My dear friend, Laya Crust, sent this beautiful painting to me. Her work is steeped in Jewish history, tradition and beauty. “I was wondering what I could do with my sadness over the situation in the world,” she wrote me. “The hatred is frightening. So, I wrote out these phrases and the prayer.”
She asked me to share the prayer and her visual evocation of the words. I am deeply moved and grateful to do so. For an additional sensory experience, here is the Hebrew prayer set to music composed by Julie Silver
If nothing else, for today, let’s be the light.
PS Following my last post in this space, my rabbi sent me a link to an essay written by an Israeli tour guide and educator. In his essay he offers a thoughtful and well-considered perspective on the current dispute in Sheikh Jarrah.
I debated when it came time to fill this drawer in the cabinet. Do I write about the past two weeks in Israel? How can I not? Do I offer my opinion? Possibly. Do I want to engage in a discussion of the many rights and wrongs? Toward what end? Does it enhance anyone’s now to bring war into this space? You decide.
In the end, I gathered links to articles and information that are rarely shared by the American press.
We have just passed the midway mark of the Counting of the Omer, the 49-day period between the second night of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot. In ancient times, at the beginning of the spring agricultural season, an omer (sheaf) of barley was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as a gratitude offering on each of the ensuing 49 days. The Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. ended the sacrificial system. Counting the Omer was ultimately transformed into a seven-week period of spiritual exploration. In this way, Jews have the opportunity to embark upon a spiritual journey that mirrors the ancient Hebrews’ physical journey of liberation from slavery (the Passover celebration) to the receiving of the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai (the celebration of the holiday of Shavuot.)
For the past month I have been part of an online group that is counting the omer, following the structure laid out by the Kabbalists of the 17th and 18th centuries. These masters assigned to each of the seven weeks one of seven earthly emanations of the Divine: chesed (lovingkindness), g’vurah (boundaries), tif’eret (splendor/balance), netzach (endurance), hod (gratitude/humility), y’sod (intimacy) and malchut (reign/responsibility). Each day of the week embodies one of these seven qualities as well. If this sounds a bit complicated and overwhelming, it is. Yet each year I engage with this process, some nuance or other becomes clearer. Progress not perfection is our motto.
The Kabbalists taught that all seven of these earthly Divine emanations reside within each of us. One person might be quite comfortable establishing boundaries; another opens easily to lovingkindness while another struggles to cultivate endurance. The object of this inner work is to find the “sweet spot” of these character traits. If establishing boundaries comes easily to me, do I need to examine if my boundaries sometimes become walls preventing deeper personal connections? Is my lovingkindness so bountiful that I tip over into exhaustion and resentment, or have I learned to balance giving of myself with replenishing the well? Day by day our group reads and discusses where we slip up and where we glide forward.
We are now in the week of hod or gratitude, which in Hebrew is translated as “recognizing the good.” Gratitude in this sense isn’t the outpouring of ecstatic thanks but instead calls on us to take a moment, many moments in fact, to recognize our good fortune. Even in the most trying of times, we are bidden to find a kernel of light to appreciate. Something my husband does might set me off until I realize how fortunate I am to have him beside me each night and to wake up to his loving hug each morning. How can irritation not melt in the face of such blessings?
Self-awarness is a double-edged sword. The more aware I become of my thoughts and my reactions, the more I realize how far I have to go. What a judgmental, impatient, ungenerous wretch I can be! In those moments I remember again and again, “Progress, not perfection.” We are all works in progress until we draw our last breath.
Over these intense forty-nine days of counting the omer, I count my blessings, count my progress, and count to ten when the need arises. Each morning, members of our group bring sheaves of hope, determination, confusion, and more with the intention that at the end of this seven-week period we will have shaken free of enough chaff to be worthy to receive the words of Torah once again. Progress, not perfection. Yes.
My better half raised his beautiful brows when I told him my thoughts for this week’s J-E-W. After all, this site is dedicated to Enhancing Your Now. Valid. I reconsidered, but here I am anyway. This space is just as much about enhancing my life, my now. It’s my shared world where I reflect and work things through, even the shadowy side.
I wager at least some of my Jewish readers may have looked at the yellow star of the daffodil’s back and seen another kind of yellow star, the kind Jews were forced to wear in a past that is never too distant.
We have just finished a cycle of three modern Jewish holidays collectively called the Yamim (plural for days): Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (a day memorializing soldiers who lost their lives fighting in the War of Independence and subsequent battles, as well as civilian victims of terrorism), and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day, marking the anniversary of the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948). A fourth, Yom Yerushalayim, celebrates the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem and occurs next month
I looked at this daffodil, the green stem of spine supporting the blossom. It seemed to peer at the patch of sky reflected in the small puddle nearby. I couldn’t help but think of six million murdered Jews who had peered Heavenward on a blue-sky day, and silently screamed , “Why?”
One day, one day, may all humanity look to the blue heavens, spines straight, faces uplifted and none shall be afraid.
