Blah Blah Blahg

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Little Post-Hurricane Humor

Life here in the state's capital is creeping back up to a typical pace and we, thank G-d, did not get hit very hard by yesterday's storm. The city did not fare so well and folks in areas all along the northeastern coast are still hurting from this hurricane. Without making light of a very serious situation, sometimes laughter is the best and only medicine. Here is a little P.S.A. courtesy of my sick sense of humor:

In light of current/recent events on the northeastern coast, I feel it is my duty as a responsible citizen to put out this timely public service announcement: 
Always be prepared. In the event of a hurricane, do NOT let this happen to you!

This message has been brought to you today by the Coalition For Buying In Bulk. And remember folks, friends don't let friends run out of toilet paper!

Weathering The Storm: Lessons Learned Through Hurricane Sandy

After over 36 hours locked up alone in my basement level apartment with my flashlight and radio on the ready, I finally emerged this morning to see what was doing outside. I was amazed and astounded to see sunny, blue skies. Granted, there are a lot of large puddles, still some fairly gusty winds and various levels of evidence to remind me that in fact a storm blew through here. Aside from that there was a stillness and serenity in the air. For some time this morning I've thought about just what it means to weather the storm and what one can learn and take from experiencing a hurricane--whether in the literal or figurative sense.

  • Always be prepared!
    • No, I'm not going to build a bomb shelter or purchase a variety of freeze dried food-like substances in powder form. But my general rule of thumb is to prepare for the worst and expect the best.
  • Never put off until tomorrow what you really could do today: 
    • Alright, so this is really embarrassing, but at 2:25PM EST yesterday, I ran out of toilet paper. Yup, completely out. Thank G-d, I had a lot of tissues at home and my apartment's plumbing system appears thus far to be quite hardy, but this got me to thinking--how often do I put off seemingly simple tasks with the expectation and belief that I will be able to take care of them later? Whether it's as mundane as picking up more toilet paper before you run completely out or as important as telling the people who matter just how much they mean to you, don't wait. Do it now. You really just don't know when that next chance will fall. On that note...
  • Who are the people who matter?
    • When a hurricane comes, an amazing phenomenon occurs. People talk to each other. Alright, so I live alone and know a lot of others in the same situation; I'm not embarrassed to admit here that after several hours of complete alone time, I also talked to myself. Maybe in foreign accents. Maybe even while singing... Anyway, moving right along... 
    • People who don't normally take the time to chat, to say "hey, I'm thinking about you, how's it going?" --actually did. When the world outside our boarded-up windows comes to a complete halt, we draw inward and reach out. When we don't know if and for how long we'll have electricity and phone access, we keep our conversations brief and to the point. There is no more beating around the proverbial bush. There is less idle chatter and more honesty, vulnerability, and meaning. We are less inhibited. We are unafraid to say "I'm scared," or "I'm lonely," or "I ran out of toilet paper 7 hours ago, what do I do?" We are far more eager to remember that "I love you, stay safe," at the end of the call.
  • Getting to know me, getting to like me...
    • Don't get me wrong, I do love my me time. I am by nature an introverted socialite--I enjoy socializing, I'm not particularly shy, but I relish my time to sit and reflect. 
    • That said,  I peak at about six hours of alone time and then the cabin fever starts to set in.
    • I really learned a lot. How much time do we really spend getting to know this person we call me? What are my likes? My loves? My fears? My limits? 
    • I recalled some of my strengths: I'm funny, darn near hilarious. I make myself laugh--crack up even. I'm creative. I'm bright and thoughtful. I am, in fact, a pillar of strength--even when I break down and briefly become a tearful pillar of salt.
    • I also recalled some of my weaknesses: I'm impatient. I'm sometimes not so kind, especially toward myself. 
  • We see only a small part of the whole
    • Hurricane Sandy brought the entire northeastern coast to a screeching halt. New York City shut down. New Jersey streets and sidewalks were desolate. Boston may as well have been a ghost town. For those fortunate enough to have power, the internet, television and phones were our only means to the outside world. For the rest, there was only the occasional glimpse outside a window. 
    • This brought me to think, even when the world is in full swing and spinning right along, how much of the big picture do we actually see? How often are our blinders up? How often do we intentionally look the other way? How often do we allow ourselves to slow down and take in the scenery?
  • Hurricanes Happen; Weather Comes and Weather Goes
    • So much of our physical world is impermanent. We have such intense attachments to things which are only temporary. We have such a hard time letting go and yet, so much of our pain in doing so is entirely self-inflicted. We cling, we cradle, we coddle and clench. We could eliminate so much of our struggle by surrendering to our own lack of control. Leave it to a massive storm to remind us just how powerless we are and how omnipotent G-d is. 
    • We are not entirely powerless, though! When I am right with G-d, when I am right with those around me and when I am right with and within myself, I can out-storm any weather. Sometimes I can solve the problem. Sometimes I just have to sit with it, still within myself, and wait. And wait. And wait some more. 
    • And trust. Trust that the storm will pass. That I won't be overcome. That in this beautiful and complex world, there are hurricanes, there are winds of full force, there are sheets of rain that threaten the very ground upon which we stand. And, seemingly just around the corner, there are blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and a calm and serenity that can only be fully appreciated once you've weathered the storm.

