Monday, January 31, 2005

Yes is a world. So is NO!

About a week ago I had to move some things in the house from over here to over there. In the process I accidentally left one of the electrical outlets formerly occupied by a lamp plug from "over here" exposed.

I know, I know. Call DYFUS! I'm a bad man.

Anyway, as I'm coming back from "over there," I turned the corner and saw Rachel standing next to the outlet, standing very still, with her eyes fixed intently on the socket.

Before I could say anything I heard her quietly repeating to herself, "No. No. No."

And despite the unbearable cuteness of the moment -- as well as the vague satisfaction that some of what we (MHW and I) were saying to her was getting through on a semi-permanent level -- there was, in me, a small twinge of concern.

Sometimes it feels like all I do when I'm with Rachel is say, "NO."

Lick the stick you found in the puddle? "NO."
Put your hand in the toilet? "NO."
Throw Abba's glasses down the stairs? "NO."
Cross the street by yourself? "NO." But there's a fuzzy (stray) dog over there! "NO. and NO." What if I just stand here at the curb until you're not looking? "NO." In that case, can we renegotiate the stick I found in this puddle? "NO."

Yes is a world, said the poet, and all worlds are folded (curled) into it. And it's true. But if so, then No is the antithesis of that world, a breaking.

It bothers me a little, true, that we are so often saying NO to Rachel. But what bothers me more is that I think I should feel worse about it. Not only is there the practical consideration -- HW would (and should) take Rachel and leave if I were to, for instance, give her the go-ahead to cross the street on her own at this point -- but there's the emotional reality of the fact that I don't feel like these are the types of "NO" that cummings was talking about (or not talking about.)

And here I've jumped to the end a little bit, by inventing a distinction between types of No. But bear with me here. I've been playing with this idea of different types of "No" for a little while now, but I couldn't put my finger on what was bothering me, nor could I figure out the kuntz (secret, trick; it's a tough one to translate) of how to talk about it.

Luckily, Der Aibishter zu helfen (Hashem helps). (Aibishter is Yiddish for "most high.")

I did something a few nights ago that I'm not incredibly proud of. Rachel's got this thing. Her crib is right next to the light switch for her room, and a long while ago she learned to turn on the room lights when she was bored or didn't want to go to sleep or wanted to do pretty much anything. She even knows the word, "light," though she pronounces it "yight."[fn1]
[Fn1:] That's just gratuitous "my kid is so cute" information, to jump in on the whole parental blog as narcissistic exercise bandwagon. NYTimes article (registration required, maybe some money); Google search; Accoona search. (See footnote 3.)
Normally this tendency is awesome; there are a lot of days when she'll wake up, hit the lights, grab the sippy-cup full of water and some books that we leave by her crib, and "read" for half an hour before calling out for us. Not only is this one of the cutest! things! ever! but it's a tremendous gift for MHW, who gets that extra half-hour of sleep. And yes, we realize we have a freak-a-zoid baby and I shouldn't have said anything because now it'll never happen again. But still.

Recently, though, she's been turning on the lights in an effort to fight bedtime. And normally even that's okay; Just going in and turning it off would play right into her hands, so we generally don't, and since she's not distressed, but a little bored, she ends up sitting in the crib, quietly, reading or babbling to herself, until she falls asleep. She'll turn on the light when she wakes up in the middle of the night, too, and then go back to sleep. I don't like it that she sleeps with the lights on -- I just think it's probably bad for her; I know I don't sleep as well as I do when it's dark -- but I'm not so worked up about it.

For the past few weeks, though, we've had this dilemma: The lights are now actually keeping her awake. She gets to a point where she's tired, and lying in the crib, and clearly wants to go to sleep, but the lights are keeping her awake. The lights she's turned on, mind you.

So last night, she was up three or four times, at all hours. HW's exhausted, I'm downstairs in the "office," with miles to go before I sleep, and the little one just refuses to go down. It's not just that we're miserable (though that's certainly a part of it), it's that she's making herself miserable, too. And it keeps coming back to the light that she keeps turning on.

So, finally, it must have been around one or one-thirty in the morning, I got a little frustrated. Okay, a lot frustrated. I got up on a stool, popped the fixture off the ceiling, and took out the bulb. Rachel was watching me the whole time, and while I don't think she got it a hundred percent, she knew something was up.

Then I got down, and showed her that the switch didn't work anymore. "Uh-Oh. Abba broke it. No more! All done." (Except for the subject of the first sentence, these are phrases she knows.) The look of abject sadness this elicited absolutely broke my heart, but I still needed her to sleep, so the best I could do was, "Abba will fix it tomorrow, sweetie. Now you lay keppe (lay down your head) and go shluffie (go to sleep)."

I kissed her, and caressed her head, and when she was quietly lying there, I left the room. Ten seconds later she's up and hitting that switch, but after about three or four times, she figured out it wasn't going to work, and with only the nightlight to keep her company she lay back down and (finally!) went to sleep.

I, of course, went down to the office, listened on the monitor, and felt like a terrible father. I couldn't figure out what it was, exactly, that upset me so much, but I felt like I had done something very wrong.

The next day my mother tipped me off. Which is not to say I had a reasoned discussion with her about the night's parenting adventure and she provided some insight. Shya! (good-faith link.) Which is not to say that such a series of events is inconceivable; It's happened... But just that once.

I often say, "there are people who can push my buttons, but my mother installed my buttons." So, one of the buttons centers on the fact that my Mother doesn't agree with my decision to become more observant.[fn2] What she will do sometimes is play dumb about certain things, just so she can ask me questions that she's asked before, questions that are freighted with subtext that, quite honestly, there's not enough time and energy to explain here.
[Fn2:] That would be the understatement of the year.
Something my mother likes to do is to needle me about what could be seen as the restrictions involved in being a frum Jew. What she likes to do is hear that I'm planning to do something or visit somewhere or eat something or do something on the computer and then ask, "Oh, I didn't know; are you allowed to do that?" The written word can not communicate the spin she puts on the word, "allowed," and quite honestly it needs the baggage of years to really give it the effect she's going for.

Now the facts underlying the point she's trying to make are not entirely invalid. There are, in fact, 365 negative commandments, "Thou Shalt NOT" phrases from which are derived any number of ostensibly restrictive laws and rulings. And what my mother sees, from the outside looking in,[fn3] is that there are a thousand different ways that Hashem is telling me to deny myself, to remove myself from the world, to not do and not enjoy.
[Fn3:] This link, directly to the Times, is only free for about a week, and in any case requires registration. This could be problematic for some, so I just linked to the Google search, above, where hopefully there should be some interesting discussion of a very good article. Here is the Accoona search, because I'm fascinated by this new search engine.
And the point I always try to make in return is that what she sees as restrictions don't feel so very much like restrictions; what she thinks of as proscriptive I think of as more prescriptive.

In fact, the Torah makes much of the diametrically opposite idea, that the world is to be enjoyed, and that we will be called to task at the end of our lives for any piece of Hashem’s creation that we didn’t appreciate and cherish. The first commandment, the first time Hashem tells anyone to do anything, is to tell Adam "Eat of these fruits. . . "[fn4] Judaism is not an ascetic religion, and Hashem wants us to enjoy the world He made for us.
[Fn4:] The creation story is told twice, and in this second telling "Eat of these fruits" is the first commandment. In the first telling, it's essentially the second or third commandment, depending on whether or not "Be fruitful and multiply" is read as a commandment or a blessing. Either way, though, the point stands.
The negative rules as much as the positive rules are simply a mechanism for Hashem to direct the enjoyment of the world so that it's not harmful to me, either physically or spiritually (not least because Judaism rejects at some level the distinction between the two types of harm).

Huh? I realize that's a fuzzy idea. But think about me and Rachel. I've joked elsewhere that MHW are giving up modern conveniences for the sake of baby-proofing, but that joke was exactly that -- a joke. I like indoor plumbing and electricity; I like hot water, and so on. More importantly, those things are useful and good for Rachel, too. But there have to be restrictions on how she gets to access those things; there has to be a very careful channeling of the way she interacts with electricity and hot water and the ever-fascinating toilet. Then there's things I couldn't make go away even if I wanted to: Traffic. Weather. Strangers. Like that. She's allowed to interact with those things. In fact, she has to interact with those things. But there have to be a lot of rules about exactly how and when she does so. And in fact, sometimes those rules will simply deny her access to those things until she's older. And sometimes, those rules will deny her access to those things at all. (e.g., the only appropriate interaction with nuclear waste is distance.)

I show Rachel the world around her, and her mandate is to "eat of these fruits," to enjoy and experience and engage the world. But sometimes -- and in fact a lot of times -- I have to say, "NO."

But here's the thing. (The kuntz , if you will.) Usually, when we say No, we're saying it primarily for Rachel's benefit, protecting Rachel's interest. And here I'm going to make a jump, and I'm not entirely sure this is accurate, but I feel it's accurate. As a result of that, the "no" has a lot of "yes" mixed in. Except in exigent circumstances, it's very rarely "No" alone. It's usually, no-with-an-explanation, or no-with-an-option. Even when it's a straight out no, it's usually at least preceded by a validation. And even when Rachel doesn't understand the specifics of that, she understands that the "no" comes from a place of love, and someone who's interested in taking care of her.

So it's usually, "No, sweetie, that's not safe for you," or, "No, Rachel, if you put that in your mouth you could get sick." Or sometimes, "Rachel, you know that's not allowed. Do you want to throw the ball instead?" Or, "Abba knows you want to pet the puppy. And most puppies you're allowed to pet. But that one, sweetie, that one looks rabid, so No."

Or at the very least, "I know, sweetie, I know. You're sad because you want Abba to stay and play with you. But Abba has to go to work now."

And that's why I feel so bad about the light bulb incident. Because while I could rationalize that it was about getting her to go to sleep, mostly it was about me and the work I had to do. And there wasn't any explanation or apology; it was an arbitrary exercise of power directed to the furtherance of my own self-interest. Sticking with my paradigm of two kinds of "No," it was the wrong kind.

There's the difference between my mother's understanding of the negative commandments and my own. When I hear Hashem say, "No," I'm hearing the same thing that (I hope) Rachel hears from me. I'm hearing, "No, child, that's not safe for you. I know you think it's safe, but it's not." Or, "You know you're not supposed to eat that food. How about this food?"[fn5] Or at the very least, "I know, sweetie, I know. You can't imagine life without X, but X has to go now."[fn6]
[Fn5:] In fact, there is a teaching that there is no flavor of non-kosher food that is not available somewhere somehow in kosher form.

[Fn6:] I've got another post about joy and sorrow floating around in my head, and when (if) I ever get that one written I'll edit this footnote to refer to it.
Mom, on the other hand, just sees the "No." She doesn't want to see the love underneath it, and so she doesn't hear the "yes" that's folded inside of it, or the promise.

The reason I'm not as bothered as I thought I should be by the litany of "No" that Rachel hears is the same reason I'm not bothered by what could seem like the litany of "No" that I hear from Hashem. I'm not bothered I know that they're the right kind of "No." (Between me and Rachel, it's mostly that way; between me and Hashem we can safely assume that it's always that way.) It's the kind of "No" with a Yes folded into it, the kind of "No" that's also a world -- a world with wonder and possibility curled skillfully inside of it.


PS: The particularly observant among you might realize that I've back-dated this entry by about 20 hours. I really wanted to have this one sometime in January, and thanks to the magic of Blogger, I can have done so!

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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Love Grows

I know it's been a while; the yom-tovim (yomim-tov?)[fn1] have been keeping me offline for the past few weeks. I've got a logjam of entries in my head, but only time right now to punch out a quick one.
[fn1:] yom = day, tov = good. It's a way of saying holiday. The difficulty I'm having with the plural is because the gramatically correct Hebrew is to pluralize the "day," making yomim-tov (good days.) But the phrase is used as a single word now, even if you're not speaking Hebrew, as in, "I was away for yom-tov." So if you pluralize the new-ish word, you get "yom-tovim." I don't know that it's really that important.
In a few days it will be Simchat Torah, an all-Jew crazy celebration of the Torah and the beauty it brings to our lives. If you've ever seen a frum wedding, there are similarities.

A few months ago (late May this year, I think) was Shavuot, the celebration of the day that we actually received the Torah at Sinai. It's actually a little more complicated, in that we accepted it, sinned, and then had to get it again, kind of. And then later on (hundreds of years) we had to accept it again (Purim). But leave that alone for now.

Way back in March, I mentioned that "one of my favorite voorts   for sheva brachos   [you can go read footnote 1 in the original post] is about how love has to be something that always grows, that's always moving forward, and that should, at some level, always surprise a person."

This is that voort. It's a little heavy on the "frum" and light in the "dad," so I hope that's okay. I'll be back for real once the holidays are over next week, and then we'll try to get some of these ideas out on virtual paper.

The question comes up as to why, if we got the Torah on Shavuot, we only celebrate Simchat Torah now, some five or six months later. You would expect them to happen closer together.

The answer is given in a moshol (parable): There was a wise and wonderful king, who, with his wife, had all that could be desired, except children. After much anguish and seeking, the king was told to go to a particular holy man in the deep woods, for a blessing. So he did.

The holy man blessed him, and told the King that his wife would soon be with child. It would be a daughter. But, the holy man warned him, there was a catch. If any man (barring the king himself) should even catch the slightest glimpse of the young lady before she was married, she would die.

The King returned with the puzzling blessing, lay with his wife, and true to the holy man's word, the Queen was soon with child.

The King immediately ordered a special palace built, on an island far in the sea. Special troops and retainers and servants were trained – all women – and even the ship on which the Queen traveled to the island was "manned" by women.

In due time (pun intended), the Queen gave birth. And while the King did occasionally visit, most of what he learned, he learned by letters from the Queen and from their daughter. From those letters he learned how, over the years, she grew into a beautiful and modest and sweet and caring and wise and wonderful and holy young lady, a princess perfect in every way.

