Passover Seder ranks as every Jew’s number one most favorite, most highly attended, most fondly remembered, most eagerly anticipated of any holiday dinner of the year. OK, you’ll hear good-natured kvetching from the women who spend the weeks cleaning the house for Passover, days to weeks preparing the food, a day or two setting the table(s). But all of that fades away the minute the friends and family arrive, with more food, with other friends, sometimes with a newborn or two about to celebrate their first Seder. It is the most joyously celebrated Jewish ritual of the calendar, the most open to creativity, the one with the huge mix of pathos, humor, memory, innovation, tradition and more. If Pesach were a magnet, Jews would be the iron filings.
Two years ago I described a special Seder we hosted out here in Sedona. Our kids came in from both coasts. My sister-in-law and her partner joined us. Martin and I created a biblio-drama that included a walk through an actual dry bed replete with horses (living, not drowned) standing at the shoreline, and meaningful and memorable discussions the whole night through. But this year, this year can be summed up with Passover’s defining question: Why is this night different from all other nights?
Because this year we will be with neither beloved friends nor family. This year we will celebrate with fellow Jews most of whom we know only by name and nod; a handful of whom we can call friends, newly minted. This year, at Sedona’s wonderful synagogue in the desert, we will retell Passover’s epic story of liberation with people we will have just met and sing Dayenu by joining our voices to voices we’ve never heard. And we will be and feel perfectly at home. This is the magic of Passover, the magic of Judaism. This is the true staying power of Judaism. We Jews are turtles, carrying our religion, our learning, our memories and our connections on our backs. All we have to do is connect with even one fellow Jew and we are home.
There is a lot to be said for being home for the holidays, for having one’s children fly in, drive in, come and add another thread to the cloth of family traditions. Schedules didn’t permit our kids to be with us for Passover this year. They left yesterday after a wonderful week’s visit. This Friday and Saturday they will be celebrating in their own homes, leading their own Seders, and joining other families at theirs. Will we miss them? Absolutely. But not to distraction.
I want my children to create their own traditions. I want them to weave their own threads into their own fabric of Jewish life. I want them to take the Seder experience into their hearts by making it theirs, coming to know the satisfaction of innovating, of sharing their knowledge with others and putting their own twist on what they loved best from home. I want them to retell the story of liberation with a Hagaddah of their choosing (there are literally hundreds to choose from!) and lead their own discussions on the four children wise, wicked, simple, and the one who didn’t know enough to ask. Through liberation comes return.
And so my children — Elliot, Emma, and now Elizabeth — I bless you in Passover’s spirit. May you come through the high waters of fear and uncertainty unto the shores of safety and triumph. May you come to know your heritage in a new and joyous way. May you make new friends and deepen bonds to old. May you carry your shell wherever you go, find fellow Jews, and be home.
Often when you hike in the state and national parks out west, signs are posted at the trailheads cautioning hikers not to “bust the crust.” The crust, called cryptobiotic soil, consists of soil cyanobacteria, lichens and mosses. The microscopic filaments of the cyanobacteria help stabilize the soil’s surface, creating a scaffolding from which other plants can take root and grow. These bacteria are determined little things, yet the life-sustaining crust they form is so fragile. One careless footstep can crush decades, if not centuries, of growth.
This morning we hiked the Little Horse Trail, which leads to the Chicken Point overlook. Over the centuries, the wind has scoured the surface of the formations into undulating waves of red rock. Posted by the crest of the trail was this sign that read “Healing in Progress. Please stay on trail. Thank you.” If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know I’m always looking for metaphors in Nature, delicious bits of guidance that might be found in a heart- shaped cactus or a forest reflected in a river.
When I read the words Healing in Progress, Please stay on Trail my mind immediately went to the realization that we are all specimens of healing in progress, whether physically, spiritually or emotionally. One of us is recovering from surgery, while another is still processing the death of a loved one, and another is struggling to surface from being unemployed. Many someones struggle maintain a connection with G’d and their faith.