Monday, October 29, 2012

My Ba'al Teshuva Story

Below are easy links to all four parts of the series I wrote on becoming ba'al teshuva:

Part 1: To The Land That I Will Show You

Part 2: In The Beginning...

Part 3: When The Waters Rage, Sink or Swim

Part 4: Coming Home

I thank all the friends who encouraged me to put this into words, and pray that my story only continues to emerge. The importance of and life behind the written word is one of the many unique aspects of Judaism that binds us and strengthens us as a people.
"Turn the pages, turn the pages, everything is in it (the Torah)..."

My Ba'al Teshuva Story: Part 4, Coming Home

The final part of my story I relate to Parshas Lech Lecha. Lech lecha literally translates to "go, go to yourself." What does this mean? How can go to yourself. Are you not already there? I wrap up this portion of my story through the lens of this particular parsha because many times we are in fact very far from ourselves. More often, I think, than we realize. I also chose Lech Lecha because Avraham Avinu is more to me than the first Jew, or a righteous soul. He is the very essence of what I strive for and cling to in my daily life as an Orthodox Jew: emunah and bitachon, loosely translated as faith and trust in G-d

In an amazing Torah vignette available here, Rav Matisyahu Salamon Shlita, explains the difference between emunah and bitachon.
Emunah is a “concept” or a “theory”, while Bitachon is Emuna in action, or the application of Emunah into ones everyday life and actions.
Therefore, a person can theoretically be a “Ba’al Emunah” [master of emunah] without being a “Ba’al Bitachon” [master]. However, if one is truly a “Ba’al Bitachon”, then he must also be a “Ba’al Emunah” – and by definition!

As I conclude this particular series of posts, I also want to iterate that although I am honored to use the term ba'al teshuva to describe my yearning for and movement toward traditional Orthodox Judaism, I am by no means complete in my process. I have so much to learn and feel such immense joy in the vast opportunities out there in which to do so. I pray that I always regard my growth with humility and awareness of how little I truly know. May I always regard those who've helped and supported me through this with the kindness and gratitude due. And, finally, may I always strive with pure intentions to learn, grow and refine.

I look back now at that little girl in the preschool yard, or the frightened teen praying the only way she knew how from a hospital bed, or even the obstinate young adult declaring with false confidence that she didn't need, want or have anything to do with G-d or Yiddishkeit. What was it that brought me to this moment? Was it the times of ease and comfort? The simplicity and beauty of feeling the warmth of the sun on my face as a toddler sitting with her knees up to her chin in the synagogue sanctuary? Was it the yearning to wholeheartedly understand and experience the sensation of being drawn to holiness when immersed in Shabbos evening prayer?  Was it the pain of destruction and self-sabotage? Actually, it was all of that. And more. Truly the most consistent and inherent characteristic that has fueled my pintele yid into a full-fledged fire that burns and yearns for G-d is the very fact that I have emunah.

Emunah is like a muscle. If you do not exercise it through acts of bitachon, it grows weak. For years my emunah was dormant. It was there, but it lay untouched. Emunah was the feeling of being stirred from within by prayers I couldn't even read at the time. Emunah was the unique tendency to call out to G-d in both times of joy and times of sorrow. Emunah was precisely the path to the connection I so longed to feel, and yet, without bitachon, without action and trust, it remained fleeting; impossible to sustain. The emptiness, disconnect and sense of disorientation I felt was not because G-d was far from me. It was, in fact, a longing, a gentle nudge, a reminder that G-d is so very close.

