Passover celebrates the Jewish people’s journey from slavery to freedom. You can read about it in the book of Shmot/Exodus in the Bible. Each year those of us who observe this holiday, prepare by getting rid of all the chometz/leavening in our possession. We do this to remember the swiftness with which the Jewish people picked up and left Egypt; the bread that was baked for the trip did not even have time to rise, so we carried the flat matza with us to eat on our journey. We are told to tell the story of this journey to our children and their children for all generations. To help us do this we have a seder, or a meal, with a particular order so that we are continually and consistently conveying the story of our existence and connection with God.
We were privileged this year to attend a seder where the youngest child, a 5-year-old girl, was in attendance. The leader of this seder stopped frequently to ask Leah questions about the Exodus story and the meaning of the meal we were preparing to eat. Amazingly, already by the age of 5, Leah knew the Passover story. Seders usually end in the wee hours of the morning, but we don’t complain because this is the story of how we became a people.
As my husband and I prepared for Passover this year, we talked about cleaning the chometz from our home, our car, our storage unit, his office space~any area where we might have chometz in our possession. But the meaning of this exercise goes deeper than cleaning out the crumbs and crackers and bits of leaven that gather in ignored corners and crevices throughout the year. Passover is also an opportunity to take an inner inventory of one’s thoughts and actions throughout the year. We spent time discussing the spiritual chometz in our lives that we wished to clean out, to discard from our lives~greed, envy, whining and complaining, etc. We took a hard look at ourselves and considered how we treat each other, how we treat our family and neighbors, what good is there that needs to be cultivated and what spiritual, emotional and psychological leaven needs to be eliminated.
This is a special time of year when we celebrate our journey out of slavery and into freedom. I am grateful for Passover.
The Festival of Sukkot, also known as the Festival of Booths, is explained in Leviticus 23. The festival falls at the end of the harvest season and is a time of festivity, good eating, refraining from working at our occupations . . . and living in a flimsy booth or sukkah. The roof is not attached to the walls, is made of once-living material [bamboo, tree branches, etc.], and generally one can see through the roof to the sky above. Sukkahs do not protect its inhabitants from the elements! Four species of plants are taken and waved before G-d each day of the celebration. While the general population may be unaware of this festival, orthodox Jews still observe Sukkot. In fact, we are told to observe this festival on its given days “as a law for all time, throughout the ages” (Vayikra/Leviticus 23.33-44). Some Christian groups, too, have taken up a modified observance of Sukkot. One reason given for observing this festival comes straight from the Torah. You could say that the Festival of Sukkot is an object lesson for the children of each generation; the sukkah is a reminder of the booths we lived in when G-d led us out of Egypt to our freedom and into the desert for 40 years. G-d was our guide and our provider then as now. As one who loves to be out in nature, Sukkot is one of my favorite festivals. In large Jewish communities one can hear hammers and shouts as each family erects their sukkah in the days leading up to the festival. During the festival, sukkah hops take place where people visit one sukkah after another and enjoy refreshment at each stop along the way. We live in an apartment this year and were unable to build our sukkah, however there were those who placed sukkahs around the apartment complex for those of us who observe this festival. The sukkah pictured above is the largest one in our complex.
In addition to living in booths, we wave four species of plants before G-d. If you have never seen this, it is quite breath-taking to see groups of people, draped with tallisim (prayer shawls) circling the Torah and waving the lulav (3 species of plants) and the etrog (one species, a fruit similar to a large lemon and very aromatic). After the festival I will keep the etrog around just to enjoy its fragrance.
I am grateful for the Festival of Sukkot!
