Blah Blah Blahg

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

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Aren't You Uncomfortable?!" Actually, Yes I Am....

Taking on the laws and customs of tzniut (modesty) pertaining to the way I dress as an Orthodox Jewish woman was not a linear process. Like any aspect of becoming a ba'al teshuva, it involved significant amounts of research, thought, prayer, trust, education, and, of course, trial and error. Nonetheless, I have come into my own state of comfort and understanding with the way I dress--with an equal state of comfort and understanding toward the way anyone else might choose to dress. Most days I don't think twice about it. It's a hoot when you teach preschool. Last year while teaching in Washington state, I overheard a little boy explain to his peers why I always wear a skirt: "She just HATES pants!!" (This is actually not true, though I don't miss the days of struggling to find pant legs that weren't too long and a waist that wasn't too low...) This year, while teaching in New York state, it took over 4 months before any of the children said anything one way or the other. It was a little boy who in the middle of lunch announced with a quizzical expression, "You always wear dresses," and went back to his PB&J.

Still, nothing brings the topic to the forefront of discussion like spending time outside during the first warm days of spring. The ladies all look so lovely and lively in the bright colors of modern spring fashion. Some of them wear jeans, some wear shorts, some wear sandals and others sport a playful pair of flats. There are sundresses, tank tops, t-shirts galore. I, as usual, am in a skirt that flows past my knees and a top with sleeves that reach below my elbows. And then the comments begin:
         "I'm hot just looking at you. How can you stand it? Don't you ever miss blue jeans? Don't you feel uncomfortable?"
Initially, I feel awkward and even apologetic. Gosh, I'm so sorry that my longer sleeves and full length skirt make others feel hot in this weather. I jump to respond with something like "No, I'm not uncomfortable at all. I got used to it after a while..." and then I ask myself who I am really feeling apologetic toward? Actually it's me. I am sorry for myself because you know what? Yes, I am uncomfortable. And so, I opt for the first time to respond completely honestly:

"Actually yes, I am uncomfortable. Choosing to wear a skirt and longer sleeves in accordance with my beliefs on modest dress did not make me Superwoman; I feel hot, sweaty and uncomfortable in warm weather just like any other person. And you know what? I love that! Because as many times as I stop to think how uncomfortable I am, that's how many times I feel connected. Connected to my Creator, connected to my roots, and connected to my soul as a spiritual being. In fact, because I am uncomfortable so often due to the choices I make regarding dress, or food, or social relationships, or weekly routines--I never feel disconnected the way I did prior to becoming religious."

And there you have it. But this isn't a post about tzniut or even about religious observance. It is a post about feeling uncomfortable. It's about finding perfect beauty while existing in an imperfect world. Some of life's greatest rewards are received as a result of our greatest sacrifices. Some of the most intense sensations of connection evolve out of our willingness to let go a little. Some of the deepest feelings of closeness emerge from our ability to tolerate temporary states of distance. And nothing brings this topic to the forefront of discussion like the blessing of finding one's basherte (soulmate) and preparing for marriage!

I hear all of the time that nothing challenges a person's sense of self like learning to coexist as an individual within a couple. Thank G-d, I am so blessed to have a sensitive, thoughtful and patient fiance who is learning these ropes with me. In spite of my propensity to become Bridezilla, our mutual respect and love as well as our commitment and humor carry us through any and all bumps in the road to the chuppah. There are endless decisions to make from the details of a wedding invitation to the details of a place to live and the only constant factor is change itself. Well, wait a minute, I don't like change. Remember? Or maybe that's just what we tell ourselves to make it ok that for too long at times in our lives, we remain idle in our discomfort.