In an oft told vignette, a man asks a wise rabbi, "how far away is G-d?" The learned scholar responds to the man and asks him to face east. And face west. "And now," he asks, "how far was it from east to west? That is how far away G-d is."

When I decided again to begin taking on certain mitzvos and learning about Orthodox Judaism, I resolved to go at a more comfortable pace. I realized I could not maintain new habits without putting time, thought, and energy into how and why I was choosing to take them on. Certain aspects of practice came and come more easily than others. Certain mitzvos seem to "make sense" or "feel good." Others did not present in that way and I felt reluctance or hesitance in making changes. It boils down to the fact that even regarding those mitzvos which do make sense or feel good, we don't as humans fully understand the power or reason behind any of G-d's commandments. Observing a particular commandment at any given moment is truly in its most simplistic sense an opportunity to connect with G-d. It is the means by which we bring G-dliness to this physical realm and at the same time, make this world a place in which G-d can reside. 

The greatest hindrance to my process was and always has been my own self. A belief that I always had to be perfect and correct in everything I did often got in the way of me making any move at all; I became stagnant. Additionally, I had the expectation that emunah, faith, was something we feel at the same intensity at all times. However, like any other feeling in any other relationship, the feelings we have toward G-d ebb and flow in intensity. I am always close to G-d. No more do I feel that angst and disconnect. There are times of the day or days at a time that I may feel this stirring less intensely and times that it rages with full force. It is very much like a flame. It sometimes dances with the breeze. It sometimes cowers in the wind and grows very small indeed. It sometimes burns with an intensity that could light up the darkest room. The important thing, however, is that it burns eternally regardless of the breeze, the wind, or the ambiance of the room. 

Not everything I do or strive to do comes naturally or easily. Some of it does. Some of it is like second nature. Some of it requires flexing that emunah muscle and remembering that true faith is also accompanied by a healthy measure of doubt. In those moments, I must let go and let G-d. I must act out of bitachon and trust that G-d will do the heavy lifting when my cargo becomes too much to bare. When G-d told Avram to go forth from his land, from his birthplace, from his father's home, he could only rely on emunah and bitachon. He had to have faith and he had to act on pure trust alone. He was given test after test; he did not falter. 

The collective flame of the Jewish people burns bright today because of our faith and our trust. Through test after test, our flame may have at times diminished but shall never be extinguished. I am encouraged by this and humbled by others on a similar path to mine. For many of us, it seems we've left our land, our birthplace, our home. One of my greatest stumbling blocks, however, was the belief that none of those past things had any place in my present life as an Orthodox Jew. I spent energy on trying to separate the 'old' from the 'new' rather than realizing how very much a part of the 'new' the 'old' really is. I am where I am today because of where I came from. I was inspired and encouraged in different ways but equally by all the members of my family, by friends, by complete strangers. In essence, being a ba'al teshuva is not a characteristic that makes me so different from who I was beforehand. Rather, it is the embodiment of becoming who I already was. Through continued emunah and acts of bitachon, through the kindness and compassion of G-d, I continuously feel--again and again--the warmth, comfort and gratitude of coming home
Over twenty years ago, a little girl looked for G-d all around a Jewish nursery school. Today, that grown woman knows exactly where G-d is: He is here within me and, at once, He is also everywhere around me.

