Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Do Unto Others

The Rabbi's tell us the reason the Temple was destroyed is because of baseless hatred. Not sins we were committing against G-d. It wasn't a kitchen without two sinks. It wasn't hair with two tefachs showing. It wasn't even tearing up the toilet paper on Shabbos. Nope, it was the way we were treating each other.

And yet, part of what was so confusing for me, when living in a religious community, was that the emphasis of halacha (religious law) seemed to be on how kosher our kitchens were, how tznious we dressed, how strictly we kept Shabbos. 

I am not condemning my community. I think this is found in most orthodox communities. And I'm not condemning the orthodox world, because I believe that it is a beautiful thing to hold yourself to a higher standard.

But what I don't understand is how, knowing that Hashem flooded the world because we were mean to EACH OTHER, knowing that the Temple was destroyed because we were mean to EACH OTHER, knowing that Rabbi Hillel summed up the entire Torah with 'Don't do unto others as you wouldn't have done to yourself' (meaning: don't be mean to EACH OTHER), we aren't a nation of people SOLELY devoted to being GOOD to each other. 

I have contemplated this more since moving out to the middle of nowhere. As I unravel from the pressure of being part of a community I can start to look at which areas of my devotion were like an outfit I wore to be accepted and deemed 'religious enough,' and which ones truly emanated from my desire to observe the commandments and serve G-d. 

Honestly, it's been over a year and its still so hard for me to have clarity.  For one thing, it's TERRIFYING! It feels so safe to be wrapped in a cocoon of doing what's right. When you do right, you are right. When you are right you are good. You are enough. You are worthy. Not to mention that you are, at the very least, doing better than THEM. 

Secondly, you are part of a group. And that feels SOOO good. Because you can't be wrong if you are doing what EVERYBODY else is doing. You have a Rabbi helping you make life decisions, guiding you. You have events and meals and social gatherings. In no way do I put those things down. I think we would all be so much better off if we felt part of a community. If we had guidance and connection and regular social interaction.

But the problem for me, is that I never really felt like a was a part of the community. Any community. And I can't tell you how deeply I long to feel a part of something.

For instance, since I am a Baal Teshuva (someone who is not raised in an observant household and takes on the commandments), things that are very normal for others (such as wearing skirts and covering their hair once married) felt incredibly uncomfortable and tedious for me.  You would have been hard pressed to find me in anything other than jeans, in my earlier life, and I really don't enjoy giving myself occasional headaches by always having something on my head.

When I was struggling with this and much, much more, my Rabbi of the time advised me to go ahead and put on a pair of jeans if that's what I needed to feel more comfortable and less resentment. The other commandments have less flexibility, so here was a good place for me to take some space.  Feeling relieved, I went to a friend's house wearing jeans and visited with her and some women. No one mentioned anything to me, and I figured no one really cared. I mean, why would they? I'm a sit on the ground and play in the dirt kind of girl, jeans really are the more modest of my options.

But later, as I was talking to that friend, she mentioned that as soon as I left, questions such as, 'since when does Tovah wear jeans?' arose.  

I can't say I was that surprised or dismayed. I mean, nothing bad about me was said. But our religion teaches that nothing that could possibly, in any way, be interpreted as negative, ever be said about anyone else. The law is called Loshon HaRa, and it means evil tongue. Loshon HaRa is likened to murder, as once it has been said and heard, it cannot be unsaid, unheard. And so, while I was having a slight crisis of faith, others wanted to know how long I had been dressing immodestly.  And they were breaking Halacha by asking. 

I am not condemning their actions. Why would I? I have spoken more Loshon HaRa than I would ever care to admit. But my point is, why in that instance, am I the 'less religious' one?

And this goes on and on... If I eat organic, and therefore have a greater chance of accidentally eating a bug, am I less religious for being less Kosher? Or, since caring for your body is also a commandment, am I being more religious? And my REAL question is: Do I have to define my level of observance? Do I have to be put on a scale where my leniencies and stringencies are weighed, and the outcome defines me?

What if I am ALWAYS changing, growing, questioning and moving through life? What if one year I work really hard on my davening, but not my Torah study? What if for a period I practice daily acts of kindness towards others, compassion and empathy, but I eat out vegetarian? Am I more or less religious? Do I have a place on the ladder?  

Though I have not had the courage to really challenge the way I have practiced Judaism, I wonder what will happen if I do?  Will I be rejected from the community at large? Will my inner work in finding my true connection to Torah and G-d hold any weight?

The reason I go into all this today, Tisha B'Av, the day the Temple was destroyed because of hatred between men, is because I want to practice living more compassionately. And it begins with myself. I want to forgive myself for being so challenged, and not always rising. I want to love myself as the Jew I am now, imperfect an struggling. And just as I believe that giving others the benefit of the doubt is of the highest importance, so too I would like to give myself the benefit of the doubt. 

This plays out in large and small ways. Like when I borrowed my step father-in-law's 5 speed and kept stalling. I called myself an idiot. I should be better. After all, I drove across the country in an old VW bus (another blog for another time), why can't I just get past this damn stop sign. When I returned the car, my mother-in-law told me that she too has a difficult time driving that car. It wasn't me. 

Another small example is when I tried endlessly to navigate my son's soccer team website and could not find any of the information I needed. I ended up privately emailing the coach and feeling like an incompetent idiot. At the first practice I was talking to some other mothers, and the website came up. 'So hard to navigate, I couldn't find a thing!' is what they said. 

Those are small examples. The larger ones are how badly I doubt myself at every turn. How I let other's fear call into question my parenting. How I feel inadequate every time I get anxiety over driving somewhere new, or don't sleep if I know I need to be up for something, and I tell myself that all this makes me an insufficient person.

Perhaps I could give myself the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I could let myself be strong in some areas an hopelessly inadequate and weak in others. Because that's the way G-d made me. And He believed in me and my worth, so who am I to question it?!  In fact who am I, to let other's doubts about me, question G-d?

I'm not saying I wasn't created with room for improvement, but I certainly don't give birth to my babies and then feel disappointed when I see that they can't walk, talk or do algebra. Life is a process.  And G-d willing, I have a looooong way to go.

So I believe that if I want to be a Jew dedicated to Torah, compassion for people, starting with myself, is a beautiful place to start. And though I started this particular journey over 10 years ago, I feel this is just the beginning...

1. My brave husband who accompanies me on my journey
2. The way my children make me laugh, even when I feel like crying
3. Harvested radishes (even though I don't really like them, I am excited to harves them!)
4. Entering a time of simcha and deep reflection
5. Closing my eyes and still feeling my brand new niece rest in my arms


  1. May this journey and the courage to ask these questions bring you closer to Hashem and to your own beautiful neshama. And may your quest to pursue kindness be the tipping point (along with Shaya's shofar call.)

  2. One more thought. The mitzvot, I believe,are designed to help us prepare and strengthen our vessel to receive the light of Hashem. Too often we get caught up in the vessel and forget about the light. We live in a world of assiyah, doing, action. The other worlds are more conceptual, less perceivable. So it is easier to focus solely on this level. I think that this is what you are partly addressing in this thought provoking blog.
    Thanks once again for being truthful to who you are.