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Pondering Jew

Staying Married

April 30, 2015 10:08 PM

I have a bad habit. Now, you already know from my willingness to disclose it that it can’t be that bad. But still, ever since I was a young girl, I have not been able to kick the tendency to manicure my cuticles with my mouth. So without sharing any disgusting details, let me just say that last Yom Kippur, as I felt truly inspired to get closer to G‑d in a measurable way, I committed myself to stopping this habit. For real this time.

I have a bad habit

And I did. For many weeks, I remembered my sincerity and passion, my joy in serving my Creator in a way that would make Him happy. Forget the obvious benefits of having grown-up looking hands, stopping this habit would mean that I would no longer accidentally cause myself to bleed on Shabbat, something the Torah forbids. It's not murder or idolatry, I know, but a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and I hadn't been so good with this one.

For many weeks after Yom Kippur, I was "good." Each time I started going at my cuticles, I remembered how sure and sincere I had been on that sacred day; I had made a holy, heartfelt commitment and I needed to honor it. I don't have to tell you that it's gotten harder as the year has gone on. The inspiration that was once so undeniable and energizing sometimes feels like a burden. And it gets harder every week; I've even failed a couple of times.

What is it that makes me want to be close to a G‑d who cares about how I treat my fingers? Wouldn't we both be happier if I was just a good person?

When we celebrate Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the eternal bond, between G‑d and the Jewish people, we marry G‑d all over again, on His terms, not ours.

Over a million people heard G‑d Himself say the first two of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your G‑d Who brought you out of the land of Egypt” and “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Moses gave us the other eight when we couldn't handle the intensity of G‑d’s communication.) Never in recorded history has G‑d spoken to an entire nation. Although we do not remember it, we are taught that every Jewish soul, indeed all of creation, beyond any strictures of space or time, witnessed that revelation. We unequivocally accepted G‑d's proposal, answering “na'aseh v'nishma,” "we will do and we will hear." We bought the Torah package unconditionally, sight unseen, no refunds or exchanges.

G‑d "signed" the deal, too; He promised we would be His chosen people eternally. The "do" part—our commitment to "doing" all of G‑d's mitzvahs—supersedes everything. The "hear" part—our commitment to Torah learning in order to understand what G‑d really wants—is also essential to our successful relationship with Him.

Some people hear about this divine revelation from their parents, who heard about it from their parents, and so on, all the way back to Mount Sinai—an unbroken chain of generations testifying to the revelation. There is the fact that Torah scrolls from all over the world are almost identical. And, of course, the miraculous survival of the Jewish people throughout millennia of persecution. Yet it can still be challenging to accept our eternal bond with our Creator. Why is this?

Think about the fact that George Washington crossed the Delaware. We didn’t witness that either, but we believe it easily, because George Washington's activities don't affect us like the questionIt can be challenging to accept our eternal bond with the Creator of Torah's divinity does.

I have heard that most American Jews are descended from impoverished immigrants who came to this country around the turn of the last century. Shabbat observance was challenging for these Jews as their jobs (and hungry families) demanded working on Saturdays. This was the beginning of the slow but steady move away from the tradition, the beginning of withholding from their children everything they heard from their parents and grandparents all the way back to Sinai. With each generation, the booming heavenly voice these souls heard at Sinai became softer and softer. To reconcile eternity with the demands of modernity, Torah got a makeover. But G‑d's voice still sounds constantly, maybe even a little louder on Shavuot, when our souls are reminded of the eternal promise we all made to G‑d.

It's challenging to listen to His voice when immediate gratification beckons. I know that well. But when I succeed in putting G‑d's desires ahead of my own, my desires slowly become the same as His. Instead of feeling burdened, I feel exhilarated that He cares so much about every detail of my life.

Marriage is a lot of work, but it's worth it.

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

Ponderings about Premature Death and Purpose

April 30, 2015 10:01 PM

The thought that terrified me most when I was a teenager was that I would die before I figured out why I was alive in the first place. Premature deaths were uncommon, but I knew they happened, sometimes even close to home.

In 1973, just after I graduated from high school, our family friends' daughter was killed while driving home after her freshman year of college. What made her death more chilling were the words my mother repeated for many years after it. She said the girl's parents were haunted by one thought: If only she had forgotten something and gone back for it . . .

