Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah

Image: Two hands knitting. One stitch leads to another, just as one mitzvah leads to another.

It’s one of those weeks. I am battling through a round of depression. The blog has suffered, I know.

I will be back soon, I promise. In the meantime, I suggest you join me on the path I’m taking: mitzvah goreret mitzvah, let one mitzvah lead you to another mitzvah. If we follow that path, we will find our way through the dark.

Lessons from the Elevator

Image: Me and my scooter.

I’m staying at a hotel this week, and my room is on the eighth floor. I can’t walk very far without my mobility scooter, so every time I leave the floor, I use the elevator.

I press the button and wait. I never know what or whom I will see when the door opens; elevators are all surprise packages. The hotel is busy, so usually I ride with other people, and if I ride alone, someone is waiting when the door slides open in the lobby.

Nobody expects to be greeted by a fat lady on a tricycle when the elevator doors open. There are always nervous giggles and hesitation when other riders first see me. I get that. I would be very surprised if the door opened and another scooter-rider greeted me!

I would be content if they ignored me, per the usual elevator etiquette, but many men (it’s always men, for some reason) seem to feel they must say something. The comments are usually spoken in a jokey tone:

  • Wow, how fast does that thing go?
  • You don’t drink and drive, do you?
  • Look out, Evil Kneivel is riding with us!
  • Where did you drive from on that thing?
  • Hey, Speed Demon!

I have heard each of those jokes more than once this week, except for the Evil Kneivel one. That one was original, I will admit.

From their expressions I can tell that the speakers are uncomfortable and are trying to be friendly. The problem is, those comments do not start a conversation. There is nothing to latch onto, no reply that makes any sense. So I smile vaguely without making eye contact and hope that one of us can exit soon.

Why talk about this on this blog? One of my fondest hopes is to make more people comfortable in synagogue. And this elevator talk is a sterling example of a kind of behavior that makes everyone UNcomfortable pretty much anywhere.

When we meet someone who is different than the ordinary, we feel uncomfortable. That is normal, and there is no need to feel badly about it. What we must learn is a routine to move past that discomfort quickly, if we are going to welcome people to our synagogue, or to be gracious guests in a synagogue. Jokes are counterproductive; comments on the other person’s appearance or person will get awkward fast.

It is counterproductive to focus on the thing that is different (the scooter, the tattoo, the skin color, the accent, the hair, whatever.) Commenting on it, or joking about it risks saying something at best annoying (how many times has the tall guy been asked how the air is up there?) and is at worst truly offensive (racist, sexist, ableist, etc.) Instead, wise people focus on whatever things we may have in common:

  • Wow, this elevator is slow!
  • The weather is lovely today!
  • Have you seen the garden here yet?
  • Welcome to Beth Plony! Want a coffee?
  • Wow, how about those Dodgers?

Then of course there’s the very best line for synagogue, if said sincerely:

  • Hi! I’m Ruth. Have we met yet?

Ask the Rabbi: Gluten Free?

Image: Symbol for “Gluten Free” – a picture of wheat with a big red NO symbol across it. (Image by Kurious from Pixabay)

The exact question was as follows, from someone who is exploring Judaism but is not Jewish:

I am a celiac with MCAS, and cannot participate in the bread and wine. Who do you have that conversation with? Especially if you haven’t converted yet and are “just exploring.”

@pfanderson on Twitter

My experience of Ashkenazi Jewish communities is that in general, we love to talk about medical issues. From a hospitality point of view, that is sometimes a bit of a problem when guests (or members!) feel that others’ questions are a bit too probing.

My suggestion is that you say, “No, thank you.” The offer-er will often urge you to have some (we can’t let you go hungry!) and then you have a choice. Either you can say, “No, really, thanks” and preserve your privacy or you can say, “Do you have gluten free?” They can likely give you grape or apple juice instead of wine if you like, and some synagogues will offer a gluten-free substitute for the bread.

If you choose to disclose your dietary needs, they will assume that you have a medically-limited diet, and that’s when the chatty-about-medical-stuff thing will kick in. Feel free not to play, or to play if you enjoy it. It is perfectly OK to say, “I only discuss my medical situation with my doctor.”

Now, as to bread and wine: In some Christian churches, bread and wine/grape juice are served as a ritual for members only, called “communion.” This is not the case at synagogue: the bread is just bread and it is for everyone. The blessing before the bread acknowledges that bread is a gift of God. The blessing before the wine may be a short blessing acknowledging that God brought wine from the fruit or, if it’s long and musical, it’s a toast to Shabbat. Either way, you are welcome to participate, if you are able to have the juice option, which should always be available.

