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Put It Aside

I started a new job recently. A new exciting job. One that I openly told everyone was my “dream job”. I get to do all the things that I like to do, working with people who are enthusiastic and talented.

Like any new job, there was a lot to learn. So I found myself printing out some of the juicier bits so I could look things over when I was away from a computer. By which I mean Shabbat.

But as I looked at the pile, and imagined how it would help me get ahead. I also imagined the temptation to take notes, to highlight passages, to flesh out ideas.

Which is when a thought occurred to me: “If you put it aside, your commitment will be repaid.”

There’s a well-traveled idea that any money one spends for Shabbat will come back doubled. I believe the same goes for time. If we “spend” our time on Shabbat, focusing on the day and actively choosing not to focus on items from the week, that time will be repaid to us twice over. Maybe it will come in the form of inspiration, or insight, or efficiency.

Or serendipity. I logged in after Shabbat, and found an email waiting for me:

“You know those worksheets I sent you? Don’t worry about them. We scrapped that idea and we’re moving on to something else. I’ll talk to you more about it Monday.”


Oh My How You’ve Grown!

“Siyyum” (SEE-yoom) is a word which means “completion”.

When people study a section of religious text – Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, etc – and finish it, they “make a siyyum” which is to day they have a little celebration to commemorate the job.

This has never made sense to me. So you read a book. It’s nice, but it didn’t seem especially party-worthy.

Added to this is the fact that, like almost every aspect of Judaism, people “study” in decidedly different ways. Some are extremely skilled hard-core students. They can read the text in the original language, have a vast amount of knowledge already under their belt, and worth with a study parther to tease every last drop of meaning and insight from the text.

Or some, like me, need to have someone read the text to them, having it translated as they go, and count themselves lucky if they can remember anything from one week to the next.

And the amount of learning varies as well. Some people make a siyyum on a single page. Some on a whole book. And some only when they’ve completed an entire body of work.

So what’s the point of a siyyum?

I pondered that the other day, as I was adding a mark on the doorframe in my 11 year old’s room, dutifully documenting his progress toward his dream of a promising career as a 6’7″ center for the Lakers (he’s currently 4’11. The kid knows how to dream big even if his genes aren’t on board.)

It occurred to me that, once our doorframe days are over, there isn’t much left in the way of marking growth.

There are a few milestones – driver’s license, first job, diploma, first “real” job, marriage, children, and so on. But those moments are few, and the timing is random, with no guarentee that we will achieve them (or in some cases even want to achieve them).

I came to the realization that day in my son’s room that in the Jewish world, where lifelong learning is not only laudable, it’s expected, a siyyum is the best darn doorpost ever.

What if I Try Harder?

There’s an old saying that makes the rounds in karate classes, about a student who is eager to learn. “It will take you 2 years to learn this technique”, the teacher tells the student.

“What if I work twice as hard?” the student asks earnestly. “Then it will take you 5 years.” the teacher responds.

Confused, the student asks “What if I work day and night on it?”. “Then you will never learn it at all.” comes the reply.

Hebrew has been like that for me.

Now I’ll be the first one to admit that I have NOT been working day and night on it. But the harder I work at it, the slower it has gone. This frustrates me because I’m usually good with languages. Every language is different, and Hebrew has A LOT going on that you don’t find in French or Spanish. But it can be a real confidence-shaker to suddenly be bad at something one usually counts as a strength.

Recently, I came to a kind of peace about this. Maybe God didn’t want it to come easy. Maybe I needed to experience how the other half lived. Maybe my time for being good with languages is done. Or maybe Hebrew just isn’t my game. Whatever the reason, the situation wasn’t going to change just because I fretted about it.

And for now, even if I’m not reading Hebrew better, I feel better about myself while I’m reading Hebrew. And maybe that’s a start.

Swimming in the Kitchen

“A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first-born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well.” Talmud (Kiddushin 29a)

Once upon a time not so very long ago, those obligations were very real and true in the most literal sense. A parent had to ensure that their child was known in the community, had a certain level of education, learned a trade, found a spouse. That much of the Talmud’s quote makes intuitive sense.

But what about swimming? I’ve heard some people teach that this was a Talmudic shorthand for a parent’s responsibility to teach a child how to protect themselves from dangerous natural forces – more than protect, to have the skills to turn a dangerous situation (drowning) into a positive activity (swimming). In the same category would be teaching a child how to handle animals, how to read the lay of the land to know where to plant or build and how to navigate through terrain to get to their destination safely.