And eventually, the time came to find her a husband. So the king gathered all of his nobles and vassals and knights. He announced that his daughter was available to be courted and wed. Everyone was excited by the prospect at first, but then the King explained that no one could see the princess or even meet the princess until after   the wedding.

Well, you can imagine that cast a pall on the proceedings, and many of the assembled nobles found reasons to leave. Then the King noted that for safety's sake, no man could even travel to the island to speak with the princess, even through a curtain or a wall, in case they should accidentally see her and cause her death. Which brought on more polite but urgent departures by the various assembled nobles.

Only one of the vassals was left at the end of the speech; Not even the highest among them. But, he thought to himself two things. First, that the King was a good king, and had never done wrong by him before, so the princess was probably okay, even if (as everyone assumed from the restrictions the King had placed on the courtship) she was hideously ugly had a lousy personality. Second, that it would embarrass the King if he had sought a husband for his princess and was faced, at the end of his speech, with an empty hall.

And so the date was set, the wedding was planned, and the two got married. If you think a Chassidish bride wears a thick veil, you can only imagine what this bride wore, in order that no one of the men present at the wedding should see even an inch of her flesh. And all the other nobles present snickered to themselves, glad they had escaped what they could tell was a terrible fate.

Of course, once the two were wed, she could remove her veil and wear a normal dress. And everyone saw she was beautiful, but assumed that it must be either a hidden defect or something wrong with her personality. In any event, the wedding was glorious and glamorous and, like every wedding, it eventually ended.

. . .

About three or four months later the Vassal – now the Prince – requested an audience with the King.

"When I agreed to marry your daughter," he said, "I did so out of concern for your honor, and a trust in your good intentions. I was joyful at my wedding, as is any groom, really, but to be honest, I did not really expect much of your daughter."

The King raised his eyebrow, but let the Prince continue.

"I have lived now with your daughter, my wife, for four months. And I have come to you now to offer the deepest thanks to you, to express the deepest joy. I married her for your sake, but in knowing her for this time I have grown to realize just how wonderful and sweet and wise and gentle and loving and exquisite she is. Her beauty struck me on our wedding day, but as we have grown together even this short time I have grown to see the depth of it, and she is more beautiful to me now than I can even explain. I sought this audience with Your Majesty in order to truly and fully thank you."

So it is with us Jews and Torah. When we originally agreed to accept the Torah, we did so on two premises. First, it was being offered to us by Hashem, who had done so much good for us so far, and had never misled us or done us harm. Second, out of concern for His glory and honor, because He offered it already to so many others and they refused it. So we accepted it, and we even recognized it as lovely, in an amorphous kind of way.

But only after we had lived with it for a few months, really been involved with it, brought it into our daily lives and tasted of its sweetness could we really appreciate the depth of Torah's beauty. Only after we had immersed ourselves in it and glimpsed the transcendent beauty could we really and truly, and with a full heart, come to Hashem and say "thank you," and mean it. Only after we had a better idea of what we had accepted could we adequately rejoice.

The Torah is often compared to a bride to the Jews. And that's a lesson for a bride and groom, too. Sure, a groom is happy when he first meets his future wife. And he is happier still when they get married. But the secret to a Jewish marriage is that every day, every week, every month – that love and wonder and joy grows and deepens. You go to bed at night thinking, "I can't possibly love this person any more." And then you go to bed the next night thinking, "Wow. It turns out I could love them more; I do love them more."

This is something that speaks to the essential nature of Love: it grows. It grows or it's not real. When I tell this story and make this point at wedding or post-wedding events, I turn it into a blessing for the bride and groom, that they should be surprised a little every day at the growth of their love for each other, that they should discover with every turn of the seasons a deeper aspect of some beauty in the other that they had thought they understood.

And that's a nice blessing. It's doable, though sometimes difficult, in the context of a marriage.

But being a father, and looking at Rachel. . . well that brings it to a whole new level. Because every time I look at my daughter there's whole new rooms being built in my heart just to accommodate the aching, overwhelming love I feel. Every time I think I couldn't possibly be more crazy about this sometimes cranky little girl, I suddenly find that I am.

Have a good and sweet holiday.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Face of My Father

Recently, my family and I were privileged to be at the Shabbos table of Rabbi B. and his family. Actually, we spent a couple days with them as part of our vacation. Rabbi B. is a chinuch[fn1] professional and an extraordinary father, and spending any time with him always gives me something to think about.
[fn1:] "chinuch" roughly, and incorrectly translates as "education." The problem is that chinuch is a much more global sort of education, concerned less with the academic material covered than with inculcating an attitude towards both learning and the world. But "education" will have to suffice.
Rabbi B. has five children. Over the course of the weekend, the third child, the daughter I'll call Sarah, was being a little difficult, a little disrespectful. She would respond reluctantly if at all to reasonable requests, she would pretend not to hear her parents when they spoke to her, or would be very precisely literal in her responses to requests or instructions.

This wasn't a major rebellion, and she's a really good and sweet kid usually. But she was. . . expressing her independence in maybe not the most constructive way. Which, just so you know something about Rabbi B., is almost verbatim how he described it to me when we spoke about it later.

A few times over the weekend, I would see a variation on the following exchange:

Rabbi B: Sarale (affectionate diminutive term), go help your mother set the table.
Sarah: [pretends not to hear because she is too engrossed in her napkin folding, but is too young to pull it off]
Rabbi B: Sarale. Go help your mother.
Sarah: [still pretending, but also trying to hold back laughter at this trick she thinks she's pulling]
Rabbi B: Sarah. Your mother asked you to help her set the table, and I've asked you to do it.
Sarah: [starts to flounce away from the area, but not in the direction of helping her mother]
Rabbi B: [serious, but not angry] Sarah. Look at me.
Sarah: [stops what she's doing and looks at Rabbi B.]
Rabbi B: Go help your mother set the table.

And off Sarah would go to help her mother or otherwise comply as if she had not been resisting all along. Once during the weekend he said, "look at my face," instead of "look at me," but otherwise whenever it happened it was almost the same.

I didn't get it. What was it about "look at my face" that could cause such a shift in Sarah? It happened maybe five times over three days, and already by the second time I was trying to look at Rabbi B's face to see what he was communicating, which was not such a simple endeavor.

The "look at my face" line made me think of a part of the Passover story, the part that happens before the movie that everyone's seen. Before all the Jews were in Egypt, there was one Jew in Egypt. Yoseph Ha-Tzaddik (Joseph The Righteous One). Briefly, Joseph is sold into slavery, is taken down to Egypt and pretty quickly becomes the number-one guy to Potiphar, the king’s chief executioner. Joseph gets put in charge of Potiphar's entire household; the only thing off limits is Mrs. Potiphar.

So, of course, who gets the hots for Joseph? Mrs. Potiphar. Mrs. Potiphar starts trying to seduce Joseph at every turn.

I'm given to understand that a lot of this is covered in the "Technicolor Dreamcoat" show. It's preamble, and if you know the basics we can move along.

There is a teaching that Joseph was about to succumb to the advances of the mistress of the house. That after however long of being seduced and refusing, even Joseph, whose spiritual stature we can't even begin to understand, had been worn down. There's a midrash (exegetical writing) that relates that when Joseph "came into the house" on the day related in the Torah, his intent, although not entirely conscious, was to finally give in to Mrs. Potiphar's advances.

Imagine the scene. He's alone, in the house of his master. He's miles from home, better looking than everyone, a prince in his homeland, made a slave in a foreign land. The lady of the house is grabbing him, begging him to be with her. He's got a lot of reasons pressing on him to do this one act. There's a part of him that knows it's wrong, but it's a part that's getting harder and harder to listen to.

He's about to give in. And the gemara[fn2] says that at that moment, at the moment of his greatest temptation, he "saw the face of his father," and this woke him up, and he ran from the room, leaving even his coat.
[fn2:] The Gemara is the written version of what's called the "oral law," called such because it was passed down orally until a couple thousand years ago when it was written down. The oral law is as authoritative to Jews as the written law (the so-called Old Testament, Prophets, and Writings). This footnote is way too short to explain it thoroughly. It's used interchangeably with the word "Talmud," although Talmud actually contains Gemara and commentary. JewFAQ has a pretty good and brief explanation, and this is what a page of Talmud looks like (it's click-able!). The specific page of Talmud in question here is Sotah 37b.
There is another source that explains that Joseph looked very much like his father Jacob, so perhaps there was a mirror in the room, or a glass window (did the Egyptians have glass windows?) in which he saw his reflection.

But even if that was the factual case, I don't think that's what's being taught here.

Let me tell a story. I'm going to ask you to bear with me as I tell this story; because what will seem obvious as the narrative progresses wasn't so much so as it happened in real time. Or maybe I just didn't want to see it. Either way.

In the office where I work, there's a large central space for office services. It's the copy room, fax room, supply room, delivery center, mail services center, etceterah. The IT guy sits in the office right next door, so it's kind of the support services hub.

The guys in that space are generally nice guys, and the office isn't stingy with supplies, so if you need a fresh pad of stickies, or some pens or a highlighter, it's not a big deal. And happily "shrinkage" in the office is almost nonexistent -- or at least within levels tolerable to management -- such that nothing (except the servers and critical tech stuff) is locked up.

Office services empties out around six or eight pm. People in my position (guess) tend to get out of the office a bit later than that. So if I need a copy, or a fax, or some pens, or some pads of paper, I can just go in and get it.

And, like I said, they're pretty relaxed here. So a few months ago, when I needed to back up some stuff on my home computer and I asked the IT guy where online I could get a good deal on Write-able CD's, he asked me how many I needed, and when I said "three," he just gave me three off one of the two stacks in office services.

You can probably see where this is going, but before I go any further, I need to say that I've given a lot of thought to and discussed with a Rabbi some of the ins and outs of using office resources for personal purposes. Essentially, it boils down to a combination of what management doesn't mind (or affirmatively approves of) and making up the difference. For instance, on the one hand, since attorneys pretty much give up their lives to work in these places, doing personal work on the computers -- which entails computer cycles (hastening service dates), internet connection, hard drive space (but not so much network space) -- is generally okay with the partners. They don't care, as long as you don't bill for the time, and I'm very careful about that. Also, for instance, I bring in a ream of paper every two or three weeks to make up for things I print out here, even though "management" wouldn't care if I did tons of personal printouts, just because it makes me feel better about it. (Most of what I print is Torah stuff, and it'd be weird for me to have Torah stuff on 'stolen' resources, even if they weren't really stolen.) I tried paying for a thing of toner once, but the accounting lady looked at me like I was from Mars and then explained how it would be ten times more work for her to accept the money than for me to just go away. So I did.

This is not, by the way, because of any deep intrinsic desire to protect the interests of my workplace. It is taught[fn3] that when brought before the "Heavenly Court," each person will be asked six questions. The first of these is "were you honest in business?" I just can't see myself having to answer, "no," just because I wanted to print out some dumb article off the internet. So it's mostly embarrassment that keeps me in line here. And the point I'm trying to make is that I do in fact spend some time feeling good about myself (read: self-righteous) and how I'm so scrupulous.
[fn3:] It's another gemara, this one in Shabbos, folio 31b (I think it's b).
The IT guy gave me three disks. And then later that week I needed a couple more, so I just took some. The next week I was burning some CD's with pictures for various family members, so I grabbed about five more off one of the stacks. The fact that there were two stacks becomes important later, so I should mention Brand X was black and gold in one pile, and Brand Y was silver and in another pile. I've been taking Brand X because they look cooler.

Later that week I grabbed some more, and then early the week after I wanted to do this project I'm not going to explain here and I needed four CD's, so I grabbed some more still.

You may be wondering what office services had to say about my habit. Well, I was -- without consciously realizing it -- waiting for their lunch break or after hours to pick up my CD's, so they didn't have much to say at all.

About a month ago, I was at work really late. And I needed (wanted) some CD's for home, so I went into office services. Apparently, enough CD's off of each stack had been used (or lifted by me) that they combined them into one stack, with the cool looking Brand X on the bottom and the silver Brand Y on the top. Also, when they had put the plastic lid back on, a plastic ring of some sort had been left on top of the CD's (not on the spindle, but just off to the side, and a label or something like that was also on the top of the pile.

I lifted the plastic cover off, took the plastic ring and the paper off the pile, took the silver CD's off the spindle, took three Brand X CD's, put the silver (Brand Y) CD's back on the spindle, and was carefully replacing the label and plastic ring in exactly the spot where they were, so as to avoid detection, when I froze.

And I stood there for a full thirty seconds while the realization sank in. "Well, then. . . this is a rather thief-in-the-night kind of deed. I suppose that would be because, well, it's the night-time. And I guess I'm a thief." I don't know if it's to my credit that I was honestly surprised.

I mean, okay, even if I'm willing to countenance a little bit of "shrinkage" from office supplies (which I'm not, really, but even if I was). I had this realization that if I really felt entitled to what I was taking, I wouldn't be so careful to avoid detection, to replace the indicators just so.

But what stopped me in my tracks was that I had an image (of sorts) of my father. Not a visual image, but a sort of visceral understanding in my head and heart as to exactly what he would say and feel about my acting the way I was acting. I may as well not sugarcoat it -- about my stealing. Exactly the way he would look at me.

I've mentioned in another post that my father was (and is), on the whole, a pretty amazing father. What I may not have mentioned is that my father is one of the most honest people I know. Really. I mean, the man doesn't cheat on his taxes; he won't take a penny that doesn't belong to him.[fn4] And I knew, as I stood there with my hand up to my elbow in the proverbial cookie jar, that my father wouldn't be happy with my actions. Not angry; but disappointed. And that was enough to make me pause and realize what I was doing. And more importantly stop what I was doing, and even try to undo it.[fn5]
[fn4:] This goes back at least a generation as well, because my grandfather (my father's father) was also a fairly scrupulously honest man. Where the transmission chain breaks down, I'm not sure, since my uncle (my father's brother) is a felon, but don't let's look to close at this rhetorical structure I'm working on here, 'kay?

