Getting Messy

Recently, when I was finishing up the dishes after dinner, my son Jeremy came to me and said, “Mom, we have a surprise for you.” I followed him to his room wondering what the surprise was. Had the kids drawn me a picture or built a tall LEGO tower? He opened the door to his room to show me that my two-year old daughter had taken all the clothes from her bureau and spread them across the floor. Oy Vey!

I am continually amazed by how untidy children are. My friend, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch put it well: “Being born is messy, and it only gets worse from there.” I remember on one of my first days back to work after maternity leave, I got all dressed in my suit in the morning. Then my infant son promptly spit up all over me. At that moment, I knew I was in a whole new ballgame.

At such times, I often think of a teaching from this week’s Torah portion. The parasha is called Tzav (which means command), as it contains the instructions to the priests on how to offer sacrifices. The directions begin with the burnt offering which remains on the altar all night. God explained that the first thing the priest should do each morning is put on ordinary clothes, clear out the ashes from the altar and carry them outside the camp.

I read once that Julia Roberts cleans her own home. Even though she can obviously afford help, she instead does the cleaning herself. She was quoted as saying simply: ‘If you mess it up, you should clean it up.’ I imagine that this practice has helped keep the actress grounded in an environment where fame and fortune can easily degrade one’s soul.

Cleaning the ashes each morning must have had a similar affect on the priest. He couldn’t become arrogant and think himself above this mundane task. Rabbi Simhah Bunem (of eighteenth century Poland) noted that this habit would keep the priest connected to ordinary people who likewise do such tasks.

In our day, the messier jobs (like garbage collecting or child-rearing) tend to be less well paid and respected than neater office jobs. People with financial means often delegate unpleasant tasks to housekeepers or personal assistants. In this context, the Torah sends the opposite message.

This week, Jews around the world gear up for the arduous task of cleaning our homes for Passover. The preparation often feels like coming down with a collective case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder — as every nook and cranny of the house is searched for any trace of chametz (bread, grain or leavened product).

Yet, this week’s Torah portion reminds us that there’s a deeper, spiritual lesson to be found in all the scrubbing. If you want to be free, you have to get your hands dirty.

On that note, I better go do the laundry.

We Plan, God Laughs

This week felt to me like a comedy of errors. My son came down with a cold which he was kind enough to share with me. So on Saturday morning, I woke up with laryngitis. The problem was that I was invited to speak as a guest rabbi – but giving a sermon is a little tricky if you can’t speak! Having laryngitis any other week would be no problem, but the one week I needed to speak, I couldn’t.

On Monday morning, the gas in our house went out; my son Jeremy had apparently inadvertently triggered the earthquake shut off valve with his basketball. My week was filled with these types of minor but annoying problems. There’s a Yiddish expression: “Mann traoch, Gott lauch,” which means ‘man plans, God laughs.’ This week reminded me that God has a great sense of humor.

Indeed, this week’s Torah portion also seems like a list of everything that could possibly go wrong. The portion begins the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) by outlining the instructions for animal sacrifices. God explains to Moses: “If a person sins unwittingly against any of the commandments”… then give this type of offering. Each paragraph begins with a problem or mistake that could be made deliberately or inadvertently, and then stipulates what to do to rectify each situation. All the sacrifices follow this pattern except the Zevach Sh’lamim: (‘the offering of well-being). The word sh’lamim is from the word shalem (meaning whole), which is from the same root as shalom, peace. If by some miracle, everything goes well, then there’s an offering for that too!

Although the system of animal sacrifices is foreign to us, the underlying message of the portion still resonates today. Life is unpredictable, but no matter what happens, there is a way back to God, to ourselves, to the sense of wholeness that we crave.

People often say: “Everything turns out for the best” – which is utter hogwash. The Torah portion is more realistic than that. The parasha recognizes that sometimes things do go terribly awry. Some of our dreams go up in smoke, and we have to make painful sacrifices for all that we achieve. But no matter what, there’s a path back to God.

In ways large and small, life has a way of reminding us of all that we can’t control. For some reason, having children heightens the unpredictability of life. Yet it also heightens our sense of wonder when by some miracle, we do feel okay and are able to accomplish something that we planned.

Through the ups and downs of daily living, despite all the mistakes we make along the way, we can make our lives an offering of wholeness to God.


Sunday was my daughter Hannah’s third birthday party (which came just three weeks after my son Jeremy’s sixth birthday party). My husband and I threw the same kind of party for my daughter as for my son. We had Hannah’s class over for a party in the back yard, just as we did for my son – with a Moon Bounce and entertainment.