My Ba'al Teshuva Story, Part 3: When The Waters Rage, Sink or Swim

I do not think it is in any way coincidental that my writing of this particular post, the part of my ba'al teshuva story that relates to Parshas Noach, is coinciding with the northeast coast being hit by Hurricane Sandy. In the story of Noach and the flood, G-d sees the violence and corruption in the world and decides to eliminate it altogether with a massive storm, sparing the righteous Noach, his family and a selection of animals in order to preserve and sustain life on earth. It is a story of destruction and also a story of survival. It portrays the magnitude of G-d to at once be so immensely powerful and at the same time, so loving and forgiving. For how comparatively powerless we as humans are, one would think that we could at least master the acts of love and forgiveness--particularly in dealing with ourselves.
That one way plane ticket took me to a location not known for its Jewish livelihood. There was, in fact, very little in the way of Jewish life and practice where I was living until a young family from Brooklyn moved in and established the area's first Chabad center. I've shared in the past how dear these people are to me. The first time I walked into their house, I felt at home. They epitomize the meaning of unconditional love. The work they do is tireless, often thankless and is truly invaluable.They embody the message and holy wisdom of their Rebbe, and even in moments of difficulty, exhaustion and struggle, continue to serve his legacy and serve G-d with an open heart and a warm smile.
Prior to their arrival, I continued to weave in and out of Jewish practice. It took over a year and a half to find any Jewish community at all, and even once I did, I still felt an immense disconnect. While I did have a small taste of Torah at my disposal, it was not the flavor of Judaism I was seeking. Walking into the Chabad almost 5 years ago, I entered the first Orthodox home I'd ever been in outside of my own grandparents' and relatives'. Perhaps that is what made them seem so familiar to me. That familiarity was warm and friendly. They emanated a G-dliness I yearned to feel within my own soul. Suddenly, there was a wealth of Torah, Talmud, Chassidus and Halacha at my fingertips. It was like being in a buffet line; I had no self-control. I loaded EVERYTHING onto my plate at once.
Surely if I traded in my pants and tank tops for a tasteful skirt and longer sleeves, I would feel that holiness. Surely if I gave up my Friday nights at the bar for lighting Shabbos candles and praying, I would feel that G-dliness. Surlely if I emptied my kitchen of all things unkosher, I would feel that connection day in and day out. It was easy to feel all that when it was Shabbos or a holiday. However, the rest of the time, I felt almost nothing at all. If anything, I felt like an impostor. It's not that I was doing the wrong things; I was doing the right things for the wrong reason. I felt the storm welling within me. There was a greater more palpable disconnect than ever before between the life I yearned to be living and the one I was actually leading. It was a dissonance I can only equate to hearing two songs playing at the same time. I kept trying to separate the two; the 'old' me and the 'new' me. I tried to categorize which parts fit in where, but rather than gaining meaning and comfort, I became self-critical and discouraged.
It took some tearful confessions to a friend who made a bold move to help me for things to finally surface. The storm was now in full effect. I'd been building this massive structure on a weak foundation and, as is prone to happening, it crumbled beneath me. I did then what most people do best: I left. If I couldn't glean meaning and connection to G-d from performing His mitzvos, then there was no reason to pursue that at all! I traded those skirts in for pants and tank tops, I went back to my 'previously scheduled programming,' and claimed once again to have no need at all for G-d in my life. I stopped going to synagogue and tried my hardest to ignore sincere requests from my rabbi, friends and community members to return. I pursued things that seemed far easier to attain: material wealth, education, a career and a vibrant social life. None of those things are inherently good or bad. They all neutrally have their place and purpose in this physical realm we live in. However, I adhered the same level of intensity and fervor to these pursuits as I had in pursuing Yiddishkeit. I had no balance in my life and it took a literal loss of balance--the emergence of severe neurological symptoms related to my yet-to-be-diagnosed sleep disorder, to whisk me off my feet and slow me down.
Once again, in the threshold of the storm, I surprised myself by calling out to G-d. How can you call upon Someone or Something you don't believe in? The truth is, you can't. You don't. I called upon G-d to help me not because I did or didn't believe He could, but because when it comes down to it, I already knew what a lousy job I was doing at navigating things down here on earth. I needed to trust that G-d could do the job better and I needed to let Him do it.

"A mentsh tracht und Gott lacht" is a Yiddish phrase meaning a person plans and G-d laughs. I had it all figured out. My career, my education, my relationships. Yet, through my own efforts to maintain and control every aspect of my environment, I was losing control altogether. When the going got tough, I got going. I believe G-d has a sensitivity along with His sense of humor. I believe G-d put struggles in my path because He believes I could handle them. I believe very much that there is no coincidence to the fact that the very final environment I lost control of was the only one I could not escape; my physical body. For all those years I had been sleeping--both literally and figuratively, G-d was compassionately and gently saying, "wake up, wake up!" 
I do not see G-d as the raging of the storm. I see G-d as the compassionate Father leaving the door always open, no matter how far we stray. G-d is not always going to stop us from making the wrong choice. He is not even always going to cushion our fall if and when we do. He is, however, always going to be right there before us when we are ready, arms wide open, whispering gently, "Welcome Home."

