Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Friday, November 16, 2007

It seems like just yesterday...

was my 30th birthday, and here it is my 31st today. I am very grateful that the past year has been a good one -- no major events, but steady progress at work and other areas of my life. I was recently having a conversation with someone about cooking and baking, and I was realizing that I've learned to make several new dishes in the last year and am becoming generally more comfortable in the kitchen. I wasn't bad before, but I am feeling less like a novice, which is nice.

I also came to the realization a few months ago that, whereas I used to get nervous every time I got behind the wheel of my car, now -- except when I am over-tired or under pressure -- driving is not something I have to think about; I just do it and it comes naturally.

Someone, probably my rabbi, once said that the way to live life is to spend our whole lives "growing up." That is to say, like kids, we should approach life with a sense of wonder and an excitement to learn new things and get better at the things we already know how to do. It's also about continuing to discover who we are and who we want to be. I hope I never stop growing up.

American culture values youth to the point of obsession, and approaches the idea of getting older with a sort of dread. The older we are, the less useful and interesting we are supposed to be.

Of course, anyone of substance will tell you that the exact opposite is true. The older we are, the more fascinating and multi-faceted we become. If we do things right (and if we learn from doing things wrong), we get better with age.

30 was a big milestone for me, but so far 31 is somewhat easier. It also helps that 30 was really a good year. Yesterday, I went to my ballet class, as I always do on Thursdays, and realized that last year, when my birthday was on a Thursday, I had done the same. So, I spent the first and last days of the year that I was 30 in ballet class. Not too bad.

Here's to the adventures of the year ahead!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Taking stock

Hello, faithful readers. Here is my latest column from The Jewish Chronicle.

The relative worth of things

It seems incredible that it was just a couple of weeks ago that wildfires were raging in Southern California. Judging from the lack of media coverage of their aftermath, the fires might as well have been months ago. Our nation has moved past the tragedy and onto other distractions.
But for the people who lost their homes and possessions, these two weeks are just the beginning of an ordeal that may last for years as they rebuild their lives.

Whenever natural disasters strike – from floods to earthquakes to hurricanes – and we witness wrenching scenes of people returning to destroyed homes, I am forced to consider how I would react to such a situation.

While intellectually I know that material possessions are worthless in the grand scheme of things, I must confess that I am rather attached to mine. I would be devastated to suddenly lose my home and furnishings, not to mention a host of personal items to which I am emotionally attached.

I have conflicted feelings about this. On one hand, I feel a little bit shallow to admit that my possessions mean so much to me. After all, Jewish tradition is full of admonitions not to be overly concerned with acquiring material wealth.

For example, Pirke Avot 2:8 quotes the sage Hillel in laying out the consequences of having too many physical belongings. According to Hillel, “The more flesh, the more worms; the more possessions, the more worry.” The message of the Mishna is that physical amenities are not only fleeting, but also come with unpleasant complications.

On the other hand, Judaism does recognize the importance of having the basic necessities in life, which include suitable shelter and clothes. Halacha requires us to provide these things for those in need, and even recognizes that people who are accustomed to a wealthy lifestyle suffer the losses of their possessions with particular pain. Because of this, the Talmud instructs us to help those who have lost money and possessions to regain their former comforts.

In this day and age, most of us live with comforts that our ancient sages could not have even imagined. Even those of us who live modestly are wealthy by the standards of much of the rest of the world. While we are fortunate to be in this situation, we are also at risk of losing sight of the proper place of our possessions.

There are some cultures and religions that eschew all possessions, but Judaism takes a more balanced view. In our tradition, most belongings are neither good nor bad, but are judged upon how they are used, or the effect that they have upon a person. A person can use wealth solely for his own comforts or share it with others, and help those in need.

Similarly, houses can be monuments of materialism or conduits for welcoming others.

But a house is more than just another possession.

A person’s home is a sanctuary from the world and the weather and a place in which to express oneself freely and fully.

We can all imagine the agony of losing a home because we enjoy the privileges of privacy and comfort that come from having a safe home.

While the trappings of a home, and its glamorous dimensions, may indeed have little intrinsic value, the idea of a home is truly priceless, and that is why its loss is so devastating.