How to Be a Reasonable Daffodil?

daffodil in snow count the omer

I wrote to a friend after staring out the back window in distress at my beloved daffodils bowed over with snow, their petals freezing. I wanted her to know that I see her neshama, her soul, in the drama in my back yard.

She is like the daffodils. They bloom with such joy and hope in screaming yellow, yet when snow and frost hits, they are by far the sturdiest and yet most lovely flowers on Earth. They may sag for a day or two, but they will bounce back and be the stronger for it.

This friend is, like so many of us, living the aftermath of an abused childhood. I wrote this to her on the first day of Pesach (Passover), and this is now the sixth day of counting the omer, Day 6 of 49 days of preparation, reflection, and growth from Pesach to Shavuot (Pentecost), in order to receive the great gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

This year, my focus is on reasonableness. What is reasonable to expect of myself and others? Where do I belong, and what kind of choices are in sync with reasonable expectations? My tendency to strive, overachieve, overdo, overthink, and overreact is clearly not aligned with reason. It is madness disguised as intelligence, arrogance disguised as helpfulness, and recklessness disguised as bravery.

I want to get real with all of that this year. I want to be able to walk away from the various encounters in my life knowing that I looked first for the genuine intelligence, helpfulness, and bravery, all of which can only spring from a heart that loves the truth above all. My overdoing is just like yeast in the dough—it puffs things up beyond what they actually are and in doing so, poisons the natural, reasonable system that was set up to eat matzo, manna, and the fruit of the Earth.

I need to become like the daffodils in the snow. If I’m going out on a limb to blossom when all other flowers are wisely remaining hidden in the ground, I must learn about reasonable timing and about my actual limitations.


Azazel and Very Angry Birds: The Beauty of Community

I watched a small city of frantic birds wheel and squawk across our back yard. At first I thought they were crows, then realized with awe that they were sparrows chasing a huge marauding hawk back and forth over the house. They took turns dive-bombing the hawk so that it received a steady pummeling on its back and wings.

The unrelenting choreography ultimately achieved its goal. The hawk flew off and all the sparrows went back to tend their babies in the trees circling our house.

It is this sort of passionate devotion to the community that we find described in the Torah portion leading up to Passover. You can’t have fine choreography without plenty of rules and attention to timing. The Torah lays these out for everyone who wants to remain in God’s community. All kinds of boundaries are described here, especially sexual ones, making it clear that God has his hand firmly on the gene pool as well as on the moral standards of his people.

Part of God’s cleansing process for his community involves the famous two goats—one for the sacrifice itself and one to carry all the sins, errors, and mistakes of the community off into the dreaded wilderness to Azazel. I looked up Azazel and found lots of confusing descriptions. I venture to say that Azazel stands for a state of unforgiveness and separation from the goodness of God. The wilderness itself embodies this, as it fails to support life and is a wasteland of emptiness. I know that wasteland well. Before I discovered that God is indeed real and eternally present, I saw that terrible landscape yawning before me often. It haunted my dreams with its vast nothingness.

Off goes the scapegoat, poor thing, bearing all our sins away into this forsaken place, there to suffer and die slowly. I would much rather be the goat beneath the knife of a compassionate kosher butcher, to end my life quickly and painlessly for a life-giving purpose. In the sacrifice of both these beautiful, innocent creatures lies all our hope for a community that can withstand any evil, destructive storm and survive.

What does this have to do with the dive-bombing sparrows and the unwanted hawk? Those sparrows knew their own community; they were completely focused on their mission. God helps us identify ourselves within his community by laying out the rules and procedures so that we can recognize and respond to danger from outside.

If only we could match the fervor of that team of sparrows and pull together to protect each other, to win difficult battles together. Think what a fine world this would be if we could expand our hearts to care about each other like that without limiting ourselves to our own immediate community.




A Wanderer in a Houseless Land

I am going through a family crisis with a beloved sister who can only start to heal if she divorces the family. In the midst of my grief for her pain, and for mine at being separated from her, I focused on the Torah portions leading up to Pesach (Passover). The theme of the metzora (commonly understood as one afflicted with leprosy) who was inspected and declared unclean by the Kohen (priest) really struck me. Was my sister like the Kohen declaring me unclean, that I must be banished from her community? Or was Emotional Survival the Kohen declaring her unclean and banishing her from the family?

Either way, the experience of being forcibly removed from a deep, longstanding relationship is wrenching for all concerned. I dipped once again into the Stone commentary on the Torah passage and found this thought-provoking assertion that uncleanness (tzaraas) has nothing to do with a physical disease but is a spiritual disease:

“Thus, tzaraas is a Divine retribution for the offender’s failure to feel the needs and share the hurt of others. God isolates him from society, so that he can experience the pain he has imposed on others—and heal himself through repentance.”