I suppose this gratitude deserves some explanation. After all, how can one be grateful for creepy crawly spiders and centipedes and bugs, etc. Just look at them! They are frightful looking creatures despite their generally small size. But because of their bizarre appearance (to us humans anyway), these critters are often unfairly maligned. Before I go any further, let me be clear in stating that I don’t particularly like the little critters in an up-close-and-personal way. They have their places and I have mine. Having said that though, I got to thinking about their purpose in this world. I have read about the ecological balance within nature, the importance of each organism in maintaining that balance, and the oftentimes overlooked value of each creature in the chain of life. This spider looks pretty large and pretty close. Don’t fear because neither is true. It is about the size of a nickel, and this shot was taken with a telephoto lens. When I was growing up I remember my grandmother admonishing me to leave the house spiders alone. The only time we would destroy one is when it interfered with our health or well-being (as in dropping down into our food). Even then, if it was possible to scoop the little thing up and release it outside then that was the better thing to do. Within Judaism, many will ignore spiders much as Grandmamma did, remembering when King David hid from his foes in a cave. A spider built a large web covering the opening to the cave so that when King David’s enemies came looking for him, they bypassed the cave because the spider-web gave the impression that no one was hiding within. Out of respect to the spider that saved King David’s life, we leave spiders to their own devices when possible. Spiders offer services beyond protecting Israel’s king, too; they capture small, irritating varmints in their webs which in time become delicacies for spiders to feast upon, thus keeping the “creepy crawly” population to a manageable size. Spider webs are used to spin fine silks to create exquisite garments for our enjoyment. Whether I know how they function in the world or not, all critters have their purpose for being. It all sounds yucky, yes, but the entire process works to support a dynamic life balance on our planet earth. Keeping ALL of this in mind, yes, I am grateful for creepy crawlies!
I know that I expressed gratitude for Sabbath Peace recently, and this is very similar. But this Shabbat the peace, the rest, took on special significance. Last Monday evening my dad suffered a life-threatening abdominal aneurysm. The further the week progressed, the more we realized the gravity of the situation. By Thursday it had sunk in for all of us that Dad was fighting for his life. We Futch’s have raised denial to an absolute art form, not necessarily a bad thing; it’s what helps us keep our heads up when life seems insurmountable. We laugh a lot. We are a cheerful lot through thick and thin. But by Thursday we were all worn, especially Mom who never left Dad’s side, and David and Sandy, my brother and sister-in-law, who stayed with Mom and Dad, made phone calls, talked with doctors, managed to squeeze in work, and more. The rest of us were in far-away states and could only sit by our phones, pray fervently for our father and friend, and wait for news. We had become fearful for Dad’s life, and with good reason. Doctors were honest in their assessments as they gently presented our options. Throughout the week flurried phone calls back and forth began early in the mornings and continued late into the nights each and every day. Normalcy ceased and crisis management governed our days. But Thursday evening the situation began to improve, and Friday dawned brighter as Dad’s color began to return to normal,the swelling from various procedures and blood leaking into his abdomen began to subside, and everyone~doctors included~regained hope for Dad’s recovery. By Friday we sighed a sigh of relief. . .somewhat. Friday is the day I prepare for the Sabbath, and this Friday was no different. Phone calls interrupted but the preparations continued through to completion. Minutes before candle-lighting which ushers in the Sabbath, I made my last calls home to my brother and then my mother. Dad had a few “hiccups” through the day but for the most part it was a good day. He is definitely improving. But for this daughter who would be out of touch with the family for the next 25 hours, there remained some angst over Dad’s condition. Blessedly, earlier in the day I received a welcome phone call from one of my best friends ever, and her voice was music to my ears. At the sound of her voice my eyes began to tear as I felt the release of pent-up emotion and my resolve begin to dissolve. Rochel Leah reminded me of the power of prayer and the many people around the world who are praying for Dad. She also reminded me of the strong connection we have with G-d as we light the Shabbat candles ushering in a time of holy rest. Rochel Leah urged me on reminding me that whatever the outcome, all will be good. She would be lighting candles, too, and when she lit, she would have Dad in mind. Shabbat is a time each week when we step away from the cares of the world, a time to smile and rejoice for the world that we have been given to live in with all of its hills and valleys. When I light the candles I lay down my cares and worries and enter into another realm. This Shabbat I visualized laying down my cares for Dad, switched to an attitude of gratitude, thanking Hashem for the man who is my Dad. This Shabbat we enjoyed good food, shared a meal with friends we hadn’t seen in years but who attended our wedding, walked in the sunlight on a glorious Saturday afternoon, and slept soundly during an afternoon nap. We went to the synagogue to daven/pray prayers of thanks and learn a little Torah. Life on this Shabbat was restful, joyful, revitalizing. When Shabbat drew to a close, my cares were where I had left them, and I picked them back up as I headed into a new week. But now there was energy and hopefulness that before was lagging. I picked up the phone to call home and get an update, but now I felt rested. As I write this post, I am acutely aware of many things for which I am thankful even in this post. But to sum it up, I am humbled and grateful for the rest that Shabbat provides for those of us who observe its laws. I am also grateful for a good report from home as I begin a new week.