[fn5:] I don't want to have to have the necessary conversation with the IT guy or the woman who runs accounting, so now I have to go buy a bunch of Brand X CD's and replace them. Brand X CD's are about four times as expensive as the kind I finally bought for home use. Go explain that to the WHW. "Sweetie, I just spend 15 bucks on 100 of these El-Cheapo brand CD's; I'll just put them here on the shelf if you need them. Oh, and by the way, I also just spent thirty bucks on 25 of these FancyShmancy (tm) brand CD's, but I'm going to take them into work with me and just sort of sneak them back into the mailroom." Wish me luck.
Now, I don't always agree with my father on every opinion he has or even every moral decisions he makes, in fact it should be said that there are a lot of points on which we disagree vehemently, and a lot of things about which I think he's just plain wrong. But even so he is in many ways the True North of my moral compass.

Most of the time, a pretty good guide for moral introspection is to ask yourself, "If I act or refrain from acting in this particular manner in response to this particular situation, how will I see myself in a week or a month or a year?" But sometimes, when you're caught up in what you're doing, or when there's too much "taking you out of the world," so that you lose the ability to step outside yourself, that question gets lost, and isn't able to guide you. The related principle to understand that Hashem is "always watching,"[fn6] can fail in the same way.
[fn6:] It's a bit more than I want to deal with right now.
But what I think can happen, if the parenting is done right, is that there's this backup system. The last gasp of your moral conscience is when something inside gets triggered and makes you see yourself the way your father would see you. You see your father's face, and it gives you just enough of a break from whatever desire or ego is pushing you to do this wrong thing so that you can back out and do the right thing.

And what's critically important -- and I think this might have gotten underplayed when I told the story of Rabbi B -- is that your father's face isn't looking at you with anger. And disappointment isn't even really the word. And the easy but insufficient answer is that your father's face looks on you with love. The fact is, what Rabbi B was showing Sarah, what Joseph saw in Jacob, and what I saw when I was standing with my hand on the pile of CD's was a sort of trust. "I know," it seems to say, "that you can successfully navigate out of this dilemma." Because the secret is that Jacob wasn't really in the room with Joseph, any more than my father was with me. So the correct moral choice was something that was actually successfully made alone. The moral compass was working fine, but for a brief instant we couldn't find North.

Rachel's getting big enough now that she understands, at least at a rudimentary level, that there are certain things she's not allowed to do or touch or throw. And she's also getting to the point where she's got enough of her own personality that sometimes she wants to (and will) do or touch or throw despite her knowledge, despite the verbal admonitions. And this is all perfectly fine and normal and quite honestly wonderful, in its way. She's growing into her own person, and here are the first branches of the tree that will bear those flowers and those fruits.

And I'm not really worried at this point about her "moral compass," or anything so grand. I mean I'm worried about it in that I think about it sometimes, but she's still, y'know, a toddler. She's working on round-peg-round-hole; I don't think she's really facing a lot of morally complicated questions at this point.

But what I want to take away from Rabbi B and Yoseph HaTzaddik and my brief foray into petit larceny is something I can start working on even now, even before Rachel's fully equipped to understand it. The idea of looking her with an absolute trust, of seeing in my very sweet and wonderful young daughter the sparks of a woman who will be wise and loving and kind, to recognize that while she's not dealing with the big moral questions now, she will be soon enough.

For her to deal with those questions she has to believe that she can deal with those questions. She has to know that she's got it inside of her to "get it right," or at least give it an honest try, and the only way she'll know that is if I'm there to tell her, one way or the other.

I recognize that I can't follow her around her whole life (though sometimes I think it'd be okay to try), so I have to plant that trust inside of her now so she can carry it with her, so she can trust herself.

And maybe someday, when she's in a tight spot, she'll also remember the face of her father, and it'll help her out.


[Administrative Notes:]

1: Chasiva veChasima Tova! On this Rosh HaShanna, may you be written and sealed in the Book of Life and Good.

2: I couldn't work in a reference to the Dark Tower books, but I think the "face of your father" business in those is actually related to this idea in a way. Also, let this count as a plug for those books. Even if you think you know Stephen King and you think you don't like his writing, the Dark Tower series (and related books) are amazing.

3: I realize these posts are getting longer and longer. I'll work on making the next one more wieldy.

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Friday, August 20, 2004

A name change for "G!"

As I type right now I can't find the full thread of posts[fn1] back and forth over a number of different blogs, but there's been some talk recently on other blogs about the manner in which bloggers -- especially male, anonymous bloggers -- refer to their wives.
[fn1:] The first time Google's ever let me down, search-wise that is. I ended up finding the Heimishtown link noted below on Yahoo! Search of all places. At least it wasn't MSN.
I remember it started with this post by Cookie at Heimishtown, and then travelled around a bit, generally under the radar of other things going on.

When I first started this blog, way back in my first post, I decided to give my wife a one-letter pseudonym, "G".[fn2] But, to my own credit, I did refer to her in that same post, and still think of her as, "My Holy Wife."
[fn2:] In the interests of disclosure, I should point out that I went in today and edited that post to include the "name" tags that allow me to jump-link to specific words. I wanted to use the Google cached versions (with the highlighting), but Google wasn't (apparently) crawling me back then.
After some thought, I've decided it's worth the awkwardness of this post to "officially" change her name here.

So, henceforth, "G." is no more. Future references to her will be as MHW, MBHW (My Beautiful Holy Wife), MWHW (My Wonderful Holy Wife), or MWBHW (figure it out). The initial "M" may be replaced by "the," as in: "And then, I heard the voice of the HW in my head, saying, 'stop yapping FD, they get the point.'"


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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

DoubleThink and Prayer from a Broken Heart

[Editor's note: this opens with a lot of theory, and takes a while to spool over to the more particular stuff. Since the "editor" in "editor's note" is sort of facetious, I'm not doing anything about it. Get me a book deal and a real editor and we can talk. Click here to skip the wind-up and go straight to the pitch, but that's cheating. ]

Being an Orthodox Jew requires a sort of odd doublethink. In one pocket, so to speak, you have to keep the phrase bishvil-li nivra ha'olam -- for my sake was the entire world created. In the other pocket, "I am mere dust and ashes."

It's the essence of the beautiful paradox of being human: we are, each of us, the most important person in the world and insignificant, simultaneously. We need to behave -- and believe -- that our next act, our next moral decision, our next word, be it cruel or kind, will tip this otherwise balanced world over to the good or the bad. We need to understand, at the same time, that Hashem's in charge of the world, that He creates it moment by moment in an affirmative act of will, and that His directions and intentions are, at the end of the day, the only ones that will matter. And it's important to realize that it's not just that we're important because we're important to Hashem, or that what we want matters only because what we want matters to Hashem. It's that Hashem has given us, each of us, Jew and non-Jew, this incredible power of moral choice, the power to affect the world which is, in a barely comprehensible phrase, separate from Hashem, even though it is at the same time dependant on Him.

I bring this up because now that Tisha B'Av [fn1] is over, Elul[fn2] is fast approaching, and then, sooner than I'm going to be ready for them, Rosh Hashana[fn2] and Yom Kippur[fn2].
[fn1:] The ninth day (Heb. "tisha" = ninth) of the Hebrew month of Av. The saddest day on the Jewish calendar, known for various tragedies that occur on and around that date and the three weeks leading up to it, most prominently the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and less prominently but perhaps more importantly for the acceptance by the Jews of the report of the spies about the land of Israel, the spiritual root of all this badness.

[fn2:] Elul is the month that follows Av in the Jewish year. Rosh HaShana, lit. "head of the year," is the Jewish New Year, but is little like either the secular New Year or the Chinese New Year (very little drinking or kissing, and no fireworks). Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are referred to often as the "high holidays," giving them some prominence over other major holidays of the Jewish year. Just trying to keep up with my rep.
Elul, Rosh HaShana, and Yom Kippur are about repentance, and introspection, and making right the wrongs we do, in so far as possible and sometimes even more than possible. But because they are about repentance and the wrongs we've done, they are also very much about prayer, and about a broken heart.

The kind of prayer and introspection that surrounds teshuva[fn3] demands of the individual exactly the doublethink described. If my actions are anything less than critically important, then what does it matter if I distance myself from Hashem, and what does it matter if I move closer to Him? At the same time, if I come before the Master of the Universe, the Creator of Worlds, with the knowledge that I have used gifts He gave me (speech, thought, action, universe) to distance myself from Him, how can I not realize that I am no more than dust and ashes?
[fn3:] This is an incredibly nuanced word, with meanings that touch on (physically) returning, and meditating/introspecting. It can be loosely translated as "repentance," but I find the English word awkward and, more importantly, evocative of non-Jewish ideas of sin and Man's place in the world which don't sit well with me. I'm not talking about repentance; I'm talking about teshuva.
There is a time and a place to be proud of yourself, to let yourself inflate (if only just the tiniest amount) with how much you've done right. (Though some, wiser than me, would say otherwise.) Even that has to be tempered with a realization that those good things have also all been done by dint of the gifts you've been given.

Yom Kippur (and friends) is not that time, though. Yom Kippur is the time to pray with a broken heart, to lay yourself bare before Hashem and ask that He not only forgive you, but make your wrongs right. Much as it's unpleasant to think about, it's also a time of a little bit of fear.

If you were an investor, and you gave me $100,000 to invest, and I came back to you a year later with some change, and maybe the stories of some great restaurants I had eaten at, you'd probably be a little upset. You'd certainly not give me another $100,000 for the next year, and if you had any on deposit with me you'd withdraw it posthaste. This is true even if you were Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, this is true even if it were a hundred dollars and not a hundred thousand.

So, too, Hashem invests in us all of the resources we have to use all year, and we come to him at the end of the year with only a paltry showing. We ask for more, but there's the realization that by rights, He should just withdraw the balance, give it to someone else, and be done. So it's a time to stand, in a very real sense naked and alone, before your Creator, give Him an honest accounting and tell Him you'll try harder next year, and, realizing that it's all a big kind gift anyway, tremble as He passes judgment. And if that's too disempowering, then you need to realize that in a very real sense Hashem is trembling right along with you, and really really wants you to come through on the other side of this judgment. He just needs you to take a few tentative steps in the right direction, and He'll help you out.

Or at least, that's the theory. In my X[fn4] years spinning 'round the Sun I never got it right. I mean, especially when I wasn't observant, I'd go to shul, say the words, be moved (albeit briefly) by U'Netaneh Tokef,[fn5] and then think about other stuff. Even after I became observant, there was always a little piece of me that was disengaged. It's hard to be young and afraid of mortality, and even as I've gotten older I haven't picked that fear up entirely.[fn6]
[fn4:] An actual number would ruin the fun of those readers who are trying to figure out who I am, but it's bigger than a breadbox. And it's smaller than 39, I tell you!

[fn5:] The link above is a better explanation than I can give here. Suffice that UT is this incredibly powerful (to me, at least) prayer recited on Rosh HaShana.

[fn6:] This isn't entirely foolish, but discussing it in this context is too tangential even for me. Remind me to tell you about the significant MVA I was involved in.
A little over a year ago, I finally learned the necessary lesson. I finally learned how to pray, and it was, for those of you who were wondering when I was getting around to it, a function of fatherhood.

[Editor's note: About time.]

My Holy Wife (HW)[fn7] was eight-and-some pregnant on a fine Sunday morning that got off to a late, but acceptable start. Because I woke early and wanted to let her sleep a bit, I showered in the second bathroom and went to get dressed in the there's-no-crib-because-it's-still-a-guest-room-because-I'm-a-little-superstitious room. I am literally half-naked when HW comes in holding a bedsheet crumpled between her legs and an ashen look.
[fn7:] The wife formerly known as "G." I'll explain the name change in another post.
          Me: "what?"

          HW: "I'm bleeding."

          Me (still not getting it): "You're spotting, or is it that plug thingie?

          HW: "No, I'm bleeding."

Then she showed me the crime scene that was the sheet she had been holding.

For weal or woe, I am one of those people who get a little bogged down in the details of topics that interest me. So, for instance, I'd read most of your run of the mill pregnancy books and one or two more advanced medical type books, because once the biology of gestation became relevant to me, I realized that it was pretty fascinating. And, again for weal or woe, I have pretty good recall, too. So I was well aware that there are a lot of reasons to bleed that much so late in a pregnancy. And none of them are good. Not for the baby, not for the mother.

We called 911, HW's best friend (a medical type), and HW's Ob-Gyn (Stat!). The ambulance would have taken HW to the nearest hospital, which is entirely unsatisfactory in all regards, and it was decided the best option was to get HW in our car and drive her to another hospital, where the Ob-Gyn would be waiting for her.

We pile in the car and get on the road. Here, HW's best friend pretty much saved everyone, because she noticed that I was not a hundred percent with it, and she offered to drive. This was exactly the kick in the head I needed, because it made me realize that I had a real job to do, and there was this amazing calm that came over me. I had a job to do. So I said, "no, thank you," and prepped the hyperdrive. 25 miles (and 18 minutes) later, we pulled up to the hospital's front doors. (If you knew where we lived, you'd be seriously impressed. Let's put it this way: the doctor lives next door and she had just showed up.) HW and the best friend get out and I go park the car.

So far so good. I get into the hospital, and ask the guard if he saw the two women who just walked in. He has, and he let them up, and they're on their way. And now I've done everything in my power to help my wife and child live.

It was realizing that, in the elevator up, that I totally and completely lost it. And that was when I learned to pray.

I remember starting out conversationally, a little bit of bargaining. "Come on, God. Help me out here," like that. But it pretty quickly devolved into an incoherent "please. please. please." And then no words, just tears. In those moments, the unbearably long list of reasons I didn't deserve the gifts of my child and my wife and the zero-item list of reasons I did scrolled by.

