Saturday, April 29, 2006

314. Love

I yearn each week for Shabbat services not only because they afford a few hours away from daily stresses in which to join in silence and music with necessary, loving mystery, but also because they're a little boring. Ritual, for me, is a cushion to the surprise of life. I sit in the same pew each week, pray the same psalms, listen and marvel at consistently brilliant divrei Torah and B'nai Mitzvah speeches. They're always different in subject matter, but I know with complete assurance that I'll leave the sanctuary smarter than when I arrived.

But sometimes, like in a movie, one sound cuts through the usual background music. Time seems to stop. I had such a moment this morning when the rabbi offered his commentary on Tazria-Metzora, this week's Torah portion. It is, he noted, "no Noah's Ark;" skin diseases, blood, and laws of impurity don't make the most engaging story. Today was also Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the new month and traditional commemoration of the cycles of women, who are rendered ritually impure because of the discharge of blood. Next week we'll also celebrate the holiday of Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.

The rabbi suggested a link between these three events, the weekly Torah portion, the new moon, and the continued existence of a Jewish state, itself a miracle of Biblical proportions. The link is love. And our challenge, in light of this awareness: grow up.

We love in three different ways, he suggested. To our children we give unconditional love, absolutely present no matter their actions. Many Jews have this kind of love for Israel, unwavering and impervious to criticism. Then there's conditional love: violated or betrayed, we withdraw, just as blood, discharge or disease banished the Israelites from their own community,

The third kind of love, said the rabbi, is mature love, love with compassion, which recognizes and accepts flaws and also supports the difficult and generally messy process of change. This part of the d'var Torah is where the music stopped for me, as if the usual ritual of listening and learning suddenly turned into a jewel reflecting the dusty sunlight that streamed in through tall church windows and blinded me to the usual order. Everyone in the congregation sat up a little straighter, opened our eyes wider. This kind of love, continued the rabbi, rejects rhetoric and understands that growth, like the waxing and waning of the moon, is a necessary part of life. This is the love we need to show Israel, and each other.

I sat there afterwards in the glow of his words thinking of how many tragedies and travesties could be healed with this kind of love--and also about my own paranoia, and how I need to develop a little more compassion for myself and trust that others, in fact, already respond to me in this way.


Omer: There are 32 days left of the Omer, which I keep forgetting to count. So, to impose a little discipline on myself, I'm going to write a line or two each night about the coming day's focus. This evening began the 17th day, which in the mystical tradition is Tiferet of Tiferet, the step of compassion in compassion. As Rabbi Simon Jacobson explains:

True compassion is limitless... Compassion for another is achieved by having a selfless attitude, rising above yourself and placing yourself in the other person's situation and experience.

His suggested exercise: Express your compassion in a new way that goes beyond your previous limitations. Which happens to be easy, this particular day, for myself as well as a few thousand other Jews who will get on buses and head to Washington, DC, in a few hours. (Yikes. I should go to sleep, since it's really much later than 11:59PM.) I hope we can raise our voices with conviction and kavannah, spiritual intention, and never forget that we really once were in their same situation.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

313. Drum

I sometimes have a bad habit of confusing being human--and therefore being, by nature, not perfect--with being a failure. The experience of leading services, I'm beginning to realize, has forced me to be so honest with myself that much of what's usually behind all kinds of armor is now bubbling to the surface. In no other area of my life am I such a stew of insecurity, and I'm starting to sound a little dull and curmudgeonly as a result.

So I spent some time over the past few days reminding myself what was so much fun about last Friday. We sing Psalm 96--Shiru Ladonai, "Sing to God, all the earth, a new song!"--early in the Kabbalat Shabbat service, racing into its opening lines like we're riding down a big hill in the wind, unable to stop and loving the tenuous, exhilarating bit of control that keeps us from crashing. Psalm 96 always seems like a pivot point, the moment when the rest of the week begins to recede and the joy of Shabbat becomes inevitable.