The fact is, there are many times I've chosen change. Just less than a year ago, I changed locations from Spokane, Washington to Albany, New York. It wasn't all easy or instantaneous, but Home remained an internal state of being and wherever I went, I was Here. I landed my dream job. I maintained and grew in friendships that are now thousands of miles away and I developed friendships here. I gained contentment and confidence in my Yiddishkeit and certainly gained my mazal in finding a shidduch! I thought about what drew me to move back to this area where I grew up. It wasn't an act of "going back." I really didn't do that at all. I didn't rekindle old relationships here or even spend much time revisiting old stomping grounds. It ended up being the sweet smell of spring lilacs that brought me clarity on the matter. As I was walking around this neighborhood I've called home for the last several months, the overwhelming aroma of spring here brought equally overwhelming memories and nostalgia. I wouldn't say I recalled anything specific or vividly in that sense, but rather that I revisited a feeling. This smell, this place, and this feeling represented the greatest joys and hopes of my childhood. In a very real sense, I came back here to try and find that. And, with G-d's help, I did. But I didn't find it in the place itself or even in the sweet scent of lilacs. The truth is, I've found it within the person I am becoming now together with my chosson (groom). Being with him is where I have returned to the greatest joys and hopes of my childhood as well as the joys and hopes I feel right now and for our future, G-d be willing.

Additionally, marriage is not a foreign language at all. Sure it is new to us and we are in so many ways new to each other. But it is also sublimely familiar. Why? Because prior to meeting my chosson, the greatest most significant and long term relationship I'd had in my life is my relationship to G-d. The Jewish people are often compared to a bride in a marriage to our Creator, our groom. The Torah is our ketuba (marrital contract), Mount Sinai was our chuppah (wedding canopy). G-d created us with free will; we are not like angels or machines who carry out G-d's will automatically. We think, we feel, we exist as individuals. We have our own desires and our own expectations. G-d created us that way. He sees it all, He knows it all, and He loves us anyway. He may walk out of the room at times, but He will never walk out of our marriage. So, too, in my relationship to G-d have I walked out of the room on occasion. Yet, leaving that marriage was never a viable option.

Connecting to G-d was always for me about finding ways to feel close despite an inconceivable disconnect. Reaching and maintaining that intention occurred through a willingness to tolerate and sometimes even appreciate discomfort. Sometimes that manifests in the form of peeling away layers of ego to let in a little vulnerability and then a lot of love. Other times, it just looks like wearing a long skirt and sleeves that reach past my elbows even in 80 degree weather. Marriage between a man and a woman is also an act of peeling away layers of ego. There is a sense of cautiousness and callousness we develop to survive as single halves of a yet-to-be-united whole. That can now be carefully and lovingly peeled away to let in the sense of connection and closeness that kept us searching until, with G-d's help, we merited to reach this moment. And sure, it can be uncomfortable. Do either of us really know what we're getting into? We're both making sacrifices and we're both letting go. We're both tolerating the time we're physically apart in favor of the reward that will be, G-d willing, the ample time we spend together after we're married. 

Despite all of its discomforts, my relationship to G-d is the greatest comfort I've known. So, too, is a marriage the home for all of life's greatest joys and hopes. Appreciating those requires research, thought, prayer, trust, education, and, of course, trial and error. Is it a bed of roses? Absolutely! Thorns and all! We can only appreciate the beauty of perfection in this imperfect world through finding meaning or at least tolerance in moments of discomfort. Wishing my readers a beautiful and blessed week. Wherever it takes you, may you make yourself comfortable or at the very least, make yourself at Home.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Stand Up & Be Counted: Expressing Yourself In Ways That Really Count (A Belated Parsha Post for Parshas Bamidbar)

Shavua tov! I had the pleasure and honor this past Shabbos of leading my local Ladies' Shabbos Shiur (class). Every week during the months between Pesach and Rosh Hashanah when Shabbos is a bit longer, women in the community gather on Shabbos afternoon to learn the week's Torah portion together. Each week a different woman hosts and/or leads the class. This is truly such a special community, and in that way, there are so many delicious flavors of learning. Before relocating back to this area last year, I visited during a Shabbos and was so drawn to and moved by this group of women sitting and learning together on a hot Shabbos afternoon in July. Shortly after moving back, I led my first shiur and just about plotzed from being so nervous! I told myself I could never teach anyone over the age of five, and all of the women in my community look strikingly good for whatever ages they are, but I'm sure most of us are about six or above... Nonetheless, this is such a warm, welcoming and truly special community. And what time could possibly be more meaningful to have had the privilege and honor of teaching again than during the week of Parshas Bamidbmar, right before Shavuos, just as I am preparing to move on from the area and begin my life as a married woman!