I pulled myself together long enough to be strong for HW and tell her that everything was going to be okay, though she says now that she could see that I'd been crying. I dealt with the doctors and staff, got the report of what was going on (and the useless reassurances accompanying same). I mentioned the numerous Personal Injury lawyers in our family, and the legal nightmare that would follow any failures of care, as well as the numerous medical types in our family who would be gracious in their return of professional courtesy extended here. I called HW's parents and my parents, happily getting voicemail both times, and left reasoned, serious but not overly alarming messages for them. HW wanted me out of the room for the preliminary stuff, so I asked if there was anywhere private I could go for a while, and there was.

I said a few tehillim (psalms), as recommended by tradition, and then kind of broke down again. Again, it started with a reasoned effort to palaver, but that quickly ended.

I realized I couldn't bargain with Him, because there was nothing to bargain with. I couldn't trade Him for mitzvoth (good deeds/commandments), I already owed Him those. I couldn't offer Him my life for theirs; my life was already His to take at will. (Besides, it'd be one for two, so why would He make that deal?) I couldn't list a bunch of reasons I "deserved" a healthy wife and healthy baby, except perhaps that I'd try to be a good husband and father, but those were things that I'd already pledged, so they couldn't really carry much additional weight.

I just. . . wanted it, so badly. And I was painfully aware that there was only one place to turn.

I don't want to spin into theory again, but there's an understanding that men are obligated to d'aven (loosely, "pray") at set times and with an established script (called a "nusach"), while women are not so obligated, because men are, generally, more disconnected in their daily lives from Hashem and so need the more explicitly designated path to get back in touch with Him, while women are generally more in touch with Him all the time and so don't need the nusach and can just d'aven from the heart.

I never understood that, either, until that day. Alone in that space, a few rooms away from the HW and the doctors and the machines, words failed me, and there was no nusach. I just prayed from my heart.

The baby was fine. The mother was fine, and at the end of the day everyone goes home happy, if exhausted.

But I've tried with all my might to hold onto the memory of that sheer desperation, that clear understanding of Who was in charge and what I had to offer. I tried last year to bring it to my praying on Yom Kippur, and I'll try again this year, and every year I'm given from now on.

Because that's what it all is: no less than a gift. My own life, my wife, my daughter. . . an ongoing continuously renewed gift, for which I must strive -- no matter how futile the striving -- to be worthy.

Hold them both, precious and glowing in the mind: For my sake the world was made. I am but dust and ashes.


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Thursday, July 22, 2004

More than Animals, More than Angels

Almost every morning, as part of the morning ritual I've mentioned before, I pick Rachel up out of her crib, say "Modeh Ani," change her diaper, and then take her into the bathroom to "do negel vasser." (Do you believe I couldn't find an adequate link for that term?)

Negel Vasser is the common term for a ritual washing of the hands that Judaism requires at certain points during the day. I think the words are actually Yiddish or German for "nail water," referring to the actual water used to wash the hands, but there's been some semantic spread of the term, so that now "the negel vasser" is the term for the two-handled cup used for that washing, and to "do negel vasser" is to actually engage in the ritual.

What I really need to narrow down for my purposes here, though, is that there are actually two different types of ritual washing of the hands. In the morning, after sleep, and at certain other specific times (to be discussed), a Jew is obligated to pour water over their hands three times, alternately: Right-Left-Right-Left-Right-Left.[fn1] There's also the other kind, which even some pretty non-religious Jews will have experienced at least around Passover time, which is done before eating bread (and praying, and other specific times), which is twice each hand, successively: Right Right Left Left.[fn2]
[fn1:]Right first, for a reason, but that's a whole different post.
[fn2:]Right first again; see fn1.
I want to focus on the first one, and from here on, unless I make it clear otherwise, when I talk about negel vasser I'm referring to that one (RLRLRL).

I do this with Rachel first thing, because I do it for myself first thing. I wake up, say "Modeh Ani," and then go do negel vasser. There's not an Orthodox Jew (hopefully) out there who isn't doing the same thing. And by doing it with Rachel, regularly and consistently and first thing, I'm helping train her into it as well, so that she develops a habit and builds on it, and so that eventually just like I wake up and do certain steps almost automatically, she will, too.

But the important word in that last sentence is almost. Because there's very little (if not nothing) in Judaism that's ritual without meaning. That's always been one of my favorite things about Judaism: even the times you hear, "this is something we can never understand," it's usually just a preamble to, "but let's try to understand it anyway."

So there must be some message behind the act of negel vasser. And by doing the act, I'm enforcing the message. As pop-psych as it sounds, it's nonetheless entirely true that if you wake up every morning and say out loud to yourself, "I'm wonderful," then eventually you start to believe that about yourself. If you wake up, look in the mirror, and say, "I'm ugly," then you'll eventually believe that about yourself, too.

As importantly (if a little tautologically), the action itself is more meaningful if the actor is aware of the meaning. So while I want Rachel to do this almost automatically, it's pretty important that she be aware of the deeper meaning behind what she's doing, first so that she can do it with more joy and understanding (which is axiomatically better) but also to reinforce the action.[fn3]
[fn3:] There's a parable/story about a guy in the Russian (pre-glasnost) Gulag who turns a heavy wheel for years, thinking he's grinding grain for a village, during which time he never cries and never gives up hope. On his release the guards, laughing, inform him that the wheel was connected to nothing; only then does the prisoner break down and weep. It feels weird to quote Nietzsche, but still: "He who has a why can endure any how."
So, if I'm teaching Rachel to do this to herself every morning (setting aside the fact that I do it and G does it every morning as well) then it's important to look at and think about what it is, exactly, I'm teaching Rachel to say to herself every morning.

Basically, negel vasser is done right after waking up from sleep, after going to the bathroom, after touching "private" areas, after touching your shoes (I don't remember if it's just the soles, just leather shoes, or just leather soles), and in a few other situations I don't need to get into.

Usually, the morning negel vasser is explained as a function of washing off the "tumah" (loosely, "impurity") of death that attaches to a person when they sleep. And while I think that's fair, as far as it goes, I don't think it captures the broader nature of negel vasser.

Judaism has this core idea. Angels stand, Men walk. Which is to say that angels are bound to the will of Hashem, and do always and exactly what He "wants" them to do. But it is to humans alone that Hashem gives the ability to choose -- good or evil, closeness or separation.

Of course, the choice we're supposed to make is to move us closer to the angels. Not closer to the angels in the sense of losing free will,[fn4] but closer to the angels in the sense of doing the will of Hashem at any given turn.
[fn4:] Though there is an element of choosing to give up choice. It's a beautiful and deep idea, that deserves its own post, but without going into it too much, I feel safe saying that for the vast majority of people reading this, it's probably true that you've structured your world so you don't have to make a moral choice between, say, killing someone or not; essentially you've chosen to have no choice.
At the same time, Judaism recognizes (and celebrates) the physical aspect of being a human. Much of the daily life of a Jew revolves around celebrating and elevating physical acts.

Eating can be holy. Singing can be holy. Working can be holy. As long as a person is alive, they have that ability to elevate even the most apparently mundane thing to holiness.

How is that elevation achieved? The trick to being alive is to remember that the elevation is possible, that there's a Self, and an animal being, and they're intertwined -- But in the end the Self is in charge.

And death, then, can be understood as the moment the Self separates from the animal being. Without the Self, that ability to elevate and sanctify is lost. Capital-D Death is the permanent[fn5] version. But there are a number of situations where there's a "tam" (taste) of the same thing, where the same loss is perceived, if perhaps only temporarily or partially.
[fn5:] Mostly permanent, anyway. See Principle 13.
That explains the washing. We wash negel vasser at those moments when we are most in danger of mistaking the animal being for the Self.

When we sleep, not only are we unable to consciously think about or even control fully the physical acts we do, but we are engaged in an act that is easily perceived as purely animal. Our higher cognitive functions are tucked away, not turned off but also not interacting with the physical world, and our physical bodies demand rest.[fn6] When we go to the bathroom, we're engaged in a function of the body, and we could easily make the mistake of thinking (as many do) that humans are nothing more than fancy apes with liquid-cooled brains.
[fn6:] That our minds need sleep as well doesn't cut against this. The work our minds are said to do during sleep is sorting, connecting, management, learning… all processes that deal with the input of the day, not that seek more input. Of course the mind and the spirit are still functioning, they don't need rest the same way the body does. They're just disconnected from the physical world so that the body can get the rest it needs.
Yes, there's a part of us that is (one way or another) a fancy ape with a liquid-cooled brain. But there's also a part of us that's higher, and better, and can recognize the miracle that is sleep or going to the bathroom. That's the part that we're in danger of forgetting when we think of ourselves in wholly animal terms.

Our hands are, essentially, the mechanism we use to interact with the world around us. If we interact with the world around us without the awareness of a higher Self governing those interactions, we are walking, moving, and doing, but at the same time we're kind of a little dead.

So we wash our hands. In a specific way for various reasons, I'm sure, but not least to connect it to all the other times we wash our hands in that specific way. So that when I wash after going to the bathroom I realize it's the same message as when I just woke up as when I touched my leather-soled shoes[fn7] as when I touch covered areas of my body as when I do any of the other things that trigger a need to wash in that way.
[fn7:] Briefly, about the shoes. The give-away is Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). On Yom Kippur we don't wear leather-soled shoes because on that day we're supposed to be like angels. Shoes are designed to protect us and separate us a little from the world, so that as we walk (Man walks, remember) we can disconnect from the things that might harm us. Angels see the world for what it is: a perfect and loving gift to us from a kind and loving father. So nothing can harm them, and they don't wear shoes. When we're like them, we recognize the same thing, so we don't either. To bring it home here, touching the shoes is connecting our hands (with which we interact with the world) with the shoes (that disconnect us from the world, because there are things in the world that can hurt us just as there are things in the world that can hurt an animal who doesn't understand the world to be the gift that it is.
By washing my hands, I send myself the message that I am more than the animal version of myself that I've just encountered. That my job in this world is connect this world and all its physical aspects to the higher spiritual reality that I understand exists. And when I've put myself (necessarily) in a situation that might lead to forgetting that, then I'm obligated to remind myself.

When I wash negel vasser in the morning, I'm essentially looking in the mirror and telling myself, "I am holy. I am more than a beast." Hopefully, over time, I'll internalize that message, and truly believe it about myself.

And when I teach Rachel to wash negel vasser, I'm sending her that message, too. As she grows and becomes more independent, I'm also teaching her to wake up in the morning and tell it to herself.

The message behind negel vasser is of holiness, and sanctification. That my daughter is more than an animal, and has potential for infinite greatness. I'm happy to be teaching her that, even in this small way. And I'm especially happy to teach her that she's responsible for teaching it and reteaching it to herself, every day.

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Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Mother's Milk: My Turn.

I should probably make clear as early as possible that the title of this post is not meant to imply that I would be taking a turn breastfeeding Rachel anytime soon. (And how disturbing is that link?) It's just that I pretty regularly read a number of other Dad-blogs (and parent-blogs)[fn1] and it seems almost obligatory to do a post about breastfeeding. I'm not going to go and find all the different relevant spot-links, you can Google this (or this) if you must. As is not unusual, BenMac over at TTU has done the definitive post, and I'd probably be wisest just to point you there and be done. (Also worth checking out: Milk Week.)
[Fn1]: I know, I know; I have to really work on my margin. I've already mentioned it's high on the project list, with a bullet. For now, a few of the regular stops on my blog local: The Trixie Update; Celebrating Colum; Laid-Off Dad; DaddyZine; DaddyTypes; DadTalk; Dooce (a girl); Leelo and His Potty Mouthed Mom (another non-boy. Warning – she is potty mouthed as advertised.) (Actually, so is Dooce.)
Everyone's had a go at this milk business; I'm just taking my turn. Someday soon I'll post about poop, too, and then I'll be a full-fledged member of this blogging fathers club.

In any event, over the past few weeks, I've noticed Rachel being much more active in her learning. She's always, B'H, been pretty much right in the middle of the curve w/r/t most of the standard developmental milestones, with a little deviation here and there, but recently I've noticed that she's moving into a new phase, where she generalizes from one lesson to another. So that learning to put the round block into the round hole is no longer just about that one toy (and why can't I find a picture of the one we actually have?) but has become a larger proposition, where Rachel now generalizes the concept and has started putting things in and on each other in ways that not only has she never been able to before but, more importantly, that she's never seen anyone else do before; she'll look at the soda can, then at the roll of packing tape, and try (with moderate success) to put the can inside the roll of tape. Not because she’s seen me do the same thing, but because she herself has done a similar thing in another context, and is generalizing to this context.

This change is a quantum developmental leap in Rachel's learning, and it's got a lot of implications for G and me. It's got me thinking about chinuch (Jewish education), which in turn got me thinking about breastmilk.

I know that seems like a big jump, but stay with me here. I'm not sure I'll be able to pull it together, but I've got something in mind, at least as I write these words.

We'll start with a schtickle (little bit of) Torah. Let me quickly summarize a lot of the necessary background: After receiving the Torah, the Jews in the desert spent some time (about 40 years) traveling. During that time, every time they moved they would have to disassemble, move, and reassemble the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Some of the items to be moved were built with rings attached, for the insertion of poles or staves to facilitate moving them. One such item was the Aron -- the Ark of the Covenant. Yeah, that one.

If you look again at the image of the Ark itself on that page (or here), you'll see the rings and the poles. There's some beautiful Torah about the details of those poles, especially with respect to the Ark and who's carrying what (or vice-versa), but that's not where I want to focus.

For all the other items that were moved in that manner, when it was time to set up the Tabernacle again, the staves would be removed (and presumably stored). For the Ark, the poles stayed in. A curtain (the "Parochet") was hung around the Ark, such that the curtain would hang down over the staves, but the staves would rest against the Parochet, causing two protrusions in the curtain.

They look like breasts. I wouldn't say this if I didn't have legitimate rabbinical authority backing me up. They're supposed to look like breasts.