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To Be Continued and Concluded in Part 4

My Ba'al Teshuva Story: Part 2, In The Beginning...

The first parsha in the Torah, in the book of Genesis, is Bereishis, which describes G-d's creation of the world. One of the most unique and inherently beautiful aspects of Creation is that it was not and is not a one-time occurrence. G-d did not merely whip up six days worth of recipes for a functioning world and all its life, works and components. Rather, G-d created these facets and continues to create them in each and every moment, infusing this world and all of its components with G-dly energy and life again and again. What does this have to do with my story, you ask? Fabulous question (even if you weren't actually asking it)!
     In the beginning...
...there was a little girl (me), walking around a Jewish nursery school in Albany, NY with a big question. I had heard of this G-d character on a regular basis, but I wanted to know where He was. I remember looking for G-d everywhere. Was He on the playground? Was He in the fallen Autumn leaves on the front yard of the school? Was He in the light shining in through the stained glass windows of the synagogue sanctuary? Was G-d in the Shabbos candles we lit on Friday as we sang songs and shared challah? I could feel G-d's presence in my uncontrollable urge to smile as I played on that playground or as we walked through those Autumn leaves. I was sure I could see G-d in the beauty of the rays of sun shining up onto the bima where I sat, so small and secure with my knees tucked up to my chin and my thumb in my mouth. I was certain I could hear G-d in the beauty of singing songs that to this day bring such joy to my soul. For sure, G-d was somewhere in those burning Shabbos flames, and for sure, like that fire, G-d was Something we could not touch. Even at a young age, without the assistance (or hindrance) of much outside influence, I had an intense yearning to find, understand, and feel G-d's presence.
The pintele yid is a Yiddish term for Jewish spark; the flame that burns eternally in each and every Jew. No matter how close to or far from Yiddishkeit and Torah observance we are, that flame burns. It may be a great raging fire, it may be a minuscule glowing ember. Nonetheless, it burns eternally. It is the part of our soul that causes us to cleave on some level to traditions and wisdom that are thousands of years old and at the same time, ageless. I've heard from time to time a person say of another Jew, "he is so far from Yiddishkeit" or "she is so removed from the ways of the Torah." From a Jewish perspective, this is not possible. No Jew is so far or removed from Judaism. The fact of the matter is, even the tiniest glowing ember is sufficient to start a great and raging flame. Given the proper kindling and environment, even the littlest spark is enough!
I was a Hebrew school drop-out. I never learned as a child to read Hebrew. I never learned to pray. I thought when it came to the ways of Jewish practice that I knew very little at all. I became keenly aware of this around the age of twelve or thirteen when many of my peers at school were going through their bar/bas mitzvah. I could sit in the synagogue with the very same book everyone else around me had, but all I could do was say part of the shema. I don't recall being disappointed that I wasn't have a bas mitzvah or the party to go with it. I do recall feeling ashamed that I couldn't pray. I think (or hope) I hid this well. I scrounged around my parents' bookshelves for anything and everything Jewish. I found my father's copy of Herman Wouk's This Is My G-d collecting dust on the shelf. It was inscribed with his name inside and his fifth grade Hebrew school class in the early 1960s. As you can see from the photo to the left, this book was a 29-week best seller. It is not necessarily the type of literature a typical twelve year old would seek or have trouble putting down, particularly a twelve year old who HATED to read. I, nonetheless, read that book from cover to cover. I learned as much as I could about the ways and practices of our people. All of a sudden, I found out that this shema I remembered was supposed to be said three times a day. I didn't even know the whole thing, but I tried to say it anyway. I begged my parents to keep a kosher home again (as early on our home was kosher and the practice had since been given up). I gave up television shows on Friday nights and Saturday and opted to read instead.  I paid closer attention than ever to my grandparents and even attended their Orthodox shul for the very first time.
I had no clue what I was doing. I didn't even know enough to ask how to begin. After my family moved from New York to Massachusetts, we joined a Reform synagogue for the first time in years and I signed up for Hebrew High School classes once a week. I enrolled in a Hebrew reading class thinking I would learn to read. I found out right away that everyone else already knew how to read! The instructor handed out materials and began to go around the table to have everyone read. When it got to my turn, I recognized maybe one letter. I was mortified. I was enrolled instead in an art class down the hall. My parents would take me to services on Friday night and I would watch fervently what everyone else was doing in the hopes that I might figure out how to pray. To an extent, this worked. However, more and more I felt ashamed of how little I knew. If only someone would have said to me what I truly know and feel to be true now: that little spark within me was more than enough! I just needed to proper kindling and environment to help that spark reach its full potential!
Throughout high school, in the midst of poor health and much turmoil, I drifted back and forth between reaching toward and running from Yiddishkeit. Sure, I felt a connection and fire within me during those Friday night services. When we read Psalm 23, I felt (and to this day still feel) an intense stirring within me that could not be ignored. And yet, it was fleeting. Just as soon as that feeling emerged it seemed to disappear altogether. Seeking that feeling of connection in human relationship seemed an easier route to take. My yet-to-be-diagnosed sleep disorder was affecting me in such a way that as a teen, I literally could not stay awake much of the time. I slept through school, I slept through life and when I was awake, I felt intensely disoriented and disconnected.
I thought it might be easier to place my trust in man rather than in G-d. If my feeling of connection to G-d was so fleeting, then perhaps people could make me feel connected all of the time. This path was inherently bound to disappoint and hurt. I could outright state my disbelief or unwillingness to accept the existence and presence of G-d and yet, it would always surprise me how inexplicably easy it was to 'forget' that and find myself caught in prayer. G-d always seemed to show up in moments of agony or fear, whether it was a hospital room, a family crisis, a doctor's visit or a decision in the fall of 2003 to leave home with a one way ticket. Those were the moments I found myself both comforted and startled by how easy it was to again know that G-d's presence was before me. Those were the times that it was both calming and overwhelming to know I was not alone...