Our neighbors' daughter was murdered

Sixteen years later, our neighbors' teenage daughter, their only child, was murdered in their backyard by her friend—an unspeakable horror. Shortly after it happened, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, a rabbi who had made a profound impact on me and my husband, came to speak in Pittsburgh. We knew that if anyone could offer the couple support, Rabbi Lipskar could, so we asked him if he would be willing to pay a condolence call.

I wasn't at their meeting, but apparently it was a meaningful visit; years later, the couple included it in the book they wrote about the events surrounding their daughter's death.

Rabbi Lipskar told them that their daughter was only destined to be on this earth until the very moment when she left it. Nothing could have changed that reality.

Everyone has preordained expiration dates. There's no place for "If only . . ."

What I'm pondering is this: Could the extreme pain and sense of indignation that many are feeling these days about death (this is too much, it's not supposed to be this way) reflect how close we are to the arrival of Moshiach, when death as we know it will leave this world and it really won't be this way?

Could this be because our souls feel, sense, know that immortality is within reach? In my own lifetime, 60 went from being old to being middle-aged!

Previous generations accepted early demises as a given, occurring as early as infancy. Death was very much interwoven with life. And as Jews, our ancestors understood the risk of dying at the hands of an anti-Semite as a fact of life. Pogroms happened.

Today, thank G‑d, for the most part, that is not our reality. We feel entitled to long and healthy years, and in general that is what G‑d wants for us as well.

There's just one little hitch.

Long and healthy years are not an end unto themselves. G‑d wants us to acknowledge that our very life—and everything in life—is Him and only Him. And then, of course, He wants us to behave accordingly.

But G‑d also created a paradox. In order to preserve our freedom of choice, He has hidden Himself in nature and made us feel that we exist on our own, separately from Him.

Despite this, He asks us to transform our lives from a self-centered, physical existence to a G‑d-centered one. This is my answer to my teenage question about the purpose of life. As demanding as the work is, it is still far better than not knowing why I'm here.

Although sometimes, I'm not sure. BecauseHe asks us to transform our lives knowing what I know makes it harder to live with the painful reality of this world, that Moshiach is coming very soon but he’s not here yet. Now I know it's not supposed to be this way.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe himself, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, couldn’t understand why Moshiach had not yet arrived; far be it from me to ask what has taken so long. But every day that passes means his arrival is closer, not further away. Perhaps the reason we are experiencing the pain of death so deeply is that our Jewish souls feel, sense, know that eternal life is imminent.

What better time than now for us to ask G‑d to send Moshiach, so we can have our loved ones returned, so we all can finally experience life the way it’s supposed to be, eternally?

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

Who’s That Knocking at My Door?

April 21, 2015 12:12 PM

“Hello, Mrs. Rudolph!” the smiling man greets me as I answer the front door.

I have just gotten up from dinner in response to the familiar sequence of events: first the doorbell, then a two-second pause, then a knock on the door, followed by an immediate rap on the window.

I know my salad will get soggy, but I have trained myself not to mind.

“Hello,” I answer with a little less enthusiasm than his. (An interruption is still an interruption, but I’m working on it.)I know my salad will get soggy

“You remember me, right?” he continues, smiling.

I’m not sure I do, but he goes on to tell me something about the last time he was in town. He shows me a miniature copy of a check I gave him before; the writing is clearly mine.

By this time, I am usually in the right frame of mind for this encounter.

These people are known as meshulachim, emissaries who come to town to collect tzedakah (charity). Sometimes they carry a book about a school or soup kitchen they run, and sometimes they come collecting for their own personal or family needs.

How do they know whose houses to go to? I’m not sure about other cities, but in Pittsburgh the observant Jewish community publishes an annual directory of names and addresses of people who, among other things, will answer the door when the meshulachim come knocking.

Some meshulachim are friendly and appreciative, and they leave my house showering me with blessings. Others ask me for more money, and when I don’t give it to them, they are clearly displeased. (After I learned how kindly G‑d regards us when we give generously, it was actually hard not to get carried away. My husband and I finally established a set amount for meshulachim, and I try very hard to stick to it.)

It has taken many soggy salads, but I now appreciate that tzedakah is more than a Jewish ethical obligation or a mitzvah to check off. I’m supposed to become a more compassionate person It also has a spiritual component. If I do it right, I’m supposed to become a more compassionate person, to actually feel the pain of another Jew.

But it’s more than that. If not for the person knocking at my door, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to perform a tremendous mitzvah. From this perspective the encounter is transformed into a G‑dly experience, a reminder that it’s His world, that we are all here to serve Him in different ways as both givers and receivers, and that every Jew plays an essential role in accomplishing this.

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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