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My Favorite Jewish Holiday


There’s an extremist in me. I aim for the Maimonidean golden medium for my character and temperament, but underneath it is raving Baal Teshuva. I think that’s why the old joke matching Jewish holidays to psychological disorders spoke to me. Pesach is the outlet for those who get a spiritual satisfaction of being relentlessly thorough, and Pesach takes this urge to a tangible crescendo.

The great thing about Judaism, though, is that there is an inherent balance. For every law that seems extreme or regimented, there is a delicious freedom attached. My search, then, (my avodah), is to find the balance in Passover. In some senses, the holiday has a similar payoff to those who value a throwback to the simple life before preservatives and corn syrup. The freedom is found in the minimalism; imagine a table set with fresh unseasoned fish, fresh vegetables, and simplified home with the superfluous nonsense locked away, the floors gleaming from being freshly scrubbed with lemon juice. There is a breathtaking purity in the rigidity of the Pesach restrictions, that leaves so much mental room open to processing our ancestor’s freedom.

The seder may have a strict time limit in order to get to the afikomen by midnight, but this setup lends itself to focus and intensity. During the intermediate days of Pesach, family time and festive adventures are encouraged, all while dressed slightly nicer and still sticking to the simple foods.

Last Pesach, I hosted my first sedarim and cleaned my own apartment for the first time. It was right before I got engaged to my now-husband, and thoughts were on my mind of my future as a builder of a Jewish home. A Jewish home is the most sacred place in Jewish life, and this was my first apartment with my name on the lease. It was mine, and it became Pesachdik. I hosted sedarim with friends and coworkers, making the components of the seder plate with intent and concentration. That Pesach, I became a generational link. Now that I am married and am spending the holiday with my husband’s family, I look forward to being a link among a new extended family as well as a link through time.

That is my own personal balance I make for myself. As a self-proclaimed extremist blazing ahead on my spiritual path, the human connections I have to develop ground me. Pesach is the most intense time for spiritual growth and the most intense time for family bonding. I will always remember the jarred gefilte fish, Passover dishes, my dad’s theatrical reading of the Haggadah, the frog dance of my sisters during the 10 plagues, and my mother’s matzah brei from my traditional upbringing. Now, with a new husband and new group of in-laws, I can create new memories. The interpersonal and the intrapersonal are interwoven in Jewish life, and Pesach takes this to their most elevated heights.

That is why Pesach is my favorite Jewish holiday.

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Yours, Mine, and Our Judaism

I asked one of my frequent writers to consider the objections some people (examples here and here) have to some certain topics on Balaboostas. Some people on the discussion forum were worried the knowledge that other Frum women get different Psakim would be too threatening to their Judaism and that’s why the forum is dangerous. Ilana strongly disagreed.

I had a teacher in seminary who said that everyone has to have a “Baal Teshuvah” moment at some point in their life. She recommended to my fellow frum-frum-birth classmates (I was only one of a few Baal-Teshuvahs) that if this hadn’t happened yet, seminary was a good time for it to occur. What she meant by this was that at some point, in order to be a fully functional, happy adult, your way of life has to be a conscious choice. Indeed, the Tanya, a Sefer that is very important to my life and my take on Judaism, speaks extensively about Mitzvos that are done by route, or by habit. Although this is better than not doing Mitzvos at all, it is by no way the way Judaism is meant to be practiced. It is supposed to be an alive, precious thing that incorporates our hearts and intellects fully.

This involves more of an emphasis on the individual than we are accustomed to in day-to-day frum life, which focuses on the communal or family good rather than the individual good. However, what I have learned as a Baal Teshuvah is that individual life is at least as important as communal life. One cannot be a member of the community and contribute their unique G-dly spark to the world if they haven’t realized themselves as individuals. And most importantly, one’s connection to G-d must be personalized and personally confirmed. This is why we Daven Shemoneh Esrei alone, even while standing among a Minyan. My individual journey to Judaism, what made me devoted and committed to a Torah way of life, are necessary parts of my daily observance. Because what connects me is real and internal, I remain committed and engaged throughout all the different cycles of my life’s journey. The experiences I went through are personal, and actually don’t involve anyone but my own self. There’s not really some fantastic story with a plot and a happy, neat ending I can tell at farbrengens for high school girls.

So it puzzles me when people seem to encourage others to go through life, not to mention committed observant life, without the introspection necessary to make it meaningful and real. How is that a permanent solution to people who struggle because they never decided to be religious but are repeating habits that were ingrained in them? All of this applies, by the way, to the Derech one chooses within Judaism. If it is not one that resonates with you, and if your Rav is not someone whose opinion and knowledge you respect above all other temptations of laxity or freedom, then what are you doing in your Derech of Judaism? It is a dangerous question to ask, but the answers will inspire growth, like a jog where you run just a little faster than you think you can manage or do a math problem slightly above your level of comprehension. It is something hard, and something scary, but something so worth doing that it might not be worth long-term halachic observance without these questions being broached. Is it better than completely abandoning Halacha? Sure! But it’s no place in which to feel secure and complacent.

In light of this view on life and religion, I don’t understand in the least why someone would think a discussion group about how different people within Halachic Judaism practice or Pasken. If the way other Jews live makes someone feel malcontent or disrupts their Shalom Bayis, what was their Judaism and Shalom Bayis about besides for their habits? Was it ever something they chose and feel committed to beyond the call of inertia? If it isn’t, well, it’s time to Chozer B’teshuvah.