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Pondering Jew

5 Lessons From The Great Escape Room

February 23, 2016 3:55 PM

I didn’t know what to expect from my family’s trip to The Great Escape Room, other than that I was sure I would give up soon after I started. I do not perform well under pressure and typically don’t enjoy it. But before I knew what hit me, I was in a room no bigger than the average dining room, and I was transformed into a do-or-die Sherlock Holmes, rushing around to find clues and solve puzzles within the hour.

Why has this form of entertainment become so popular in cities everywhere? The answer, in a word, is adrenaline. We left The Great Escape Room a while ago, but now, any time I feel like it, I can recreate the rush I felt as we solved each of the four puzzles. It’s a feeling I could easily get used to.

I quickly realized that The Great Escape Room was a good parable for my G‑dly service on a number of levels.

Here’s how:

1. Time is of the essence.

Solving all the puzzles in an hour meant focusing only on the clues that mattered. This singularity of focus is also my optimal mode for functioning as a Jew. The more I act in a G‑dly way now, with enthusiasm, the more it shows my eagerness for Moshiach to come now. Questions like “What’s taking so long?” or “Why is it so difficult?” aren’t relevant to my mission right now. Learning Torah and doing mitzvahs are what move the Redemption forward, period.

2. Work with collaborators; smile at sideliners.

The room contained too many puzzles, too many problems and too many people for anyone to work alone. Once we had answers to the puzzles, it was hard to remember who had done what. And it didn’t matter; we were all thrilled. And everyone’s input helped. Well, almost. A few people preferred to sit at the side of the room and watch.

Spiritually speaking, there are Jews who sit on the sidelines, too. And it’s important for me to remember that I can’t convince other Jews to participate in Torah life. The best way to attract others is for them to see me enjoying the game, i.e., serving G‑d with joy.

3. Trust that there’s an answer.

We trusted that the creators of The Great Escape Room had answers for all the puzzles. There were no mistakes. We just had to keep trying until we figured everything out. Similarly, I trust that G‑d’s perfect clues for solving all the mysteries of the world are in the Torah. His clues may be challenging to decipher sometimes; nonetheless, I am confident that G‑d created the entire world, and my specific world, with intention. Just like the Escape Room’s monitors shared a few hints, G‑d also intervenes to help me find answers.

4. Am I missing a clue?

At the outset, our game monitors told us where not to look for clues (in a certain corner, on the ceiling) and exactly how many were required to solve each puzzle. There was one puzzle that we tried many different ways to solve before realizing that we were missing a clue. It was just one clue, but without it, we were just guessing, and the chances of our solving the puzzle were infinitesimal. G‑d is the vital clue in my life that makes everything add up.

5. Victory tastes sweet.

I was in charge of the group that solved the first puzzle. We screamed in euphoria when we finally combined the right numbers to open the locked box. This was the feeling I kept replaying in the days that followed: satisfaction, excitement, relief. It was a tiny taste of the joy we all will feel when Moshiach comes—when everything in creation will add up, just like those numbers. And just like those numbers added up for everyone, Moshiach will come for everyone. The victorious thrill I enjoyed in The Great Escape Room may have been only a tiny taste of the Redemption, but the taste stays with me, adding to my hunger for the real thing.

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

When I Stopped Dreading Passover

February 10, 2016 1:19 PM

With all due respect to exercise enthusiasts, I think the person who coined the expression “No pain, no gain” probably thought of it while preparing for Passover. It may have taken me almost 30 years, but, thank G‑d, the “gain” is finally overtaking the “pain.”

Like everything Jewish, if I view Passover negatively, the failing is mine, not G‑d’s. In my early years of cleaning for Passover, I was told that once upon a time in the shtetl, people simply wiped off their table and chairs, picked up the mats they slept on, swept the cement floor of their humble home, and Passover cleaning was finished. It wasn’t fair to blame G‑d for the fact that my kids took food upstairs.It wasn't fair to blame G‑d

As much as I understood this perspective in my early Passover-making years, I didn’t care. OK, so the failing was mine. I still disliked Passover. The fact was, I had “no life” in the weeks when I was getting ready for Passover, and in the early days, I resented that feeling. The scrupulous elimination of any crusty substance on a toy or table—potential chametz, the leavened grain product forbidden on Passover—seemed beyond my capability. I tried to appreciate the spiritual corollary of Passover cleaning—that I was eliminating my own arrogance (analogous to “puffed up” bread) in order to become humble (like “flat” matzah) to truly appreciate G‑d—but for several years, it backfired. Passover was when I “felt myself” more than ever. And it wasn’t always pretty.

