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Do You Love?

June 29, 2008

I learned a lesson on the meaning of love lately, from my four-year-old daughter, Sara Leah.

Sara Leah is an affectionate child, who adores her family and keenly senses just how much, as the 'baby' of the family, we all love her.

She's a friendly little girl, too. But like many children her age, she shies away from strangers or people whom she doesn't know well. There's almost an invisible barrier between her warm and spirited interaction with "hers"—her family, her siblings and parents, her teachers and playmates—and her stiffer, more withdrawn manner towards the rest of the world.

Sara Leah is particularly fond of her oldest sister, Esther. Though the two are more than seventeen years apart, the special bond between them is evident.

That is why I was curious to see how Sara Leah would react to her oldest sister's recent marriage, and as a result, the new member of our family, with whom her sister would be building her own home and life.

But on Esther's recent visit with her husband, Sara Leah demonstrated a strong message about how she defines love. She instantly warmed to her new brother-in-law, constantly approaching him to play, sing, chat, show her drawings and just laugh with, as if she had known him her entire life. She unmistakably regarded him within her clearly defined boundary of "hers".

Intuitively, she understood what many of us forget as we get older—that if you genuinely love someone, then you also love and accept whomever, and whatever, they love.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

Moments of Connection

June 22, 2008

A little over a week ago, my family and I had a wonderful Shavuot experience that left me inspired. My husband and I, along with our children, were hospitably invited as the guest speakers and scholars to a wonderful community in Long Island, New York.

One of the things that I most enjoy about these lecture opportunities is the connection that often develops afterwards with some very special people in the audience. Inevitably, after sharing myself with the crowd, there are those who reciprocate and likewise come over to me to share of themselves. In these few precious moments, an intimate, strong bond of connection is often formed.

After one lecture, Sara (not her real name) pulled me over to a quiet corner and confided that she was a cancer survivor. Her doctor even refers to her as his "miracle patient." In a low voice, almost in a whisper, and with a tear threatening to fall from her clouded eyes, she explained how, according to the laws of nature, she really should not be here. She described how she had learned first-hand that the pains, struggles and challenges of our lives are often our greatest gift.

It was her unbearable and inexplicable back pains…suffered for many long weeks and adversely affecting the quality of her life… that eventually lead to the discovery of her aneurism…the meeting of a doctor from her native country whom she fully trusted, in the most unusual of places…the long, but successful, first operation…and the subsequent second...her trust in G‑d throughout…and finally the miraculous recovery, up to her standing opposite me, years later, tears of relief now flooding both of our eyes.

Soon after, Renee (not her real name) shared with me her bumpy path and her overflowing gratitude in reaching her present state. Renee had been involved in a serious relationship with a non-Jew. The two loved each other passionately and were inseparable. The plans for their future were bound to include one another—a blissful future in which they just knew that their deep love would overcome all odds and any obstacles.

But then somehow….at some indefinable point…Renee realized that despite her strong love…this was not where she belonged…

Today, Renee is married to a Jew and is the proud mother of five children—a set of triplets as well as twins, despite the fact that multiple births does not genetically run in her, or her husband's families. "I sincerely believe," Renee confided, her voice dropping an octave as she pointed out to me one of her sons, "that G‑d has generously paid me back and rewarded me for my decision—in multiples!"

And the stories continued…Gary, born in a small town, with his school experiences of classmates who were mostly non-Jews…Jerry who had his own life trials…

Each of these special moments of encounter left me feeling that these nameless individuals in the crowd had become close friends and confidantes.

But what inspired me most about this past Shavuot was the prayer services together with this warm community.

We were a diverse group of people, ranging in age, background and place of origin. There were many present to whom Hebrew was a completely foreign language, and others who simply had a fond but vague memory of it from their youth. To many, if not most, the services were an incomprehensible, ancient ritual, with little relevance to modern times or to their lives.

