and recovery. Now, with the additional information that I have and the information that will come in the following weeks and possibly through a second polysomnogram, I can continue on this truly blessed path toward recovery and wellness.

But alas, I have to be honest. This all looks very graceful and put together in typeface and what really happened is this: I did not receive this news like a mentsch, I received it rather like a silly, stubborn, donkey. I argued with my doctor. I cowered in fear and spent a little time feeling sorry for myself. I had a teeny-tiny-temper-tantrum. And when I was done, and I'd thought and prayed about it, I remembered the first thing I say and truly feel each and every morning upon arising:

Modah* Ani Lifonecha Melech Chai V'kayam Sheh'hechezarta Be Nishmasi B'Chemla Rabah Emunasecha!
*Males would say Modeh rather than Modah

...which means...

"I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great."

I remembered that first morning after bringing home my C-PAP machine. I woke up after 4 hours of straight, restful, albeit assisted sleep. Tears flowed freely onto my pillow but not because I'd had a sleep riddled with nightmares, night terrors and uncontrollable limb movements . Rather they flowed because every morning up until this one I had only spoken those words by rote. On this morning, for the very first time I had not even opened my lips to speak yet and already I could hear them as if in a dream. It was so beautiful, so melodic, and who knows--maybe I was dreaming. But on that morning, for the first time, I awoke in genuine gratitude. And when I did open my lips to speak those words, for the first time, I said them with kavannah (intent, concentration, focus).
That feeling has without fail returned each and every morning since and again each night as I pray before bed. It was there when I'd been up all night raging against the machine! It was there when mornings still found my body tired, sore and moving uncontrollably. And it is there today, when I awake feeling rested, energized and blissfully still. Furthermore, the only thing that any test result or any diagnostic label can really truly define or measure is just how blessed and lucky I am that each and every morning, G-d has mercifully and faithfully restored my soul within me.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Parsha Post for Veyeitzei: The Supra-rationality of Tiferes

Our reading of parshas Vayeitzei arrives at a meaningful time this year as the dire situation in Israel continues to leave people around the globe in a state of fear and uncertainty. As an American Jew with family, B"H, in Israel, I know the very best thing I can do from here is focus on study, tefillah (prayer), acts of chesed (kindness) and taking on mitzvot. Knowledge, wisdom, faith, kindness and connection are the ideal defense from where I stand, and while I do not intend to use my blog as a political outlet, I will say with confidence and passion--I stand with Israel today and every day.
This week's parsha is the first devoted to the life and times of Jacob. For a synopsis of the Torah portion, click here. You can also read the full text of Parshas Vayeitzei along with Rashi's commentary by clicking here. For the sake, however, of this post, I want to highlight a significant concept that emerges in this parsha that not only corresponds to the month of Kislev and the story of Chanukah, but also is quite meaningful in light of current events.
Prior to this parsha we were introduced to the first two Jewish patriarchs, Abraham and his son, Isaac. Both were extremely righteous men who devoted their lives, efforts and hearts to spreading the word of G-d. Each had his own unique strength and ability in spreading Divinity. Abraham epitomized chesed (loving-kindness) and utilized this character trait to disseminate Divine concepts to as broad an audience as possible. The strength in this approach was that it required no prior preparation from his audience; all his disciples were on a level playing field. A potential flaw was that in not making any prior demands on his audience, his message did not effect permanent change. Isaac personified the idea of gevurah (restraint/judgment) and required his disciples to undergo a process of self-refinement prior to receiving his message. The unique paradox highlighted by both of these methods was well described in last week's Chayenu in the Parsha Toldos Overview, page 7:
"Whereas Abraham's approach can be conceived of as a downward vector, bringing Divinity 'down' to even the lowest rungs of humanity, Isaac's approach can be conceived of as an upward vector, elevating people so they can integrate increasingly higher levels of Divine consciousness into their lives."

Both Abraham and Isaac were effective leaders and educators given their audience and the times in which they lived. Jacob, however, epitomizes the concept of tiferes (reconciliation, harmony), personifying the very best characteristics of both his father's and grandfather's methodology. He managed to blend them in a such a graceful way that he is highlighted in six parshiyos as not only the last of the Jewish patriarchs but also as the first and only patriarch to successfully raise all of his children to be completely committed to G-d's will. Jacob saw that to effect lasting and permanent change, he needed to combine seemingly diametric opposites: chesed and gevurah, loving-kindness and judgment/discernment.