The idea is a beautiful one. We are humans, and live in a physical, limited world. But we yearn for (and are obligated to pursue) connection to Hashem, which are transcendent, unlimited, super-physical things. The universe as conceived of by Hashem is too much for us; if we tried to interact with it directly it would destroy us.

So Hashem gave us the Torah, which serves as a sort of interface between us and Him. The Torah (represented by the Ark, which contains the Tablets) interacts with the "true" universe, and then frames it and gives us a construct through which we can deal with it.

That's why the breasts. It's to explain that the Torah is serving the same function at one level that a mother's breasts serve at another.

The world is a beautiful place, full of wonderful things to eat and from which we can derive sustenance. But an infant can't handle it, and if they tried it would destroy them. No matter how much G or I might enjoy a big fat steak with fried onions and garlic, Rachel couldn't have handled that when she first got here, and even now with teeth and hands and everything, that's probably not the best way to go about feeding her.

So this is what a mother does: She interacts with the world. She takes it in, and processes it, and takes out of it only what will be perfectly useful to her child, what won't destroy the child, and gives only that over to her child.

Something that gets missed very often in the discussion of nursing is that breastmilk is, in many ways, a perfect food. It's not unusual for a child to go days without pooping when they're breastfeeding exclusively, and it's not unhealthy. The food is giving the child everything they need, as well as nothing they don't need. Even the part that eventually does get pooped out is really only there to teach the baby's body how to poop, how to process the unnecessary bits.

This idea is even reflected in halacha (Jewish law). Normally, a person can't pray or study Torah when in the presence of feces. It's not so much a question of distastefulness or even respect, but rather a function of feces "separating" a person from the most elevated image of themselves. But one is allowed to do those things in the presence of the excrement of an infant who is only breastfeeding. Even though essentially waste is waste, the halacha recognizes that the waste from breastmilk isn't really waste at all; it's just the satisfaction of a different kind of need.

(I managed to mention poop in this post after all.)

Thought of in those terms, it makes somewhat clearer the role of a parent in general, and particularly with respect to Rachel's education. I don't mean the standard Readin' Ritin' Rithmatic education, though that's certainly included. I mean the education she gets from dealing with the world on a daily basis. Everything from the Physics experiments that are hidden in the way she throws her pacifier out of the crib to the Sociology experiments hidden in my repeated but increasingly frustrated retrieval of said pacifier to the Peer Group Management lessons involved in times G and I decide to let Rachel play with someone, or be held by someone, and so on.

Rachel's growing up. Fast. She's interacting with the world that's expanded beyond me and G and maybe her
. And she's learning from it.

The lesson of mother's milk is that as her parent, it's my job to interact with what's going to be too much for her, break it down into chunks she can handle, and then let her handle them. And as importantly, just like eventually the babies get weaned and eventually Rachel will be (hopefully) tuckin' into Steak and Onions right next to me, I also have to make sure not to stand too much in her way. The things I break down for her now, so she can handle them in small chunks, those are the same things that eventually, after having handled enough small chunks, she'll be able to deal with directly.

I also have to make sure that I remember to teach her not only how to deal with the useful, the psychologically and spiritually and emotionally nutritious parts of the world, but also the detritus, the husks. I can't give her such a perfect food that she never learns how to poop. I have to remember that in that way sometimes the husk is as much food as the food part is.

There's much that amazes me about mother's milk, but not least this idea, new to me at least, that it carries a lesson in raising and educating my child.


PS: See, I told you I could pull it together.

PPS: Bonus Links!


          . . . only by theKohanim. . . .

          . . . a recasting of the "protect the baby" idea I've mentioned before . . .

          biting gold coins to test them.

PPPS: See, I told you. I got a post up by Wednesday. I still need to doodle with the formatting, though.

PPPPS: How lame is the multiple-P-S format?

PPPPPS: Very Lame.

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Friday, June 25, 2004

Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon...

I've mentioned that I get to do some wake-up stuff with Rachel, but G's definitely in charge of dressing her. Rachel doesn't necessarily enjoy the process of getting dressed and I have a fashion sense we can just call lackadaisical (think "straight guy" without the benefit of "queer eye"), so if left to my devices Rachel would end up pretty much in a diaper and maybe one of my old sweatshirts. (Easy to put on, totally wash and wear. I'd cut the sleeves and maybe tie it in the back so Rachel could have some use of her limbs, but otherwise it's perfect.)

Rachel has, B'H, like, a ton of fabulous outfits, and G does a great job dressing my daughter.


A few days ago I came downstairs to see that Rachel's wearing this pink spaghetti-strap halter dress thingie. (Kind of like this dress
except less sweetness and light and more h00chie mama.)[fn1]
[fn1:] I'm trying to avoid showing up in this search. This search is only a little better, which is why, if I do reference it again, I'll just call it HM.
I don't bring this up to talk about fashion choices. The fact is the dress looked really cute on Rachel. What bothered me, I think, was the admittedly small HM factor. Now before anyone gets all in a tizzy, I realize that Rachel is less than a year old and could care less about the clothes we foist upon her as long as they taste good and don't bind.

(And aren't too hot. That's a new thing Rachel does, trying to get out of clothes that are too hot. But she doesn't understand the mechanics of clothing yet, so she just pulls the fairly resilient cloth away, leaving these cute-if-you-don't-work-for-Child-Protection-Family-Services lines on her body where she's effectively embedded the seams into her flesh before one of us realizes what she's doing. I digress, but it's my daughter and my blog and I can do that if I want to.)

And I'm not worried that somehow we've set her on a path of wanton licentiousness. Halloween's not a Jewish holiday at all, but I think I can cite the precedent with safety that despite the occasional costume, few kids grow up to be jack o-lanterns, lions, flowerpots, or God forbid! Barney. (Yes, I realize that sentence was entirely gratuitous and included solely for the purposes of having those links. I'm feeling a little whimsical today. By the by: most clever baby Halloween costume in recent memory.)

It just brought home to me the amazing and terrifying fact that my little girl is my little girl. And I'm going to be raising her, for the foreseeable future at least, in the United States of Scantily Clad America.

(The "scantily clad" link is just Safire on the hyphenation, and not worth the buck fifty; you can look here instead.)

There's an obligation in Orthodox Judaism called "tzniut," which translates (poorly) to "modesty."[fn2] The obligation devolves on both men and women, but the nature of the world we live in today makes it seem as if the burden falls more on women, and I'm willing to talk about it in that context for now.[fn3] It is for reasons of tzniut that Orthodox girls and women wear clothes that are significantly less suggestive than the majority of clothing worn by women today.[fn4] Now, at less than a year, Rachel's neither obligated under those rules nor do they have any real applicability; she neither picks her own clothes nor understands anything about social context and messages. But looking at the outfit Rachel was wearing I realized that the same outfit (in a larger size, of course) would be inappropriate for her in a few years.
[fn2:] Read more at (part 1 and part 2), or Aish

[fn3:] It's important for me to note here that (a) married women covering their hair is not the same obligation as tzniut, and (b) tzniut is not about protecting men from their evil thoughts. I get really bothered by those misconceptions.

[fn4:]It is also for reasons of tzniut that Orthodox women don't wear a burka or other kind of full-body covering. The ability to express oneself (as represented by the uncovering of the face and hands) and the ability to make oneself beautiful and attractive are inherent in tzniut as well.
Looking down at Rachel, I was glad of the whole tzniut thing, because -- having given it some serious thought -- I really believe that it's a mechanism of inculcating into both her and her peers both a respect for women and an appropriate awe of their beauty. I'm not saying it's a perfect system, but it helps, a lot. I think the tzniut requirements help raise sexually healthy and secure and responsible kids, in a world with P4ris Hi1ton(see fn1) and the recent madness in Westchester, I think that's a critical job.

Of course, there are a million women out there who do not adhere to the laws of tzniut who are just as well-adjusted and whole, and carry the same self-respect as those who do. And I'm sure that in the world of Orthodox Jewish women there are some pretty stunted young ladies, even though they did grow up with tzniut.

Which made me wonder what the secret was. What is it that's bound up in tzniut that I think lends itself to raising the sexually healthy kid? What can be left out of raising a daughter with tzniut that can twist it on itself and produce an unhealthy woman? What is it about the women who I respect who didn't grow up with tzniut that enables them to be sexually healthy women?

I realized pretty quickly that I already had the answer. I've been throwing around the term "self-respect," and I realize that the secret is the respect part. There will be those among you to whom this is glaringly obvious, but for me, even though I feel I grew up in a great home with amazing parents, parent who did in fact give me this, it was never explicit, it was never discussed. It was just how you treated people, especially your own children, or your own parents, or your own siblings.

So I'm not saying that without this mini-epiphany I wouldn't have been able to teach this to Rachel; I'd like to think I would. But that doesn't make it any less of a mini-epiphany.

I remember when Rachel was born, one of my first thoughts was, "where am I going to learn about girls? I barely understand grown-up women!" I had a similar thought just then, looking down at Rachel in her little skirt. Where is Rachel going to learn self-respect? Where is Rachel going to learn how a man is supposed to treat a woman, what a man is supposed to be, and what she can expect for herself.

At this point the answer isn't that hard to guess. Me.

When I was single, I used to always joke that on your first date with a woman her father was in the car with you, whether you could see him or not. I just never realized the deep truth in the joke.

Me. I'm going to have to treat her with respect, make her know she's beautiful, make her understand how to treat men and how men are allowed to treat her.

If I do that right, it doesn't matter what she wears. And I realized that that's why the laws of tzniut don't apply between a father and his daughter. (Though as she gets older it might, and rightly so. . . that's a different post.) Because tzniut is, in a way, a function of communication, a way of her telling the world how she wants to be dealt with, and a method of requiring that kind of respect and awe from the rest of the world.

But she doesn't have to wear modest clothing to demand that respect from me. I'm obligated to treat her that way even if she's in her underwear, or naked, or whatever. Because as much as G loves her, this is something that only I can teach her, and that obligation rests on me regardless of her situation, or her clothes.

So that was a pretty sobering moment, looking down at my little h00chie mama.

I didn't make a big deal of it, but I think I'm going to ask G not to put her in that outfit again.


UPDATE: I could have skipped this post and just linked to this article, which I just found. (Gotta love that Google!.) I go hot and cold on Rabbi Boteach, he says some good things and then pulls some odd schtick, and I'm not endorsing him here. But this article, at least, I can vouch for.

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Friday, June 11, 2004

I May Have Seemed a Bit Cavalier Last Knight

In an email exchange about my last post, it was pointed out to me that it might not be so easy to dance about throwing away a thousand dollars for some families who can't afford to do so.

Which is exactly my point. My family can't afford to do so. I mean, it's not going to break us, but I'm not exactly biddy biddy bum all day long, either. I said that it would cost over a thousand dollars to replace the sheitels and falls, etc., but not that they'd be replaced anytime soon. If we were in a position for G to just run out and buy new sheitels to replace the ones we're discarding, I'd be less impressed with how she dealt with the whole situation in the first place. Instead, G's got the one sheitel, a few snoods and some tichels.

What I was trying to get at -- and apparently I didn't make it all the way, at least for my interlocutor -- is that there was a hardship in doing the thing I was doing, but that somehow the hardship was subordinate to (or perhaps subsumed into) a bigger, more powerful joy. Connected with the understanding that the joy somehow requires the hardship.

I'm sorry if I came off as cavalier about the financial repercussions of the whole wig situation, or about the financial situations of some of you out there in blogland. Such was not my intention.


[Update: I fixed the links that were all keflooey. Sorry. Thanks to DRiches for alerting me to the issue.]

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Avodah B'Simcha (Service In/With Joy) and Shaitels.

Almost every morning, when Rachel wakes up, I try to be the one to go in and get her from her room. I tell G that this is so that she can get a few extra minutes of sleep, but truthfully I'm greedy for the three or four minutes I get to spend with her while she's still a little groggy and very snuggl-able. She's also much more cooperative about getting her diaper changed (a) if she doesn't see her mother (a/k/a food!) when she's hungry and (b) when she's still kind of asleep.

We have a little morning ritual, Rachel and I. By the time she's made enough noise to wake us up, she's usually standing up in her crib, on the side of her crib near the door. We keep the door open a crack, held there by a burp cloth on top, so what I'll do is stick my fingers in the crack and wiggle them a little, which tips Rachel off that I'm there. She stops squeaking and I come in. We talk for a few seconds, mostly, "Good Morning! Did you have a good night!?" That kind of stuff. Then I pick her up, and as I say Modeh Ani I lift her, first to my eye level and then up above my head.

All of which is prelude. Rachel is, B'H (Baruch Hashem = Thank God), a healthy and wonderful baby girl, and being one of those, she's getting bigger every day. If I had to estimate her weight, I'd have to guess about 25 pounds. And getting bigger.

So G knows about this, and yesterday morning she watched us. And she joked that it was going to be harder to lift her up like that when she's older. I joked back that it would be really hard when she gets to be sixteen. It was funny.

But, as I am wont, I started thinking about it. As one friend of mine used to quote, "we laugh because it's funny, we laugh because it's true."

The fact is simple; Rachel will never get big enough that I won't be willing to carry her. Okay, that's not precisely true -- I'm sure that some hot summer walking around the city I'll be right there with all the other parents on the "no way am I carrying you, you can walk" conga line. But setting aside those moments of weakness, there's never going to come a time when Rachel needs me to carry her that I won't be willing to, or (I honestly believe) that I won't be able to. Even now, there are times when I'll have been carrying Rachel for a while and my arms (I'm not too proud to admit) will be getting tired.

But there's a sweetness to it. And I don't put her down not only because if I'm carrying her that long there's probably a reason, but also because of that sweetness.

She's getting heavy, sure, but it's the sweetest heaviness; a burden (of only the physical sort), but the sweetest burden.

If the point of these musings is to examine what it is that being a father is teaching me about being an Orthodox Jew, and what being an Orthodox Jew is teaching me about being a father, then this is a moment where each informs the other.