It takes so little to “bust the crust” of our existence. A crass comment by a teacher can silence a student for years. We wake up feeling fine until the lab calls with the latest test results, blasting us into realms we never imagined. Our spiritual needs changes. Or we change and are at a loss for the peace and community that might have sustained us our entire lives.
So we have to stay on the trail, mindful that others are healing whether we see their bandages or not. We have to walk gently in one another’s lives, offering help, minding our mouths, bringing fun and joy, giving space when solitude is the only balm. And what of ourselves? How do we keep ourselves on the trail so we do not undermine our own healing in progress? We know what to do, but how many times to we regress, slipping back into unhealthy habits? If it’s addiction we face, keeping ourselves on the trail is a day by day, moment by moment act of recovery. If we are pursuing a goal whether it’s running a marathon, pursuing a degree or career advancement, staying on the trail will get us there sooner and successfully. Staying on the trail means learning the signs of our own self-sabotage and placing our feet ever more consciously.
It takes decades for cryptobiotic soil to grow to a stage where it becomes hospitable for seeds and grasses. Centuries can pass before the grasses give way to small shrubs, cacti and even a tree or two. We humans operate on a different scale of time. We do not have centuries. Some of us no longer have decades. But like the plants that take root in this beautiful soil, we have no idea what tomorrow will bring.
Today is the only day we can grow. This can be a good thing.
Healing in Progress. Please Stay on the Trail. Thank you.
The restoration of a painting is as good a metaphor as any this time of year. Rosh Hashana begins Wednesday evening. We are in the waning days of the month of Elul, a time given over to introspection as Jews prepare not only for the New Year but for Yom Kippur’s day of atonement ten days hence.
I inherited the painting at the left from my mother. It was done by a Russian emigre painter – A. S. Baylinson – in 1939. He was an artist of some note in his day, and had shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, here at the Detroit Institue of Art and elsewhere. The Metropolitan in New York has some of his work in their collection. How my grandfather came by this painting, I do not know. Perhaps he bought it outright. Perhaps he took it in trade for medical care. Or maybe his and Baylinson’s connection was personal. Perhaps they were landsmen, Russian emigres both who came to America early in the 20th century in search of a better life and much distance from murderous Cossacks. Maybe the painting was a gift from one grateful American to another. It hung in my grandparents’ home and then in my mother’s.
By the time the painting came to me the canvas was torn, yellowed with age and discolored by decades of cigarette smoke. It was large, dingy, costly to restore, and I wavered about what to do with it. Relegate it to the basement? Hang it as is? Put it out on trash day? It carried memories of a woman whose mothering ran more to Dali than Cassat. Happily, restoration won.
Ken Katz of Conservation and Museum Services did a masterful job in bringing the Baylinson, as it was always called at home, to life. Carefully, painstakingly, he and his staff worked over the summer removing varnish and nicotine, patching a gash in the canvas, damage that likely occurred during one of my mother’s moves. They matched paint and brushstroke so well that I cannot tell where the canvas had even been torn. It was quite exciting to unwrap the painting when Martin brought it home last week. The dahlias seem to dance in new brilliance, their petalled faces crimson and proud. The marigolds are lively once again, no longer weighted and wan beneath varnish and nicotine. And surprise! The vase on the pie crust table is not green but a silvery white. I wish I could show my mother and ask if this how she remembered the painting growing up? I’m sure it hung in the living room. Did she read on a couch within its view? The Baylinson now hangs in the entry way of our home. I smile every time I see it. She looks good, this painting, hopefully as beautiful as the moment in 1939 that Mr. Baylinson looked at his work, declared, “It is good,” and laid down his paintbrush.
