I’m getting married next week. Most of the wedding planning is done (but, oy, the table assignments, they continue to plague me!) and now the fun conversations are not about planning a one-day event, but rather planning the rest of our lives together.
Jewish ritual is complicated. Take the most recent ritual we just celebrated, the seder. It has 14 steps, each of which is to be done in a certain order and in a certain way, and it’s easy to get confused. First, we wash our hands without a blessing, but later, we do wash with a blessing. We ask, “Wait, do I eat the maror with the charoset now, or later?” Even more simply, we might ask, “Which line of Dayeinu are we on now?”
We read in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Sages: “Who is happy?” The answer: “The one who is satisfied with one’s lot.” But what happens when one’s lot comes to be measured by a lot… of stuff? I recently helped an older woman empty her very large (and stuffed) home as she prepared to move to assisted living. The sheer mass of her collection of material possessions made my head spin. Her home was replete with closets and storage spaces, shelves and unused rooms, all of which were packed. Yards of fabric, disused decorations, books and magazine clippings, three sewing machines and everything else you can imagine — enough to fill a 40-foot dumpster — and that was after the estate sale and the huge Free-Cycle giveaway, at both of which, deal-seekers lined up over a two hours before the doors opened. It gave me shivers to see people plying through every crack and crevice of the house seeking the item they imagined would garner an untold fortune on the “Antiques Road Show.”
I did not fast during Ramadan. But I did somehow experience a little bit of the meaning of the Muslim holy month that just ended a few days ago. The ebb and flow of the fast days was in my consciousness. The daily hunger and the spiritual uplift of the faithful were on my mind. I learned a tiny bit about the meaning of this month, about being conditioned through the fast to feel empathy for the poor who don’t have enough to eat. When the muezzin called just after the sun went down each day, I listened and thought of the parched throats praying and then easing their thirst and hunger. And although I did not fast, I participated in many iftar/break-fast meals with my Muslim friends. My neighbors became a little bit a part of me, and I became a little bit a part of them.
For all the spiritual riches of religious tradition, sometimes we forget our spiritual essence – the spark of divinity we associate with each soul, the inherent Oneness connecting all things, the heightened reality hiding in plain sight. Our penchant for spiritual amnesia is less a Jewish frailty than a human one: after all, to forget is human. Each world wisdom tradition, in its own way, calls us to “remember” (Hebrew: zachor; Arabic: zikr) – and then live in ways that help remind us.
A few months ago, even though I’m afraid of heights, I joined the local rock gym. No, I had never been rock climbing before – it just seemed like a fun activity I could do together with my partner. But before we were allowed to climb on our own, we had to pass a series of small tests given by staff at the gym. The first lesson was “mat placement,” i.e., how to move the gym mats right under the highest part of our climb so that if we fell, we wouldn’t get seriously hurt.
What number comes to mind when you think about a Passover seder? Probably four. Four cups of wine. Four questions. Four sons. Especially those four troublesome sons. But they are challenging in the best possible way because they furrow our brows and engage and embarrass us, awake and inspire us. To paraphrase very simply:
Maybe you can relate. For the last few months I’ve attached a small device that counts my every step. At the end of the day, I can always tell just how far I’ve gotten and how much progress (or lack thereof) I’ve made. It is a good feeling to be able to see the forward motion.
One of the most oft-repeated themes of the Torah is that we must remember that we were slaves and strangers in the Land of Egypt, and that God redeemed us with an out-stretched hand. This theme is subdivided into two, but it bears one overarching message that the Torah comes back to again and again.