So in a sense, by her excommunication from the family, each of us now faces the question of whether we are unclean as well. It is tempting to think we are not, of course. It’s so much easier to believe that this is all just her problem. Hardly. If I have unwittingly contributed to her pain and sorrow just by being myself, then I am guilty of the same hardheartedness described in the commentary. She needed something from me that I was not prepared to give, or worse, that I chose not to give.

Is there no end to these opportunities for self-flagellation? It makes me want to run and hide in the presumed safety of my comfortable community, get my strokes and reassurances, and forget the one who is outside the camp suffering and repenting. But I cannot ever forget her. She is forever in my soul and I must accept the Kohen’s keen eye on my heart as well.

I try to maintain a regular daily reading of George MacDonald’s transcendent poems from his book Diary of an Old Soul. Unless you have read them, too, you can’t know how powerful a challenge they present to our normal, bumbling approach to who we are with ourselves, each other, and with God. This one came up today and I don’t consider it a coincidence:

“Thy mind, my Master, I will dare explore;
What we are told, that we are meant to know,
Into thy soul I search yet more and more,
Led by the lamp of my desire and woe.
If thee, my Lord, I may not understand,
I am a wanderer in a houseless land,
A weeping thirst by hot winds ever fanned.”


Is God Unfair? Peering Through the Veil

This past week’s Haftorah portion (for Shemini) was 1st Samuel 6:1-7 with verse 17 added in to complete the story of how the Ark was detoured on its way to David’s home. I always thought it terribly unfair of God to waste Uzzah for instinctively reaching out to protect the Ark when he thought it was about to jolt off the wagon.

Uzzah was just doing what any of us would do when charged with a grave responsibility. He was chosen to walk beside the wagon that bore the holiest of holy items back safely to the tabernacle where it belonged. He was working for his king, just doing his job.

I noticed that I used the word “just” twice when describing this, which is quite telling. I say “just” all the time when I’m trying to make my point, plead my case, or get someone to listen to reason. My version of reason, of course, is superior to that of others. Like all type-A, earnest people-pleasers, I engage in continual juggling of my oh-so-valid opinions with respect for the opinions of others. I usually drop the “others” ball first.

So Uzzah was just protecting God’s property, he was just reaching out to prevent the Ark from falling off the wagon—he was just trying to do the right thing based on his natural understanding of the situation at hand. But the Stone edition of the Torah provides a commentary from Rashi on Uzzah’s sudden and immediate death: “The Ark was so holy that its customary bearers, the Levites, never felt its great weight; they were borne by it. How then, could Uzzah think it was in danger of falling to the ground?”

How can any of us, then, have the luxury of having an opinion? Is that what trust looks like? And if so, how can I divest myself of all these preferences, agendas, and opinions of mine before I too make the fatal mistake of just doing what I believe to be right?

Does drawing closer to God Most High involve just such a process of being willing to remain silent, even paralyzed, while waiting for God to make the next move? Aaron had to remain silent after his two sons were killed for burning the wrong kind of incense, to honor God with his trust in God’s fairness.

I imagine myself in Uzzah’s place and I know I would have been horrified to see the Ark jostled and tipped on the wagon. I would be just as unable to stand by and helplessly watch such an unthinkable event take place without attempting to steady it, to protect it with my life. I would have been unable to show my understandable grief if my children were killed for doing what they thought was a good idea.

Perhaps those were gifts to us from Uzzah, though. Uzzah’s good intentions and his faith in his own ability to protect the things of God shine the light on something we need to learn. Despite our many good intentions, the results are too often ill-timed, poorly communicated, and ultimately harmful. If only we would realize how often we are called to stand still and let things unfold as they will.

If we don’t learn to trust God more and trust ourselves less, we run the risk of causing our own destruction. This is easy to say but nearly impossible to do. I find myself asking God more and more these days to increase my faith, even before I ask for deliverance, protection, or even forgiveness. I realize that all those other requests can only be answered in a lasting way when I deepen my trust in him.


On Illness, Kidney Stones, and Awakening

I want to elaborate on that last statement: I’ve heard it said that people can’t change (or they won’t change), but doesn’t each brush with illness or grief or heart-stopping joy change us, after all?

It’s so easy to pontificate about inner peace. Everyone has a theory on how to acquire it. We all want that Zen master zone thing, yet we all live in dread of our own fearful reaction to fear. Winston, you were so right—but when something horrible or unthinkable is right in our faces, can we really say that we have nothing to fear but fear itself?

We’re only human, right? I have a wrenching fear of pain, mostly because I’m such a wuss. I feel everything, like the princess and the pea. Where most people take a glass of wine to relax, I need only a quarter of that. I never require the usual dose of anything, and I always react way more than most people do to chemical odors, threatening behavior, or thinly disguised contempt.