*     *     *

To be continued in Part 3

Sunday, October 28, 2012

To The Land That I Will Show You...My "Ba'al Teshuva" Story: Part 1

And the L-rd said to Abram, 'Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you...'

Parshas Lech Lecha, Bereishis 12:1

Last week's parsha, Lech Lecha is my favorite of all the parshios. To me, the story of Avraham Avinu is one of wholehearted faith in G-d, unwavering courage, and complete surrender and release. It so happens that last year during the week this parsha is read, my grandfather passed away. I was living out west, 3000 miles away from most of my family members as they gathered to grieve our loss and celebrate Grandpa's extraordinary life. This year, I spent this past Shabbos with my grandmother. I heard Parshas Lech Lecha read in the very shul my grandfather attended for over 50 years. Today, my family gathered at the cemetery for the unveiling of my grandfather's tombstone. This unique ritual marks a passage from the year long period of mourning (shloshim) back into the full swing of life, now without the physical presence of our dearly departed, but, G-d willing with the comfort of beautiful memories and honorable legacies.

It was over nine years ago that I went forth from the land of my birthplace, my parents and all familiarity and boarded a plane out west. I know now in my heart and the depths of my soul that this was absolutely the path for me to take. For all intensive purposes, I discovered peace, wellness and found my way to Torah-observant Judaism all while living in the middle of nowhere. This would not have happened were it not for the divine guidance and compassion of G-d. It would be impossible without the timeless wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the tireless efforts of the shlichim (emissaries) who lovingly carry out the Rebbe's mission on every corner of this earth--even Middle of Nowhere, USA. It also would not have happened without the inspiration and support of my grandparents.

I have been cautious to write about my experience as a ba'al teshuva, and, to be honest, until quite recently, I was hesitant to even use the term ba'al teshuva to describe my (continuing) journey toward Orthodox Judaism as I didn't feel I was learned enough or ready to earn that title. I am cautious as I wish to be very sensitive to and respectful of both of my parents, who may not be Orthodox themselves but laid an invaluable foundation for me as a Jewish child and support me now as a practicing Orthodox Jewish adult. I wish to be sensitive and respectful to all members of my family, friends and even strangers regardless of observance or affiliation. I also am cautious to insinuate that my journey is by any means over or complete; I've much to learn and pray that I continue to do so with strength, fervor and curiosity. However, all caution aside, yesterday as I laid a stone upon my late grandfather's grave and, for the first time in perhaps a decade, cried in the arms of my loving family, I keenly felt the importance of expressing and articulating the things that matter most to us. I pray that my Grandpa is pleased today to see me where I am. I pray that he forgives me for anything I may have done, knowingly or unknowingly to hurt or disappoint him. And foremost, I pray that he continue to guide me; that although I cannot call upon him for his wise (sometimes unsolicited!) advice, that I can touch upon the truth I know in my heart because one heart truly feels another.