This year, Shavuot fell on a Monday and a Tuesday—days smack in the beginning of the work and school week. Many of the professionals or business individuals present would be sorely missed at their offices. Some would be rushing to return, their appointments awaiting them immediately after the services. To many of those there, a couple of months ago, or a couple of years ago, (and some even at this time), they had little understanding of the holiday and holiness of Shavuot or of its significance or meaning to them.

For most of the many children present, their classmates would have little understanding—and absolutely no envy—for their absence at school and for their voluntary presence at these services.

And yet…there were so many of us standing in that beautiful synagogue. We were there because intuitively, deep within each of us, we all understood—and felt even more so—that we as a nation were somehow different, and that it was important for us to be there.

Somehow, we all felt this elusive, but nevertheless, deeply ingrained connection with our Maker. And somehow, despite what each of us might or might not observe in our personal lives, despite what we do before or after the services, at this moment, we all wanted to reaffirm our connection and reiterate our willingness to become the nation of G‑d.

We stood together. There were the catchy songs. There were the usual old-timers. The usual shul jokes. The usual chazzan, chosen for his robust voice. There were those who were familiar with the rituals and more who obviously were not.

And then, right before the reading of the Ten Commandments, their rabbi, Rabbi Yaakov Saacks, asked the children—our nation's guarantors—standing together on the podium, if they would accept upon themselves this Torah…this Jewishness…this responsibility and obligation to our world…this connectedness to one another and to the One above…

Emotionally, the children all responded to their beloved rabbi, with the expected and resounding "yes."

But the presence of all of us at that moment, in Little-Town America, standing on a workday Monday afternoon, unified in our anticipation to once again reaccept upon ourselves the Torah, was to me, even more resounding evidence to the absolute strength, connection and eternity of our People.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

Are You Out of the Box?

June 15, 2008

Being a savvy, hi-tech office, my co-workers here at chabad.org consist of individuals located throughout the world. I have colleagues who are geographically based near our headquarters in New York, while others are located globally, in Pittsburgh, Chicago and even cities as remote as Rome and Jerusalem, while I am situated in Toronto, Canada.

In order to create an office atmosphere for all of us to communicate, share opinions and even just vent, out technical team put together an online internal forum, where any of us can post questions, ideas, opinions, thoughts and responses. It's through this forum that we get to know our colleagues—virtual strangers in real life, whom we've never met, but whose opinions on all sorts of issues, and whose sometimes quirky work habits, we've become intimately familiar with.

From their participation on this forum, I can tell which colleagues are early risers and which keep the midnight oil burning, which get their spurts of energy erratically during last minute work deadlines and which like to work more methodically and consistently in tackling their responsibilities. I can also tell who is feisty or who is easy-going (and whom you just plain want to avoid any confrontation with); who is a radical revolutionary and who is the traditional conformist; who likes to raise eyebrows and who likes to follow the tried and true path. The only one generality that I can observe about my co-workers is their diversity. (I would say the greatest common denominator amongst all of us is our workaholic devotion to Chabad.org, which I haven't yet figured out how our personnel do such a good job detecting in the hiring process.)

I can almost always foretell how each of my co-workers will respond to an issue, based on their personalities, backgrounds, tendencies and where they grew up or currently live.

But maybe because we've become acquainted with one another through the very one-dimensional medium of an online forum—rather than personal interaction where we'd be able to sense subtle aspects of each individual's personality—we present ourselves, and learn about one another, in black-and-white terms.

Without even reading a post, I can almost always foretell how each co-worker will respond to an issue. Based on their personalities, backgrounds, tendencies and where they grew up or currently live, I'm rarely surprised by the predictability of each of their comments. The traditionalist will, on cue, react traditionally; the avante guard will forever be forward-thinking. The methodical and the spontaneous will remain in their respective realms, while the opinionated will consistently express strong, one-sided opinions.

Time and again after noticing this pattern, I began to wonder, isn't the liberal just as stuck in his box of liberalism as the conservative is in his? Isn't the inconsistent individual just as consistently inconsistent as the consistent individual is consistent? And won't the faithful anti-censorist automatically censor anything smacking of censorship?

