What’s in a Name: My Favorite Torah Portion

  

My middle name is Miriam. I am named after Mark, my mother’s brother who was killed at the young age of 39. My name is a remembrance of him just as my daughter’s name is a reminder of my two Grandmothers, Helen and Rose. Names have great meaning and what someone is named at birth doesn’t necessarily determine who they are, but it does hold potential.

One of this month’s Torah portions just happens to be called “Chukat,” meaning “decree.” It is one of my favorite portions because it is about the death of Miriam (Moses’s sister) and how the death of a single woman affects an entire people and their future.

When Miriam dies, water becomes scarce. Moses cannot deal with his sister’s death and sees the people of Israel angered at him and Aaron for bringing them to a barren land. God commands Moses to speak to a rock and ask for water. Saddened by the death of his sister and vexed at his people for their lack of grief, Moses makes a mistake. Instead of speaking to the stone he strikes it. It is an act that does not go unnoticed. Because of this err on Moses’ part, God refuses to let him lead the Jews into the Promised Land. The death of Miriam means the death of water, purity and a loss of control for a great prophet. Even Moses fears death or is stifled by it. Then, before this Torah portion comes to a close, Aaron dies as well.

The name Miriam in Hebrew means rebellious—fitting that I should be named after my Uncle Mark, who was the rebel in our family history just as I am. Some of my family members will tell you I am still the rebellious one living with and loving a man from Mexico who was born Catholic, raising our child in an interfaith household. But water followed Miriam everywhere. It followed her through the desert during her people’s hardest times. I have chosen to live my life as she lived hers—with a magical well that never runs dry with room enough for different faiths, cultures and beliefs.

What’s funny is that the man I chose to spend my life with is named Adrian and his name is from the Latin root meaning “sea” or “water.” My middle name and his first name flow like rivers next to each other, intertwining like our two faiths.

Helen, our almost 2-year-old has a name derived from the Greeks. Who hasn’t heard of Helen of Troy? Her name in Greek means “Shining Light” or “The Bright One.” This seems appropriate, that two bodies of water can create a spark, something beautiful and different that never fades.

I like the “Chukat” Torah portion because it is not about Judaism specifically; it is about doubt and faith. The Israelites doubt Moses and Aaron and so God is angered. Moses is grieving and loses control, because of this he suffers and dies without being permitted to enter into the Holy Land. It is a lesson not only for Jews but for anyone because it is about having faith in your own journey. The Israelites lose faith because the water disappears after Miriam’s death. Moses loses faith in his people. God is angered most by Moses’ loss of control. On so long a journey Moses does not trust and strikes the very rock that was to give him and his people sustenance. But I see that rock as a symbol of Miriam. Although she is gone, perhaps her spirit is in that rock, but Moses is too blind to see it. For this, he is punished.

Often it is a challenge to navigate an interfaith household. During certain times of the year it seems as though we have a different holiday every month. Traditions are hard to keep up, or are tweaked so that they can fit both religions and both cultures. Our budget for gifts on holidays has to stretch so that Santa Claus, the Three Kings and a menorah can all fit in the living room. But we try never to strike the stone, to curse the place where the water will naturally flow if given time and care.

That’s what God’s decree is in the “Chukat” portion. He desires that we keep going even when the world seems to rise up against us and deem us rebellious. He asks us to speak to the stone, not strike it so that we may learn from the world how cool water can follow us through the desert when we feel we are making a new, different and enlightening journey toward faith.

How To Do a Mitzvah

  
Helen at the bakery

Helen in front of the neighborhood bakery

In the local stores in my neighborhood it seems that everyone is pushing everyone else aside. People don’t say “excuse me” anymore. In the kosher bakery I get hit in the eye with a challah bread when one woman reaches past me, past Adrian and over Helen’s stroller. She really socks me one with the golden dough. Then she doesn’t say, “I’m sorry” or even acknowledge my family’s existence. At least the challah was fresh and warm so it was a soft blow to my right eye, and anyway it smelled good.

We try the Mexican bakery next for Adrian. He loves a traditional “concha.” A concha is a type of bread shaped like a roll covered in chocolate, vanilla or strawberry sugar and traditionally it is eaten in the morning. It looks a little bit like a shell from the beach and that’s what concha means in Spanish: “Shell.” We have this routine. On Friday mornings before Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts we hit the bakeries. Everyone else in our neighborhood has the same idea. Friday mornings can be overwhelming.

At the Mexican bakery we grab a tray and tongs and pick the bread we like. On the way over to the counter a woman cuts in front of me slamming her tray down on the counter and demanding a bigger plastic bag for her bread. I take a step back. I’ve been hit with enough dough for one day.

On our walk home a cyclist (riding on the sidewalk) nearly runs us all down and yells “Watch it!” No one holds the door for the stroller in our building and when I say, “Hi Frank!” to my super, her grunts, curses, spits and stomps up the stairs murmuring, “Everybody wants somethin’ from me all the time…”

I feel defeated. Why is everyone so rude? I have this thought while stress eating in my kitchen standing up. Helen goes to her crib to take a nap and I decide to look for some spiritual inspiration. I put away my bag of popcorn and salted caramel ice cream.

I Google the word “mitzvah.” In the Yeshiva I attended as a girl the teachers taught us that the word “mitzvah” means “a good deed.” The plural in Hebrew is “mitzvot,” for many good deeds. But, as I search deeper into the meaning I come to find out that “mitzvah” actually translates as “commandment.” So in the Jewish religion it is commanded by God that we complete the task of doing good deeds every day.

Helen waits

Helen waiting in front of the bakery

This is interesting. What have I been teaching Helen about good deeds?

