Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On A Prayer

I pick up my siddur, kiss it reverently, and begin to daven. I close my eyes and connect with my beloved Father in Heaven. I love the experience. I love the opportunity to connect with Hashem, leaving all life's distractions behind.

I'm lying.

I don't look forward to davening. In fact, I dread it.

Davening is a challenge for me. I have trouble focusing, clearing my mind, and getting to a place where I can concentrate. I can't let go of the million things I need to do, and take the time to just daven.

And I'm bored.

There. I said it.

When I was a kid, I loved davening. I loved the singing...the chanting out loud with the whole class... There was such joy in it. Such passion.

I knew to Whom I was praying and what it was I was praying for. I had a clear focus and I genuinely felt a connection when I davened...an emotional connection.

Slowly, that disappeared. At some point, davening became a task...a chore. I no longer felt that solace - the comfort - I once felt when praying. I still davened, of course. But it became...mechanical.

I'd stand there, recite the prayers, and even comprehend most of them. I'd say the words, stand when I was supposed to stand and bow when I was supposed to bow. But the whole thing became more of a familiar ritual than a direct connection to a Higher Power. The words were there...the motions were there...it was all there - except for the emotion.

And I still davened.

I said the words, most just stumbling carelessly out of my mouth amidst thoughts of appointments I needed to arrange, deadlines at work, and laundry waiting to be folded.

After a while, I began to become....bored with davening.

It's been quite a while since I davened.

Well, that's not really true. I talk to Hashem all the time. (Please...please...find me a parking spot...) I daven at home on Shabbos, so I can be a role model to my daughters. And I actually enjoy davening the few times a year that I go to shul.

But the enthusiasm wore off. The emotion is gone.

And so, I find it difficult to work up the necessary feeling to daven. Sometimes I still go through the motions, but the emotional impact has been lost to me for a long time.

I miss it.


Sigh.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

When Bad Things Happen....

Everything Hashem does is for the good, right?

When we suffer, the pain is for our benefit. We don't necessarily see it or understand it, but we believe it to be so. Pain strengthens us. It's a good thing. So we are told.

We are told that eventually we will come to realize that, even though the pain itself was so difficult to endure, it will have had a positive outcome. We will comprehend that the tears and pain were there for our benefit.

Sure.

How can something so negative be for our benefit?

When we are in pain or going through a difficulty, though it is extremely horrible, if we can survive that crisis, we often find deep within ourselves a source of strength that we never knew existed. Challenges, unfortunately, strengthen us to become stronger, and often, wiser.

How true.

The person I was before enduring my life's challenges is someone that the me of today would hardly recognize.

She was a sincerely good person, kept up with lots of friends, and followed all the rules with an innocence that I almost envy.

The me of today is working towards pushing forward in my spiritual growth, and hopes to someday reach the place I once was. But I know that when it happens, it will be on a very different level. Growth that comes through struggle is very different than spirituality that is just there, just because it always was.

And I do struggle. I'm not proud of some of the things I do or don't do...but I know that those things do not define who I am.

The me of today does not have as many friends. Some disappeared because they couldn't relate to suffering, and didn't know how to respond. And some....I drifted away from. Suddenly, my life was so different from theirs....my perspective was so different...we just didn't have anything in common anymore.

But the me of today enjoys my own company. I can go places alone, without feeling awkward...without feeling that I need someone at my side. I have a confidence...and a maturity...I never had before.

And I'm strong. I know that life comes with challenges..with pain....with suffering...and I can face them head on, and get through it even stronger than I was before.

I am more complete. More at peace with who I am.

I like the me of today.

Despite....or maybe because of...the fact that I'm so imperfect.


A man once came to the Maggid of Mezeritch with a question.

"The Talmud tells us," asked the man, "that 'A person is supposed to bless G-d for the bad just as he blesses Him for the good.' How is this humanly possible? Had our sages said that one must accept without complaint or bitterness whatever is ordained from Heaven -- this I can understand. I can even accept that, ultimately, everything is for the good. But how can a person be as grateful for his troubles as he is for his joys?"

The Maggid replied: "To find an answer to your question, you must go see my disciple, Reb Zusha of Anipoli. Only he can help you in this matter."

