For many months now I have been trying to change my negative attitude towards housework. I have tried rewarding myself with extra reading time when I finish the dishes, an overseas phone call to my family when I fold the laundry, time on the computer when I have dinner ready at a reasonable hour.
So far, all I have succeeded in doing is ensuring that the work gets done. I have not been able to make the quantum leap into valuing my effort as a creative and spiritual endeavor. I am not alone in this regard -- many of my friends see housework as drudgery, not as something intrinsically uplifting.
But everything changed when I heard the news at the beginning of the week. Five captured American personnel, one of them a woman. Shoshana Johnson from Texas has been haunting my thoughts. She's a single mother working as a cook in the U.S. army; far from the comforts, and yes, the drudgery, of home. One wrong turn in enemy territory, and things will ever be the same again. Never again will she [if she ever had in the first place] complain about doing the dishes; sweeping the floor and dusting the family knickknacks will cease to be mundane activities; and the sheer joy of making the beds and shopping for food will be indescribable.
Her current imprisonment and probable maltreatment have changed the focus forever. Activities that used to be mundane and tedious will be suffused with warmth and love and memories of home. Putting away her child's toys will no longer be an irksome task, and ironing her loved ones' shirts will be seen as an expression of deep caring.
This very mess, this work and routine, and someone to care for, is proof that I am free.
I caught myself about to yell at my kids for not tidying up the lounge -- how many times have I asked them to pick up after themselves? The image of Shoshana came into my mind [even though I have not seen a photo of her, she is very real to me nonetheless.] Is this mess worth shouting about? Is there something I as a mother could be doing differently? How about if I just LOVED my kids and accepted everything about them -- their noise, their hugs, their squabbles, their jokes, their disorder?
I could actively want it to be exactly like this, everything. Because this very mess, this work and routine, and someone to care for, is proof that I am free. Free to complain about my workload, free to shirk it when I just don't feel like doing anymore today, and free to enjoy expressing my love for my family in such a tangible way.
Davening mincha today was an exhilarating experience. I started off in a very somber frame of mind. Images of Allied POWs kept on crowding in. How to feel confident that all will turn out for the best, when right now everything seems so bleak?
The first blessing was hard; I didn't feel any connection to anything at all. I said the standardized words and, little by little, the curative, soothing flow gradually established a lifeline to something much greater than I.
Then the following phrase of the second blessing electrified me -- I don't think I had ever fully grasped its meaning before: “Matir Assurim -- He releases the confined.” At that point, I broke down completely; the sobs engulfed me, and wave upon wave of pent-up emotion issued from deep within. I cried throughout the remaining blessings, and when it came time for me to insert my own petition, I beseeched the Creator to set free all captives of war, most especially our own Israeli soldiers missing in action:
Zecharya ben Miriam
Yekutiel Yehudah Nachman ben Sarah
Tzvi ben Penina
Ron ben Batya
Guy ben Rene
Elchanan ben Rivkah
[For more info on MIAs, go to: http://www.mia.org.il]
I felt energized by having handed the burden back to God, and for the first time in ages, I had energy for my housework. This was no mean feat considering that the weather was cold and rainy, the kids were bouncing off the walls, and I had very little sleep the night before.
Somehow, though, I sidestepped tantrums and deftly sent fighters to their corners while soothing bruised egos all round. I was doing it all not so much on autopilot, but more from a place of objectivity. I was observing myself the whole time without passing judgment one way or the other. I felt liberated from the inner critic. It struck me that just as God granted the smallest of my requests -- to free me from my own limitations as a mother -- so too is He able to set free all those prisoners of war.
Sharing my victory with a friend on the phone, we were both initially perturbed by the fact that so many of our peers seem to be more moved by the fate of the American POWs than by the ongoing crisis and carnage of these past two years in Israel. How could we be so supposedly indifferent to the terrible suffering of our own people? Is it possible to get used to tragedy? Is it possible to actually start not caring? What was happening to us as a people?
My friend, Shoshana, very astutely pinpointed the dynamics: the Iraqi war is far enough away to not be part of our own localized trauma, yet near enough to serve as a trigger unleashing hitherto untapped emotions. We could not survive psychologically were we to truly feel the depth of pain that our current situation demands. To feel so much suffering is not humanly possible, and so we do the next best thing -- we numb ourselves, only really feeling the pain when the numbers involved push us over the edge.
And this is why, to me at least, it is so healthy for us as Jews to once again feel the suffering of “just” five POWs. It is a sign of the Big Thaw, where hearts of flesh are replacing our hearts of stone. I am using the energy generated by my concern for the Allies to reinvigorate my prayers, not only for the People of Israel, but for all of humankind.
In this way Shoshana Johnson has great merit, for she served to awaken me to my duty, not only as a conscious homemaker, but also as a conscientious intercessor on behalf of those in need. May her suffering and those of her fellow detainees be short-lived, and may they all be speedily united with their loved ones.
Chaya Rivkah Jessel left this world on 12 Teves, 5764 (January 6, 2004). Please visit the web page that has been created in her memory, at http://www.rabbileff.net/shiurim/special/chayarivka/index.htm