"How was Rosh Hashana?" There was a pause on the phone as I walked out of the noisy kitchen into the relative quiet of the living room. Picking up my baby, I hesitated to answer the question. Because the truth was, Rosh Hashanah had been hard. There were a lot of meals, a lot of little kids running around and a lot of failed attempts at authentic prayer. I was, well, disappointed.
But I felt guilty describing Rosh Hashana as hard. And I also felt ungrateful.
Here I was in a beautiful home in the mountains of Jerusalem with wonderful children and an amazing husband. And the only words that are crossing my mind are: hard, disappointing, and frustrating? It really bothered me that I couldn't describe my holiday as inspiring, joyful and spiritual. Then I suddenly realized that one of the reasons why it had seemed so difficult was because I was still working with a distorted definition of pleasure.
Rabbi Noah Weinberg speaks about levels of pleasure in his book "What the Angel Taught You." He teaches that God wants us to have pleasure from this world. But as we grow, we realize that not all pleasures are equal. And if we remain stuck in our rudimentary definitions of pleasure, we are blocking ourselves from being receptive to the complexity and breadth of God's goodness.
What did I want to escape? My life?
I have always assumed pleasure to be defined by relaxation or escape. But when I thought more about it I wondered, what did I want to escape? My life? And then I thought about a vacation that we took at the end of this summer.
We are at the Dead Sea and the sun is falling into ice blue water. I can see the salt gleaming in piles of white crystal along the shore. Beyond the water the red mud mountains stretch into the horizon like silent, isolated statues from an unremembered past. Inside the hotel, soft footsteps make tiny indentations in the red, green, yellow oriental carpeting. The people walk past their reflections in the floor to ceiling windows. I see flashes of gold and hear the rustling of silk. I look up to see shirts the color of early morning snow and hair the color of sand. Everyone looks picture perfect as they sit down by their tables on the edge of the sea.
And then I notice them. An elderly couple with their adult son. He sits in a wheelchair. He cannot even lift his neck. They take turns feeding him. I glance at my children who are playing with their food and giggling as they pass soup nuts to each other. They have perfect fingers, perfect faces, perfect toes, perfect necks, perfect arms, perfect legs, perfect ears, perfect eyes, perfect smiles and endless, perfect questions. I realize that I don't really take the time to notice my children. Of course I love them and tell them how proud I am of them. But do I really notice them every day? When did I last say thank You for my children?
Another family walks in, and I watch three adorable children walk with their glamorous mother to their table. But the fourth child is different. His eyes are slanted. He walks slowly. His father holds his hand. The father has a handsome face, tan and confident and full of love. He holds his son and points out the mountains and the sea. He whispers something to his son that makes him laugh.
I think about my own impatience with my children's needs. Why does it take them so long to get dressed? Why do they whine instead of speaking? Why do they talk so much and so quickly? I am ashamed of myself. I am ashamed of all the days I forgot to appreciate the "ordinary" beauty of my home. I think about all the people who go on vacation (including myself) to escape themselves and their daily lives. But in the end we can't ever really escape ourselves, and we waste so much precious time before we realize that the real pleasure is in returning to ourselves.
Even "normal" children have their own special needs: to be loved, to be appreciated, to be accepted.
The families in the hotel with their special needs children were focusing on giving of themselves, and though it was harder for me to see, I was also supposed to be focused on that kind of patient giving. My children are "normal" but even normal children have their own special needs: to be loved, to be appreciated, to be accepted.
As I thought about that vacation I remembered a moment from Rosh Hashana that I had almost forgotten. We were sitting in the playroom. I was trying to learn. My five-year-old was playing with blocks made of different shapes. She looked up after a few minutes and said, "Look Ima, I made a house full of stars." And I almost missed it. I almost smiled and said, "That's great." I almost went right back to my book.
But instead I stopped and I looked more closely. I looked at the wooden blocks stacked in the pool of sunlight. I looked at the star shaped pieces inside the lopsided house. And it really was beautiful! It really was full of stars. And I didn't say anything for a moment. I sat on the floor and looked at how carefully the blocks were stacked. I could tell it took a lot of time and a lot of patience. And then, suddenly, the baby snuck up behind us and knocked the whole house down. My five year old looked startled for a moment. And then she began to laugh and the baby began to laugh and she said, "Ima, can you help me start again?"
Of course, my five-year-old isn't always that patient. But she was for that moment. And I remembered to say thank You. I realized that sometimes extraordinary beauty hides inside the most ordinary of moments. I realized that even though the Jewish holidays aren't a vacation, they are a celebration. We are celebrating our family, our connection to God and our potential to reach for the stars inside of us.