How does this relate to the month of Kislev, the darkest time of the year? How does this relate to the story of Chanukah? And how does this relate to the horrendous events that are now occurring in Israel? Switching venues for a moment, I will take you to a maamar (Chassidic discourse) on Chanukah I've been studying by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, called (in English) Victory of Light.  In the introduction and overview to his discourse, the Rebbe highlights the initial split between the Jews and the Greeks. He explains that the Greeks had no problem with the Jews studying Torah or doing mitzvot. As logical people, they saw many of these laws and customs as sensible and even meaningful. The split occurred when the Greeks could not accept the Jews' fulfillment of mitzvot which did not make sense or hold pragmatic meaning.
The very unique factor of the Chanukah oil itself is that in a sense it epitomizes a significant characteristic of every Jew. There are parts of our soul that fluidly relate to G-d in an intellectual and logical way. There are parts of our soul, that like oil, do not mix with other fluids; this is the part that commits to G-d on an intuitive way that is beyond the parameters of logic and reason. This aspect of every Jew is above intellect; it is supra-rational. The Rebbe goes on to explain the correlation of why upon destruction of the Holy Temple, the Greeks went after the oil. The Temple was filled with things of seemingly greater value than oil! Why was it, then, so important for them to contaminate our oil?
"Every enemy goes after the life-source of their opponent--the wells, the food stocks. The Greeks went after the oil. For therein resides the secret of the Jew. These battles of old are still being fought today. In every generation there are Hamans and there are Greeks..."
The Rebbe continues on to explain that today, "the Greek of old is not always an outsider; he is often alive and well within our own minds, waging a persistent battle against our Divine sensibilities (page 16)."
Abraham and Isaac-- both men of great magnitude and righteousness--acted out of logic and intellect. Jacob, on the other hand, epitomizes that oil aspect in every Jew; he acted supra-rationally, beyond the scope of calculation. He was thereby able to relate to G-d and to inspire those around him in a whole new way, through the characteristic of tiferes. At our very best, we combine these aspects of chesed and gevurah and personify this idea of harmony. In times of darkness, of violence and war--whether it be overseas, in our own backyard, or, G-d forbid, in our own minds, we cannot see the value in that which is above our comprehension. We cannot understand the light that emanates from acts that are supra-rational and above logic.  And yet, there is inherent value in that. There is inherent light that emanates only from the disconnect between our rational and supra-rational selves. That is the light which cannot be extinguished. Even and especially in times of great distress and immense darkness, all the layers of ration, intellect and logic are peeled away. All you are left with is the core essence of your Self. You act and exist in those moments out of the truest most beautiful nature of who you are--a G-dly soul. And that is above reason.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Returning to Your Jerusalem

A few days ago, I read the following in a daily email I receive from

"People want to run away from where they are, to go to find their Jerusalem—as if elsewhere they will find perfection. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing there, make that a Jerusalem."

This struck a chord not only because of my own unique journey, but also because of the common journey we as humans all share. I thought about the aspects of our physical world that we cling to and yet they are only temporary. And that is twofold: inasmuch as we cling so tenaciously to our comforts and 'happiness,' so, too, do we struggle to let go of our fears and our pain. Whether "where you are" is a state of location, a circumstance of obligation, or a sense of mind, it is your Jerusalem. It's not your Jerusalem because it's necessarily what you wanted or how you planned. It's not your Jerusalem because its roads are paved with golden ease. It's not even your Jerusalem because it's permanent--permanence in and of itself is a fallacy! But it is your Jerusalem because in this very moment-- and only this moment--you are meant to be exactly where you are, doing exactly what you are doing.

As I shared in a previous post, Rosh Chodesh Kislev is just around the corner. The new month officially begins tonight. For women especially, it is an auspicious time. We refrain from certain types of work and immerse in extra prayer, particularly in reciting Tehillim (Psalms). Prayer is, of course, a very private conversation with G-d, but my heart is pouring out right now to the many loved ones, friends, and strangers who are suffering from that feeling of disconnect and darkness. For whatever reason, and for many reasons, we can find ourselves in a state of emotional, physical and even spiritual exhaustion. In those times, the walls come down and the heart pours out its song. From the pain you may sit in, it can sound dissonant and be hard to listen. And yet, to me it is the most beautiful song the ears can hear. It is raw, it is genuine, and it is real. 

These states of being can last for moments of a day or even days at a time. And yet, they, too, are only fleeting. However, in those times that we often refer to as moments of weakness, our true strength shines through. We are not weak, inadequate, or unworthy because we feel intellectually, physically or spiritually far from Home/G-d/Jerusalem. We are so incredibly strong because in those moments we are no longer running on intellect, physical strength and emotions alone: it is those times specifically that our soul-power takes over. We run on G-dliness! Even the greatest level of faith is characterized by some level of doubt.