What have I been teaching her about commandments? It’s easy to point a finger. Friday at the two bakeries it was so simple for me to become the victim. But, what did I do to help the people around me? Did I do any mitzvot on Friday? What about the rest of the week? What did I do to help anyone besides myself?

I know that’s a pretty harsh self-judgement. But I wasn’t blaming myself. I was merely trying to dig deeper into the similarities of my two-faith household. I understand that a mitzvah is a commandment. In Catholicism there is the belief in “good works.” This is the same concept. It sounds simple because these teachings from both religions don’t involve complicated holidays, recipes or traditions. These ideas and beliefs arise during the everyday. Maybe that is what makes them go unannounced and unnoticed. Maybe that’s also why they are harder to commit to.

This is a situation in which Adrian and I believe the same thing. Nothing is complicated about doing good deeds out in the world. But how do we teach each other and how do we teach our daughter about the power of mitzvot?

I think that everything begins at home and so I start to think about our apartment building. We live on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment built in 1927. The stairs aren’t just tough to climb, they’re made of marble. But in my own building my neighbors have done the deed of a mitzvah many times for me. There have been so many nights that Adrian has been at work and Helen and I have to go to the store to bring bags of groceries back. The boy who lives on the first floor always carries the stroller up the stairs for me if he’s around. The super’s son has carried Helen for me. There is a woman named Veronica who lives on the second floor and she’s carried four bags from Whole Foods filled with canned goods up to my apartment. Once, a young girl from the other side of the building (our building has two sides) saw me and helped me. She was 11 years old!

The mitzvah starts at home. The commandment begins in the hallway of our building and spreads far out into the community. A good deed speaks many languages, follows many cultures and faiths. This Friday at the bakery I’m going to hold the door for someone because maybe I wasn’t looking behind me the last time. Maybe I slammed the door in someone’s face instead of holding it. Maybe the woman who smacked me with a challah bread had plenty of reason to do so. It was like God was saying “Wake up! You’ve got a lot of mitzvot to do!”

Now What?

  

Quinn at PassoverYou just spent several hours or days in the hospital giving birth to your child or, in our case, several months going through your whirlwind adoption. But the moment you have long awaited is here: You are finally home. You left the house as two, but returned with three. For those of us as first time parents, the panic and paranoia is just setting in. As you slowly learn how to care for the newest member of your family, you begin to contemplate the next stages of life. How will we raise them? Jewish? Catholic? Both? Neither?

Or maybe you’ve already contemplated these questions. Kimberly and I had this discussion long before that first moment of staring into our baby daughter’s big brown eyes. We thought it was important to talk openly about these topics early in our marriage. Too many people wait until game time to have the discussion and make decisions which can lead to poor decision making and being short sighted. Our wedding day was not about different religious upbringings, but was a celebration of love that including a “wink” to religious heritage. We were not married by a rabbi or priest. In fact, one of my best friends in the world got ordained and performed the ceremony that we wrote. It was special to have someone who truly knew and loved us both bring our marriage to fruition. At the end I stepped on the covered glass while everyone shouted, “Mazel Tov!”

So much like our marriage, we wanted our daughter to have some religious structure and affiliation in her life, but not necessarily be the driving factor that determined her day-to-day activities. We wanted to make sure our home was a healthy balance between knowing where you came from (even more important with adoption) and having different faiths represented.

One of the first religious rituals we experienced as parents was the naming ceremony of our daughter while observing a long standing tradition of choosing names that begin with the letter of a loved one no longer with us. Quinn’s Hebrew name is Pelia Davi (meaning beautiful gift). The “P” is for my grandmother, Paula, and the “D” is for Kimberly’s grandmother, Dominica—a blend of the old world and the new by bringing two different backgrounds together in the name of loving and caring for the next generation.

Since we were coming from different backgrounds and experiencing life with a Reform religious involvement, we wanted a celebration that similarly mirrored our life: one that was about the love for our new child with a nod to the Jewish heritage she would now be entering. The gathering was intentionally small and consisted of our parents, siblings and our twin niece and nephew. It was important to give Quinn a Hebrew name to follow tradition, honor loved ones and give her a Jewish identity when she is called to the bimah. While this was Quinn’s introduction into her newly minted life as a Maccabee, it was our first introduction as a family into a religious celebration that will set the tone for years to come.

Long ago, we decided that Quinn would be raised Jewish, but we would also continue to observe all holidays from our religious backgrounds. She will go to temple and eventually go on to become a bat mitzvah. When she is old enough she can decide for herself if we put her on the right path and will have the opportunity to choose otherwise.

My wife Kimberly didn’t stop being Catholic the day we got married or the day our daughter was born. That part of her life will never leave her whether she ever steps foot in a church again. She has so many fond memories of her childhood that centered around Catholic celebrations that we cannot ignore (nor should we ignore) them. Those experiences helped shape the person she is today and I wouldn’t change that for anything. She has happily chosen to raise our daughter as Jewish as we forge a new path for our family that represents a true blend. We want to provide a warm and loving home that celebrates her parents’ individuality. But those differences are what brings us together and keeps us together.

These decisions and discussions came relatively easy to us. We have an open, honest and loving relationship that allows us to tackle what seems like, at times, daunting tasks. If you are starting your marriage or just entering parenthood, this is an opportunity, not a roadblock. Talk to your spouse about what is important to you and keep an open mind. Be prepared to compromise and show empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if they said it was their way or nothing? That open dialogue will serve you well—not just today but throughout the rest of your marriage. Our daughter is a precious gift and we want to give her the gift of love in return. Our love for each other and for our daughter will always preside over any religious celebration.