Today I am going from the lofty to the lowly, from the holy to the mundane. Yet, as I’ve aged (and matured, I hope) I discover that the lowly, insignificant things in life, those things we overlook or take for granted, are worthy of gratitude, too. In fact, the lowly stuff is the mortar that holds up the lofty stuff. As I write this post, Shabbat is almost upon us. I busily prepare the house and the food before lighting the Shabbat candles because once Shabbat arrives I will not cook or clean or engage in any activity that involves creating something new or different. Shabbat is the day we rest from the busyness that fills our lives with creative endeavors. At the same time however, the rabbis tell us we are to partake of hot meals and extend hospitality to friend and stranger alike. The conversation and hospitality piece is enjoyable and doable, but how does one offer a hot meal when forbidden to ignite a flame or flip a switch on the Sabbath? Ahhh, that is where our ingenuity comes in. Throughout history we read of the many creative ways Jewish home-makers concocted to keep food hot on Shabbat. Today we use crockpots. I have several because keeping kosher requires separate cookware for meat and milk. Besides cleaning the apartment, Fridays are also spent preparing Saturdays meals. The wonderful thing about crock pots is that I can prepare a dish in the pot, put it on to cook before Shabbat, then turn the temperature to low and leave all Shabbat so that we have a hot dish to serve with our meals. Voila! There you have it. 🙂 I am grateful for crockpots!
****Just so you know, this post was written before Shabbat and scheduled to post on Shabbat. I’m experimenting to see if this is something I will want to continue doing. We’ll see.
The Sabbath peace. Shabbat Shalom. In the upheaval of relocating and trying to find things in the mess that begs for order, I am a frazzled, short-tempered mess myself. At sunset today however, a peace will descend on us as I light the candles and usher in the Sabbath. One of the first things I do with every move is dig out our Shabbat candelabra and get the buffet set up so that when Shabbat arrives, we have at least one place in our big mess that is what we call “Shabbasdic,” a place that when the candles are lit, there is beauty and peace. I will not lie; there are times when it is difficult to shut off all the voices and perceived demands that must be met. I squirm when I feel that I “must” busily unpack more boxes or finish a paper to meet a deadline. In all honesty, Shabbat is not for the faint of heart. Having made Shabbat a regular part of my life for the past 13 or 14 years however, I would not give it up. It is that time of the week when we retreat from this world to a place that is holy, a place where we relax, reflect, and recoup. Shabbat energizes our spirits and feeds our souls. We sleep. We pray. We eat. We visit with friends. We learn Torah. Someone described Shabbat as an island in time, an appropriate analogy if ever there was one. This week I need for Shabbat to arrive. As much as there is to do to prepare for Shabbat, and as much as I have to do for my class before sunset, I admittedly feel some angst. But whatever happens, where ever I am in my “planned agenda,” when Shabbat arrives, I stop what I’m doing and light the candles. When that happens, peace and calm descends on our home. Every time. So today I am extremely grateful for the Sabbath and for Shabbat Shalom that will soon arrive.
The festival of Shavuot begins this evening at sundown. For those of us in the diaspora, the celebration lasts for two days (one day for Israeli citizens…long story for another post.) The festival falls 50 days after Passover in celebration of the new grains of the summer wheat harvest in Israel. Shavuot is also when we celebrate Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, because it was at this time of year when Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Some of our present day customs include decorating our homes with bouquets of flowers and eating sumptuous dishes made with cheeses and other dairy and grain products. Many people will stay up throughout the night to learn from our holy writings and greet the dawn with words of Torah on their minds and in their hearts. For a little more detail about this wonderful festival, see here.
I will be off-line for a few days as I celebrate this wonderful festival! I am truly grateful for Matan Torah and the festival of Shavuot! Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday!)
We often take “freedom of religion” for granted. But as I drive through cities and towns, country roads and major highways, I am struck at the variety of religions I see represented in this country. Most often we see rural churches or city cathedrals, each attesting to the fact that there is a congregation of Christian worshipers in that community. Less often we see synagogues or Jewish learning centers where study of religious writings and teachings take place. Mosques are becoming more visible, too, indicating that Islam is present here. A couple of days ago my husband and I were driving through a rural area of VA when we spotted a beautiful Buddhist pagoda. Buddhists in rural VA. Imagine that! I am Jewish. The photograph depicts some of my Jewish books. The fact that I am able to practice my beliefs even while people of differing religions or no religion at all practice their’s is something for which I am extremely thankful.