The Crayons in My Box
Surprising tools for Jewish growth that most of us learned as children.
We all have crayons in our box -- transformative lessons learned early on that are tucked deep inside of our psyche and emerge into our consciousness when we need them. My most potent memory came in fourth grade.
I was told to come to school for class pictures with two objects which help define us. I selected my stuffed dog and a very large Star of David. I told my mother that I wanted everyone to know that I was Jewish, notwithstanding the stuffed dog as a mere prop. My earliest self-identify was that of my religion. My crayon box, the very container which held my tools, was my Jewish identity.
I could have never anticipated how that identity would comfort and mold me as an adult when I would face a terrible life crisis.
At 45 I found myself divorced, alone, left with three children to raise, no job, and no idea about my future. Yet, I was lucky. I have a great family, close friends, a good education and an unbelievable community. After a 13 year hiatus from the workforce, I was able to return to work as an attorney, and rely on an amazing support system when I moved, started working full time and needed to just vent or cry.
But my personal strength came from the crayons in that box. I realized later that not only did my parents give me an identity as a Jew, but that my whole childhood was filled with colorful Jewish tools. I believe these tools are universally present for all Jews, and can be accessed in times of need.
The first tool or crayon is that every Jewish holiday gives us a chance to start again; Groundhog Day comes more than once a year for Jews. In fact, we do not have to wait for Rosh Hashanah for a new start. Every Shabbat gives us a chance to reflect on the week, calm down, thank God for allowing us to take that break and begin then next week with hope. As a full time working mother, I have become grateful for Shabbat, a time with my children and my God. Both of those relationships are sustaining and nourishing. This week will be better. This week will be filled with unexpected surprises. This week I will make some difference. This week I am closer to reaching my goals, and further from yesterday’s madness and pain. This week I will laugh more, cry less and show some gratitude.
How can I doubt myself when I come from a heritage of a people who step up to the plate when necessary?
My second crayon came from the stories of the Bible. If you think you have it bad, you know you are not alone. Was it easy for Sarah to wait so long to have a child? How did Esther endure leaving Mordechai and going to the palace to live with an abusive, despicable man? Where did the Jews get the strength after years of slavery to walk into the desert? How can I doubt myself when I come from a heritage of a people who step up to the plate when necessary? Am I so different? Probably not.
My third crayon came from learning how to pray as a child. I grew up saying the Shema every night before bed. Even in college when I was not growing Jewishly, I said the Shema each night. Maybe it was just an engrained habit, reflexive and unconscious, but it was a positive one. I knew how to pray. Later, when life crashed down, I knew how to engage in a conversation with God because I had a lifetime of conversations, even if they were 30-second, rote conversations, to draw upon. Prayer is clarifying, meditative and humbling. The crayon was there since childhood, and all I needed to do is start coloring.
My fourth crayon came from the understanding that Rabbis and Rebbetzins are more than talking heads in front of a pulpit but are actually there for spiritual guidance and growth. I am so lucky to live in a town with amazing spiritual guides, who are present in my life with honesty and integrity. I found that spiritual guidance allowed me to remain calm and know that I had a safe, loving place to land when I needed support.
My final and most important crayon was the understanding that I was part and parcel of something much larger than myself. I knew I was a Jew and that meant something very special to me. I knew that I had obligations or mitzvahs to keep, and that I was part of a people who were given a very special book. I may not have understood anything else, but I felt special and wanted to share that identity with my classmates and anyone else who saw that picture.
No Jewish memory is ever too small or inconsequential for later development.
Now that I am emerging from my own life’s challenges, I want to share my crayons. For that person who is exhausted, please use my crayon and find a place to go for Shabbat or the next Jewish holiday. I promise it will give you strength and hope.
If you feel that you do not have the strength for another day, borrow another crayon and read about stories about Abraham and his ten tests, or Job or even King David. Remember, sometimes even ordinary people rise to challenges in extraordinary times.
If you still feel lost, trying praying. Personal prayer helps one understand that God runs the world and cares about our daily lives. One small prayer can open your heart and heal from the inside out.
For anyone feeling like it is too late and that for some reason, the only real Jewish memory is bagels and cream cheese on a Sunday morning or even a Passover Seder once a year with family, it is never too late to build on those memories. Do not judge the power of any Jewish foundation. Maybe those memories are not sustaining or substantial enough right now, but a start is a start.
Remember my last two crayons: looking to Rabbis and Rebbetzins for guidance, and knowing that you are part of something larger than yourself. I promise you that if you pull out those crayons and discover that special spiritual leader in your community, you will build and grow. Small, discrete marks can spring from chaos and develop a picture with more character and beauty than ever imagined before in your life. No Jewish memory is ever too small or inconsequential for later development.