All of which brings me to the work of Elul, Rosh Hashana and restoration. This has been a cataclysmic year. My mother died. My son married eleven days after her funeral. I was in a car accident two weeks ago (not my fault.) Last week I needed emergency dental work. My jaw still hurts. My heart is mending. My soul still soars at the memory of Elliot’s and Elizabeth’s wedding. As this Jewish year draws to a close, there are hurts to forgive and forgiveness to ask for. There is a patina of pettiness and impatience to wipe away and the hope that the face I show in this new year will project kindness and welcome. Instead of relegating my missteps to my inner basement or sending them to the trash unexamined, I strive for restoration. Even if no one can see where we’ve been patched, the rips remain just beneath the surface. I embrace this month of Elul, for Elul invites us to restore ourselves, to take long walks and think back over the past year. Elul reminds us that restoration is possible. Even if we are torn, even if we have been dragged hither and yon and none too gently, even if our faces are clouded with care and grief, we can do the necessary work and restore our personal canvas.
And so a still life painted by a Russian emigre, owned by another, then his daughter and now his granddaughter, has a new home. She is once again bright and gleaming. May we all be so as we move into this New Year.
Reading Ross Douthat’s essay, The Parent Trap, reminded me of another reason I liked the movie Chef so much. (Requisite spoiler alert here: I’m going to spill everything. If you haven’t seen it and plan to, close your computer and head to your local theater. Now.) I’ll get to Douthat’s essay in a minute. For now, here’s what I loved about Chef:
It was delightful. Basic premise—a once cutting-edge chef finds himself out of work due to creative differences with the owner of his restaurant and a bitter Twitter exchange with a food critic that goes viral. He is also a divorced dad who doesn’t quite have the knack of spending four-star quality time with son.
His four-alarm chili of a Latina ex-wife has been encouraging him to open a food truck. When the shitake hits the fan at the restaurant, Chef accompanies his ex-wife and their child on a family visit to Miami where her second ex-husband (Chef being the first) stakes him to a run-down food truck. He and his son (along with a sous-chef from the restaurant) make a cross-country trip back to LA, serving up kick-ass Cubano sandwiches every stop they make. The son cooks and texts, tweets and vines the whole way, ensuring hungry crowds wherever they go. By the end, father and son are tight as bagels and lox, he remarries his wife, and the food critic stakes him to opening his own restaurant.
I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me. I kept waiting for that air-tight never-to-be- compromised plot device where the hero is held back from achieving his goal, where he faces huge conflict and betrayals, where he loses big before learning the ultimate lesson. But there were none. Chef never falters or screws up. His son never cuts off a finger with the set of knives his dad buys him; the department of health never cites them for infractions; his former co-worker remains an integral part of the team, never once trying to wrestle away his success.
What also never happens is that social services doesn’t bring the dad up on child abuse charges for employing a minor and/or sequestering him in an unwholesome and potentially dangerous fire-hazard environment. This is where Douthat’s essay comes into play. Douthat wrote about the increasing way parenting (as we once knew it) is coming under fire. Parents have been brought up on neglect charges for letting their kids walk home at dusk, for leaving an 11-year-old in a car while dashing in to pick up a quart of milk, and most outrageous, police were called when someone saw a five- and seven-year-old run across a parking lot alone. Their parents didn’t know; the parking lot was near the kids’ houses. Really. Someone called the police.
I guess this is what I loved best about Chef: a father and son have an adventure replete with sharp knives, hot flames, serving food to strangers, driving long distances without bathroom stops (this definitely wouldn’t have worked with a daughter), making friends and rebuilding their relationship mile after mile. And no one says Boo.
I say Yay. And even if I’ve spoiled the movie, go see it. Even spoiled, Chef will leave a great taste in your heart.
Brother, courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply. Thomas Merton
The first of three journals I kept, Elliot’s first hair cut, his birth announcement in the NY Times.
The first three years of my son’s life, I kept a daily journal. Unbelievable, right? Through diapers and colic, first teeth and first words, I made time to record the wonder of our days.
Somewhere in those pages, sleep-starved and overwhelmed I wrote, “I just want to have perspective! I want to know that everything is going to turn out OK.”