This Rosh Chodesh, as I take some extra time to immerse in my own prayer, I've much to be grateful for. There are many exciting and rewarding things happening in my life right now and I am nearly overflowing with the joy and abundance I feel. At the same time, my heart is open to those who in this darkest month of the year are not feelin' that joy and love. My prayers are focused on that, as well--because as far as you ever feel and as dark as it seems, light is just a breath away and your Jerusalem is already within you. It is there when you are joyful. It is there when you feel strong. It is there when you are certain and self-assured. It is also there when you are sad and when you are afraid. It is there when you feel tired and more than anything just want to rest and be held. It is there--more than ever before--when you let go and give in (even temporarily) to the doubt you feel. For in those moments, when your deepest and truest heart-song sings, then you are in Jerusalem; then you are at Home.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Choosing to Decide & Deciding to Choose

Have you noticed that there are a LOT of decisions to make? And I don't mean just the big ones either. Have you been down the oral hygiene aisle lately? Do I want fluoride in my toothpaste? Tarter control? Whiter teeth? Cavity protection? Gum treatment? Twelve hours of minty freshness?

And then there's the paper goods aisle? That's an utter nightmare! Do I want one ply or two? Now they have three, also! Ultra soft or ultra strong? With lotion? With aloe? With Vitamin E??Quilted, rippled, 1000 sheets...angels, puppies, teddy bears and smiling babies--it's all too much! It's option overload and in the end, you know what? It all goes down the drain one way or another! And with all these choices, which, might I add, we are fortunate to have, is it any surprise that when it comes to the bigger, more meaningful decisions in life that we stand in a stupor unable to move in one direction or another?

Now I think back to the mazes of my early childhood. It was so simple back then to find the part that said "start HERE," locate the "FINISH" sign up ahead and travel via crayon accordingly. Sure, it was scary to think of a page full of purple mishaps, but there really were only two options: move closer to completion or get stuck. Not like today. Now there are 623,954.7 options! We don't always progress in a linear fashion and for many of life's decisions, we don't even know what or where the "FINISH" sign is! There is a delicate balance between acting recklessly and not acting at all. There is a fine line between foolishness and cautiousness. When we are overly cautious, we are stagnant, and that is foolish.

Sometimes it's our own stagnancy that encourages us to make a move. We might grow uncomfortable enough with the current status quo to pursue something (or anything) outside of our "comfort zone." Sometimes it's a gentle nudge from a loving other to get off our tuchus and make a decision. Sometimes, still, it's the stagnancy of others. We see so clearly from the outside how uncomfortable someone else might be in what they deem their own "comfort zone." We see so objectively that this person is neither sinking nor swimming, that this person is barely even treading water. We genuinely want more for those we love and then we can look inward and see the stagnant puddles of muck that have built up on our own journey's path.

I am blessed to have many loving others I can look toward with admiration. I've friends and family who have shown incredible levels of courage and faith. They have taken great leaps and risks to pursue their paths with vigor and zeal. They make it look graceful, and perhaps, I do, too. I, too, have taken some pretty hefty leaps. I greet each morning with vigor and zeal; I close each night with courage and faith. It is because I have so very much that I strive for so much more. I really do want it all and why shouldn't I? For some time now I've felt I am on the cusp of something so very big. I am spiritually, emotionally and to some extent intellectually aware that I am on the threshold of my dream. It is as though I have arrived at the proverbial three doorways and there is the booming baritone voice of the game-show host bellowing, "And which will you choose? Door number one? Door number two? Or door number three?"

Do you open one door up a crack, just to see what's inside? Or maybe you barge on in, tossing caution to the wind. I am contemplative. I think, I talk, I explore and when the time feels right I ask the questions I do have. I am self-aware enough to realize when I just don't know. I am not inhibited at all in asking G-d for help and guidance. I have many mentors and ten times as many options. The tricky part is deciphering the exact moment at which I've passed the point of fruitful contemplation and entered into the realm of stagnant hesitance. Divine Providence has it that just as soon as I began to cross that threshold, the phone began to ring off the hook. Opportunity was on the other line in the form of conversations with strangers, conversations with friends and even conversations with family. Support, encouragement and inspiration comes in so many beautiful shades.

As I think more about this time of year, about the darkness inherent to the upcoming month of Kislev and about the joy and light of Chanukah, I cannot help but think of how this all relates. A spark needs proper kindling and a nurturing environment in which to flourish as a hardy and vibrant flame. The human spark needs love, connection, education, relationship... The time has come to stop asking"when" and start saying "now." It's no longer a matter of asking "where," but a matter of starting HERE. I will not be overcome by option overload. I will begin today by choosing to decide and deciding to choose!