There is a moshol (parable) that I don't remember precisely, but it deals with two men carrying two equally weighted suitcases, one of whom thinks his suitcase is full of rocks and the other is aware that the suitcase is full of precious gems. At the end of the journey, the one with the rocks is exhausted, and throughout the journey he is always just this far from dropping the suitcase and quitting; the one with the jewels is just as physically exhausted, but feels it less, and is never close to quitting.

For anyone who hasn't heard about the whole sheitel (wig) controversy raging through the Orthodox Jewish world right now, this article or this one runs down the basics. If you don't want to read them, then here's the very distilled version: Married Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair. A very popular means of doing so is with wigs (a/k/a sheitels), some of which are made with human hair, much of which is collected in India, some of which is collected as a part of a Hindu religious process -- exactly which part of what process is the crux of the issue. If it's the wrong part of the wrong process the women in question (and their husbands) are not allowed to even have the hair in the house, let alone wear it. The community thought it had settled the issue (to the effect that the wigs were okay to wear) but recently it seems the research done some years ago might have been incorrectly premised and so. . . uncertainty.

A truly fabulous comprehensive review and discussion of the issue is ongoing at Frumteens (which is not just for teens). It's spun a little out of control, as is the way of the web, but the Moderator there does a good job of keeping things on point. It's also very long, but the first page alone is well worth reading.

In any event, there was (and continues to be) a minor hue and cry over the intricacies and implications of the whole sheitel question, and I'm not interested in getting into those details. I want to tell a story about my wife, G.

When the whole brouhaha started, a lot of people were really worried about a lot of things, including how much this was going to cost (sheitels can be fairly expensive) and how difficult it was going to be to go out in public with other forms of hair covering.

G, however, made a quick call to our Rabbi, made a few calls to the people from whom she bought her various head coverings, packed up a little box with one of her sheitels and a fall (a sort of half-sheitel for use with hats or headbands), and told me to throw them out. We didn't bother burning them, just put 'em in the dumpster and away they went.

As I was walking to the dumpster, I had the brocha of being conscious of the sanctity and beauty of my holy wife. A little while later I read this post by Cookie over at Heimishtown, where she writes, "I don't think the chance of possibly being party to idolatry is worth my vanity." That was pretty much my wife's thinking, too, and I felt really honored to be her husband at that moment.

I'm walking to the dumpster, knowing that replacing what I'm about to throw away will cost upwards of a thousand dollars.

And I started to dance. Just a little skip and jig kind of dance, not the big ole funky chicken, but still. . .

Carrying Rachel, carrying jewels, getting rid of a thousand dollars that I'm not supposed to have: All reasons to dance, all reasons for joy.

Burdens of a sort, but the sweetest burdens.


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Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Lag B'Omer: Loving the Individual

Over Shavuot, we ate one of our meals at the home of a family I'll call the Alters. We're very close to the Alters, and we've spent tons of time with them, but over this past holiday something I've been noticing a lot sort of crystallized for me, and reminded me of something I'd heard on Lag B'Omer.[fn1]
[FN1:] The 33rd day of the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot. (Link, link, and link.)
I realize that Lag B'Omer was back on May 9th this year, which makes this less than entirely timely, but bear with me.

I'll do the shtickle Torah first. I'm going to simplify it for context. We are taught that in the days of the Bar Kochba revolution (around 6 C.E.) 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died of plague in the first 32 days of the count between Pesach and Shavuot. There are different understandings of precisely what brought this on, but they all run to the general idea of a lack of sufficient respect between the students. Now, you have to realize who these people were. They were not just some bunch of guys, these were students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Torah scholars ever. So it's to be assumed that these people were not running around actually being rude to each other or snubbing each other. One way to understand the "lack of respect" among them was that they saw each other as fungible units. Each a great Torah scholar but none of them unique and particularly necessary to the project. This perception would even extend to themselves, seeing themselves as no great shakes. Once they started treating each other from that standpoint, they broke the unity that is one of the aspects of Jews that Hashem loves the most.

That's an important little jump, so I'm going to reiterate it. Once they started to see each other as fungible, and essentially all the same -- once they stopped seeing each other as unique -- they failed to maintain the unity that is so precious to Hashem. It's a little counter-intuitive, since you'd think it was the other way around, you'd think that seeing everyone as some sort of fungible unit would increase the sense of unity.

But that's the lesson. You can only be really unified if you recognize and appreciate the unique talents and skills (and weaknesses) of every individual in the group.

The plague stopped on the 33rd day of the Omer. After the plague took all his students, Rabbi Akiva taught five more students, who became some of the most powerful and erudite Torah scholars the world has ever seen. One of these men was R'Shimon Bar Yochai, who, years later, was forced (with his son) to live in a cave and emerged from that cave on this 33rd day of the Omer with the Zohar. [fn2] (That he also died on this day is related, but too much to go into here.) Under a method of figuring that I don't want to explain here, the 33rd day is the day that reflects "Hod Sh'be-Hod," or Recognition squared. It's connected to the idea of thanks (Todah) and praise (Hoda'a) and turkey (Hodu). Actually, I'm kidding about the turkey, though it's not inappropriate that it's served on Thanksgiving. Point being that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was "fixing up" or making up for the mistake of the R'Akiva's original 24,000 students, because one of the essential teachings of Rabbi Shimon touches on the essential uniqueness of every individual Jew, the special and irreplaceable role they have in the overall plan.
[FN2:] Which is only in the most tangential way connected to that snake-oil Kabbala Center garbage.
The lesson being that when we fail to recognize -- in ourselves and in each other -- the essential uniqueness of ourselves, we can't be really unified. If I think of you as just like me, then (a) it doesn't mean anything that I care for you, and more importantly (b) once I realize that you're not just like me, and I will eventually have to recognize that, I'm going to stop loving you. Rather the way to connect to someone is to recognize the greatness inside of them, the special role they have in Hashem's big plan.

Think of all the army movies you've seen. There's always that big guy who carries the machine gun, and the smaller guy who carries the radio. What would happen if you gave the big guy the radio? Well, he'd be wasting his potential and not serving the army as best he could. (Assume, of course, that his size precludes him from being a radio and communications super-genius. I'm talking movies! Of course real life is more complicated.) What would happen if you gave the radio guy the machine gun? The radio guy couldn't hump that gun into the bush and back.

But have each soldier recognized for his individual skills and strengths, and you've got a fighting force to be reckoned with. (Or do a search for "fist" on this page.)

This was all brought home to me with some clarity at the Alters. (Remember the Alters? It's a post about the Alters.)

The Alters have a fair passel of children, keyn yirbu (may they continue to increase!), and each of them is really a special kid, but I want to focus on the three oldest boys, Binyomin, Sholom, and Yehuda. B, S, and Y were born third, fourth, and fifth respectively. The three of them are each great, but each very different. And something I've always really liked about the Alters is the way they accommodate each child's interests and needs, always making an effort to make sure that each one has the chance to shine in their own way during any larger-group interaction. The one that's really into the intellectual complexities of Torah learning gets to "schlug it up" (fight it out) on whatever topic of Torah is floating around at that meal. The one that's more musical and personable gets to ply his charms, and usually sing or play for the guests. (No instruments on Shabbos and Yom Tov, but other times.) The one that's got a tremendous EQ, but (for exactly that reason) can be bullied if you're not careful, will get spoken to more softly than the others, and drawn out some.

There's a concept in the Torah about educating children "b'darcho," which translates as "in their path.", and the Alters have it down pretty well. I don't know to what extent this is done consciously, but in any event it's a tremendous thing they're giving their children.

Usually, the boys are just regular boys. Some of the time they're involved in what's going on, some of the time they're in their own little brother-world, some of the time they disappear from the table on half-hour "getting more soda from the basement" trips. No biggie.

But this past Shavuot there was a sort of serendipitous conspiracy of events and moods, and the boys stayed at the table the whole time, and I got to watch them interact with the guests (of which there were many) and each other. What I saw was that they themselves had picked up this idea from their parents. They treated each other with the same respect for the individual strengths and weaknesses in their interlocutor, and they treated the guests, even the strangers, with a respect that was so non-obsequious and unforced that it could only be sincere.

It was beautiful, and inspiring. It is a gift I hope I can give Rachel, and in fact that I hope I can give myself.

It kind of surprised me a little, too, because I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about Rachel in terms of potential. And I realize that this sort of "Hod" that I'm talking about requires, yes, a recognition of potential, but also a recognition of accomplishment.

I read a book a long time ago that summed this up nicely. Called The Sterile Cukoo, I remember one bit from the book, and (oddly?) only that one bit.

The two protagonists are in a graveyard. And one, noting an occupant thereof who died young, comments at the waste of so much human potential that it represents. The other (I think the male) is a little bit upset, disagreeing, saying that it's not the waste of potential but of accomplishment that's saddening about the place. He asks something along the lines of, "Do you think that [name on gravestone]'s mother cared that he could have been the next Einstein, or cured some terrible disease? Or does she miss him because of who he had already become?"

I think it's a critical lesson, and while I hadn't forgotten it, per se, I needed the reminder. I need to look at Rachel for the wonderful sweet excellent funny amazing little girl she already is, instead of thinking about the wonderful sweet excellent funny amazing righteous kindhearted woman she can become. Only by focusing on the former, I think, can I successfully help her become the latter.


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Thursday, May 13, 2004

Irony 3a(1)

Remember the big controversy with Alanis Morissette's song, Ironic? (No link; it's a lame song.)

So at the end of the day there is a meaning of the word, "ironic," that could be read, if you squint, to apply to the situations in that song. Merriam-Webster Online's third definition -- thus the "3a(1)" in the title -- reads: "incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result."

Well, this doesn't exactly qualify, but it's close.

In yesterday's post I wrote:
And then I wondered why I wasn't bothered by the possibility that she would (Ch'V) get hit by lightning, or that a tree limb might (Ch'V) fall and hurt her. Or why I wasn't worried about a tree falling on the house and hurting either Rachel or G. It's not that such things are impossible, or even entirely improbable.
Emphasis added. I wrote that about the storms on Tuesday night, and last night when I went home my lovely wife G informed me that in fact, a chunk of tree had fallen on our roof, above the baby's room, and we were now taking on water.

It's not a big deal, damage-wise, and no one was hurt. G, as I've mentioned, doesn't know about this blog and presumably doesn't read it. (Though, if she has been reading it and not realizing it was me, then this post will probably lock it down for her and I'll hear about it tonight. In which case, "Hi, sweetie! :)" )

But apparently God, with that great sense of humor of His, has an Atom feed.


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Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The First Law of Fathering: Protect.

I don't know how long ago, Isaac Asimov laid out his Three Laws of Robotics. Basically, he posited a series of directives built into the essence of a robot that had primary control over any decision that robot made. So, the First Law is, "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." This law takes absolute priority and controls any other directive, intention, or action. The Second Law is explicitly designed to accommodate the First Law, ending with, "except where [following the Second Law] would conflict with the First Law," and the Third as well. Much of Asimov's fiction deals with situations that require a bending or breaking of the Laws, or that explore ambiguities in them.

Now, the meme has sometimes been picked up and sometimes been disregarded by science fiction writers and robotocists alike, and Asimov himself eventually came up with a "Zeroth" law to trump even the First law, but the underlying idea -- that if properly understood, right action in any situation can be addressed at least in some measure by a fairly limited set of directives -- is a good one, and an intriguing one.

This idea has an analog in Torah thought as well, though it's not entirely congruent. I can't find the sources for it as I write this, but take as a premise the idea that halacha is adequate to deal with any situation in life. There is a principle that almost all (if not all) halacha can be traced back to the 613 explicit commandments in the Torah, and there is a Talmudic source that discusses the slow recapitulation of the 613 into shorter and shorter lists, each of which contains in a kind of fractal origami the entirety of the others. I say it's not entirely congruent, because Torah law, like life itself, is more subtle, and (at least in my opinion) actually works to address any situation that could possibly arise, as opposed to the Asimov laws which are not and don't (and maybe that was part of the point of them.) There's a principle in medicine, "Primum non nocere," (First, do no harm), but if that were all there was to it then surgery -- which necessitates cutting open the patient -- would be off-limits. So it's really "First do no harm except when you should be doing harm because it comes out a net plus," which is much less pithy.

Which is all another way of asking the same question that drives much of this blog: What would be the essential, reductio-ad-necessitum Laws of Fathering? (And no, I don't think reductio-ad-necessitum is an actual phrase, but it does what I need it to.)

But I think I've got a handle on maybe the First Law of Fathering. Protect. Or, to paraphrase Asimov, "a robot father may not injure a human being his child or, through inaction, allow a human being his child to come to harm," which doesn't even really capture it half so well as, "Protect the child."

Now, I should admit, I'm going a little backwards here, in that I haven't so much derived this from first principles as I've reverse engineered it from the things I find myself thinking and feeling since I've become a father.

I remember quite clearly the intense surge of protectiveness that went through me when I first held Rachel. Through the tears, I remember whispering to her a promise that I was going to take care of her, that everything was going to be okay. And there wasn't even any crisis. G was fine, and the baby was fine and everyone was fine. But that was one of the first and most powerful understandings I came to; that it was now my job -- possibly my most important job -- to make sure that no one and nothing hurts this little girl.

I realize it's a little lot more complicated than that, more like the doctor's rule than the robotics rule, but the main thrust of it is very stark, and very pure. I know that learning to walk will mean that she will occasionally fall, just as I know that learning to love will mean that she will occasionally have her heart broken; but that's an intellectual imposition on my instinctive desire to pad the floor, or maim the boy. Even now, just writing about the moment, I am suffused with the same flush of that feeling. And surprised again at the sheer intensity of it, the heat of it.

I thought of this again in a few different situations over that past couple of weeks, variegated and not worth going into here, and then it sort of crystallized for me the other night.

G and I have been going back and forth about the whole vaccination thing since Rachel was little. I've read some baaaad stuff, and got a little freaked out when G came home with Rachel from the first pediatrician's appointment I had missed and informed me about Rachel getting this shot and that shot and so on.