Reb Zusha received his guest warmly. The visitor decided to observe Reb Zusha's conduct before posing his question. Before long, he concluded that his host truly exemplified the Talmudic dictum which so puzzled him. He couldn't think of anyone who suffered more hardship in his life than did Reb Zusha: a frightful pauper, there was never enough to eat in Reb Zusha's home, and his family was beset with all sorts of afflictions and illnesses. Yet Reb Zusha was always good-humored and cheerful, and constantly expressing his gratitude to the Almighty for all His kindness.

But what was is his secret? How does he do it? The visitor finally decided to pose his question.

"What is your question?" asked Reb Zusha.

The visitor repeated what he had asked of the Maggid. "You raise a good point," said Reb Zusha, after thinking the matter through. "But why did our Rebbe send you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering..."


I don't even attempt to reach that level. But I have reached a place where I can be thankful for the suffering.

If I had the choice, would I go through this again....knowing what I know today? Knowing how much I would grow and mature? Knowing that it would make me a stronger person and a better parent? Knowing that I would become kinder and more sensitive to other people's needs? Knowing that, at the end of it all, I'd be more secure in who I am...in who I became?

No....probably not. But I wasn't given the choice.


And I'm grateful.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Power Behind The Desk

Life was different back then. Simpler, maybe. Better? I don't know...

Teachers taught. They weren't armed with the abundance of research available today, and there was not as much awareness of the psychology behind the job. But a good teacher knew instinctively that she held the future of this classroom full of girls in her hands, and she played a role in shaping these personalities.



Self esteem...

Are babies born with it? That independent toddler, declaring he can do it himself, with no doubt in the world that he can....that self confidence..the self esteem....does it last? When does he turn into an adolescent with low self esteem? When does he lose it? How does that happen? And....who is responsible?



Some of my early school years are just a blur in my memory. I vaguely remember bits and pieces of some years, and I draw a complete blank trying to remember others.

But Kindergarten stands out clearly. I loved school. It was where I shone. I got to leave my ordinariness at home, and I revelled in the teacher's love and admiration. We were taking our first baby steps into the wonderful world of the written word, and I couldn't get enough. While my friends were struggling with finding words that rhyme with 'at', I was effortlessly composing a long list of words that delighted my teacher. (It was years before I understood why she and my father shared a good laugh over 'brat', just one of the words on my list, when he came to pick me up from school that day.) I was in my element, and I relished it.

I was so proud of myself. I was smart! I was lovable!



People who are important to kids have a great effect on the development of self esteem in those kids. The messages that children get about their teachers' feelings toward them can have a profound effect on them. It can set the stage for success...or failure.


Third grade stands out in my memory, too.

I hated Morah L. Hated her. It was such a strange, unfamiliar sensation, and it took some time before I was able to identify it.

I started the school year with my new pencil case, happy and excited to be back. The year began ordinarily enough. But something was wrong. Something so puzzling was happening, and my 8 year old mind could not comprehend it or make any sense of it.

Morah L. didn't like me. I just knew it...felt it so strongly that there was no room for doubt. I continued doing whatever it is that third graders do, and tried not to focus on it. Afternoons, when we had our English classes, were still great, and it wasn't hard to get by the mornings when I had something to look forward to.

But things grew steadily worse.

First, my seat was moved to the back of the classroom. Then...was it only my imagination?...my raised hand was ignored, and I would often be skipped over when every girl would have a chance to read or answer questions. Once, another girl made Morah aware of the fact that I was skipped over, and she said, "That's fine. She won't know it anyway".

I stopped caring...stopped trying. I spent the year daydreaming and doodling in the margins of my Navi.

I was stupid. I couldn't keep up with the rest of the class. I was ugly. I didn't deserve to be liked.



Teachers today are taught the importance of accepting students as individuals, as people of infinite worth and value, as human beings worthy of the utmost respect.

But do they understand it? Do they understand the significance...the magnitude? Do they really know it? Do they comprehend the profound effect that they have over their students' sense of self worth and ability to succeed?



I gradually figured out that my brain worked fine for my English studies, but I wasn't bright enough to keep up with the Hebrew classes. And I didn't bother trying. I went through the next few years of school excelling in English, and mediocre, at best, in Hebrew. I got through elementary school, but the enjoyment was gone. The spark was extinguished.

