It’s been about a month since Labour Day and the start of school. For many people with school-age children, this is the first time the kids are back in school, in person, in awhile. It’s also been a year where we’ve remarked about how “early” the Jewish holidays are, in relation to the secular calendar. So, while some vaccinated people are thrilled to be attending their first hockey game or concert in almost two years, reveling in joining the crowds, many others are meeting this moment with caution and exhaustion.
This balance of great enthusiasm at rejoining society and reticent caution is part of our identities. North Americans feel a great push to get out there, make money, join the in-crowd party and show off our productivity. Society often defines us by what we do and who we’re with.
The other side, the hesitancy, might be better understood by our Jewish ethnic and religious identities. That is, the people who want to follow the rules (ie. halachah, Jewish law). We also find our way with caution perhaps because we suffered from thousands of years of refugee status and/or trauma as we wandered.
As a person who bore lots of childcare responsibilities, as well as losing some of my work life, this last month has been somewhat stressful and puzzling. From the moment my Grade 5 children left the house, I’ve waited for the other shoe to drop. Will they get sent home sick? Will I land a new job or gig? If I do, how will I juggle it with what will happen next in our unpredictable pandemic world? In the short term, how can I cook ahead or prepare to meet the needs of the next Jewish holiday, day off school or Shabbat coming up?
There’s also a strong Puritan work ethic in my head, even though that’s not my specific religious or ethnic background. It’s something like: “People who work hard are close to the Almighty. People who are close to the Almighty gain money, stature and professional accomplishments. Therefore, people who don’t gain money, stature or accomplishments are neither close to the Almighty, nor working hard.”
Of course, many of us hear that if we didn’t score the best job or earn the most, it’s our own fault.
On Tashlich, we thought about throwing away our metaphorical sins and aimed to do better in the new year. I reflected on how often negative and anxious thoughts race through my mind, and how I could try to reduce that. It’s perhaps a first step to making space for more positivity and calm. It seemed like a good place to start.
Yet, a month later, I catch myself thinking, “Hey, you’ve had a month! Where’s your newest freelance gig? What’s the new work opportunity you’ve landed?” Of course, if the last month was spent on school readiness and putting challah and holiday meals on the table, this could just be anxious, negative self-talk. There’s only so much a working parent can do.
When we consider big concepts like our finances or how the law works, we’re maybe not applying it to what’s going on personally. For instance, the recent federal campaign promise of $10 a day childcare seemed like a dream come true for many – but, in reality, it’s exactly like a dream that is out of reach the moment we wake up. For most people with children who need childcare, this plan, if it comes to fruition, won’t be realized before our families age out of needing that care.
All this was swirling in my head when I read my page of Talmud before bed. I’m currently learning Beitzah in my Daf Yomi (page of Talmud a day). Yes, this is a tractate entitled “Egg.” It’s all about what can and cannot be done on Jewish festivals (Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot) as compared to a regular working day or on Shabbat. Its first issue is, “May we eat an egg laid on a festival day? Why or why not?”
Let’s be honest, as a person who isn’t strict about these rules, studying Beitzah is sometimes an intellectual exercise. It allows me to reflect on what these concerns mean in a broader context. It’s more about how we make meaning out of holidays, the passage of time, and our struggles.
Enter page 21 of Beitzah, where Rav Avya the Elder asks Rav Huna a complicated question. “If a Jewish person owns an animal with a non-Jew, what’s the halachah with regard to slaughtering it on a festival?” This is an issue because one can designate an animal to be killed to celebrate and eat on a holiday. The trouble is how to administer it with a non-Jewish partner, how to decide what rules to follow.
Rav Huna responds, but Rav Avya asks him for clarification. Rav Huna says, no kidding, “Look, a raven flies in the sky.” HUH? Say what?
Later talmudic commentators try to explain his response. Was Rav Huna trying to change the subject? Was he offering a critique or dismissing this question?
Rav Huna’s son is taken aback, according Rabbi Elliot Goldberg, who wrote an introduction to this page online at My Jewish Learning. Rav Huna’s son pushes for an explanation. Rav Huna answers, “What should I have done for him? Today I am in a state best described by the verse: ‘Let me lean against the stout trunks, let me couch among the apple trees.’ (Song of Songs 2:5) And he asked me about something that requires reasoning.”
Rav Huna basically says, “Hey, I’m worn out and just need to hang out in the shade today, leave me alone!” Even the best talmudic minds, who normally love to wrestle with complicated questions, need downtime, to recuperate. We can learn from Rav Huna that, sometimes, we should give ourselves a break – even when it seems unproductive or rude.
The Gemara goes on to answer the question, it doesn’t leave us hanging. Yet, Rav Huna offers a reminder for those of us who beat ourselves up over being uber productive. It’s OK to cut ourselves some slack. Yes, we must balance our lives, abiding by laws, making a living, but also? We need to take a break at times.
It turns out that sitting outside in nature isn’t new-age, woo-woo self-care after all. We don’t have to be “on” all the time. If Rav Huna did it, approximately 1,750 years ago, we can, too. We can allow ourselves that moment to sit under a tree and recuperate. Here’s to wishing you time in the orchard when you need it!
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.