G's a lot more white-bread than I am, so she pretty much thinks this whole brouhaha with the vaccines is just a little shy of silly panic-mongering. On the other I'm a borderline conspiracy wacko who is only really convinced that there isn't a hidden cure for cancer by the fact that there'd be so much money in making one happen.

So that debate's been coming up again occasionally, as Rachel has other appointments or as we find things that support our point of view. (Wanna be terrified? Read this article from Mother Jones. They want $1.50 to read it, but I thought it was worth it.) And at the end of the day, I can see G's points, and she can see mine, and we've come to a balance about things. (Certain vaccines can wait, ask the doctor about any mercury in the vaccines, etc, but Rachel does, generally get her shots.)

What I've been trying to parse out, though, is why I got, for instance, so angry reading the Mother Jones article. And then, a few nights ago, lying in bed listening to (and watching) the thunderstorm out the window, I had one of those meandering chains of thought that brought it into slightly better focus. (Better thunderstorm link.)

I was thinking about how, when she's a little older, I could imagine taking Rachel outside to play in the storm (something I am wont to do). How much fun it would be to run through the puddles and be startled by the flash and crack of the skies.

And then I wondered why I wasn't bothered by the possibility that she would (Ch'V) get hit by lightning, or that a tree limb might (Ch'V) fall and hurt her. Or why I wasn't worried about a tree falling on the house and hurting either Rachel or G. It's not that such things are impossible, or even entirely improbable.

(Ch'V = Chas VeShalom, which translates, roughly, as God Forbid.)

What I realized is that I wasn't worried about those things because I had done all that was in my power to protect Rachel from them. Or if not precisely all that was in my power -- I could, after all, have the house reinforced with steel beams, and I could never take her outside to play in the rain -- then something like that. Something like enough.

The rest. . . the rest is a matter of trust. The lightning, the tree, whatever. Those are issues for Hashem to manage. And Hashem, Him I trust. I'm not saying no one ever gets hit with lightning or what we call bad things never happen. That's a different discussion for a different forum.

What I'm saying is that I trust Hashem, and the magical thing about that trust is that it's sufficient to satisfy the First Law of Fathering. I hand over part of that job (protect) to someone[fn1] I know both can handle the job and will handle the job.
[fn1:] Someone is obviously a figure of speech. Anthropomorphizing God is pretty dangerous stuff, but it still sounds better than something.
And that's why I get so angry at the Mother Jones article. The gist of the article is that Significant Members of the Medical Establishment (SMoME) knew there was a problem (set aside the question of whether there is or is not a problem at all) and for selfish reasons buried that information. The fact is, because I'm not a medical expert, because I did not go to medical school and would have probably flunked if I did, I also repose trust in SMoME. I am charged with the First Law of Fathering, to Protect my child, and I hand over some of that job to the doctors, because I am working under the impression that they also can and will do the job. There's always a part of me that's aware that the capabilities of medical science are limited, and SMoME won't always be able to help. But to find out that they won't is infuriating.

Then, trying to figure out why it was so infuriating brought me back to the beginning of this journey, to figuring out the essential Laws of Fatherhood, or at least what feels like the First Law. But lying there, in my bed, G breathing softly beside me and Rachel in the next room (recently checked-in-on), I wasn't worried, or upset.

Because yes, the world is full of unknowns, full of potential harm to my child; it is, essentially, bigger than me. But it's also so beautiful, and designed and managed by one of very few entities who I trust, implicitly, to watch out for Rachel as much as I watch out for her.

And that was how I finally let myself fall asleep.


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Friday, April 23, 2004

How do you teach dignity?

There's a Talmudic [fn1] discussion, though I don't remember right now precisely where, that sets out the following scenario. Two people, Robert and Simon [fn2] are in the desert, miles from anywhere. Robert has a canteen of water, but only enough water for one person. If either one drinks the water, that one lives and the other one dies; if they share it, they'll both die. What to do?
[fn1:] Go here for the basics of what Talmud is, here for a basic rundown of what the pages look like. It's also got a dictionary definition, if you want it short and sweet.

[fn2:] For various reasons, not least that something bad often happens to someone in hypotheticals like this, traditional Jews will either talk about "Reuven" and "Shimon" -- which I'm Anglicizing here to Robert and Simon -- or about "Plony AlMony," which is the Jewish John Doe. (More like John, son of Doe.) If your name, dear reader, is Robert or Simon (or even Plony), please take no offense.
It should be no surprise to anyone that there is a difference of opinions in the Talmud about the appropriate course of action, though it's ultimately resolved, and also that there's a fair amount of discussion of the case and variations on the case (what if they find the water, what if the water belongs to Simon, but Robert is just carrying it for him, and so on) in the later commentaries. One of the coolest things (at least to me) about being an Orthodox Jew is that I get to live in a world where abstruse discussions about (apparently) abstract morality are not only tolerated, not even encouraged, but expected and admired. The question comes up a lot in shailas (halachic inquiries) related to the Holocaust, where Plony can save one child at the expense of another child, and so on. And though it's part of a larger dialogue in which I'm involved in other parts of my life, I'm not looking to discuss it in depth here.

I merely want to point out one particular tweak in the Talmudic discussion. There are basically two postitions in the original case: one side says share the water, even if means death for both of you, and hope for a miracle; one side says drink the water (and hope for a miracle anyway for the other guy).

The discussion centers almost entirely on what Robert (the owner and possessor of the canteen and the water inside it) should do. There's no discussion at all about what Simon should do. There's not even the beginning of the idea that Simon should, say, steal the water from Robert, drink it, and leave Robert to die. At first this seems like no big deal, but this whole discussion stems from a larger discussion about the moral imperative to maintain one's own life, and once framed in that context, it seems strange. Here's Simon the football player and Robert the Woody Allen neb. Why shouldn't Simon just take the water? What if Simon's like a Louis Pasteur/Albert Schweitzer type, and Robert's an ex-con child molesting cab driver?

I think, once you look at this closely, there's a deep deep teaching here. What the Talmud -- by its silence -- is saying is that there are two parts to being "alive." There's the part that's not easy to define but is, essentially, definable. Then there's another part, and while I don't have the precise word for it, "dignity" will do for now. That dignity is a part of the self in a way that your limbs or organs can't be. So that the sentence, "I am obligated to keep myself alive," becomes freighted with a deeper meaning.

Because if Simon reaches over and kills Robert for the water, then while Simon's maintained the first part of being alive, the biological functioning part, he's effectively destroyed the other part, the "self" part, so that while he's kept his body alive, he hasn't satisfied the mandate to keep his-self alive, because in the moment of taking Robert's life Simon was fundamentally, and in some measure irreversibly, changed from what he was.[fn3] He's won, but he's lost. Or rather, it looks like he's won, but in reality he's lost.
[fn3:] I don't want to be taken wrong here; I don't read this to be advocating pacifism or a failure to defend yourself. I think the Torah's just clarifying the serious analysis that has to be a part of any decision, in either direction, on this or related issues.
Again, the implications of this are complex, and I think merit their own discourse in another forum. And I know you're wondering what this has to do with being a good father to Rachel (and a good husband to G). But hold onto the idea for a minute, I'll get there.

What's critical to realize is that while (thank God) the life-and-death version of this scenario doesn't come up that often, the not-so-life-and-death version comes up for a lot of people a lot of the time. And while it's good to think about what you would do if you had the canteen, as often as not you're in the other position, looking at the guy with the canteen.

For instance, you're playing a game with someone and first you make a stupid mistake that you would never really make if you were paying attention, and then ten minutes later they get up to answer the phone and you really could cheat without getting caught. Or at work, where you sign on for one thing and they change the expectations or the pay structure or the project definition on you, and you have the ability to fudge your billing a little to make it work out more equitably for you.

First of all, I need to note that the phrase, "equitably for you," is a brilliantly telling bit of oxymoron. Second of all, I'm not saying these are morally equivalent situations either to each other or to the canteen situation above. I'm only saying that they implicate the same concern; they're situations where it's possible to lose the thing you're striving for in the very act of gaining it. Call it the Dignity Paradox: the ability to destroy a thing desired in the instant of gaining it. If you're playing poker, then the instant you look at another player's cards, you can not win the game, you can only win this new game you've created, "poker-where-I-know-your-cards-but-you-don't-know-mine."

And I've been thinking about this for a while now: How do I teach that to Rachel? It's a very morally subtle concept, but a critical one. And, unfortunately, not one that I think that everybody just gets as they get older, because I really (sadly) feel that not everybody gets it.

Now, I realize that moral subtlety has to follow a baseline education in moral absolutism. Or, maybe I should say that's my opinion rather than I "realize" it, but whatever. What I mean to say is that the whole conversation about the canteen in the desert doesn't even begin until you share the moral baseline that the death of others is generally a bad thing and to be avoided, and certainly that causing the death of others is a bad thing and to be avoided. Only after you've got that down can you even begin to ask questions like the canteen problem or the related trolley problem or anything like that. Only if you have the absolute locked in -- cheating is bad -- can you talk about when cheating might be necessary, and if necessary then morally acceptable.

So I realize that before this ever comes up, explicitly at least, with Rachel, we've got a long road of, "that's Good," and, "that's Bad" ahead of us. And in any event there's the moral and psychological evolution that Rachel's going to have to go through before this even becomes relevant.

But what I'm worried about is example. If you smoke, then it really doesn't matter how much you tell your kids not to smoke, they're probably going to smoke. If you cheat on your wife, no matter your stealth your kids will know, and besides whatever other lasting psychological damage you do, your kids will have it planted inside of them somewhere deep that honesty to one's spouse isn't necessarily the be-all and end-all of spousal responsibility. (How they react to that is more a function of the psychological damage and so a more complex issue than the smoking thing.) And the power of example doesn't pay any attention to the moral/psychological/whatever stage of the child; a child sees a parent smoke and the idea of it is planted in his or her head long before the child has the ability to fully reason out the various implications of the act.

So, here's the thing. I sincerely believe that both G and I live lives that respect the Dignity Paradox. I really and truly try to live a morally correct life, as best as I can figure that out on a day-by-day basis. But, first of all, I'm not always going to get it right, and neither will G. And second of all (and more importantly) I live a life now where sometimes -- not always, but sometimes -- I have to make the morally "subtle" judgments that come with being an adult.

What I'm struggling to figure out is how to teach the dignity idea (and the moral absolutes) to Rachel without being a hypocrite, without confusing her, and without leaving her adrift. She needs to be able to make decisions about what the right thing is to do, even when it's not so clear, but that lack of clarity makes it hard to show.

How's this for an example. I stayed at work late yesterday, and now I'm spending 90 minutes at work today writing this up.[fn4] I work in law, so I'm responsible for tracking my time and those hours get billed to the clients, or, if I'm doing administrative work, to the company. But I don't want to have 10 hours billed yesterday and 4 hours billed today; it'll just look weird and while I don't anticipate any adverse consequences I don't feel comfortable with it. So maybe I just squidge a couple of those hours over to today, right. No big deal; instead of 10 and 4 it's 8 and 6, which makes me feel a lot better about it, at least. And nobody loses, either, unless there's some sort of problem with billing that has a date cutoff of exactly today, which is so infinitesimal a possibility that I'm willing to ignore it.
[fn4:] My supervisor knows that I do some personal work at the office -- almost all lawyers do -- and he doesn't mind, as long as (of course) I don't bill it to a client or anything. We're not talking about use of company resources here
But do I do that? I'm not going to say if I will or won't; I'm using this as an example. What I'm worried about is having the dialogue with Rachel, assuming it ever comes up. I mean, how do you have a conversation on the lines of:

"Stealing is wrong; Lying is wrong. Except maybe when your mother burns the chicken and I say I really liked it, because then I'm not really lying, so much as moving the truth around a little, because I really did like it in so far as I liked that your mother made it for me."

I mean, come on. Who's going to buy that? What's that going to teach Rachel?

I don't know. I don't have an answer on this one. Just something I've been thinking about.


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Friday, March 26, 2004

The Biggest Lesson

Someone asked me just recently what is the biggest lesson I've learned in becoming a father. And something very cool happened: I had an answer, pretty much right away.

The months since Rachel was born have been heady and exhilarating and unbelievably enlightening in a thousand different ways, and usually in situations like that -- where there's so much -- it's hard to pick out the biggest or most important thing. And it should be. Having a child is an incredible paradigm shift, a sudden change in the way the entire world looks, and it's only right that it's difficult to figure out what the biggest change is.

But the thing is, most of the "paradigm shift" is a new perspective on ideas that were already in the worldview. So, for instance, one of my favorite voorts for sheva brachos[fn1] is about how love has to be something that always grows, that's always moving forward, and that should, at some level, always surprise a person. So the fact that I love Rachel so much, and that it grows every day, and that I'm sometimes even surprised by my own capacity for the emotion -- while I've got a new and truer perspective on that idea the idea itself is something that I had at least a sort of handle on before.
[fn1:] a voort, literally a word, is the term used for a short speech or discourse, usually given at a joyous occasion or meal. Which brings us to . . .
. . . the sheva brachos, literally seven blessings, referring to the seven blessings intrinsic to (one part of) a Jewish wedding ceremony, as well as to those blessings recited during the seven days of celebration immediately following the wedding, as well as to those seven days themselves, as well as to the festive meals eaten on those days. Some rudimentary information on sheva brachos is available here.
There's only one thing that's really new, though. Only one thing that I realize now I never had even the faintest inkling about, and that's the biggest lesson I've learned.

See, since Rachel's birth, I finally begin to understand what it means for Hashem to love us like a father loves his children.

