Pondering Jew

Jethro and Me

December 31, 2015 11:52 AM

On my first trip to Israel in 1978, my traveling companion wanted to climb Mount Sinai. It seemed like a fun Jewish adventure, so I went with her. I remember waking up way too early, that it was way too hot, and that the guide kept talking about Moses. What I remember now, so many years later, is that most everything he said went in one ear and out the other.

I often wonder: what message was playing so loudly that I couldn’t hear that G‑d gave the Torah to the entire Jewish nation on Mount Sinai? (I have since learned that we actually don’t know where the real Mount Sinai is, but I don’t think that was the problem.)The guide kept talking about Moses

I’m fairly sure that the guide related the Sinai story pretty much like that—a story—but I am definitely sure that hearing it didn’t even raise a question in my mind about what it meant to be Jewish, other than being smart, funny and persecuted.

Clearly, it would have taken much more than a day trip up any mountain to free my head of all the information that had nothing to do with G‑d and Torah.

I was a pop-culture sponge, and my mind was packed with tidbits of trivia, much of it from my favorite childhood pastime: watching television. Cartoons, sitcoms, soap operas; nothing was too dumb. Watching TV was what Americans did,and I did it exceedingly well.

But, nine years later, when I was ready to listen and decided that I wanted to become observant, it was challenging not to be frustrated, even saddened, by the amount of pop-culture “stuff” that had hoarded precious storage space in my brain, never to be emptied. Instead of learning which way to turn during the Amidah prayer, I had been watching The Beverly Hillbillies. I can still remember the names of all the cast members, but when I go to the synagogue, I often need help.

This brings me to this week’s Torah portion, and what I learned from that television series in particular.

The show’s creators probably didn’t intend to make the connection, but one of the main characters on The Beverly Hillbillies was named Jethro, which is also the English translation of the name of this week’s Parshah, Yitro. Which means that year after year, whether I like it or not, when it’s Parshat Yitro, that show’s theme song plays in my head.

This Torah-television connection may seem ironic, especially because Parshat Yitro contains the pivotal event for the Jewish people and the entire world—the moment when G‑d gave the Torah on Mount Sinai.

But it Everything has the potential to be transformedmakes sense in light of the original Jethro/Yitro’s identity. He was Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite priest who enjoyed tremendous status and high regard in the world, largely for his unparalleled expertise in the field of idol worship. When a maven like Jethro recognized that this G‑d was the One and Only, then chose to convert to follow Him, it sent a powerful spiritual message to the world for all time: Everything about a person, including the past, has the potential to be transformed into holiness.

That’s why this magnificent Parshah is named after a convert who once served as an idolatrous priest.

And for me, that message is a priceless gift, although it took many years for me to be grateful for my history. Who knows what part the emptiness of entertainment played in igniting my desire for a life of meaning? The knowledge that my current effort in the realm of G‑dliness actually elevates my past is a great joy for me—one that allows me to laugh a little more about the things that feel like they will stay in my head forever.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.

Bittul: Why Nothing Makes Me Happy

December 31, 2015 11:32 AM

I am fortunate to live in a community where everyone is committed to taking care of everyone else. Really. Whether it’s for a new baby or a brit milah, or, G‑d forbid, a sad occasion, everyone pitches in for one another—even if it’s only in a small way—to make lifecycle events smoother for everyone.

Facilitating this process is the e‑mail everyone gets containing the ubiquitous spreadsheet, asking people to sign up to help make food for the particular family that needs it.

KnowingI try to sign up whenever possible that it’s a nice thing to do, I try to sign up whenever possible, regardless of who the family is. I’ve also learned the importance of getting through this process as quickly as possible, without taking time to review the spreadsheet. It’s really not my business who signed up to make what, or why the family doesn’t eat wheat.

But then I start deliberating. A commitment to do for others can feel like an unnecessary responsibility. If I don’t make the gefilte fish, someone else surely will. What if there’s another crazy snowstorm, and I can’t get to the store? Come on now. I have gefilte fish in my freezer. I can do this. Be nice. Just sign up for the fish!

Classic approach-avoidance conflict.

But I know I want to sign up, so I start to do it. I type in my name next to gefilte fish. It really is just the idea of doing something for someone else. Then, just as I’m ready to hit “submit,” that little voice makes one last attempt, and if I don’t hit it fast, the voice tries its favorite line: Why are you doing this for them?

But I know that voice is the yetzer hara (my friendly little ego that loves me to a fault), but because I have heard it so many times when I try to do something nice for someone else, I recognize it and ignore it.

And I hit “submit.” As I do, I feel a slight thrill of victory, and I slowly exhale. I’m on the spreadsheet, so I’m committed even if there’s a snowstorm, even if I discover there’s no gefilte fish in my freezer.

Many years ago, I learned about the quality of bittul, which usually translates into words like “self-nullification,” “self-abnegation,” “humility”—words that didn’t even sound very Jewish to my untrained ear. I was wise to recognize that this was the jewel in the Jewish crown, exactly what we strive to attain, but foolish to think it was easy to do.

After all, I love my “I,” or at least part of it. I still contend that if I hadn’t had so much awareness of myself and my lack of spiritual fulfillment, I would never have agreed to hit “submit” and undergo such a drastic lifestyle change. I would have been happy enough, but I wasn’t. It was a very big “I,” and it needed more.

So this extremely-preoccupied-with-itself “I” understood that the only way to find true happiness (my inalienable right, right?) was to keep Torah and mitzvahs.

