Tuesday, March 21, 2006

296. Play


On Purim I think finally understood that play, which comes so easily when we're young and seems to become more and more difficult as we get older, is like this midrash: Before we were born, we knew all the wisdom of Torah. But once we emerged into the world, God put a finger to our lips and instructed us to forget and keep it forever secret. (That's why we have a little indentation above our lips.) I think that children still remember bits of this amazing knowledge, which is why they're able to focus so fervently on joy in ways adults cannot. A friend of mine, in a beautiful d'var Torah on Parashat Terumah, noted that atop the tabernacle sat figures of two cherubs. And God's presence within the Holy of Holies was in just one place: that spot where each child's gaze met the other's. We're closest to God when we can remember what it was like to be a child, when we let others take us by the hand and we felt safe enough to focus all our energies on the wonder of the path ahead.

I cannot, when I chant, think about anything else but chanting. Sometimes I wish I could--I want to be calm, in control, not afraid that my breath will be whisked out of my chest. But I always end up surrendering to awe and stage fright, as if a strong wind could blow me over if I lost focus or let go of the anchoring yad for even a second. I leap into the first word with no choice but to trust my memory or, if that doesn't work, the rabbis standing on each side and the people all around, an embrace of ears and eyes who read along and want me to get it right. When, mid-leap, I do remember that I'm safe enough to take a chance and let my heart be open and naked, chanting really does become like play--so joyful I think I can still hear God whispering a secret or two.

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