A Commandment to Rejoice?

February 5, 2014
Some rejoicing is quiet and low-key, like a nap.

Some rejoicing, like a nap, is quiet and low-key.

When Adar enters, joy increases. – B. Taanit 29a

How can rejoicing be a commandment? We are commanded to rejoice on Shabbat and at “appointed times,” and to rejoice during the month of Adar – but how is such a thing possible? Isn’t joy an emotion?

The Torah has many subtle lessons about human psychology. True, when someone is sad, telling them, “Be happy!” or worse yet, “Smile!” is stupid and cruel. However, what the Torah commands is not emotion. The commandment is to engage in activities that bring delight (oneg.) On Shabbat, we are commanded to eat well, to eat three meals, to light candles, to say blessings, and to rest. These are also activities that will help to reduce the stress in our bodies. Good food in reasonable quantities can be enormously restorative. Lighting candles delights the eyes. Saying blessings encourages us to notice things outside ourselves, to wake up to tastes and smells and experiences. And most of all, rest is healing to the whole person, body and spirit.

During Adar, we are preparing for Purim, and after Purim, we are preparing for Passover. The anticipation of holidays can bring joy, true, but as we get ready to perform the specific mitzvot of Purim, our potential for joy increases.  We plan and prepare mishloach manot, small gifts of food for friends and strangers. Thinking about the enjoyment of others can carry us out of ourselves and distract us from troubles that may have occupied our minds.  Tzedakah is a mitzvah of Purim, another mitzvah that takes us outside our own troubles (and it is good to remember that while it is good to give charity, we are forbidden to give beyond our means!) The “festive meal” again involves good food, a restorer of health and energy. And finally, reading the megillah (Scroll of Esther) reminds us of a time when Jews faced a terrible fate, and it did not come to pass. It can be a reminder that our worst fears do not always come true.

Mourners are not expected to party. Rather, days of rejoicing give them a break from the activities of mourning (shiva, etc). When we see a kriah ribbon or a torn jacket, the rest of us know that this person needs to be treated gently, that they are not in a festive mood. Still they participate in the delight of the day, such as the Shabbat meal, because ultimately the purpose of the mourning period is to draw the mourner gently back into the life of community.

When you hear someone talk about oneg Shabbat, the delight of Shabbat, know that it doesn’t necessarily mean “delight” in the giggly, partying sense. Shabbat is not a magic Wonderland. It is a chance to rest, to heal, to gather our resources, to be with friends and family, to be restored. Sometimes that will look like a party and but usually it will be much quieter.

And if you have heard someone say, “When Adar enters, joy increases” but you do not feel the least bit joyful, know that you are not doing anything wrong. This is just the beginning of Adar! So you are starting a little low. Observe the mitzvot of the season: give a little tzedakah, prepare small gifts of food for friends, make plans to hear the megillah, join in the festive activities and meals at synagogue.

Or, if traditional mitzvot are not your thing, try “rejoicing” by treating yourself with love and care. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Look beyond yourself (yes, give a little tzedakah!) But either way, see what a month mitzvot and self-care will do.

We begin Adar in the depth of winter, and we emerge to spring. Let me know how it goes.

Image: LicenseAttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by mhofstrand


Cooking Up Shabbat

January 31, 2014

Complete Shabbat Table

I’m busy getting ready for Shabbat. Tonight five of my students are coming to dinner. There’s also a guest coming whom I met during the week. I advertised on a local listserv that I had boxes to give away, and she needed boxes.  And there’s plenty of room at the table so I invited her.

Dinner is going to be simple:

  • Mac and Cheese
  • Pineapple Slaw
  • Waldorf Salad
  • Green Beans with Garlic roasted in Olive Oil
  • and Challah.

Linda’s making cookies for dessert, and I have little mandarins to go with the cookies (or instead of cookies, if someone is avoiding sugar.)

Shabbat dinner does not have to be fancy. I like to have “comfort foods” for Shabbat, myself. It is less stressful for the cook, and easy on the guests, too.

Now I have to go set the table!

 


Overwhelmed by Shabbat?

January 24, 2014

2898151773_e0d5a0c656Shabbat begins tonight at sundown.