Years later I found the journal and began rereading it. I couldn’t help but smile at the mother I was so long ago. Rereading that dramatic and universal cri de coeur, I realized what was impossible to grasp as a new mother: By its very definition, perspective requires time and distance from the very thing one strives so hard to see clearly.
I thought of that journal page when Robert J. Wicks’ book Perspective: The Calm Within the Stormcame my way. Instead of time and distance, Wicks guides readers to perspective by “improv[ing] our sense of reality and acceptance of it.” The personal growth goals Wicks writes about are not new, but his approach is worth considering for those who strive for a healthy perspective.
Wicks structured this clear and useful book so that it is rich with bullet points, questionnaires for self-reflection, and carefully honed text bytes that can form the basis for a lifetime of step-by-step personal transformation. In addition to explication, educative text and recollections drawn from his own life and that of other seekers, philosophers, and authors, Wicks shares insights culled from the most up-to-date research in cognitive behavioral therapy and the psychology of optimism.
The chapter I found most intriguing focused on achieving perspective on one’s “personal darkness.” Recognizing that trauma is a part of life, Wicks invites readers to acknowledge trauma as a terrible experience and then recognize its potential as an opportunity for powerful growth and meaning. Reading this chapter, I was reminded of a quote by Thich Naht Hahn: No mud, no lotus.
The young perspective-seeking mother I was might have written that in her journal. And even though I long ceased writing about my children each day, as blessed as we have been, I sometimes still wish I could be assured that everything will turn out OK.
First page of the journal begun when Elliot was three months old. The apologia in red at the top of the page refers to a first three months of feeding and wiping…
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From time to time I have been invited to give the weekly Shabbat sermon at synagogue. Each Shabbat has name, which is drawn from the weekly Torah portion that is read at services, in part on Monday and Thursday mornings and more fully on Saturday morning. This week’s portion is called Shabbat Chukkat. It is most widely known for the laws about the red heifer, a perpetually mysterious ritual of expiation for sin.
However, when I sat down to write my sermon other events to explore in the portion piqued my curiosity — the death of Moses’ siblings Aaron and Moses and Moses’ fateful striking of the rock to bring forth water. Grief has been a prominent emotion these days (alternating with the still resonating joy of our son’s wedding), making this perhaps a good time to revisit the sermon. Thanks to Martin, as always, for the perfect image.
Two elements in Parshat Chukkat are rich with possibilities for exploration. The ceremony of the red heifer has kept scholars busy for centuries. This parasha is also pivotal in that the generation that left Exodus by foot is dying out. Rashi goes further, interpreting the phrase “kol ha eda/the entire community” to mean that all of those who were meant to die in the wilderness have died. Only Miriam, Aaron and Moses remain.
But as I read through these chapters again, something else caught my attention, and that is what I would like to explore this morning. Chapter 20 begins thirty-eight years after the red-heifer commandment. It opens with this verse: “The Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Zin and stayed at Kadesh.” And then the last half of that verse: “And Miriam died there and was buried there.” Vatamat sham Miriam vatikaver sham.
Boom. Five words, not even an entire verse, and one of the three siblings upon whose shoulders this journey has rested, is gone. There has been no foreshadowing of Miriam’s death. No instructions from God as to the disposal of her body. No explanation or rationale for her death, either. And most striking (no future pun intended), no mourning.
Twenty-three verses later both Aaron and Moses get a heads up from God that Aaron is about to be “gathered to his kin.” There is ritual as Aaron’s vestments are taken from him and are placed upon his son Eleazer. Aaron dies on the summit of the mountain. Moses and Eleazer come down from the mountain (where we could assume they spent time mourning the death of their brother and father) and we are told, “the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last breath. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”
Miriam’s death was recorded with none of this: no ritual passing on of her legacy as was done in transferring Aaron’s vestments to his son; no assumptive mourning by her siblings. And who in the community bewailed Miriam’s death? No one it seems. The text gives no evidence that anyone did, for a day even, much less thirty.