The rabbi and I began the psalm together. I tried to figure out what he wanted to do; the custom at my synagogue is for service leaders to alternate verses while the rest of the congregation sings along. Usually one person will pull back from the microphone to make it clear that the other is to take the lead, and so I got a little louder when he stopped singing at the second verse. At verse three I moved away from the mic, but he didn't jump in. So, in the one second during which this judgment call had to be made, I guessed that he wanted me to keep on singing. He began to drum, looking right at the other drummer to my left so they could synch and intertwine rhythms. The tempi got faster, the instruments louder.

(To be continued.)

Monday, April 24, 2006

312. Traditional living

A couple of ridiculously tall luxury condos are going up a few blocks from my apartment. (My neighborhood is rapidly turning into a place I can't afford.) On the scaffolding in front is an enormous sign:


I had to stop in in the middle of the sidewalk for awhile to ponder this one. Aside from the fact that it makes no sense--if it's traditional, by definition, then it MUST be like before--that word posed greater problems:

Whose tradition? "Traditional," on the Upper West Side, usually signifies "Orthodox, many kids." But I somehow doubt this is the building's target market. The small print on the sign reads, "2- to 5-bedroom residences starting at $1.5M." So apartment sizes are just right. But price? I can think of some choice Yiddish words, none of which mean "traditional."

What tradition? Let's assume that families, rather than single people, would be most likely to buy a multi-million dollar, 5-bedroom apartment. Do I know any of these people? A few, but they've all decamped from Manhattan to suburban homes with big, safe back yards that don't open out onto Broadway. I do know of many single parents and single-sex couples with children who plan to stay here in the city. Is that what they mean by "traditional"?

Maybe "traditional" indicates really big rooms with fireplaces. I'm all for that. And the "like never before" part refers to the need to belong to an exclusive community of hedge-fund managers, partners in law firms, or media moguls before you can have the privilege of moving down the block from my favorite diner. On the bright side, maybe some of them will join my synagogue and give us lots of money.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

311. Cry out

In this week's Torah portion, Shemini, Aaron's sons Nadav and Abihu give an offering of "strange fire" to God, Who didn't ask for and doesn't particularly want it. So, as their father sits in silence, God kills Nadav and Abihu. Why doesn't Aaron protest, or even cry? Volumes have been written on the topic; maybe he was mute in awe, or in acquiescence of punishment for his role in the Golden Calf affair. What we do know, said the rabbi yesterday morning at services, is that silence can be good--a way of expressing honor, deference, glory--but also a way to hide, an act of cowardice. This, he suggested, is the silence of the American people and government with respect to the atrocities in Darfur. Jews in particular, on this eve of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, have no excuse for keeping quiet about what's going on.

I'm not very political, about which I'm not proud. My opinions are sometimes the knee-jerk, self-serving responses borne of a long line of New York, liberal ancestry. So I'm glad the rabbis at my synagogue shamed me into action; I would not be going to the rally in Washington, DC next Sunday if they hadn't made me feel guilty, rightfully so, in their comments from the bimah week after week. Lack of response to this abomination has nothing to do with political or religious affiliation--no moral ambiguity here about which side is right and which wrong--and everything to do with laziness and xenophobia. But our own freedom and family members are not affected, we might counter. And this country has so many other problems; why bother with someone else's? Because we, 6 million of us, were once in those same shoes.

I long ago lost faith that my government listens to anything I say; making the decision to go to this rally was not easy. But if I give up, if I stop trying to speak, I am surrendering my rights as an American. Maybe I haven't been loud enough. Maybe this time will be different. I thought about silence, and how I need to express my own music in order to stay alive as a spiritual being. The 400,000 murdered in Darfur have no voice. It is our responsibility to cry out in their behalf, and do everything possible to prevent history from repeating itself.