A Prayer for the Body: Take Two

Image: A footprint in the sand on the beach. (pixabay)

I just took an unpleasant little trip down memory lane, but with good news at the end of it. I’ve been dealing all summer with a minor foot problem, and avoiding the podiatrist. I knew I was avoiding him, rather as one might avoid the dentist. Today I finally got to the office, and as soon as I saw the big chair featured in podiatrists’ offices, all the memories came flooding back.

In March and June of 1985 I had surgery for bunions. The podiatrist-surgeon had an excellent reputation and the bunions had become a real barrier to a goal of mine: I wanted to run a marathon, but I couldn’t push off with the front part of either foot. So I went to this nice doc who said he could fix it, and I fell down a rabbit hole that would completely change my life.

I’ll spare you the details; the gist is that my mangled left foot is one of the reasons the rest of my body has troubles. I have stayed away from podiatrists’ chairs ever since my recovery from the final salvage surgery in 1988. I sat in that chair today, and I held Linda’s hand to keep memory at bay.

But here’s the lovely thing: today’s meeting with the doc was no big deal. My left foot, the mangled foot, had coped nicely with the splinter that had driven deep into it. My immune system swatted away any infection. The life force within me packaged up a long splinter that had gotten in there and had done such a good job sliding it back out that all the doc had to do was take a forceps and pull. My body works.

Back in rabbinical school, there was a prayer that used to make me angry and/or sad to say it as part of the daily prayers. It went:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who formed the human body with wisdom and placed within it a miraculous combination of openings and organs. It is evident and known before Your honored throne, that if only one of them should be opened or blocked at the wrong time, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, the healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

“Asher Yatzar,” Shacharit

It was the “stand before You” that annoyed me – my body was steadily losing its ability to stand without pain in those years, until I finally rewrote the prayer:

Thank God it all works! — No. —

Thank God enough works.
For all our science, and all our technology,
These bodies You have made in Your wisdom are wrapped in mystery: Rooms within rooms, openings and closings,
All work so wonderfully that we only notice when they don’t.
We are able to stand or sit before You, our Creator,
Because enough works today.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space,
Who heals our flesh and continues doing wonders.

Asher Yatzar, Ruth Adar, 2004

And I say that revised prayer today in gratitude, because the foot still has its problems, but the beautiful systems within me continued to function on other levels. And that was enough, praise God.

I know – so much fuss over a splinter! Ridiculous. But such is the power of bad memories. If there is some health matter you’ve been putting off out of dread I hope you will attend to it as soon as you can.

Ramping Up, Getting Real

Image: A photo of the sort of ramp we have ordered for the front entrance of our home. (Shutterstock/TrofimenkoSergei)

Making our homes safer and more accessible is a mitzvah. Exodus 22:8 commands that we “make a railing for your roof” to lessen the danger of falling from the roof, back during a time when roofs were flat and used much like another room in the house. The rabbis interpreted that command to mean that all hazards around the home should be dealt with promptly, teaching us that home safety is a priority in Torah.

This past week Linda and I did something overdue: we called a company that supplies ramps for homes and businesses and ordered ramps for the front door and a back door.

The front door has one five-inch step up and one smaller step up at the threshold. Until this summer, I could navigate them with a cane. Then I wrenched my “good” knee and the step up or down became a much bigger deal. I found myself hesitating to leave the house because I hated getting from the front door to the car. I spent less time on the patio with the hummingbirds, because stepping over and down that threshold was scary – I was always worrying about falls. I did not like to think what would be involved in leaving during an emergency.

Once I made the call, and the guy came out to measure, I wondered why we had waited so long. He was able to make a number of suggestions that were less expensive than I expected. They aren’t going to be glamorous (that gets into some major expense) but I will be safer, and we will be able to invite guests who are on wheels! What on earth was I waiting for?

Making things safe requires paying attention and telling the truth. We cannot make a place safe if we insist on kidding ourselves about the abilities of the people who go in and out. As often happens, Torah pushes us to see the realities in our world and to do something about them. It pushes us to have compassion for suffering, even when it is our own.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who commands us to open our eyes and see the realities around us, so that we can make our homes safer and more welcoming!

Feeling stressed? Re-commit to Self-Care!

Image: A teddy bear with a stethoscope pressed to its chest. (Pexels.com)

Feeling stressed?

I’m re-committing to self-care today. In a very wigged-out world we have to do what we can to maintain ourselves. I thought I’d share my list with you, in case you’ve been feeling ragged and need some care.

A note: We all have our limits and our challenges. Your self care will have to be personalized for your situation. Don’t hurt yourself or anyone else!

By the way, all of these things are mitzvot. They fall under the headings of “caring for the body,” “preserving life,” prayer, and moderation in appetites of all kinds. The list is in no particular order, because everything on it is important.

