Times of Need and Kneading: On Making Challah When Nothing Else Helps
I pinched off a small piece of the dough, wrapped it in aluminum foil, and cupped it in my hands. I closed my eyes and gave thanks for my blessings, my husband and my beautiful daughter, and asked God to watch over and protect them. I threw the parcel into the bottom of the hot oven and returned to the table to braid two challot for Shabbat. It was the first time I had ever made challah and the first peace I had felt all week.
After almost nine years as the pulpit rabbi of a small aging synagogue, I had moved to a new town with my family and taken a job as a hospital chaplain. That week I had been called to give comfort to a mother sitting alone at the side of her child's bed. After days of hoping and praying, our first world medicine lost the battle and I watched as a young vibrant life was stolen from this world. His death was devastating, to his family, to the doctors and nurses, and to me. I felt that mother's loss: each word, each tear, stayed with me. I felt the utter powerlessness of the doctors and nurses, and for the first time, I felt the terrible fragility of my own mortality.
A deeply buried illusion I didn't know I held was shattered: having money in the bank, access to good medicine, and living healthfully, did not guarantee my happily ever after. I felt the precariousness of my joy. I was late to find my beshert and even later to find the daughter I yearned for. I have always held them both in my hearts as blessings and miracles. As they slept that night I found myself awake and terrified. Nothing I did that week helped distract me, not exercise, not talking, not even deep cleaning the house. And then Friday arrived. I took it into my head to bake challah. I went online to research the Jewish mitzvah of "taking challah," the generations old tradition of my grandmothers to take a small portion of dough and burn it in remembrance of the burnt offerings our ancestors made at the Temple. The prayer text I found to accompany this ritual spoke to me: May this act inspire me to keep Shabbat and imbue our family with holiness. May God watch over my family. As I fulfill this mitzvah will all my heart, may God keep me from pain and sorrow.
I don't believe in magical prayer. My theology does not include a deity that chooses some to suffer and others to prosper. I do believe in the practiced mindfulness of prayer and ritual. I do believe we can invoke God to help us imbue our lives with holiness. I felt at peace as I kneaded and braided the challah. When I prayed, I felt the reassuring weight of all the Jewish mothers who have done the same for generations. My prayer was my own: my hope, my fear, my words. Yet the act of making challah was one of community, of pain and blessing shared across time and space.
Blessed are you God who allows us with small acts of mindfulness to appreciate the beauty in our lives. Help us find strength in those who came before us. Protect those we love and allow us to imbue our lives with holiness.