Are any of us really "out of the box"? Or does the way we respond to any given circumstance merely reflect our innate personalities, education, parental and societal expectations?

It is true that there are those of us whose thinking may seem more "out of the box" than others, but is it just a wider box that we've constructed? Wouldn't someone else with an identical set of criteria create the exact same box? And even those of us who may be so unique as to think differently than almost everyone else—isn't that individual too, in his own box, just one that merely holds only him, based on his unique life experiences, intellectual thought processes and emotional tendencies?

Our sages say, "Everything is in the hand of heaven, except for the fear of heaven." Are our innate propensities, thoughts, predispositions, characteristics and initial responses all pre-ordained from heaven? Is it perhaps only in how we direct, channel and act upon these tendencies that we have true freedom?

What are your thoughts?

Are any of us truly "out of the box"?

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

My Son's First Steps

June 8, 2008

On a recent Tuesday, my twelve-month old son started walking. I came home exhausted from a long day at work to see little Yaakov Kopel waddling around the house as if he owned the place. My exhaustion was quickly forgotten. I observed for a while, had him chase me a little, and savored the milestone, trying to commit the moment to memory.

Truth be told, Yaakov had actually taken his first steps several weeks earlier, and had progressively been taking more and more steps ever since. But until this day, he had not considered walking as a serious means of transportation. He had considered using his two feet to move around as an adventure, a challenge, and perhaps most importantly a way of eliciting tons of positive attention from his parents and siblings — who would form a cheerleading choir: Alein, alein, alein... Yaakov Kopel gait alein... ("Yaakov Kopel is walking on his own..."). But when he actually had to get somewhere, he would scoot down on all fours and crawl to his destination.

Something must have clicked in his mind that Tuesday. Walking wasn't a hobby anymore. His crawling days were behind him.

When G‑d formed the body of man, He was guided by one primary objective. This body was to be inhabited and vivified by a unique human soul. They would have to seamlessly fuse. As such, the body, and every one of its components, had to be perfectly compatible with its life-energy.

One of the unique characteristics of the human body is its erect posture. This mirrors a basic human-soul quality: its mind's ability to control its emotions and passions. Cognitive abilities are based in the brain, while the heart is the seat of emotions. The fact that the human head towers above the heart symbolizes the mind's supremacy — the human's innate ability to act based on need (the person's need as well as what he or she is needed for) as opposed to impulse.

Though this is a basic human skill, the dominion of the mind does not come easily, it requires much work and discipline. We all start out crawling on all fours, with head and heart more or less on same plane, and then — hopefully — we slowly progress and start walking upright.

The challenge, however, is to ensure that moving while vertical doesn't remain a "hobby," relegated to inspired moments when we are not feeling kvetchy, and when we have an audience of admiring onlookers.

If when we really need to get somewhere, in the course of our navigation of life's pathways, we comfortably revert to crawling, using our emotions as our compass, then we have not yet maximized our human capabilities.

Cute idea, no? Maybe for you. To me this is much more than cute; it's my son's milestone.

Think of how proud our Father must be when we finally master the ability to truly walk, to truly become movers.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

Flowers and Time-Bound Mitzvot

June 1, 2008

Have you ever noticed the many rows and rows of cards in a gift shop devoted specifically to women—mothers, wives and sisters?

Ever wonder why these affectionate gifts are so gender specific? Is it a woman's more emotional nature that is so tenderly touched by the few graceful lines of poetry on the attractive card or the vibrant colors on the bouquet of flowers?

No, of course not.

The secret behind these gender-specific gifts is that women thrive on feedback. The cards, the flowers, or the small tender presents show that he cares. They represent the time he took out of his day to think about me. It means that he values our relationship. He took the moments to drive to the store and he deliberated on what I would most appreciate. A woman may not need the flowers, cards or chocolates, but these tender gestures demonstrate to her that he cares. He remembered to choose my best color, or my favorite chocolates. It means the world to me that he showed that he cares.