So when I was told that I had not just a kidney stone, but multiple stones in one kidney and an especially large stone (“too big to pass”) in my other kidney, I was aghast and ceased to function for a spell. Descriptions of what would happen left me cold and trembling inside. But what really scared me the most was not the planned procedure and its aftermath but the chance that one or several of these rogue interlopers in my system could choose to dislodge and descend to cause excruciating pain at any time.

At any time? As in, without warning?

This is where the rubber meets the road, where God meets us in our abject terror. All it took was hearing a few horror stories about “the worst pain in the world, worse than childbirth,” and I was on my knees begging for help. As much as I prayed for protection and healing, though, I found my prayers focused more and more on trust. What does it take for me to gain the strength I need to face down my fears?

Of course, it’s wonderful to be constantly rescued and restored—who wouldn’t want that? But the older I get, the more I desire to be rescued from my fears, not just my circumstances. Those events will keep popping up as long as I’m alive, challenge after unwelcome challenge. What I really need is to meet them without fear, and that is certainly not going to come naturally from my nature. I am no warrior maiden.

Now that I’m safely on the other side of the kidney stone episode, I understand that it could easily happen again, as could cancer, heart disease, stroke—you name it. We’re all sitting ducks left to ourselves. We clutch our armfuls of decent health and we don’t want to lose a bit of it, not one tiny bit. The key, it seems to me, is to let go, open our arms, and walk unencumbered and unafraid into the land of trust.

It’s just a tiny step through a veil into another universe, yet the hardest step of all to make from here. I feel my feet itching to begin but so far, I am hung up at the threshold.


The Law of Kindness and the Poisoned Tongue

I always loved this scripture from Proverbs 31:26:

“She opens her mouth in skillful and Godly wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness (giving counsel and instruction).”

Of course James 3:8 portrays the tongue as “an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” I think I know where that poison comes from—an arrogant heart fixed on achieving and on distinguishing itself. Where does that grinding desire to be noticed come from?

In my case, I know it comes from a fear of being abandoned and forgotten, a fear of emptiness and nothingness. I have been fighting that fear all these years with my own personal power and initiative, trusting in my own abilities and certain that I can count on no one but myself. It always seems to require some sort of setback, injury or loss for me to realize that not only is God really there in a huge, undeniable way—unwavering, passionate, and eternally present, but that he has surrounded me with people who can be relied upon to care deeply for me and to watch out for me as well. 

So it just stands to reason that trusting in God = laying that aggressive arrogance to rest = greater wisdom, kindness, and peace toward myself = a tongue transformed by the law of kindness. 

That process is worthy of an eternal string of daily commitments! What if I could take that focus and apply it to all my days, for the rest of my life? It was like the anti-initiative, like taking my usual approach and standing it on its head.

The poison must come out from the deep recesses of the heart. He loves us too much to let it fester in there forever. I was bitten by the snakes of pride and fear, and I have been guarding my little reservoir of venom from him. Did I really think he would overlook it and say “good enough, my faithful servant”?

Being sick or hurt or in grief, I realized, was a portal into the heavenly operating room. It was a chance to open my heart to the great surgeon and entrust myself to his hands. Each day since, even the busiest and most frustrating, has been touched by this realization. I’ve heard it said that people can’t change (or they won’t change), but doesn’t each brush with illness or loss or heart-stopping joy change us, after all?


Counting the Omer Last Year When My Back Went Out

Each year, between Passover and Shavuot, for the 49 days of counting the omer, I search for a mission for the 49 days—some kind of overarching theme to use as a focus for the special meaning of those days leading up to the giving of the Torah. One year, it was all about really listening to people, rather than waiting for them to finish so I could rush in with all my thoughts and agendas. Another year, it was making sure to get a reasonable amount of sleep every night, as my tendency to shortchange myself on sleep was verging on pathological.

Last year, in 2013, the first day of counting the omer came and went, but I had not settled on my special focus. A few more days passed and I wondered if I had lost my way. I didn’t want to just pick some arbitrary thing like eating more antioxidants, drinking more water, or making time to write my novel every day. Those were all great ideas but none of them had the ah-ha quality I had learned to expect each year.

Finally, I halfheartedly decided my focus would be on being more kind to myself. Expecting less and promising less would be a healthy, spiritual focus.

It was nice to take breaks, to nap and sleep more, to graciously decline all but the most important activities. I spent more time at the window watching the sky and just thinking, feeling free. This was pretty new behavior for me. I felt comforted, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was supposed to be something more to it.

Then the day of Shavuot eve came and my back went out. I canceled everything that day, which I suspect God had in mind anyway since it was Shavuot. That’s when the shroud of mystery lifted and I saw the whole point of this 49-day journey. It was crystal-clear. True strength of faith does not come from sacrifice and striving, nor from attention to my own needs, but from listening and trusting.

God showed me something I was finally ready to hear. I must be kind and wise toward myself, as he would treat me, before I can truly be kind and wise toward anyone else. So I rested, really rested, because I was unable to move. And I knew that it was Day 1 of my next 49 days of kindness.