  1. Take all medications as prescribed. I am usually good about this, but it bears repeating.
  2. Drink more water. A lot of things I like to drink (coffee, tea, etc) are diuretics, so they don’t help with dehydration as much as I like to think. Water, water, water!
  3. Pray/Meditate every day. Meditation is part of my prayer practice: there is prayer in which I say words, and meditation in which I listen for the “still, small voice.”
  4. Move the body. Sitting at the computer, sitting at the TV, sitting sitting sitting is bad for both body and soul. I need to move my body every day, joyfully if at all possible.
  5. Guard against sunburn. Wear a hat, wear sunscreen, carry an umbrella if need be.
  6. Listen to the body. Cultivating awareness of hunger and thirst, of moods, of the truth of what I’m feeling is very important for my health.
  7. Eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’ve had enough. Intuitive eating has already saved my life and my sanity more than once. I recommit to it.
  8. Get enough sleep! Sleep deprived people have more accidents and have lowered resistance to illness.
  9. Limit social media and the news. Both are a world of stress these days, and beyond the headlines there is little I truly need. It is always worth asking if an activity is contributing to my ability to improve the world, or limiting it.
  10. Talk things out in a safe place. Sometimes talking things out can relieve a lot of stress, provided I’m careful to choose a listener who is responsible and discreet: a therapist, my rabbi, or a trusted friend.
  11. Say “no” to gossip. Rechilut (gossip) covers everything from celebrity “news” to involving myself in drama that is not my business. All of it is bad for me and for the world.
  12. Hug my beloveds. Beloveds include my wife, our children and their spouses, our dogs, and my dear friends. “Hug” can mean an actual hug, a statement of love, or a decision to assume the best when I am tempted to be cross with someone.
  13. Give tzedakah. The giving of tzedakah (giving money to relieve the suffering of another) reminds me of the power I have to help others. When I am feeling stressed and powerless, it helps to recognize that I still have the ability to help another person.
  14. Perform acts of kindness to others. Just as tzedakah reminds me that I am not destitute, an act of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim) forces me to recognize the ways in which I am able. I cannot walk up stairs, but I can still drive the car and give someone a ride to shul.
  15. Be gentle with myself. I will say nasty things to or about myself that I would never, ever say to a stranger, much less a family member. “Gentle” means gentle – it doesn’t mean making excuses! Sometimes I need a talking-to (“Ruth, get off the computer and go outside to play!”) but I commit to leaving out the cruel adjectives and names with which I am prone to hurt myself. Just like every other human being, I am b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of the Holy One, so I have to treat myself with respect and mercy!

Do you have any other suggestions for ways to maintain our health and sanity in stressful times?

Possibly TMI: Life is Sweet

Image: A bird-of-paradise plant in my yard.

I woke up this morning and something was different. My body was still achy, but not as heavily achy. I felt amused when I realized the powder puff against my cheek was Jojo’s ear. I stretched, and felt the pleasure of a good, long s-t-r-e-t-c-h. I opened my eyes, and it seemed as if the sunlight coming through the window was five times brighter than yesterday.

It took a while for me to make the connection: the latest round of depression had loosened its grip on me.

When I’m depressed, I doubt everything about myself. I even doubt that I’m depressed: I tend to see myself as lazy and shiftless when I’m in the grip of what Churchill called “the black dog.” I can’t get as much done, if I can get anything done. I’ll think of a topic for this blog, but when I sit down to write, I have nothing. If I read email, the most I can manage to do is mark emails that need replies as “need reply.” Email and snail mail have the potential to send me further into the black hole; I feel guilty and exhausted when I see something new I can’t deal with right now.

Yes, I take anti-depressants, and thank God for them. They keep the lows from getting too low. I exercise. I pray. I meditate. I knit. I eat mindfully. I go to therapy. I do mitzvot. And most of the time, I’m a high-functioning human being – until the wheel turns and another low cycle comes. Then I hang on until it recedes.

Why all this personal info? This is my effort to reduce the stigma around this very common illness, clinical depression. Yes, rabbis can get it, just like they can get diabetes or bunions or cancer. It is a disease, not a moral flaw. I’m self-employed, and so I have less to fear from the stigma, so I can “come out” without fear.

If you are a person who suffers from depression, it’s worth the fight to get to the other side. There are some things that may help (see my list above) but ultimately, it’s not something we can control. It will lift eventually, like mine did this morning. I promise that when you can finally taste life, it’s darn sweet.

If you know someone who suffers from depression, I know it’s hard to be patient. I can only tell you that I’m deeply grateful to the loved ones who are patient with me, who remind me that (1) they know I can’t control it and (2) this, too, shall pass.

Now I have stuff to do because I have energy and attention to spare! Catch you later.