Your Best is Good Enough
Many of us have powerful memories of our childhood Passover seders. Here is mine: Nana Edith bustles about the kitchen, finishing off the matzah balls, putting the hand-grated horseradish on the seder plate and arranging the vegetables around the gefilte fish. After a chorus of, “Sit down, Mom. Come and sit down,” Nana finally sits across the large dining room table from Poppy. We open our Maxwell House haggadahs and Poppy chants the Pesach Kiddush. I peek down toward the end of the table at my beloved Nana. She is snoring lightly, her cheek resting on her palm. We are ready to be redeemed from slavery. She is at last redeemed from the weeks of cleaning and preparation. But she is too tired to celebrate Passover.
For generations, the great tradition of Passover has been all about missing the point. Too many of us get trapped into thinking that the main endeavor of the Passover holiday entails sweeping attics, vacuuming bedrooms, packing up half-filled bottles of catsup and shlepping boxes of dishes from the basement to cupboards emptied and scoured clean. And if we don’t turn our houses over according to strict Jewish law, we still manage to get caught up in the pressure of preparation. Our friends finish their Passover shopping the day after Purim and brag about three dozen matzah balls in the freezer. We worry about keeping the brisket from drying out and whether our sponge cake will rise as high as our mother’s used to do.
None of this is the main point.
The main point of Passover is that we were slaves in Egypt for four hundred years and God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. We are commanded to remember this narrative and teach it to the next generation, ensuring that the Jewish people will never forget our origins. We tell the story over and over about how we began as slaves to ensure that others do not suffer as we did. We marvel at all of the miracles God performed, plagues and parted seas, and we understand that we are surrounded by daily miracles. We are thankful to God for delivering us from Egypt and remember to be grateful for all the good that is ours.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes about Passover in The Jewish Way: “By the magic of shared values and shared story, the Exodus is not some ancient event, however influential. It is the ever-recurring redemption; it is the once and future redemption of humanity.”
So, yes, I have been sweeping and vacuuming, packing and shlepping. I have resisted panicking over the masterful shopping of boastful friends but I am actually quite worried about the height of my sponge cake. How do I stay focused on the main point? First, I remember my own best advice regarding Passover cleaning and cooking mantra: “My best is good enough.”
Then, I remind myself that the physical preparation for Pesach is just a metaphor for the spiritual preparation with which I am meant to engage. At Passover, my soul is redeemed from the slavery of the everyday (think: calendars, iPhones, To Do lists, and unreasonable expectations). Once a year, in the month of Nisan, I remember that I am blessed with the greatest gift of all. I am free. I remember this truth every time I tell the story of the Exodus. And that is the point of Passover.
Wishing everyone a beautiful, freeing and meaningful Passover, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
“What is certain is that you love bringing things back to life. It is a wonderful feeling to identify the undermining factors, eradicate them, and restore something to its true glory.” Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Gallup Press, 2007, p. 153)
Strengthsfinder 2.0 is a popular assessment tool for identifying and applying an individual’s strengths. The book is based on the premise that we should spend more time in our professional lives building upon our strengths than trying to overcome our weaknesses. Everyone loves the story of an underdog overcoming overwhelming odds to achieve, but that model of success is not usually the best application of our resources! The quote above refers to the person who possesses a “restorative” talent, the ability to resuscitate and rekindle the vitality of relationships. Indeed, institutions can be revitalized; relationships can be resuscitated. This can only happen, however, when the right “match” is achieved—when a restorer is brought into a relationship where restoration is needed.
As an adjunct lecturer at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I work with students who are preparing to transition into new professional settings. Among my goals is to help budding cantors and rabbis recognize their own strengths, and identify the professional opportunities where they will experience fulfillment and success, and feel valued for what they bring to the task. Not every available opportunity is the right opportunity for every candidate. In the moments of rejection, we learn about the nature of relationships, the needs of our potential partner, and our own strengths and talents.
This week’s haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, from the prophet Malachi, tells us that a day of restoration is approaching. The children of Israel seemingly stand back to back with God, too ashamed in their imperfection to face the Divine, perhaps anxious about the prospect of confronting their strained relationships. The prophet announces that God will provide a restorer in Elijah, one who will reconcile the open and eager hearts of parents and children to each other.
