Rabbi Reflection: We Are Meant to Pause

By Rabbi Barbara Cohen / Congregation Ahavath Sholom

There was a great deal of Yiddish and Yiddishkeit in my childhood home. Both of my parents grew up in Yiddish-speaking homes where their fathers spoke more English than their mothers, having learned the language out of necessity to conduct business in the broader world. My two grandmothers hardly spoke English. My father’s mother, my revered Bubbie, died when I was ten and I hardly remember her speaking anything but Yiddish. My memories of her are more about her quiet dignity; her beautiful sweaters, coats, and “Bubbie blankets” that all of us cousins received and cherished; and her delicious potato latkes, filled with homemade savory chopped liver, that we all lined up for at the door to her microscopic kitchen in the small apartment around the corner from us that she and my “Zayzay” lived in.

Three families – my father and his family, his brother Abe and his family, and their sister Hennie and her family – all lived on the same street on post-war Long Island following a mass family migration from Brooklyn just before I was born. There were nine of us first cousins, three kids in each family. I never met my mother’s parents. My maternal grandmother, Rebecca, died when my mother was just 10 years old and her father, Frank, died the year I was born.

One of the myriad Yiddish wise sayings that were a regular part of many conversations in our family was to always try to remember to do something “un a mus,” with moderation. Spending, eating, or anything where excess was either unwarranted or unseemly was discouraged and usually went along with a hand motion that could also be read as ‘slow down’. And, because we all lived in such close proximity and had a family business in which all were involved, it was applied across the board to everyone. We all lived modestly, never wanting for anything, and everybody had the same level of income and lifestyle.

It wasn’t until I studied our Jewish tradition more deeply that I realized how pervasive this message of moderation is embedded in our Torah and beyond. Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth of Shevat, the new year of the trees, is not a Torah holiday. Its basis is, however, outlined in the Torah, in Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:23, regarding the fruit of trees planted in Israel.: “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden for you, not to be eaten.” Such a tree is called “orlah, from the meaning of ‘uncircumcised’. In the fourth year you are commanded to bring the fruit to the Temple for offering and then, in the fifth year, you may eat the fruit of these trees. Imagine waiting all that time to bite into that juicy fruit and then still having to give it away…

It is increasingly clear to me that the idea of restraint, of doing things “un a mus,” is a reason that 365 of the 613 mitzvot instruct us to NOT do something, far fewer than the 248 positive commandments. It is a reason to say 100 blessings each day: as we get out of bed, when we are about to eat or drink or be grateful, for any bodily function, we are meant to pause, to lift our consciousness to engage in what is happening in the moment, to be reminded by the mezuzot on our doorposts and the tzitzit that many wear inside of their clothing or on a tallit. To remind us not to be impulsive, to control our baser instincts, to appreciate the gift of awareness that makes us little less than divine and to humble us by also pointing out that we are but dust and ashes. And yet, we are told not to be overly controlled so that we enjoy nothing. Evolving our inner guidance by continually exploring where our boundaries are should be a lifelong journey. To walk the middle way, to appreciate that self-control is something that even the God of Israel, Moses, David, Solomon and so many others struggle with in our texts…to try to exercise appropriate restraint at all times, to not eat of forbidden fruits. We surely remember where that mistake leads…

So…Enjoy Tu B’Shevat, eat of delicious biblical fruits, have a truly joyful time, live each day of your life to the fullest…”un a mus”. See you on the way…

Rabbi Barbara Kipnis Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Great Barrington.

Image: Planting Trees” Vintage Israeli JNF Children Poster Israel circa 1960s