We even named the storage room in our old house, “The Broken Bowl Room,” to immortalize what happened there. I blocked out the details; I just remember that I promised myself I would never get angry at my kids like I did when they broke that expensive bowl (the one we put away so it wouldn't break) while I was trying to clean for Passover.

Still, I knew something had to change, and I knew it had to be me. I was committed to observant Jewish life in its entirety, and the Passover package was part of it, every year, whether I liked it or not. There’s some anxiety surrounding Passover still, but the anger and resentment slowly disappeared and are now long gone.

The other day, there was a different feeling entirely.

It was the first day in a while that was both sunny and warm in Pittsburgh, and I was feeling like I had just been freed from winter’s prison. What could I do outside to celebrate this moment? I realized I could start my Passover cleaning by taking the toys outside to wash them. Adding to my excitement was the fact that I had even gotten my marching orders on what to actually do: My husband, Zev, had recently suggested we finally get rid of the toys that were broken, missing parts or just plain disgusting.

Sorting through the collection, I found a large plastic castle that had been around for years. It was dirty but perfectly intact. I took it outside to give it a thorough cleaning; I wanted to restore whatever dignity I could.

As I carefully wiped each surface, my thoughts began to wander.I felt a lump in my throat

Which child decided to draw on the turrets?

How many kings and queens have been imagined in here?

I felt a lump in my throat as I thanked G‑d for my children.

Then I thought: My children’s toys are now my grandchildren's toys.

I didn’t think about this “gain” when I started cleaning for Passover so many years ago.

Then again, I didn’t think about a lot of things back then. Like how fast the time would go once the kids grew up. And how grateful I would be that I didn’t let the “pain” impede my journey to Torah observance.

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

Traveling in Kosher Style

February 10, 2016 1:07 PM

All the people we told about our road trip from Pittsburgh to Florida said that we had to stop in Charleston, S.C. So we did. What they didn’t tell us was that one of the best things about the city was its restaurants.

I could have figured that out on my own, though. Delicious food smells were everywhere. I was surprised by how enticed I was by them, but I was even more delighted by the fact that finally, I wasn’t resentful of the culinary hardships of being a kosher traveler. Finally.Delicious food smells were everywhere

Once upon a time, what I loved most about traveling was enjoying the local delicacies with abandon. For years after we became observant, traveling involved such huge sacrifices of pleasure and convenience that it almost wasn’t worth the effort. When our kids were young, and traveling required bringing along pots and pans and cartons of food, as well as our rambunctious children, we stayed home a lot.

But now, as empty-nesters, the world feels like my oyster again (figuratively, anyway). Now we enjoy different activities when we travel to places without kosher restaurants. Sometimes, we’ll sit on a bench and people-watch—no, we’ll Jew-watch. During our stay in Charleston, we met an Israeli family and a French juif selling tablecloths at the historic City Market. (It’ll be a bonus if we actually end up using the tablecloth.)

And we don’t go hungry. If the lettuce holds up and the dressing doesn’t leak, the most gourmet item will be chicken salad on a bed of mixed greens. Because it’s just the two of us traveling, the food can be simple. (It must be ample, though; the kosher traveler should always be prepared to fall off the map for a day or two.) And there’s no lowering kosher standards just because we’re away from home. Our standards include keeping chalav Yisrael, eating milk products prepared under Jewish supervision only, which means that our dairy items are typically available only in kosher stores.

For this trip, eating chalav Yisrael translated into traveling with a stack of cheese slices (cheese can withstand almost anything) and almond milk instead of regular milk. Because almond milk is available everywhere, we could enjoy basics like cereal and coffee without having to ration our milk. Of course, it’s always good to plan for the worst-case scenario, like if the electric cooler that plugs into the cigarette lighter socket malfunctions completely. (All fruits and vegetables are kosher, and you can get kosher nuts almost anywhere.)