Passover, the season of restoration is once again upon us. Many of us are headed home at this time of year—children to parents, families to one another, even institutions to their missions–perhaps anxious about the prospect of confronting those with whom we have strained relationships. Not everyone is cut out for every task. Perhaps there is someone among us who is particularly “restorative” by nature, who will restore our hearts to each other?
Who among us is prepared to play the role of Elijah?
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Travels with Aunt Sheila
Would a visit to Europe be possible for me without mixed feelings and conflicted responses to being a tourist?
To celebrate a significant birthday and to visit my daughter Sarah, Aunt Sheila and I traveled this past week to Budapest and Munich. I stayed in touch with the family on What’s App, sending descriptions of the sights and the people (and the food!) and pictures of the Opera House, the Chain Bridge lions and Sarah and her boyfriend Sagi.
After Budapest, when Aunt Sheila and I arrived in Munich, I sent pictures of our adventure at the Hofbräuhaus and a description of drinking a beer and eating pretzels with young Australian backpackers, Meghan and Stephen. My son Josh responded to that day’s post, “How do you feel about enjoying yourself in Germany?”
Josh’s question resonated because it had been sitting in me, just under the surface since the trip began. It did indeed feel strange to me, very strange. Since the upsurge in threatening and deadly anti-Semitic events in many European capitals, it is clear to me that too many are ready to forget and even negate the lessons of the Holocaust. But even without these foreboding times in Europe, walking the streets of cities culpable during the Shoah has always seemed fraught with anxiety to me.
“Your brother’s blood cries out from the ground to Me!” How could I eat a rugelach and drink a latte in the very spot where Nazis tormented and desecrated the lives of my people? But should I not allow new generations to be absolved of the guilt of their parents? Do I desire all of Europe to be a silent, sacred burial ground? Where in this whole world could I possibly go where the ground below my feet would not have a bloody story of suffering to tell?
And so I accepted the fact of dissonance.
In Budapest, we enjoyed the view from St. Stephen’s Basilica and the thermal baths at Gellert. But we also read every plaque on every wall, judging its historical honesty. We toured the Great Synagogue and the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial, asking pointedly Jewish questions. We walked to the sculpture of shoes along the Danube where 8000 Jews were shot dead into the river by the Hungarian BRIGADE just before liberation. We stood in silence.
In Munich, we were charmed by the chimes of the Glockenspiel in Marienplatz and enjoyed the Museum of Modern Art. But we also traveled for the day to Dachau. Listening intently to the descriptions and voices of survivors on the audio tour, we walked every path, counting the empty outlines of barracks intended to hold 6,000 Jews and some political opponents and resisters. When the American Army liberated Dachau, 41,500 had been murdered and 32,000 living dead were housed there. Aunt Sheila wept during the documentary and I chanted El Maleh inside the Jewish Memorial.
German student groups were with teachers and guides in great numbers. And inside the Maintenance Building that houses the museum, we turned a corner and suddenly met up with our “dear chums” Meghan and Stephen, the travelers from Australia. Aunt Sheila and I had to go to Dachau, we understood it as our obligation. But Meghan and Stephen chose to go to Dachau. When Aunt Sheila embraced them as long lost friends, I saw the way that their visit to Dachau redeemed the day.
People are capable of evil. Places like Dachau preserve the reality of that evil. And those who choose to understand the history of Jewish suffering in the Shoah will be our partners in fighting for the good.
When we got in the taxi to return to our hotel, the affable driver asked, “Did you enjoy your day?” Aunt Sheila answered, “It was not an enjoyable day, but it was an important day. It was a necessary day.”
Life is filled with conflicting ideas and emotions. To live a complete life, perhaps our job is not to avoid conflict but to learn how to live with it.
Thank you, Aunt Sheila, for a trip that taught me this lesson and so much more.
A successful work in progress
This past Sunday night, our OJC community and friends celebrated our community. Yes, Rabbi Paula Drill was the honoree for the evening, but—sorry—the night was only in part about her. It was a love-fest that spanned the generations: a night of Jewish learning, music, food and appreciation of one another. The night was about our community: our heart, our simplicity, our humility, our relationships, our Torah, our mission and our vision.
In trying to summarize our community’s success, I realize that we have not relied upon any new strategies. We haven’t created any unique ways of doing business; nor have we abandoned our commitment to traditional models of Jewish life. It is the Jewish values exhibited in the building of the Mishkan (the Israelites’ portable sanctuary), described in this week’s Torah portion, that serve as the blueprint for our own community.