My husband and I are finally watching the long-awaited third season of Shtissel, an Israeli TV series about an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family living in Jerusalem. It’s a world most of us have never encountered. Although once you’re hooked, and you will be, trust me, the family’s trials and triumphs are universal. Shtissel is an artist, a painter. In his community that’s well-nigh verboten. Graven images and all that. This is a community where the men are expected to devote themselves to studying and living God’s Torah. Painting? Anathema. Nevertheless Shtissel walks the difficult middle path between two worlds.
My husband and I were talking about Shtissel’s dilemma which made me think of Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev. The eponymous Asher Lev is a struggling artist. Like Shtissel, he is caught between his community’s expectations and his determination to answer his soul’s call to paint. Thinking of Potok’s novels reminding me of the days I worked as the receptionist for Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. which at the time was coming out with Potok’s book Wanderings, A History of the Jews.
Not all of Knopf’s authors noticed the receptionist as anything but a lowly cog in the finely-assembled publishing house. But Chaim Potok took notice. He was always kind, always patient. He had a gentle smile and a gentle manner. I was over-the-moon starstruck to meet the author of the novels I had devoured in high school. Our paths crossed twice more. In 1998 the author’s short story collection, Zebra and Other Stories, had just come out. I took my son, then 14, to hear and meet Potok at our Barnes and Noble. After his book talk, he was every bit as gracious to us as he autographed his book and chatted with us for a minute or two.
A year or so later I took a chance and wrote the author, asking him to consider writing a blurb for my book This Jewish Life. I knew it was a long shot and indeed he demurred. I still have his letter a reminder of a gentle man who cared as much about Jewish life and art as he did about treating his publisher’s receptionist with dignity and kindness.
Photo of Chaim Potok by Monozigote is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo of Debra Darvick courtesy of Martin Darvick.
I’m in the thick of it: degreasers, cleansers, sponges, water, toothpicks. The intention of Passover cleaning is to rid the house of all chametz, chametz being the Hebrew word for leavened food. Over the years I have actually come to welcome what might seem obsessive or astoundingly bothersome to some. Pesach cleaning is intense. It is physically demanding. Every drawer must be taken out, scrubbed and cleaned. New drawer liners. Drawer hinges cleaned. Crevices tended to with toothpicks. Microwaves, dishwashers, ovens down to their racks and gaskets receive their due. Ditto the fridge. And don’t forget the counters. For some the ritual is a good wiping down. Others pour boiling water. I’ve heard of temporary countertops fitted and placed over year-round ones. As with any religion’s traditions and dictates, normal is what you do; obsessive is what others do that is more than you do; slacker is what others do that is less than you do.
But oh, the satisfaction of knowing you have done your level best. Grime that might (OK does) escape regular cleaning eleven months of the year, is sought out and banished (three cheers for Krud Kutter.) Some crazy meals are at hand as I try to use up the last bits of oatmeal, flour, pasta. The rest will be set aside and not used or even seen during Passover. Through an intermediary, most often the rabbi or the rabbi’s assigned representative, Jews can choose to sell their chametz. The seller receives an amount of money, really a down payment, with the balance to be paid at the end of Pesach if the buyer wants the sale to be finalized.
“OK, Debra,” you ask, “we get the Krud Cutter, the sponges and even the toothpicks. But what’s up with the cowboy boots? Are they chametz, too?” No, and here’s where the spirtual side of chametz cleaning comes in. With so much time devoted to it, cleaning out the chametz becomes a metaphor for reckoning with the ego—the puffed up yeasty parts of us that merit a bit of scouring as well.
I recently received my second vaccine. Heading to TJ’s a few days later, I felt like dressing up: jeans, a tucked-in shirt, and a belt. For the first time in a year, I pulled on my cowboy boots. I love my cowboy boots. I have two pair—low black ones and a tall pair of red ones. I love how I feel in them. Tall, rangy, powerful. In my boots, my body might be in Michigan, but my spirit is back in red rock country. Shoes are for walking; boots are for strutting.
By the time I’d completed my shopping and accepting a “great boots,” comment from the cashier, I was feeling pretty high on the horse. Heels hitting the pavement, I caught myself in the act of being too caught up with my self. It felt great to be out, to be doing something “normal.” Wearing my boots once again, I felt something I hadn’t felt for twelve months. Maybe it was simply exuberance. Maybe it was something less benign—a puffed up ego. Chametz.
My husband and I went somewhere later that day. My boots were still in the kitchen where I’d taken them off. I put on my sneakers. As we walked, I was conscious of being closer to the ground, connecting with earth instead of ego. I’m not giving away my boots. I look forward to wearing them again. And again and again. Next time, however, I’ll remember that like rising bread, the ego sometimes needs a bit of punching down.
Whether your tradition is spring cleaning, Passover cleaning, or Easter cleaning, get yourself some Krud Kutter and have at it! As for cowboy boots, I know a great place to get them if you have the urge.
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Leaven is out, but levity? Always welcome. Here are links to two videos that will get you laughing, or at least smiling, no matter what.
Vocabulary: mishkan (the Holy Ark that held the tablets); mitzvah (literally a commandment, usually understood to be a good deed); dayenu (eponymous song meaning it would have been enough); chag sameach (happy holiday)