Although all the elements of preparation, set up and clean up of my daughter’s party were the same as for my son’s, I found the experience much more relaxed this time. The whole process felt less of a production. I wondered what had I done differently to make the event go so much more smoothly? I did the preparations exactly the same as before, so I could find no explanation for why things felt calmer this time.

As I repeated the party preparation, this week’s Torah portion was also a reprisal. The double parasha, called Vayakhel-Pekudei (which means: And he gathered-accounts), contains virtually no new information. The first portion recapitulates the commandment to keep the Sabbath and the instructions for fashioning the tabernacle – both of which have been previously explained in detail. The second portion simply tallies up the expenditures that were already spent in fashioning the tabernacle and its furnishings. This repetition is particularly puzzling because the Torah is normally sparing in its use of language.

In reading the parasha, I had a déjà vu experience – the weekly potion for my daughter’s birthday party was virtually identical to the one coinciding with my son’s birthday three weeks ago. Since the portion contains nothing new, I wondered why the Torah even bothered to include it.

Perhaps, however, the lesson of the parasha is to be found precisely in it repetitive quality. Often times, in life, we get things better the second time. When we read a book (or see a movie) for the second time, we pick up on nuances that we didn’t see before. My friend Michael teaches the same class (to a different group of adults) five times each week. He said by the fifth time, the session is absolutely fantastic – because he’s perfected it through each repetition.

Children understand this spiritual lesson far better than adults. Toddlers and preschoolers love to hear their favorite story over and over again. (I’ve read My Little People School Bus to my daughter multiple times a day for the last few months, and I now can recite it in my sleep!) Likewise, my son likes to hear his favorite song on repeat for forty-five minutes at a time – until I start to lose my mind.

As adults, we are far more wary of repetition. If we read a book once, we’re finished with it. We won’t go to the same show twice. Perhaps, there’s a spiritual lesson to be learned from children about the power of encore performances.

On reflection, I think Hannah’s party went more smoothly simply because it was so soon after Jeremy’s party. We knew precisely what to do and therefore felt more relaxed. Indeed, the lesson from this week’s portion can be summed up with the great phrase from Casablanca. To really enjoy the music of life, just “play it again, Sam.”

Works in Progress

A few days ago, my son Jeremy was drawing a picture. He took a picture of a robot and was coloring it in. I walked by him and noticed the bright colors and interesting pattern. I also noticed that his drawing skills were improving, relative to when he was younger. “I love the picture you’re making,” I said. He replied, “You don’t really love it because it’s not finished.”

A while later, he came to me, and excitedly presented the completed picture, his eyes sparkling, and said: “Now, you’re really going to love the picture.” Again, I told him that I did.

In this week’s Torah portion, called Ki Tissa (when you take), the people are waiting for a masterpiece to be completed. At the foot of Mount Sinai, they anticipated Moses’ descent with the Ten Commandments. Moses told them he would return in forty days, and on the fortieth day, when he hadn’t returned, the people panicked. They built an idol, a golden calf, and began to worship it. One wonders, what got into the people? Couldn’t they have waited another day or two? Why were they willing to give up so easily on the covenant?

The answer is one Yiddish word: Shpilkes. This word sounds like a disease (like herpes or leprosy). However, this term describes a feeling of antsy-ness. When you’ve been waiting for something so long that you can’t stand it anymore and feel as though you’re going to lose your mind, that’s shpilkes!

The people at Mount Sinai came down with a collective case of shpilkes. They got frustrated because they couldn’t see concretely the results of the covenant, so they made something that they could see right away. They donated gold jewelry and made a statue. Trying to stall them, Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord.” They could wait until the next morning, but no longer. They wanted results, and they wanted them now.

Like Jeremy, we often think that our efforts aren’t worthwhile until they’re done. Like the people, we get frustrated when projects take longer than we thought they would. The parasha warns us against the danger of shpilkes. It reminds us that all good projects take time. Inscribing the Ten Commandments took forty days. Crossing the desert to the Promised Land took forty years. And even then, they weren’t done. When the people finally received the Torah, they faced the challenge of living by its precepts. When they reached the Promised Land, they struggled to settle the land and create a new society.

Similarly, the most important projects of our lives are time consuming. Pregnancy takes forty weeks. Just when we think the baby will never emerge, it finally comes and we discover that it’s just the beginning. Raising a child takes at least eighteen years. However, parents often discover that they’re still not done; their role shifts but the job isn’t over. Indeed, the biggest projects of our lives are never complete. The task of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is never finished; likewise the task of tikkun atzmi (refining the self) is a lifelong endeavor. We are all artworks in progress.

So when you take stock of your life, remember that God loves our handiwork, even when it’s not finished.