Some of us are already preparing: cleaning house, making challah, shopping.

And some of us feel overwhelmed at the idea of Shabbat: special dinner, Hebrew blessings, day of rest, no driving/money/shopping/etc…

If you are feeling overwhelmed, just stop.  Let that go.

Make Shabbat the day that you put down burdens, including the burden of a “perfect Shabbat.”

Some suggestions for an imperfect (but blessed!) Shabbat. Choose one, and see how it feels:

  • Make this Shabbat a day with “One meal together” in my home, with takeout if cooking is stressful.
  • This Shabbat, I will light candles and let that be enough.
  • For all or part of Shabbat, electronics OFF in my home.
  • From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, “No Nagging” in my home.
  • This Shabbat, I will go to synagogue for one service and just take it in. No judgments, no expectations.
  • This Shabbat, no shopping or errands. Whatever it is, it can wait.
  • This Shabbat, to any worries, say “Let that wait until sundown on Saturday.”
  • This Shabbat, tell each family member personally, “I love you.”

No, these are not traditional Shabbat observances. But when we feel overwhelmed by a mitzvah, then it is time to go back to the very basics. Try one or more of these, and see how you feel.  Let Shabbat be a day when you lay your burdens down.

May the peace of Shabbat enter our homes and our hearts!

 

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by RahelSharon

Shabbat Preparation, Step 1

January 17, 2014

Sometimes we speak of Shabbat as “a taste of the world to come.” But what does that mean? Specifically, what does it mean for you and those in your household?

Whether your household is shomer Shabbes [traditionally observant] or just beginning to think about the idea of Shabbat, this is a question we can ask: what would a perfect world be like? And how can we arrange to make 24 hours of it in our home?

It might involve traditional observance. To learn more about that, go to the Orthodox Union’s guide for keeping Shabbat. It might mean some modification of traditional Shabbat, or even a new approach to Shabbat.

But before you engage in a lot of activity, ask yourself: what would my home be like, in a perfect world? What would the relationships in it be like? What would I be like? And that will tell you a lot of things: it will tell you what preparations you need to make for Shabbat, and it will guide you in the things you need to let go of for Shabbat.

When I prepare for Shabbat, I try to make sure we have good things to eat. I like for things to be beautiful and clean, although sometimes “cleaner than usual” has to fill the bill. On a deeper level, I long for it to be an environment without stupid arguments – and to get that, I have to let go of my end of the stupid arguments, for 24 hours. I long for it to be a time for enjoying relationships with family and friends, so I need to do everything in my power to remove impediments to that, which means I must let go of my desire to control other people’s behavior, for 24 hours.

What do you do to prepare for Shabbat? What do you need in your home for Shabbat?


Havdalah: A Sweet Finish to Shabbat

December 31, 2013

Observing the Sabbath-closing havdalah ritual ...

We begin Shabbat with candles, and blessings, and wine. (For a complete description, read 8 Easy Steps to a Simple Shabbat Dinner.) Those activities mark the beginning of zman kodesh, holy time. There is also a ceremony for the close of Shabbat which is less well known (meaning, I don’t know of any movies or TV shows that have featured it – observant Jews know about it.) That ceremony is Havdalah, which means “Division.” With a second group of blessings, with candles, wine, and one other addition, we close out the zman kodesh (holy time) and return to zman chol (ordinary time) by making a clear division between the two.

How to make Havdalah

Havdalah Candle

Havdalah Candle

You need some special things for this:

  • A candle with multiple wicks (not available at the nearest Hallmark store – check at a local Judaica shop or online for a havdalah candle.)
  • Spices: could be cinnamon, or cloves, or a sprig from a rosemary bush. Some people have special spice boxes.
  • A glass of wine, not your best crystal (you’ll see why in a minute.)
  • Matches

Havdalah may be made anytime after 3 stars are visible in the night sky after Shabbat, OR at the time listed on a Jewish calendar as “Havdalah.” So look for the stars, or check the time. When it’s time, light the candle.

Rather than type out the blessings here, I am going to direct you to an excellent YouTube video produced by Moishe House, which presents the blessings in karaoke style just as you need them, set to the tune by Debbie Friedman z”l.

