Friday, June 20, 2008

Question & Answer With Chana Jenny Weisberg - The Biggest Challenge

(Picture by Jean Guichard)

A Simple Jew asks:

Which mitzvah have you found to be the most challenging to observe?

Chana Jenny Weisberg answers:

When I became observant 15 years ago, I didn’t mind the long skirts, the home-bound Saturdays, the off-limits Whoppers. All of it felt natural. It felt good, even. I liked the way mitzvot connected with
G-d, my people…infinity.

Living a Jewish life became more difficult when I married three years later, and the primary responsibility for a Jewish home fell upon my reluctant, graduate-student shoulders.

For my whole life I had known that doing chesed, acts of kindness, in one form or another would be my central life goal. But I had always envisioned that I would help the world through a humanitarian career, like my mom the psychiatrist or my grandma the education professor. I had dreamt that I would spend my life pushing the world one small step closer towards social justice by working at the United Nations, or with AIDs orphans in Africa, or at a health clinic in Appalachia dispensing vaccinations and sound nutritional advice.

But, five years after I said my first “No” to a BLT, I had become the kind of person that I would have felt intense disdain for only several years before- the lowest of the low: a housewife. As a mother, I discovered that suddenly the human beings most in need of my chesed were asking me for cups of apple juice in my kitchen, crying in my arms exhausted and needing to be put to bed, or running after me with a bedtime story.

Over the past decade of motherhood, I have worked hard to reprogram the way I see the world, and to learn to view my motherly role in a more positive light. Over the past decade, I have read many books and attended many classes about the Torah’s esteemed view of the central role of the Jewish wife and mother. I have also written my own books and articles and established a website called to share why I have come to believe that there is no role more important and no contribution made that rivals that of the Jewish mother.

As a result of my change in worldview, the demands on me as a wife and mother feels infinitely easier than they did when I brought my oldest daughter home from the hospital 10 years ago. The childcare, the housework, the cooking, the afternoons at the playground kissing skinned knees- it all feels so much more dignified, important, and fulfilling than it once did.

But there is one last aspect of this motherly life that still gets to me- my most difficult mitzvah.

If you asked me what mitzvah I love the most, it would be Gemilut Chasadim, performing acts of kindess. I love giving charity, I love helping old ladies with their groceries, I love caring for my children, I love being the matchmaker who helps someone find a job or an apartment or the perfect pediatrician for their child.

But Gemilut Chasadim is also my most difficult mitzvah.

Specifically, when people ask me to serve them something, I often wince. My gut reaction, that I try to suppress (not always successfully), is “You’ve got legs! Get it yourself!” A guest needs a napkin. A child wants a tuna sandwich. A neighbor needs a cake pan from the high shelf.

Even writing this, I feel ridiculous. It sounds so small, so picky, so harmless. But I don’t think it is.

I once heard a story about a young woman who was extremely unpleasant, obnoxious, and generally unlikable. When she came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe to ask how she could become a nicer person, the Rebbe gave her some strange advice. Instead of suggesting therapy or a pile of self-help books, the Rebbe gave her the following simple advice: “Whenever you eat with your friends in the college cafeteria, you should serve your friends whatever they need.”

For the next few months, the young woman did just that. She brought her friends pieces of apple pie for dessert, forks, glasses of water. By the end of the year, she was a different person: kinder, friendlier, less selfish, more loving.

Unlike the young woman in this story, I am, I think, already a nice, likable person. But, like her, I feel that I also have an unused muscle that is in need of special spiritual physiotherapy called giving.

For this reason, for the past year or two, I have been trying to serve people whenever I can. I run to bring a guest another spoon when hers fell to the floor. I tell my husband, “Sit down! I’ll get the salt shaker” even though I would really rather remain sitting and eat my meal. It’s hardest with my kids, because their requests are so frequent, so unrelenting. But I try to give them their tuna sandwiches and cups of apple juice with pink straws (not yellow!) with a smile on my face.

I feel that at this moment in my life, serving others is the mitzvah I need to work on the most. And I see that it gets easier and easier. As though after years of serving through gritted teeth, I have achieved a sort of runner’s high- a giver’s high.

I am working so hard on this because I feel that this struggle indicates that, like the young woman in this story, this is the tikkun that my soul needs the very most.


At June 20, 2008 at 10:09:00 AM EDT, Blogger Batya said...

I've learned to be on time or even "late" rather than obsessively early and hysterical about missing things.

It's not a halacha, but people say I'm nicer and more relaxed because of it.

At June 22, 2008 at 7:35:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes the best thing you can do for other people is make them get their own tuna sandwich.


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