We say that all the time. It's all over the liturgy and the commentaries and the philosophy. "Avinu She'bashamayim " we say, which means, "our father in heaven,"[fn2] but I realize that until Rachel came along I had no idea what I was talking about. We talk about how He loves us like a father, but I know now that I was clueless.
[fn2:] I could have put the "who art" in there, but it tastes strange on the lips. Presumably not so strange for non-Jews, but to me, anyway.
I mean, listen, I've been a son, and I know my father loves me. I really do. And I've been blessed in that I've never had to deal with a lot of the garbage that a lot of people have had to deal with, with absent fathers or abusive fathers or like that. If I can be half the father to my children that my father was to me, I'll be ahead of the game and I know that.

So if the question had come up some ten months ago, I would have told you that while I'd never actually been a father, I certainly had some idea about what it meant for a father to love his child.

And then came Rachel. And I realize now I had no idea about what it means to love a child. The sheer intensity, the ferocity of what I feel for my daughter is so intense, so consuming, that it's almost too difficult to describe. If you've had a child, you understand, and if you haven't then the words I should use you'll think are hyperbole, and anything less is simply inadequate.

I'm going to skip, for now, how becoming a father has deepened my understanding of -- and my trembling at the thought of -- the Akeidas Yitzchak, (a/k/a the Binding of Isaac), and how it's changed (or maybe not really so much) how I think of the Kohlberg stages of moral development. And I could go off on a little rant here, about how this deep and beautiful emotional reality is difficult to understand in terms of a mere biological imperative, but it's neither the strongest argument nor, in this context, the most necessary.

I want to focus on the "biggest lesson" aspect. Because if Hashem "feels" (so to speak) for me even a little of what I feel for Rachel -- and we can be assured that it's probably the other way around, that I feel for Rachel the tiniest speck of what Hashem feels for me -- then it clarifies, beautifully, much of my ongoing relationship with Hashem, in a way that I understood (maybe) intellectually before, but have touched more viscerally now.

Becoming a father has allowed me to understand what it means when it is said that Hashem is watching out for me, and only wants what's best for me, and will give me what I need, even while that might not always shtim (comport) with what I want. And I understand what it means when Hashem lets me struggle and strain for something that he could just give me so easily.

Because those are things I do with Rachel, and they're things I do with absolute and overwhelming love. And if I'm that way with her, then it makes it just so clear that He's being that way with me.

If she's playing on the bed, I'm watching her. She's not even really aware of it, but I'm watching her, and if she gets too close to the edge of the bed I'll either move her back to the middle or put her on the floor. And if she crawls towards the electrical outlet (we haven't 100% baby-proofed yet), I won't let her put her finger in there, even though it looks like a perfectly finger-sized hole. And if she's on my lap and grabs a fork, I might take that away from her, even if she complains about it. Because she thinks she wants the fork (which she does), but I know she's not coordinated enough to handle it safely yet.

And I make her take her medicine even if she doesn't like it, and I've put up gates at the top of the stairs. And a hundred other things and instances where even though it looks like I'm taking her liberty and her autonomy I'm doing it because she doesn't understand the reality of the world as well as I do, so that things like sharpness and gravity and medicine don't have enough meaning for her to do these things on her own.

And when she's on the floor, struggling to get a toy that's just out of her reach. Sure, I could get it for her, but a little frustration is good for growth. And don't forget how much I believe in her, and how much I want her to get it. And how much it means to me when she finally figures out how to reach the toy herself.

And in how much I love it when she smiles, how much her happiness is mixed in with my own, how much of my heart is hers already.

It's humbling, honestly, to think of how many times I've talked about how our relationship to Hashem is like a child's relationship to his or her father, and now to suddenly realize that while I was certainly telling the truth I was unaware of the depth of that truth.

So that's the biggest lesson in becoming a father, the one that's almost totally novel, because I could mouth the words before, but I had never tasted the reality of the thing. To understand, even a little, what it means that Hashem is our "father." That He is watching out for us, that He is protecting us and teaching us and giving us the benefit of his understanding of reality, which so far surpasses our own.

I know that He sees me the way I always hope to see my daughter: as a creature of infinite beauty, infinite accomplishment, and infinite potential. And I know that He loves me, also, the way that I will always love my daughter.

And I stand in awe.

And that's the biggest lesson.


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Friday, June 20, 2003

A quick note about Pesicha

I want to take a minute here and talk about pesicha.[fn1] And when I say "talk about," I really mean, "complain."
[fn1:] Without going into too much detail, this is the process of opening the Ark and removing the Torah for the public readings that happen (at least) three times a week. See this entry in the Jewish Virtual Library for more information.
Listen -- I know, it's a big honor, and I know it's an important job. And I know that the tradition is that the husband of an expectant mother is given pesicha quite often, as a segulah [fn2] for an easy childbirth. But here's the thing... Pesicha makes me nervous.
[fn2:] Plural, segulot; The word translates roughly as precious/secret, and in this usage means a sort of 'charm,' which is probably the worst and most controversial and offensive translation I could use, but the only one I can think of right now. The good news is that according to the stats, no one but me has read this blog, so I don't have to worry. I'll get back to the whole segulah thing below.
First of all, and this is just my inexperience, I never finish the bits I'm supposed to read in time. So I end up either standing there while the whole tzibbur (congregation) waits or I end up skipping huge swaths of the text. While I usually consider personal moral decisions -- and make no mistake, I consider it a moral decision -- somewhat removed from the concerns of the group's inconvenience, in this case it's actually the group's inconvenience that brings up the question in the first place. Setting aside that there's a halachic weight to tircha d'tzibur, [fn3] there's the fact that a big part of pesicha is itself simply serving as a facilitator; allowing the group access to the Torah. I feel like it's somewhat hypocritical to simultaneously facilitate and impede access.
[fn3:] In making Torah-law decisions (halacha),there is some consideration given to tircha d'tzibura, which is the burden on the congregation. I can not emphasize enough that the consideration given is severely limited, and no one should take it on themselves to make some ridiculous excuse for what they want to do based on this concern.
I've sort of asked about this, and I've gotten better at speeding through the readings. (Which is a problem of itself, because if you really read that stuff, it's pretty beautiful and seems awfully deep, but speeding through it forces me to miss a lot of that beauty and depth.) That isn't the problem that really bothers me, though.

It's the whole segulah thing. You have to start by understanding what, exactly, is going on with segulot in the first place. We can't be dealing with any kind of magic or hocus-pocus. Judaism certainly countenances mysticism, and more than countenances but propounds an understanding that, to steal a fabulous line, "there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," but at the same time it (and I) reject, categorically and necessarily, an assertion that there is more in Heaven or Earth than is under the hand of Hashem.

What's going on with segulot is basically an idea of reflection -- of midda-keneged-midda (measure for measure). The idea seems to me to be that the way you deal with the world will be reflected in the way Hashem directs the world to deal with you; the energies you send out will affect the shape of the energy He sends down.

So, when an oni (poor person) asks you for tzedakka (charity), and you make it your business to give them money without making them wait, and with a smile, and with ease... then Hashem, in providing your needs, will do so in as quick and easy a way as possible. (Obviously, there is a more complex system at work, but a fuller investigation will have to wait.)

Given that, the segulah parallels with opening the ark and taking out the Torah are pretty obvious, and I find myself thinking about them a lot when I'm called for pesicha. I want G's labor to go quickly, but not so quickly that I can't get us to the hospital in time, so when I walk up to the ark I am quick, but deliberate. I want her to efface and dialate quickly and painlessly, so I am careful to quickly and smoothly open the ark. I want the baby to be born quickly and painlessly for all involved, so I try to quickly and carefully and smoothly get the Torah out of the Ark. Finally, I look forward to holding the baby myself, so I try to get the Torah as quickly as possible into the hands of the person who's going to take it through the next steps of the ritual.

I'll be honest; I've taken it so far as to be extra-careful not to bump into anyone or anything on my way up there, because I don't want to get into any fender-benders on the way to the hospital.

And to be quite honest, that scares me a bit. Because I gotta tell you, I daven shacharis [fn4] during the week at a place where the ark is a little small, and the Torah is a little big, and not a few times have I knocked the top of the Torah on the top of the ark while taking it out. The doors stick a little, too, and a few times I've had to sort of yank 'em open pretty hard. None of this bodes tremendously well for G, and I'm feeling the pressure.
[fn4:] daven: lit, "of the fathers," meaning the scheduled and structured prayer set out for us, in its basic form, by the Forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov (a/k/a Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). The three basic mandated prayers are morning, afternoon, and evening, called shacharis, mincha and maariv, respectively.
Now, fine, I'm being preyy tongue-in-cheek here, and at the end of the day of course I'm not really compaining about pesicha, nor am I really worried that a sloppy pesicha on my part will somehow lead to a difficult birth and troubles for G. and the baby. But as a good friend of mine has said often enough, "we laugh because it's funny; we laugh because it's true." Of course I'm not really worried.

Except maybe a little.


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Wednesday, June 04, 2003

So, here it is...

So, here it is. I'm at work and should be working... And instead I'm thinking about my incipient fatherhood. There are miracles hidden everywhere if you search for them, and then there are the miracles that are so obvious you'd have to be blind to miss them.

I'm trying to decide how "frum" to make the blog. I'm not going to publicize this in any significant way, so I've no reason to assume anyone's playing along at home, but in the same way that I will go exploring on the web sometimes and come up with treasures it's possible that someone might stumble into my little briar patch and enjoy it enough to tell their friends. And of course, I've got this ego thing, so that if I do keep this up I'm sure I'll eventually let it slip to someone. I'm trying to decide on the level of universality I want this text to have, and how welcoming I want it to be to those who aren't frum or aren't yeshivish or even maybe aren't Jewish.

Of course, I've titled it "FrumDad," so at some level I've made this decision already, desu-ka? Probably. What I'll do is write the way I speak and think, and then throw in translations, footnotes, and parentheticals to help along those whose schema don't overlap sufficiently with mine. Which means I have to redo the first paragraph....

So, here it is. I'm at work and should be working... and instead I'm thinking about my incipient fatherhood. There are miracles hidden everywhere if you look closely enough, and then sometimes the miracles are so clear that they threaten bechira (free will).

Right now, in my holy wife's belly, she's making a baby. Creation ex nihilo -- something from nothing. From a "putrid drop" [fn1] and a magical half-cell, a whole (please G'd), living (please G'd), breathing (please G'd), healthy (please G'd) human. G. [fn2] is eight months along, and she's getting big. I like to say she has her own gravity, but she fails to find this amusing. But the amazing thing is that the baby's already got parts. As much as the sonograms are amazing, the truly amazing thing is seeing an elbow poke out of your wife's belly, or getting --as I have a few times already -- whacked in the head when I put my face up to G's belly and sing. The baby likes to hear me sing. Or the baby's trying to shut me up. We don't know yet. But I like to think the former.
[fn1:] Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:1

[fn2:] This being a kind-of anonymous blog, I'm using the initial "G" for my wife's name. Actually, it's not even really her initial, but it's relevant.
I can't get over this. And I can't understand how anyone could ever get over it. You want to think this is a fortuitous confluence of time and protein? Some sort of primordial soup gets hit by lightning and a jillion years later I'm singing to a late-model monkey in a bag of saltwater? Go ahead, beleive that. You're an idiot.

There's a thing, in the baby's heart; a hole, effectively. While the fetus is in utero, it doesn't really need its lungs, and in fact if it pumps a lot of blood to the lungs the lungs could get damaged. More importantly, the fetus is getting all this great oxygenated blood from the umbilical cord that should get to the fetus' body ASAP. So there's an opening between the Right Atrium (which is getting that great blood by the short route from the umbilical cord) to the Left Atrium (which would normally be getting the fresh-from-the-lungs blood) and out it goes again (via the Left Ventricle) to the fetus' body. It's called the "Foramen Ovale" (the "FO"). Now here's the cool bit. At birth, if the FO doesn't close, and I mean pretty much all the way, and pretty much right away, the baby can't breathe, because blood's not getting to the lungs. So (hold onto your seats here, kids) as soon as the baby takes its first breath the FO "[c]loses at birth due to decreased flow from placenta and IVC to hold open foramen, and more importantly because of increased pulmonary blood flow and pulmonary venous return to left heart causing the pressure in the left atrium to be higher than in the right atrium. The increased left atrial pressure then closes the foramen ovale against the septum segundum. The output from the right ventricle now flows entirely into the pulmonary circulation." (from

If that's too complicated, let me simplify: There's a little gateway in the fetal heart that the fetus needs to be healthy, but that will kill the baby if it doesn't close within minutes (seconds) of birth. So it stays open during gestation and closes, tightly and completely, within moments of birth.

What I can't figure is how anyone could ignore the hand of Hashem [fn3] in this? But then of course, I'm a Chozer B'Tshuva [fn4] myself, and I understand very well how someone could look at the miracle and see accident. Beautiful accident, true, but still accident. The watchmaker argument [fn5] is not and has never been compelling, because it is defeated by the posit of an infinite number of broken watches, and in fact an infinite number of beaches. The answer isn't in pointing to how improbably lucky we are to be asking the questions. The answer is asking, "why not even luckier? Why not with a watchmaker, too?"
[fn3:] lit. "The Name"; God, especially in the aspect of relating to humans.

[fn4:] lit. "Returnee in Repentance"; an individual who chooses to become an religious Jew after a period of time during which he or she was not observant. Usually implicit is that the person was not raised orthodox, but the term can be applied to someone who was raised orthodox and then went "off the derech (path)."

[fn5:] An argument for the existence of God from design, first presented by William Paley in 1802 or so. The argument is, roughly, that the order apparent in the universe implies an order-or much as a watch found on the road would imply a watch-maker.
The answer is faith. Which I always had, in one form or another. Faith and serious thought about the implications of that faith, which is what it took me a while to get to.

Okay; Wow. This has gone pretty far afield. And it's taken a lot more time out of my workday than I had planned. So I'm going to end it now. I probably won't post again until after Shavuot. [fn6] If anyone reads this before then, have a good holiday or weekend or whatever.
[fn6:] lit. "Weeks"; a really excellent holiday. See the OU site or the Aish site for more info.


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