Today, everything this quote from Talmud teaches is still true, although sometimes in a more distilled form. We still welcome our children – boys and girls – into the community and ensure their identity is known. We still work hard to ensure they have the proper level of education. When we are lucky and skillful, we are able to help them grow into people who can create an honest, open and loving relationship with another person; when we aren’t lucky or skillful, they still seem to manage it OK, although with far more bruises than we’d like to see.

We help them see their own natural inclinations and skills and guide them to leverage those skills into a meaningful career.

But again, I’m left with “swimming”. How, in this modern-day, does the injunction for me to teach my children to swim fit in?

Of course there’s summer camp and swimming lessons – the p’shat (plain text) sense of the reading. But there’s got to be more.

I submit to you that in today’s world, the equivalent of “swimming” is “cooking”.

If, in its original form, “swimming” was representative of natural danger, then we need to teach our children to handle themselves in the kitchen to avoid the inherent dangers that food presents: eating too much, eating too little, eating the wrong things. As they move into adulthood, we want them to know that (despite what Bill Cosby says) chocolate cake is not a good breakfast choice. We want them to know that traditional cooking techniques do not include “Swanson” and “Lean Cuisine”.

More than that, we want to teach them to respect and honor the things God provides. We want them to know that they can elevate the fruit of the earth and the trees into something that is both fulfilling and joyful. You can’t do that when it comes from a box in the freezer section.

Keeping kosher adds yet another flavor to the Talmud injunction. As parents we need to teach our children how to feed themselves while maintaining the mitzvah of kashrut, even when their shopping cart contents don’t come with OU stickers.

As I write this, my family and I have been keeping kosher for about a year and a half. It’s been an incredible journey where we’ve learned a lot. But one of the unanticipated results is that all four of my kids are much more involved in preparing our food. I’m not talking about “stir this while Mommy reads the recipe”. I’m saying the 8-year-old takes things from raw ingredients to a prepared dish on the table with little supervision. My older two kids work part-time at a kosher bakery.There is an awareness of (not fixation on, but a healthy respect for) food.

I don’t think that would have happened had we not started down this path.

On Friday afternoon, as everyone is bustling around the kitchen, preparing the best they have to offer in an attempt to clothe the Shabbat table as beautifully as they will clothe themselves for synagogue, it does look a bit like synchronized swimming.

Of course, the idea of swimming – of avoiding life’s dangers – goes beyond cooking. Knowing how to manage one’s time or money both could count as swimming, as do a host of other skills some of us take for granted while others struggle with (and suffer from the lack thereof) their entire life.

So consider, for just a moment, whether you are honoring the Talmudic tradition – are you teaching the children (and by extension the adults) around you to swim? Are you yourself drowning? What can you do to rectify that?

The Right to Swing My Posuk

…might end where your level of observance begins. Or it might just be a continuation.

I have been heartened – honestly, sincerely, truly delighted, by the responses to my post about observing Mitzvot. Why? Because more than one person has stated (either here or on the URJ Blog where it was reposted) that I was wrong when I said:

Of course, this analogy can only go so far on a single tank of metaphorical gas. Traffic laws are enforced by humans, and ultimately affect others in a very direct way. Kashrut is not “enforced” by anyone – you don’t get a treif ticket if you chow down on a shrimp egg roll. Nor is there any impact on the people around us for our own dietary observances, or lack thereof.Read the rest of this entry

Starting to Stop

When you are driving along and come to a red light, when do you start to apply the brakes? In other words, when do you start to stop.

We all know that going through a red light is not only illegal, it’s dangerous.But you can’t just zoom up to a red light at full speed and then slam the brakes. There are other variables to consider: whether there are cars ahead of you or people in the cross walk; how fast you are going; whether the road is dry or icy; etc. All of that (and more) will affect when you begin to apply the brakes.

I’m finding that observing mitzvot (commandments) is very similar.

Read the rest of this entry

CROSSPOST: Being a Light

I just posted “Being a Light” over at EdibleTorah. Since the main idea of the essay has as much to do with kashrut as with general observance, I wanted to share it here as well. Click here to read the original item.

“I’m so glad you are here today,” the woman said to Pandora at her Weight Watchers meeting today. “Because you were the crazy lady.”

The woman speaking had just made her lifetime goal, and she was speaking in front of the whole group about her success. She took the opportunity to single out my wife for honorable mention.

Read the rest of this entry