Like Avraham, my grandfather had true emunah (faith) in G-d. Through pain, loss, tragedy and illness, he remained connected not only to Hashem, but to his fellow Jew. He was a man of great chesed (kindness) and generosity--not because these acts earned him honor or respect, but because they are the way of the Torah and because they are right. During the last weeks of his life in this physical realm, my grandfather was in a great deal of pain. However, he sat and suffered through High Holy Day services because it was important to him to ask for a bracha (blessing) for each of his children, grandchildren and his wife. I don't know if I ever expressed to him how much I admire and strive to emulate these wonderful qualities. I merely hope that through my humble acts of keeping Shabbos, keeping Kosher, and learning more and more to live a life of Torah observance, my grandfather should know and feel this to be true. May my grandfather's neshama have an aliyah and may his memory be blessed.

I was sitting with my grandmother early in the morning on Shabbos before we walked to shul. We were talking about my continuing journey toward observance. With love and wistfulness in her eyes, she expressed her hopes that she'd done enough to provide a positive Jewish foundation for her children and grandchildren. She herself grew up in a home that was kosher but her parents owned a grocery store and could not afford to lose the business they would receive over Shabbos. She did not become observant until she was almost forty. I told her how much it meant to me to see her and my grandfather live a Torah observant life--that even long before I could understand why, I felt drawn to and inspired by the beauty, simplicity and integrity of Yiddishkeit. She shared with me a little story that may seem silly and cute at first, but holds such deep meaning.
In the story, a little girl is sent to visit her grandparents in their traditional home for Shabbos. When Saturday night comes and the child leaves to return home, she stops and waves. "Good-bye Grandma. Good-bye Grandpa. Good-bye G-d."

With humility and hope, I confidently call myself a ba'al teshuva today. Though it literally translates to "master of repentence," the term refers today to one who returns to traditional observant Judaism. I once saw this path as one I would travel alone, laden with obstacles I was not sure I could overcome and cargo I was not sure I could continue to carry. Thank G-d, today I see it much differently. I am not alone. I am accompanied on this path by so many others--Jews of all ages and all backgrounds choosing the same road I have. There are so many other Shabbos-keeping, modestly-dressed, kosher-eating 20-something-year-olds out there who see the inherent value and reward in living a Torah-observant life. There are so many amazing rabbis, scholars, and fellow Jews to lovingly educate and support me along my way. Foremost, G-d is with me. He is behind me, He is beside me, and when the path becomes too tiresome or too treacherous, I believe with full clarity that G-d carries me.

It is not simple to put this story into mere words. I see, however, the value in ba'alei teshuva being able to express and share this process. While I've thought about writing on this topic for quite some time, it was only in the past few weeks that--through reading the parshios--I saw clearly a way in which to organize my thoughts. My journey up until this point is somewhat a reflection of the first three parshios in the book of Bereishis (Genesis): Bereishis, Noach, and Lech Lecha. For the sake of organization, this shall be the first part in a multi-post series. In my writing, I hope that I may glean meaning and greater understanding of my journey thus far. I pray, please G-d, that this is also helpful to others and that wherever our paths may lead, that we all reach a place of inner peace and sanctity.

In loving memory of Binyamin Dov ben Sara Leah, Z"L

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Shabbos Schmooze for Parshas Noach: When G-d Lets the Storm Rage

*In honor of this week's Torah portion, Parshas Noach, I dedicate my post to a dear friend who celebrates her Jewish birthday during this parsha. I wish a yom huledet sameach, a happy birthday to Aviva bas Ruth!
Most of us have some familiarity with the story of Noach (English: Noah). In a world overtaken by violence and corruption, G-d decides it's time for some serious housekeeping. He warns the one righteous man, Noach that a massive deluge is on its way and will wipe out all life on earth. G-d gives Noach some hardcore blueprints (and perhaps a building permit?) along with the instruction to build a teivah (ark) such that Noach can assist in preserving his own family and a selection of male and female members from each animal species. 
Because I cannot read through Parshas Noach without at least one goofy cartoon!