The very idea that the people can participate in a process that will invite God’s presence is enough to inspire participation. Perhaps there is an element of guilt or a desire for repentance in their motivation, but after the debacle of the Golden Calf, the Israelites have a chance to merit a legacy. And the project is as much about the process as it is about the ultimate edifice that is constructed. The freewill service to a higher calling adds meaning and the sense of God’s presence to a life that is otherwise enslaved to fear and uncertainty.
God instructs Moses to engage the community by inviting them to donate to the project whatever they are moved to share. Several opportunities are created for that giving by virtue of the many types of materials being collected and utilized in the project. Engagement is transformed into empowerment as each individual becomes a participant in the processes of manufacturing, design and construction.
The appointment of Betzalel as project manager, the inclusion of artisans, and the participation of the broader community creates a new dynamic for the Israelites’ engagement with the Divine One. Before this change, leadership was purely hierarchical, and the population was steps removed in relation to God. As a result of the new appointee, the community operates in partnership with its leadership. In partnerships, the success of one is the success of all. Relationships deepen between the volunteers who recognize that they are working together towards a shared vision; relationships also deepen between the volunteers and the leadership, who now recognize the value of the other’s contributions towards a shared goal.
Finally, there is the matter of expectations and of how we define our success. Success can’t be about the number of people who participate or about the amounts they contribute. Success is found in the knowledge that the process of building—serving, empowering, partnering and relating—is an ongoing effort.
On Sunday night, we celebrated a milestone for a community in process. God said, “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” As we continue the process of building a world deserving of God’s presence, may we continue to merit God’s presence among us.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Snow Storms as a Metaphor for Life
Some Purim! As I begin writing this post, the OJC building is empty. It was supposed to be filled just about now with hundreds of happy kids in costume. The teens who planned the carnival are at home, disappointed… and yet…
This morning’s Purim minyan was cancelled. Rabbi Scheff, Hersh and I davened
with two other people and chanted from the megillah, our half-hearted “Boos” not doing much to blot out Haman’s name…and yet…
Tuesday’s Catch a Rising Star celebration in Religious School had to be postponed, and I know that I won’t have the chance to stand on my head for them until next year… and yet…
I’m looking out of my office window as more snow piles up on my car. I wonder if I’ll get home tonight. (I did!) Driving in the snow is never pleasant… and yet…
It has been a hard winter, true. It is easy to feel our energy depleted by dire forecasts of ice and snow and States of Emergency over the past six weeks and our optimism buried under inches of snow…and yet…
Snow reminds us that we are not in control of everything. A power greater than us is in charge. We humans tend to forget about God as we dash about in our lives, planning, controlling, building, accomplishing. I am not saying that I know what God is; rather, I am saying that I am not God. Snow reminds me.
Snow happens every winter and yet we bemoan its arrival. Illness, brokenness, loss and sorrow happen in every life and yet we cry out, “Why me?” Turbulence happens because we are not ultimately in control. So when difficult things happen, we can choose to see them either as a blessing or a curse. Or we can practice saying “and yet” and see everything as both – blessing and curse.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro teaches on the verse “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…” [Devarim 11:26]:
If we truly see this day as it is, then we will see that it contains both blessing and curse, light and shadow, good and bad, suffering and joy. Most of us are conditioned to hope for the former and anticipate the latter. We call this being realistic. It isn’t. It is conditioned thinking that has nothing to do with reality. Reality is both blessing and curse. You cannot have one without the other.
So what are the “and yets” of the snowiest Purim in the history of the OJC?
Our teens were disappointed when safety dictated that the carnival would be cancelled for today, and yet they immediately started planning with Youth Director Sharon Rappaport to come up with Plan B. They learned an invaluable lesson about resiliency when dealing with the unexpected.
We had no minyan this morning, and yet dozens of congregants tuned into the live feed of the megillah reading provided by our Men’s Club. We received emails from congregants in New York who were snowbound and in Florida who are snowbirds, all rejoicing in being able to “join us!”
Religious School kids were disappointed by the delay in their annual talent show, and yet they’ll be celebrating this coming Tuesday instead.
Driving in the snow is never fun, and yet I arrived home safely. Lucky for me, I learned to drive in Maine by a father who made sure I knew how to turn into a skid and how to rock out of a snowbank!
How blessed we are to turn to a tradition that teaches us to see both blessing and curse, but to choose blessing!
With blessings to all, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill