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Pondering Jew

Four Things My Scale Taught Me About G-d

September 12, 2016 1:27 PM

Recently, when my foot accidentally touched someone’s electronic scale, I recoiled like I’d just stepped on hot coals. A few zeroes passed over the digital screen. I instantly averted my eyes: Pay no attention to those numbers!

Why did I respond like that to such a harmless experience?

I know that everything in the physical world has a spiritual corollary and contains a lesson for me in how to serve G‑d. The lesson can be big (the miraculous survival of the Jewish people) or small (what is it with me and my scale?). Actually, my relationship to my scale is not so insignificant, judging from my recent reaction.

Here are four things I have learned from it:

1. Know before Whom I give an account.

Weight is just a number, I know, but when I get on my scale, I can’t fool myself that the number is anything other than what it is. How it got that way is a longer story, but for that moment, the judgment is sealed. The spiritual scales operate differently, but they are very real, too, even if I don’t see them. If I picture them in my mind, I am more likely to follow G‑d’s plan successfully. It’s pretty straightforward: One scale is for piling on good deeds and refraining from “not-good” deeds. His other scale is where those less than gooddeeds accumulate. (Here’s a big benefit of the spiritual weigh-in: G‑d runs the world with His attribute of Kindness, so He instantly, eagerly returns the negative scale back to “zero” when I sincerely regret my misdeeds.) Regarding both the physical and spiritual scales, the first step is resolving to do better; the main thing and the harder thing, is actually doing that.

2. The struggle is the service.

If I want to have a good relationship with my scale, I have to be committed to it for life—and success doesn’t come easily. The struggles may change, or even lessen, but they’re always there. When I was first becoming observant, I heard these exact words in a spiritual context and wanted to cry. I felt like my soul had a hundred pounds to lose, and this notion was supposed to comfort me. Instead, it sounded like a warning that I shouldn’t expect to be happy (ever), even if I got into spiritual shape. Only G‑d knows what ultimately motivated me to get with the program and stay with it. But it took many years before my spirit actually felt lighter. I appreciate feeling the internal difference and don’t want to lose what I’ve worked so hard to gain, which motivates me to remain vigilant. (And while there is such a thing as being too thin, there’s no such thing as being too G‑dly.)

3. It only matters which way I’m going.

My scale is very old. I don’t think it’s even accurate, but it’s accurate enough for me, especially if it’s the only scale I ever use. Which is why I never want to touch another scale. Mine tells me the only thing I need to know: if I am up or down compared to the last time I got on it. Even “staying the same” reflects the dynamic of my effort to manage my weight. My relationship with G‑d is my spiritual dynamic; “gaining” and “losing” are relative terms that depend solely on my past performance.

4. My relationship with my scale is my business. Or is it?

I know all know the basic rules of nutrition, so why is it challenging for me to incorporate them? Because it’s not just about the food. Some people successfully eat as a G‑dly endeavor, but the rest of us are affected by more earthly issues, like too much vanity or too little self-control. I know these don’t look good on me, making me less likely to be open about my struggles with them. (I don’t think that I’m alone on this. I once saw an embroidered pillow that said: “God, If You Can’t Make Me Thin, at Least Make My Fiends Fat.”) My spiritual scales can be weighed down by my lack of transparency as well. It’s not flattering to disclose my physical or spiritual weaknesses, but sharing them with a trusted friend helps us both to improve ourselves. And, ultimately, that’s what we’re all here to do.

G‑d has one more scale, too, the one I want to try to tip. It’s the scale that has been accumulating everyone’s good deeds throughout the millennia. It’s the scale that’s waiting for one small act of kindness to shift the balance overwhelmingly and irrevocably for good. It’s the scale that will usher in the coming of Moshiach, when our appetites will be exclusively G‑dly, and we’ll do everything, including eat, in keeping with that.

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

Lessons From My Parents’ House

September 12, 2016 1:22 PM

My mother passed away in February, which means that their house—the house I grew up in—is empty now. Well, not exactly. There are four floors and almost 60 years’ worth of “stuff.” But all I’m looking for are some tokenMaybe I can find some clues to help explain how I got this way remembrances of my parents, plus a few from my own childhood, just in case I ever need to prove to someone that I wasn’t born Torah-observant. And while I’m looking, maybe I can find some clues to help explain how I got this way.

The bedroom that was “mine” hasn’t been mine for many years. My desk in the corner is without the blotter that I doodled on; the desktop is now dominated by the mirror my mother used in her struggle against macular degeneration. The drawers are empty, too, with no sign of my legendary treasure: the small white box that warned everyone to “Keep Out!” Inside was my generous snip of our dog Lobo’s white poodle hair. (Yes, even as a child, I was keenly aware that nothing lasts forever.)

Now dogs don’t go to heaven, according to Torah, but if they did, Lobo surely would have merited the opposite; he had a biting problem, he was never housebroken, and he refused to eat dog food. We loved him because we didn’t know any better—and he was ours. Did our dog train me in the way of unconditional love that I now know I’m supposed to have for all Jews? Dogs are far less complicated than people, I know, but Lobo definitely taught me how it’s possible for love to transcend any external qualities. But there’s no small white box and I can’t ask my parents what happened to it, so any Lobo lessons will have to be orally transmitted. (This feels very Jewish to me, too; it also reaffirms that I have been prudent in detaching myself from stuff, sentimental or otherwise.)

My next stop is to the attic to retrieve what I always said I wanted: my collection of 1960s’ MAD magazines. It takes a couple trips before I find a stash, but I am happy when I do. MAD helped shape me into a humor-driven iconoclast, which I would probably would still be had G‑d not shown me that not everything is funny, and that some things in life are truly worth revering.

I feel like I’m on a scavenger hunt for myself. I look for my high school diploma and a synagogue yearbook from the year I was confirmed, even though I never did learn what I was confirming. I have my eye out for the picture frame with my name engraved on it, especially because it testifies that I came into this world weighing 6 pounds, 13 ounces (and there are exactly 613 mitzvahs in the Torah). I’m convinced that I was marked for my Jewish journey all along, and my magic birthweight is just the icing on the cake. I was 30 years old before I learned 613’s significance, but that discovery is emblematic of my quest since then: to find a G‑dly connection in everything. (So far though, I haven’t found the frame, which reinforces my attitude towards stuff.)

My sister Stephanie never played with dolls, so I know I can take all the ones I want. A few are propped up on the basement sofa, looking a little scary and definitely too frail to leave the house. I find Barbie’s and Ken’s clothes crumpled in their doll cases, but the dolls themselves are AWOL. Fortunately, I already know that Barbie and her mishpocha are only valuable if they’re in perfect condition in the original boxes, and there’s no way in the world I would ever have wanted to leave my gorgeous, hot-pink-lipstick-wearing, platinum-haired “bubblecut” Barbie in a box. Barbie may have been my dalliance with superficiality, but she taught me how to dream big. Yet, here again, there’s barely a vestige of our relationship.

My brother Robert tells me I should take the family Judaica, even though I’m not sure I want the tzedakah box our kids made for my parents or their tired tchotchkes (mostly fabric-covered figurines of shtetl Jews). There are also numerous awards and acknowledgements from Jewish organizations scattered around the house; some of this quasi-Judaica dates back to my grandfather. A small memento of community service will suffice as proof that in my parents’ house, the more fortunate were obligated to give to the less fortunate. This axiom quiteI wouldn’t have had it any other way possibly ignited a spark deep within my soul: Why did some people need help, and why was I born capable of giving it? It was an existential question that haunted me as a child and motivated me to become Torah-observant as an adult. I learned that G‑d has a reason for everything, and that by learning Torah and performing mitzvahs, I might come closer to knowing why He created me—and everything, for that matter.

Thirty years later, I still marvel at the fact that my life changed direction the way it did, even though I understand that it was all hashgacha pratis, Divine will. G‑d needed to create me with my birth weight, my family and my neshamah (Jewish soul), which was meant to be dormant until it wasn’t anymore. I didn’t realize at the time how this awakening would change my relationship to everyone and everything, including the stuff in my parents’ house.

But I wouldn’t have had it any other way: G‑d wanted my Jewish soul to come home.

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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