The rains fall for 40 days and 40 nights. For 150 days after that, the waters still violently churn. Only after that does the storm finally begin to calm and recede. Once the teivah settles on the land of Mount Ararat, Noach sends out a raven, followed by a group of doves to scope out the situation. It is a whole year before the ground is completely dry and G-d commands Noach to leave the teivah and repopulate the earth. In gratitude, Noach builds an altar and offers sacrifices to G-d; G-d sends a rainbow as a sign of His new covenant with man. To this day, we say a special blessing any time we see a rainbow outside as we are reminded of this promise and G-d's great compassion.

There is so much one can take from this parsha. Water in and of itself represents a power that cannot be matched. This substance that can cause such irreversible destruction is the very same substance that ensures our survival. We are composed of and dependent on the very same material that could so swiftly and easily bring our demise. How true this is for so many factors we face in this world. And generations upon generations later, are we truly so far from that violence and corruption? It can feel, for lack of a better phrase, as though we are pulled down by the undertow much of the time. We live in a world where we must constantly and consistently decide whether to sink or swim.

Every year we read through this parsha, and each year, I swim away with something new. In the past, I've thought a lot about the idea of second (or third, fourth, 5,678,291st chances), and that is still a meaningful aspect of this parsha for me. However, something new floated to the surface for me this time around: the idea of comfort. I remembered a passage I'd once read that for the life of me I could never accurately cite so I shall paraphrase: 

There are times that G-d calms the storm. There are also times, however, that G-d lets the storm rage but calms the frightened child.

Our lives are not composed solely of sunny beaches and smooth sailing. There are dreary days, rain clouds and sometimes, even massive storms. There are times we raise our hands to the sky in the most sincere and raw stages of pain and we ask , we demand to know why.  Why do we hurt? Why do we suffer? Why is it  simply so hard?

And do you know what? We hurt, suffer and struggle because it's supposed to be hard sometimes. No one ever promised us a life of ease and at the very same time G-d would never give a person a struggle she/he cannot overcome. We don't have the answers. We don't know the reasons. We don't always experience life with ease, but we do have comfort and in that--through the good, the bad, and the ugly, we have meaning. We have a unique and individual relationship to G-d. And He renews and restores His promise to us with each passing second. The Torah is not just a set of stories and occurrences that happened generations upon generations ago. It is the essence of G-d's creation that He so lovingly and compassionately recreates and infuses with Life again and again in every moment.

And we have one more thing: choice. We can choose the blessing or the curse. We can choose to sink or swim. We can choose to feel defeated and overcome or we can choose to throw our hands up in the air, to release this burden of needing to be in control of all things all of the time and to let go. Let G-d. And know, that whatever type of storm we may be experiencing--be it a sprinkle, a sun shower or perhaps a typhoon, that this too shall pass.

At times even the strongest swimmer gets approached by an ominous looking wave. Perhaps it's an illness. Maybe it's a difficult decision or task. It might be a pain that is emotional, physical or spiritual. Whatever your wave is made of, the most important thing is to keep moving. Only when we are stagnant can we be overcome. We may be moving forward, we may need to move back a bit and sometimes we may just tread water. Occasionally, we might even need to build an ark. We must do the work to get there, but we have all the tools and instructions we need to do so. When the storm passes and waters recede, we can rest and breathe in the calm. Only then can we truly remember what it feels like to be held and carried. Only through our discomfort can we truly understand what it feels like to be comforted.
I find myself contemplating this image and am so filled with gratitude for the abundance of comfort I've been privileged to experience in my life. I've seen days of smooth sailing, moments of just floating along, some major upheavals and everything in between. Through it all, I've learned to experience comfort. It is a gift I would not trade for all of the sunny beach days in the world. And with that, I recall the final portion of a poem called First Lesson by Philip Booth:

...believe me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you. 

Wishing friends and family near and far a Shabbat Shalom and all of the comforts you seek.