It was a long time before I was able to forgive the teacher who, I felt, stole something so precious from me, and almost as long before I was able to reclaim that which I lost.



Kids are not born feeling good or bad about themselves. They learn this from what happens to them.



What an awesome responsibility!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I Believe

There's an Abie Rotenberg song called "Conversations in the Womb". I love the song. It's about twins in the womb discussing whether or not there's life after birth. One twin believes that there is a world to come, where we will stand up straight. The other is convinced that life, as we know it now, is all there is.

There are many variations to that analogy.

The believing fetus arguing that, although we don't know exactly what life after birth will be like, we do believe that it exists...while the nonbeliever insists that, since no one has ever returned from there to tell us what it's like, he, as well as most fetuses, doesn't believe in it. Logic dictates that life ends at birth, and until then, we live in total darkness...

The believer talking about a "mother" who nourishes us and takes care of us...who we finally get to see in the next life..and the nonbeliever scoffing at the notion of a Higher Being...

The message is the same. We believe in life after death...in a World to Come. We believe in G-d. The life we are living now is as temporary as the nine months in the womb. It seems to us mortal humans that this is all there is because that is the reality that is available to our senses. That is what logic dictates. But we know the truth. We have an abiding faith in a world beyond the grave. We cherish our unshakeable conviction in life after death. We believe.

But....do we?

Do we?



One night, years ago, when my kids were babies, I looked up at the sky, and for one split second, I saw something...felt something...I'd never felt before or since. The sky was so vast...and I, so small...that, for the first time in my life, I believed that there was more to life than I could see. I always knew it, of course, but this was different. I saw Someone pulling the strings. I glimpsed something so...enormous...so awesome...that it took my breath away. The sheer immensity of the universe was staggering. And I was able to see how insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things. I am just one tiny part of this infinite universe, which was in existence thousands of years before I was alive, and will continue to exist long after I'm gone. At that moment, I knew Hashem exists, and He is running the world. I just KNEW.

That fleeting moment had a profound effect on me. Suddenly, things that seemed so important before became...silly. My priorities shifted completely. Clothing? Shoes? Furniture? How meaningless! How insignificant! Life was so much more than that. I was above that.

But then...the moment passed...life went on....and I quickly forgot.



But every so often, I get a tiny reminder. Something that recalls that feeling, if only for a moment.



The other day, my little boy and I were waiting for his school bus, and he said, "My Rebbe said that Hashem created whole worlds before this one, and then He destroyed them. I wonder if they had a Torah that tells their story."



Wow.



I believe.



I do.




I think I do.





I really, really want to.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Would You Do It?

When I was little, I believed that if you look into the mirror at exactly midnight (or was it chatzos?), you'll see the man you're going to some day marry. There may have been more to it. Maybe there was something you had to say...or do... I can't remember. But that is what I -we - believed.

I wanted to look...I really, really did. I wanted to know. But I never actually got up and went to the bathroom mirror at midnight. I didn't really want to know. I was scared. And at the age of 8 or 9, at least during the period of time when this was the topic of the day for the little girls at school, I struggled with it.

As I grew older, I'd often wonder, if I were given the chance to glimpse my life 5 or 10 years hence, would I do it. Would I want to see. Would I want to know. I pondered the question many times over the years, and it was the subject of numerous late night, preteen, deep, philosophical discussions.

My thoughts on the subject still fluctuated as a more mature teenager. Sometimes I felt that if something bad was destined to happen, I would not want to know about it years in advance. I'd want to live my life, each day, without that burden. Other times, I was sure that I would want to know...to be prepared...so that when the time comes, I'd be able to deal with it in the best possible way.

I haven't thought about this question in years. I'm a grown woman. Life happened. There were so many good things....things that make me smile when I look back at them...things I'm so grateful for.... And so many not so good things.

And I'm glad I was never given the opportunity to see any of it. I'm glad I never had to struggle with that decision.

If I had the chance, today, to get a peek at my life as it will look in 5 years, I'd turn it down. I don't want to see. I want to assume that everything will be perfect, and I will be blissfully happy.

And I want to live my life today as though that were the truth.