Fair enough. Then I’ll be happy?

Uh, not quite. I started hearing that it wasn’t just about doing, it was also about being.

All the doing is supposed to change the being, so that our existence is aware of itself (I got that part), yet completely bound up with its Creator in each and every aspect of that existence. (What?)

Wait a second. I’m supposed to try to totally self-transcend so that everything I am, have or desire is only for G‑d? This is much harder for an “I” like mine to do.

ButWe have the ability to be unlimited it’s my divine mission nonetheless. And G‑d does not ask more of us than we are able to do. Just as He is unlimited, we have the ability to be unlimited. We can be everything and nothing, and something in between, all at the same time. Every day we have to hit “submit,” and we’re on our way to loving what He loves (anyone need gefilte fish?) and loathing what He loathes (the feeling of separateness from Him, right down to the gefilte fish).

Chassidic wisdom teaches that we should all live as if we carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. On one paper should be written, “I am nothing but ashes and dust,” and on the other, “The whole world was created for me.” Both of these sayings are correct. The key to true happiness is to master the understanding of when to pull out which paper.

I’m still working on it, and very happy about that.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.

A Famous Actress Led to a Family Revelation

December 3, 2015 12:38 PM

The woman was sitting on the curb outside the car wash, talking on her cell phone. I couldn’t see her clearly, but my daughter Elkie knew exactly who she was.

“Maya?” I asked as I approached her.

“One second,” she said to the person on the phone. She looked up at me, slightly annoyed by the interruption.

“I’m Lieba Rudolph, Billy’s wife,” I announced with a smile. (I call my husband by his Hebrew name, Zev, but many people call him by his English name, Billy.)

“I gotta go. I just met someone from my family!” I was relieved to hear the excitement in her voice.“I’m Billy’s wife”

The woman sitting on the curb was indeed the actress Maya Rudolph. Maya’s father is my husband’s first cousin. Their fathers were brothers who grew up together in Pittsburgh.

With Maya’s identity confirmed, Elkie and her daughter Leah approached, trailed by my daughter Rivky.

Of course, none of us could believe the amazing “coincidence” of our meeting. I mean, what’s the likelihood that I would arrive in Los Angeles on that exact day in 2013, then go with my daughter to that specific car wash to get her car cleaned for Pesach at exactly the time when Maya was there!? (To my knowledge, Maya wasn’t cleaning her car for Pesach, which makes it even more unlikely she would be there at that moment.) And what is the likelihood we would all be at the car wash exactly when, back in Pittsburgh, much of the extended Rudolph family was gathered for the funeral of one of the two original Rudolph sisters?

But our connection with Maya through hashgacha pratit (divine providence) didn’t end there.

A successful actress and comedienne (and daughter of the late singer Minnie Riperton), Maya was recently selected to be profiled on the PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” I had never heard of the show before Maya’s involvement, but I understand that it traces the family histories of famous people.

One thing is for sure: “Finding Your Roots” doesn’t skimp on its research efforts. My husband, Zev, had numerous conversations with their researchers; he couldn’t believe their excitement over learning where and when some unknown great-great-aunt went to high school.

Then, one Friday afternoon last summer, Zev received a stream of e‑mails from the show’s researchers. After months of exploring the Rudolph family, they sent us copies of immigration records, wedding announcements, death certificates—everything they found. Topping it all off was an extensive Rudolph family tree.

Up until that point, the Rudolph family tree went as far back as my husband’s grandfather, Julius Rudashevsky. He had been “the patriarch” who came to America as a stowaway at age 11. Julius never spoke about the family he left behind in Vilna, to the extent that nobody even knew his parents’ names. That is, until we got those e‑mails.

When my husband and I first saw Julius’s father’s name, we were stunned. We knew that parents have ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) when naming their children, but it looks like G‑d wanted to show us proof.

When our second son was born, we were still giving our children two names—English and Hebrew. We liked the name Julius for his English name, and appreciated that we were also naming him for his great-grandfather. But we couldn’t use Julius’s corresponding Hebrew name, Yehudah Avraham, because our older son was already Mordechai Yehudah, and my father, who was still living at the time, was Avraham.

We liked Dovid as a middle name, and it was my husband’s maternal grandfather’s name. We wanted a Hebrew first name to go with it, something close to “Julius.” We consulted our rabbi and agreed that Yisroel would be appropriate. And that’s how our second son was named Yisroel Dovid.

We would have continued thinking Yisroel Dovid was an original name if not for Maya’s profile on “Finding Your Roots.” The show’s researchers discovered that the name of Julius Rudolph’s father was Yisroel Dovid Rudashevsky. Not every encounter is life-changingUnbeknownst to us, Yisroel Dovid was already a Rudolph family name, a name that now continues through our son, Julius Rudolph.

As a Jew, I strive for a life where G‑d’s presence is experienced through hashgacha pratit, where I recognize His involvement in everything. Not every encounter or event is meant to be life-changing, but none is accidental either. And some events, like this one, are unusual enough to be seen as a clear sign of His presence, a revelation which, ideally, strengthens my ability to recognize Him even more, even at times when His presence might not be so obvious. I know that there is always much more going on than I know. However, I am grateful when I get a peek “behind the scenes.”

If a family tree falls in my e‑mail forest, it’s because I am meant to hear it. And, more importantly, to recognize where it really came from.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.
Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.
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