For a parsha having to do with traversing through the desert, this was one rainy Shabbos! The shiur ended up being a rather cozy one, and of course, everyone who was there was meant to be in the room and those who could not make it were there in thought and essence. And for those who may not have been there physically due to the weather, the inevitable Shabbos shluff, living too far away or not being of the female persuasion, here is the D'var Torah I gave this past Shabbos on Parshas Bamidbar.

Bamidbar means "in the desert." What comes to mind when you think of a desert? Perhaps desolate, arid, dry, hot, uncultivated, wasteland, nothingness. No water, no vegetation, no nourishment... In so many ways, this is symbolic of our modern physical world. Originally created as a Garden of Divinity, our world has become a "desert," an uncultivated wasteland. We, the Jewish people, have been given the Divine Mission to restore this world to its original lush, Divine state, a place worthy of housing the Shechinah (Divine Presence).
Unlike traversing through a true desert, however, in which there is no water, no vegetation, no nourishment or means of survival, the Jewish people have been given the very special gift of the Torah. The Torah is not just a historical text documenting our physical journey through time. The Torah is not only an owners' manual cluing us in to the intricate functions of the world both within and around us. The Torah is not simply a GPS directing our thoughts, words, and footsteps. Nor is it merely a cookbook listing ingredients to the recipe for happiness and success. It is in fact all of these things and so much more. It is the ultimate smartphone with a direct connection to our Creator.
The Torah is a gift we collectively received at Har Sinai, a gift we renew each year at Shavuos. It's a ketuba (marital contract) between G-d and every Jew. This is a relationship we rekindle as often and as instantly as we might choose. Through its mitzvos and tefillos, we dial in to our Creator. In that way, we are never really at a loss in this journey through the Midbar. Each morning we rise and say "Modeh ani," each time throughout our day we stop to daven or say Tehillim or learn, each bracha we say before we eat, each candle we light for Shabbos or Yom Tov--this is the way Home. As desolate and expansive as this desert may feel, HaShem is never out of reach. He is always watching, always listening, always waiting. The door is always open, the light is always left on. And everything we could ever need, desire, or hope for to restore this desert into the lush Gan Eden it once was is already within and around us. The means by which to attain that are all within the Torah. As our great sages said: "Turn the pages, turn the pages, everything is in it..."
As Shavuos nears, I feel a strong sense of awe at the gift I received in being born a Jew. For so many this path that was revealed at Sinai has not been a direct route. For all of the years I spent reaching my hands to the Heavens saying "Here I am, count me, count me!" I was not yet ready. I felt a consistent sense of disconnect. There are so many people that inspired and influenced my journey and continue to do so. These are true leaders, each in his/her own right. This is the time of year I am reminded that each of us is a ba'al teshuva. Torah and Yiddishkeit is something we choose again and again in each given moment; that is a gift of G-d's unconditional love. And as a ba'al teshuva, the leaders who made the greatest impact on my path are not the ones who led with fanfare or taught directly, but rather the ones who quietly led by example and taught through modeling. They are the true leaders who through their kindness, patience and sincerity showed me that everything I need, I have--and everything I have, I need. Through this, I came to understand that in order to gain the ability to hold on to the G-dliness that is within and around us, we must also be willing to let go of the ego that holds us back. We must save the energy we spend on grasping old hurts and fears and misconceptions and instead strengthen our faith and trust.
The month we are in, Sivan (meaning twins) gives forth the idea of two conflicting forces: matter versus spirit, duality versus unity. From Parshas Bamidbar we learn that our common, collective identity is part of the Divine Soul. Therefore the Divine Soul is inherently part of us. Paradoxically, that same G-dliness that makes us all part of the Divine whole, also makes us the unique individuals we each are. G-dliness in and of Itself is both simple and complex. Within His Onesness is the potential for an infinite variety of expressions--each one of us. The idea of the census calls upon each one of us to recognize our unique personality traits and talents--what we each bring to the table, so to speak--and at the same time, to let go of our ego enough to recognize that this is all from HaShem. Our Divine Mission relies upon each of us to be ready and willing to stand up and be counted while simultaneously being sensitive to and grateful for the beautiful fact that each one of us counts! 

I wish my family and friends a blessed week and a good yom tov! This Shavuos and every day may we all renew our faith and trust in Torah, yiddishkeit and the many gifts bestowed upon us--whether they are revealed or yet to be revealed.