There are some material benefits to traveling in kosher style. Not eating in restaurants saves money and calories. And I don’t miss having to decide which restaurant to go to, always questioning if the other one would have been better. Also, eating in our hotel room leaves more time to Jew-watch and more money to buy tablecloths!

The The spiritual benefits are even greaterspiritual benefits are even greater, although they took longer to appreciate. Keeping kosher felt close to martyrdom for me in our early years of observance, and keeping kosher when traveling only rubbed it in. But it was what I had to do for G‑d. It would be my mesirat nefesh, my self-sacrifice, for Him.

That may sound pathetic compared to the real sacrifices Jews have made for G‑d throughout the millennia, but here’s something to ponder: G‑d appreciates that people in our generation, being so far removed from Torah’s revelation, couldn’t withstand the tests of our spiritually hardier ancestors. Which means that our small efforts mean more to G‑d.

Even so, I’m never sure if I’m living up to my spiritual potential. For now, I’m grateful that it’s finally a joy to travel in kosher style, hopeful that it means I’m getting somewhere after all.

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

Bikkur Cholim: Getting Over My Unhealthy Obsession

February 10, 2016 1:01 PM

I didn’t need to enter a hospital to learn about the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick; it was an integral part of my family background. I grew up with stories of my grandfather’s participation in the “Press Old Newsboys,” a group of businessmen who began as newspaper boys and had become successful enough to raise money for the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Some people may have been inspired by this legacy; I was terrified.Did she make it out of there alive?

I remember looking at a framed newspaper clipping in my grandmother’s house: a picture of my mother and aunt as adolescents, smiling by the bedside of a young patient about their age, a blonde girl whose face I will never forget. I couldn’t help staring at the picture in fascination every time I visited my grandmother; I was obsessed with this girl’s fate. Did she make it out of there alive? Why does G‑d make some people healthy and some not? How does He decide?

The annual Children’s Hospital telethon further fueled my unhealthy obsession. Every year my family gathered around the television set to watch our city’s most venerated newscaster spend the evening going from ward to ward, microphone in hand, visiting all the young patients, trying to cheer them up. I was haunted by another young girl, one who actually lived in the hospital. She had become a “regular” on the annual telethon, until one year the newscaster announced grimly that she wasn’t living anywhere anymore. What was I supposed to think of that?

Almost any exposure to adversity used to trigger my obsessive thoughts about suffering. I thought growing up meant finally being able to let go of these unhappy thoughts and enjoy my life. But when I became observant, I realized that my obsession, painful as it was, had served a holy purpose: it’s what ultimately propelled me to incorporate Torah and mitzvahs into my life.

Not that I have answers now, but at least I understand that G‑d gave us Torah and mitzvahs to heal the world. And one of the ways we come to appreciate the universal need for healing is through the experience of individual suffering. The afflicted person has spiritual opportunities that arise from his or her challenges (may G‑d give us only positive challenges), and those who help alleviate others’ suffering have the merit of hastening the coming of Moshiach, a time when people won’t get sick or obsess over why people get sick. There are many spiritual benefits that characterize the messianic era, but let’s be honest, who wouldn’t be thrilled to enjoy eternal physical health?

But I’ve come to think that until that time arrives, life is just one long (or, unfortunately, not so long) effort on G‑d’s part to sensitize us to the reality of ein od milvado, “there is nothing but Him.” Neither our health nor our lives are in our own hands, and the fact that we have little control in these areas is one more way to recognize Him. Could that be why bikkur cholim is one of the handful of mitzvahs that you’re rewarded for in this world and in the next?

It It isn’t easy to visit a sick personisn’t easy to visit a sick person, especially for someone with my psychological profile, but I try to focus on what the mitzvah accomplishes. (I’ve been told that according to our sages, it actually removes 1/60th of a person’s illness.) I try to call the patient first, I try not to stay too long, and—this is my favorite rule—I try not to get myself all fancy for the visit. (Someone who is unwell doesn’t need to be reminded how good it feels to get dressed up to go out.)

The mitzvah of bikkur cholim simultaneously reminds us of our fragility and our power, our humanity and our G‑dliness—and our essential connectedness, no matter what condition we’re in.

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