Pre-prime musings

26 April 2007

Last year was the first (but hopefully not the last) time I had a date for my birthday. My birthday last year was amazing. It started the night before, when my ex and I said “I love you” for the first time. After work, he picked me up wearing a suit, and took me out for an exquisite dinner at a fabulous restaurant, and gave me a beautiful necklace, which I wore every day until he gave me a ring. (Then I wore the necklace maybe three or four times a week.) Haven’t worn it since the breakup.

This year does not appear to be a likely candidate for my second time to have a date on my birthday, since I’ve had one date in the last three or four months, just before Passover, and he never got in touch again after Passover. And I’ve given my phone number to two different JDate guys, both of whom I thought had potential, neither of whom has actually called — or even e-mailed — since I offered up the digits. (And in both cases, he had asked for my number. I wasn’t being forward or intimidating.)

But anyway. I have no actual plans for the day of my birthday. I am having my annual birthday party (one of these years I’ll figure out a way to have my birthday occur with greater frequency than just annually!) on the Saturday night after my birthday, so I am taking off that Friday from work to bake and clean and — perhaps — relax.

So my birthday this year will be less fairytale and more prosaic. As long as it’s not O.Henry, I suppose…


Learning to cook

15 April 2007

I’m a math geek. I like numbers, precision, the rigor of constructing a proof that follows a set of internally consistent principles to arrive at an indisputable answer. I like right answers. More than that, I like knowing that a right answer exists, and that it is possible for me to find it.

I’m a high-stress kind of girl. I take everything seriously. I’m a control freak and a perfectionist; when my Shabbat dinner Friday night expanded from 6 people to 8 on the walk home from shul, when I got to my apartment with my guests, I insisted that everyone else sit down in the living room and stay out of my way, so I could expand and re-set the table according to my specifications without anyone’s “help.”

I love to bake. Baking requires a recipe with precise interactions between ingredients. You need this much baking powder; too little and your cake won’t rise, too much and it’ll rise too fast and collapse.

Cooking, though, has never come easily to me. I cook the way I bake — following a recipe precisely. If it says “1/2 teaspoon,” I use half a teaspoon, not a milligram more or less. If my Mom makes a dish that sounds good, I’ll ask for a recipe. She’ll freely admit that she doesn’t measure the quantities, but she’ll quanitfy things for me — and even knowing that they’re approximations, I will follow them to the letter.

But over the past few years, I have been slowly learning to relax. And I have been learning to enjoy cooking. I’m finally beginning to understand that if I don’t feel like buying, washing, and chopping green onions, I can just use some onion powder, and the recipe will work just fine. I’m catching on that if I don’t have X, but I do have Y which is somewhat similar or vaguely related, I can probably substitute Y for X and, again, the recipe will work just fine. (Yes, there’s my math geek side again.)

And if a recipe doesn’t work — whether it’s because I messed up a step, or because my substition didn’t work, or because my oven’s running hot or cold — I am beginning to realize that it’s not the end of the world. People don’t judge me based on the quality of food that I prepare. And, as my Mom pointed out to me recently, perception is mostly based on expectation. If I tell my guests, “This is a new recipe, and I think I screwed it up, and I’m pretty sure I overcooked it,” people will probably agree that it tastes somewhat overdone. But if I say, “This is a new recipe, and I’m really excited about it — the kitchen smelled divine while it was cooking,” my guests will probably think that however it tastes is exactly how it’s meant to taste, and they’ll be impressed. And if I don’t say anything at all, people will probably presume that the food is just fine, and it will, in fact, taste just fine to them.

It is very, very hard for me to accept that not everything I do has to be absolutely perfect. It is an enormous challenge to realize that I would probably be happier if I were just a bit less demanding of myself. I tend to forget about my accomplishments, but I hold onto my failures. And I take on failures that aren’t mine at all. My instinct was to see the end of my engagement as a failure on my part. Although I knew intellectually that it wasn’t my fault, it took a good few months before I really believed that, despite what my ex said, it wasn’t my fault — I hadn’t changed, I hadn’t pushed him away, and in fact I did everything I could to save the relationship. It just took me a while to understand that he didn’t want the relationship to be saved.

If something goes right, I chalk it up to luck. If something goes wrong, I assume it’s my fault. And if it’s my fault, it must be because I screwed up — because I wasn’t perfect. That was my thought process for a very, very long time. But at last I can see, and begin to believe, that “perfection” is in the eye of the beholder. If I inadvertently change a recipe, I don’t have to consider it a failure or a mistake; maybe I just created a new variation which is every bit as good as the original. And if something does go wrong, I don’t always have to take the blame. Sometimes, yes, a mistake is my fault. But it’s not always my fault. And one mistake doesn’t make me a failure. And maybe allowing myself to be imperfect is a new kind of success.

Shades of gray

9 April 2007

[This is the d’rash I gave this past Friday night at services.]

One of the many things I love about Judaism is that it recognizes shades of gray.

Black and white is easy. In westerns, good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black hats. The good guys eventually shoot the bad guys, and that’s a happy ending. Similarly, if you smash something precious and shatter it to pieces, that’s bad.

But that’s not how Judaism sees things.

I realized this year that my favorite concept in the Haggadah is actually a teaching from the Talmud. For those of you playing along at home, it’s Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 39b:

When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. G-d silenced them and said, “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?”

My Haggadah, which is actually the Reform Haggadah, explicates the point in what I consider beautiful language:

Though we descend from those redeemed from brutal Egypt, and have ourselves rejoiced to see oppressors overcome, yet our triumph is diminished by the slaughter of the foe, as the wine within the cup of joy is lessened when we pour ten drops for the plagues upon Egypt.

The pouring out of wine for the ten plagues precedes the second cup of wine. The promise signified in the second cup is, “V’hitzalti etchem mei-avodatam,” “I will deliver you from their bondage.” G-d isn’t promising us, “I will crush them and destroy them.” It’s a promise of deliverance for us, and I think G-d would have much preferred it if Pharaoh had never hardened his own heart against the Children of Israel, and if our redemption could have come without bloodshed. The downfall of our enemy is not something to celebrate – this, our sages teach, is why we don’t recite the full Hallel (psalms of praise) each day of Pesach, as we do on Sukkot. For the second through eighth days of Pesach, we recite a shortened version of Hallel, as a reminder to ourselves that our liberation had a heavy price.

The Torah reading for Shabbat Pesach comes from Parshat Ki Tissa. It begins shortly after Moshe, coming down the mountain with the tablets of stone on which G-d had inscribed the Ten Commandments, saw the people worshipping the Golden Calf. Moshe, of course, hurled the tablets down and shattered them. G-d didn’t punish Moshe or even rebuke him for his action. In fact, just after our reading begins, G-d agrees to Moshe’s request to have G-d’s presence pass by Moshe. This is the most intimate encounter any human being has ever had with G-d.

There is a midrash that teaches that the broken pieces of the tablets were placed side by side in the ark, in the Mishkan. What was holy yesterday must still be treated with reverence today, as the Etz Chaim commentary says, explaining why the Kohanim (high priests) had to exercise such care with the ashes left after sacrifices were burned upon the altar. And from this, the rabbis teach that similarly, we must respect our elders even if they are “broken” because they’ve forgotten what they once knew.

The death of an enemy is not something to be celebrated. Our enemies, like us, were created B’tzelem Elokim, in the Divine image. They, too, have a Divinen spark within them; they, too, are G-d’s creation. There is holiness all around us, even in things that appear mundane, broken, or inimical to us. This Shabbat of Pesach, let us try to recognize that which is holy, and treat it with the reverence it deserves.