Women need that feedback.

Self-help books on improving married life invariably provide practical suggestions to husbands on communicating their care better, listening better, and being more understanding. Buying flowers or cards is just one way of expressing this. She may not need the flowers, cards or chocolates, but these tender gestures demonstrate to her that he cares.

A husband neglecting to give his wife the attention that she needs or expects, notices her becoming withdrawn, irritable, upset, or in husband parlance, "nagging." Venture to ask her what's wrong and she's sure to rejoin, "nothing."

Never buy that.

What is a woman implying by her response? She is saying that if you care enough, if I am sufficiently important in your life, you'll keep asking. If our relationship is as important to you as it is to me, you won't accept my retort at face value, but you'll keep probing. As most husbands figure out soon enough, woe is to the man who assumes that nothing means nothing!

A man, on the other hand, may be comfortable sitting silently on the couch beside his wife, just knowing that she is his. He might be doing his thing and she might be doing hers, but he considers that spending time together.

But a woman, through her need for feedback reminds her man that over time their relationship can grow static. Gestures are important to reignite that flame of romance, longing and tenderness by reawakening the original dynamism and passion. She brings a message to the relationship that says reaching a comfort level is great, but let's not take one another for granted. Show me regularly that you care, not only in your heart, but also through your deeds.

I know of a wife who complained to her husband that he never buys her anything—not jewelry, not flowers, not cards. His staggered response was, "Honey, do I ever tell you not to spend the money? By all means, if you want jewelry or flowers go out and buy it!" He thought he was being generous, but of course he missed the point entirely of what she was lacking. It's not the time or money that you spent on me, it is the fact that you cared to spend the time and money.

Perhaps this natural dynamic is a reason why women are not obligated in the time-bound mitzvot of the Torah. Some of the traditional reasons given for this are the fact that women may be occupied with other more important things, namely her family life and children. Far from binding a woman to the chains of domesticity, this underlines the supremacy that Judaism places on the value of home life, and its precious regard for family and children—a goal that more and more of us are realizing in today's turbulent times.

Another reason given for women's exemption from these time-bound mitzvot is that she doesn't require the spiritual powers of these mitzvot for her unique spiritual make up. She intrinsically is in tune with the point of the mitzvah without the need to perform it.

What I think this means is that in our relationship with G‑d, mitzvot serve as connectors. Torah is full of do's and don'ts. Things that G‑d doesn't like us to do and things that He asks, please do this for Me. Mitzvot teach us not to take our relationship with Him for granted, but to maintain the connection, keep the passion and dynamism alive.

While a woman is equally obligated to abstain from the negative precepts of the Torah, she doesn't require the constant reminders of the time-bound, positive ones. She intrinsically understands the need for the positive gestures, and the feedback, because that is her own need.

Men on the other hand, need to be told specific directions. This is the prescribed formula for demonstrating a connection.

So, a woman doesn't need to send her husband flowers. The message of these tender gifts is a message that she already is sending him and knows how to send him—because this is a need of hers.

And so she doesn't need to wear a yarmulke or bind tefilin daily on her arm or pray at three specific times a day to remind her of G‑d's presence in her life, because He is a reality. Not because she is more spiritual. Not because she is a better person. But simply because feedback to a woman is as necessary as the air she breathes.

So husbands, the next time you pass by your local mall, take a few moments to stop by and visit the gift shop. Don't forget to remember her favorite color, too—she'll appreciate that you did.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.
Often we need a break from our daily routine. A pause from life to help us appreciate life.

A little pat on the back to let us know when we're on track. A word of encouragement to help us through those bleak moments and difficult days.

Sometimes, we just yearn for some friendship and camaraderie, someone to share our heart with. And sometimes we need a little direction from someone who's been there.

So, take a short pause from the busyness of your day and join Chana Weisberg for a cup of coffee.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.
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