Late last year, my friend, fellow writer and all-around kind and lovely woman, Nina Sackheim Badzin, posted on Facebook that a few openings remained in the challah-making sessions she was holding in her home. I signed up, was welcomed as a participant and considered the mid-December date perfect: my adult children would come home to Christmas and lots of delicious homemade challah. When we had to re-schedule the baking session to February, I wondered what I would do with all that bread.
That re-schedule was only one of the many blessings I was to receive in learning to make challah. One loaf remains in my freezer, but other loaves travelled near (my nephew’s apartment in St. Paul) and far (my mom’s retirement village in New York) to perform their own, as I have come to see it, mitzvot.
I didn’t just make bread that morning at Nina’s. None of us did. And while it turns out I was the only Gentile ever to attend Nina’s challah-making class, I learned what a mitzvah is (plural, “mitzvot”) and received several of my own.
A mitzvah is simply a commandment, one of 613 commandments given in the Torah which describe moral deeds performed as religious duties. 365 are “negative:” e.g., “Not to wrong the stranger in speech;” “Not to favor a great man when trying a case.” (Don’t you love that one?) 248 are “positive:” e.g., “To love the stranger,” (this, under “Treatment of Gentiles”); “To leave the unreaped corner of the field or orchard for the poor.” For a fascinating read, find all of the mitzvot on a site called Judaisim 101: A List of the 613 Mitzvot.
They are a complicated bunch, these mitzvot, described as “not simply good deeds,” and yet also as acts of human kindness.
While we were making the challah that morning, the women in our group performed the specific mitzvah associated with challah-making. From “What is Challah?”:
The halachic [religiously legal] definition of challah is a reference to Positive Mitzvah #133. It entails separating a section of dough from your kneading and giving it to a kohen [priest]. This piece of dough is called “challah.” Any dough which is made of wheat, barley, spelt, oat or rye is obligated in this mitzvah. The kohen and his family would eat the challah while in a state of ritual purity. The rabbis decided that a home baker should give 1/24th of the dough to the kohen, while a commercial baker has to donate 1/48th of his dough.
On the morning of our class, each of us separated an egg-shaped piece of dough from our mixing bowls, wrapped it in foil and burned it in offering. While we did so, we were encouraged to offer up prayer: prayers of our own, and prayers for the community. In a particularly beautiful tradition, prayers offered with the challah mitzvah may be devoted to women who are having difficulty becoming pregnant. We all sent up our prayers. I’m hoping somebody got good news.
It seems my prayer, the one I made for me and mine, was not answered. Ot at least not answered in the way I’d hoped.
One of the few voices from my own faith tradition in which I continue to take pride and comfort is that of Sister Joan Chittister. In a recent post about Lent, Sister Chittister says the following:
Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of that season of the church year that is most commonly associated with penance. But there is a danger lurking in that definition. If penance is all that Lent is about, the season, if not almost useless, is at least somewhat trivial. It makes the spiritual life some kind of arithmetical balancing act. I do so many penances for so much human misadventure and payback time is over. The important thing is that I remember to come out even.
A better way to look at Lent, she says, is to “Begin Again Always:”
Lent is a call to weep for what we could have been and are not. Lent is the grace to grieve for what we should have done and did not. Lent is the opportunity to change what we ought to change but have not. Lent is not about penance. Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now.
I think from now on I’m going to merge Lent and mitzvot. Make Lent a season of challah-baking, of offering up prayers for women who want to have babies. Of offering up prayers, perhaps, not only for the miracle of conception, but of safe delivery of a child into this wonderful world, this vale-of-tears world.
I will pray that mothers will have the strength, the endurance, the bottomless love needed long past a child’s conception. I will pray that mothers will pray, daily, for their children’s well-being.
And I will pray that they will understand when their prayers are not, or so it may seem, answered.
Positive and negative blessings. What could be, and is not.
A complicated concept, these mitzvot. A complicated season, this Lent.