And not only does the community not bewail Miriam’s death as they will soon do for her brother, but they forget about her completely. The very next verse tells us, “The community was without water and they joined against Moses and Aaron.” The Children of Israel do what they have always done when their comfort is compromised: they complain. They blame. They pine for Egypt where it was comfortable and cozy and filled with pomegranates and figs.
If we follow Rashi’s insight that none of the original community was left, then those who are griping immediately after Miriam’s death are the progeny of the former slaves. They learned the lessons of their elders to think only of themselves when the going gets tough. “There is not even water to drink!” they wail without ever thinking why their life-sustaining source of water is no more. Not one lamentation such as: “Oh woe. Our sister Miriam is gone. And so is our water.” They don’t even bother to connect the dots between Miriam’s absence and this sudden absence of water. The depth of their self-centeredness is enough to make you want to strike a rock.
I imagine Moses at the end of this journey, aging and tired, grieving for this sister. Water has bound them together since his infancy when she set him afloat upon the Nile to save his life. Through her merit, the Midrash teaches, a well of water accompanied the Israelites throughout their journey. Was Moses given time to mourn this sister whose merit was so great God provided for the children of Israel a portable well of water? No, Moses is immediately set upon by the community to provide water, to take his sister’s place, or at least her role in providing water.
Grief can make you do strange things. It’s not uncommon for anger to follow upon grief’s heels. Anger at God for stealing our loved ones or robbing us of our own good health. Anger at our own bodies for betraying us. Anger, even, at the one who has left us behind, crushed, spent and devoid of all hope. Moses, whom we have not even seen rend his clothes in grief, has to take up the mantle of leadership and serve his people once again. But this time he falters. Or maybe he has had enough.
Instead of following God’s directive to speak to the rock to bring forth water, Moses speaks to the people, addressing them as rebels, morim. In the Women’s Commentary, Ora Horn Prouser notices that the consonants in morim and Miriam are identical. Perhaps here is Moses’ anger, directed not only at his people, but at his beloved sister for leaving him behind. His own eyes devoid of tears, dry as his sister’s well, Moses makes the fatal misstep. He strikes the rock, not once but twice.
I imagine this act as Moses’ kriyah. We never read that he rent his clothes; we do not hear the sound of cloth tearing. But we can imagine the sound that Moses’ staff made against the rock. If the striking of the rock stands in for Moses’ kriyah, perhaps the water flowing from the rock stands in for his tears. That water, flowing copiously we are told, carries with it Moses’ fate. For not obeying God’s instruction, he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
What are we to learn from this punishment? It is as puzzling as the red heifer story. How can Moses be punished for such a seemingly small, and infinitely understandable diversion? What was he really being punished for? Not listening? Getting angry with his thirsty crabby tribe? Rabbi Gail Labovitz imagines that God punishes Moses for misdirecting his anger onto his own people instead of onto God’s own self. It was this failure of faith in his relationship with God, Labovitz posits, a lack of confidence on Moses’ part that God could comfort him in his grief that led God to keep Moses from entering the Promised Land.
Whether that sits well with you or not, it still doesn’t answer the question why Miriam’s passing receives the barest of notice. My first thoughts ran along feminist paths. Women’s work always gets short shrift. It’s so invisible, so basic. Everyone looks at the machine and thinks that’s where the importance lies. No one considers the silent and invisible oil that keeps the gears turning so they can run the machine. And while I don’t necessarily want to graft upon this text feminist plaint, I will suggest that the silence about Miriam’s death is a reminder not to take for granted the most basic of gifts in our lives: good health, food, a warm and clean place to sleep, the love given us from family and friends, the reality that here in America I am free to explore Torah with you on a Saturday morning and you are confident that you can roll out of bed and come here. Or not.
The metaphor between water and Torah is strong. Our thrice-weekly reading is based on the teaching that since our physical body cannot go more than three days without water, our soul cannot go more than three days without Torah. If Miriam’s gift of water was so easily taken for granted, perhaps the lesson of the silence upon her passing is to caution us against taking for granted God’s gift of metaphoric water — Torah.