First, we say the blessing over wine, the same blessing we made before Kiddush at the beginning of Shabbat.

Second, we say the blessing over spices, and smell the spices. This reminds us to “take in” the holiness of Shabbat and bring it with us into the week.

Third, we say the blessing over the fire of the candle. You will see some people checking their fingernails over the light – it’s just a way of doing “work” by the light of the candle, or seeing the division of light and dark. It’s just a custom: do it if you want, don’t worry about it if you’d rather not.

Fourth, we take up the cup again and sing a blessing about the division between dark and light, holy and ordinary. Some take a sip of the cup at this time. Then we extinguish the candle IN the wine, and listen to the sizzle. (This is the reason you don’t use crystal.)

Finally, we sing songs about Elijah the Prophet (who, legend says, will come at the end of Shabbat and bring the Messiah) and a song wishing everyone a Shavuah Tov, a good week.

And we’re done.

Why Make Havdalah

Part of the power of Shabbat is the contrast to the rest of our lives. It makes sense, then, not to let it “fizzle out” but to mark and celebrate its closing. I find that I often have a burst of energy after Havdalah – suddenly all those things I’ve been resolutely not doing during Shabbat are crying out to be done, and I have energy for them!

Havdalah can also be useful for making a clear boundary between Shabbat and activities that are not shabbatlik, suitable for Shabbat. If a Jewish organization plans to have an activity Saturday night that would include things they don’t do on Shabbat, like handling money, making Havdalah is a way of underlining that it is no longer Shabbat.

Here’s the Moishe House video, with music performed by Elana Jagoda:

 


Mixed Feelings

December 13, 2013
Shabbat potluck dinner at JFC

Shabbat potluck dinner (Photo credit: otir_im)

Shabbat is coming with such mixed feelings this week.

On the one hand — SHABBAT!  Shabbat is a day of rest, a day of blessing, a day of holiness.  Shabbat!

On the other hand — this Shabbat will be the 1st anniversary of the Newtown massacre. All those children, all those teachers, mown down because … why? We will never know why a disordered young man murdered his mother and all those people. All we know is that a year later, nothing has changed. You can still get a gun without a background check, and there’s still darn little we care to do for people in the depths of a mental health crisis, or for their families. (Yes, I know how he got the guns. I still want that loophole closed, because I want it to be more difficult for people with mental health problems and/or felony records to get guns. Nor do I plan to debate this in comments.)

And on yet another hand — this week I will have my first real Shabbat Open House, the one where I have sent an email to a few of my students and said, “let’s hang out.” I know that some are planning to come. Don’t know about the others. The idea is to just “be” from 3 until havdalah, enjoying each others’ company, playing games, maybe studying, maybe not.  I’ll report back, I promise!

May your Shabbat be a Shabbat of blessing, peace, and remembrance!


Chanukat HaBayit

December 1, 2013
Lighting the Menorahs at the End of the Housewarming

Lighting the Menorahs at the End of the Housewarming

I’m feeling tired and happy. A lot of work came to fruition in the past few days.

First, I came very close to my goal of posting to this blog every day for the month of November, despite the move, despite everything. I missed one day near the beginning, but otherwise, good.  I think the alternative was letting it lie fallow while I went crazy with everything else.

Second, we had the housewarming, the first Shabbat Afternoon Open House. The whole neighborhood was here, and a lot of students, friends, family. Our “Abraham’s tent” with four sides open wide is launched. I’ll continue blogging what I learn about doing Judaism with friends, teaching the process of keeping a hospitable Jewish home.

What did I learn yesterday? That not everything has to be perfect. There were a number of things that were not picture perfect, but that was OK. People had a good time. The neighbors had a chance to compare notes on Linda and me, on the house, and to update each other on all the news. My students know how to find me now, and they are looking forward to classes here at the house. My friends were here with love and support.

We finished the day with havdalah (hahv-dah-LAH) and menorah lighting, very appropriate. Chanukah means “Dedication” – it’s a memorial of the rededication of the Temple long ago – and yesterday was a celebration and dedication of our new home.

Welcome!


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