I wish the media would be as concerned with Darfur as with who's winning on "American Idol." I wish more people and organizations would be as committed to helping as the synagogues of the Upper West Side, who have banded together across denominations to send a dozen busloads of people to DC. More information can be found here about how to get to Washington on Sunday, April 30 for the rally.

If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when?--Hillel, Pirkei Avot

Saturday, April 22, 2006

310. Confused

(Interrupting myself.)

I helped lead services again last night, for--I can scarcely believe it--the 15th time. ("Three more to chai!" observed a friend.) For the first time since my vocal cords gave up last Rosh Hashonah and I was so grateful for his voice, I was privileged to be up front with the drumming, singing rabbi. I sat between him and another drummer, like a stethoscope to the heartbeat of God.

In some ways I'm more confident than ever before. I make no tentative sounds, even when the pitch is too high (this rabbi is a tenor) and I fear being confused with a squeaking mouse. My heart is naked in front of hundreds of people. At times I lose myself, floating in music, and have to remember to stay anchored by at least one small thread or I'll forget to turn the page. These days I'm less aware of the support of the congregation, maybe because I'm strong enough to let go of their hands and fly.

But in other ways I'm a tentative, trembling mass of insecurity that seems to get bigger over time, like the massive ball of rubber bands on the desk of a bored colleague. What right do I have to be at the bimah? What do I know, compared to the brilliant rabbi and world-class musicians whose space I share? How can I possibly deserve the honor? And why, after a year and a half of being entrusted with this task, do I still need to ask these questions? But I wonder if my friends are humoring me when they say I sound good, and hate myself for doubting their sincerity, needing anyone's praise, or imagining that my particular issues are at all important to the larger scheme of things. If I make a mistake--pause, squeak, sing too loud and think I've overstepped some unnamed bound--I fear I will be unmasked. I'm not even sure what costume I wear, or when I first put it on. Perhaps I'm really myself up there and--a scarier prospect--the rest of what I do is pretense.

Either way, I'm extraordinarily happy and very confused. It reminds me of the times I've fallen in love, and the paralyzing fear that faith in so much goodness will lead to heartbreak. The only answer then, as now, is to remain vulnerable, because the goodness might retreat in face of a closed door.

Friday, April 21, 2006

309. Junior Congregation, part 1

A few Shabbatot ago I did some last-minute chanting at Jr. Congregation. (I was a couple of decades too old, but they ran out of teenagers. I hadn't been to Jr. Congregation since I was 12. I felt like pounding my chest and saying an "Al chet"--oy, please forgive me for sitting in the back row and giggling every week for all those years, and for making fun of the guy with no thumbs.)

If all services when I was a kid were like this one, I would have paid attention. The week's parasha, Vayikra, was about sacrifices at the tabernacle. The rabbi enlisted one of the fathers in attendance to act as High Priest, and he stood up front with arms raised and fingers in the Mr. Spock position. All the children were invited to come up to the bimah and announce what precious items they might choose to sacrifice (many Game Boys and at least one picture of a pony).

Then it was my turn.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

308. Playing hooky

Why was this Wednesday different from all other Wednesdays? I didn't wake up at 5:30AM to go to a business networking breakfast. (Yes, I'm nuts.) It was also the seventh day of Passover, featuring services that included everything and the kitchen sink, and I didn't go.

I needed a day off. I can never get enough of this stuff, and Hallel, in particular, but all those Hol Hamoed mornings of reading Torah were starting to feel, dare I say, repetitive. There hadn't been enough time between the mundane and the praying parts of my life. It's good that Shabbat comes only once every seven days; we need build-up, yearning and expectation, to appreciate the gift. The music, the safety of a room filled with people on my wavelength--I love it so much that occasionally it feels like an addiction, an excuse to avoid other, less pleasant responsibilities. It's an issue of focus, not degrees of observance: when to get lost in prayer, when to stay grounded and see God that way, instead?

Sometimes I hate that I thrive on routine. I'm an artist; I'm supposed to need spontaneity. Maybe ritual hones my creative lens, instead, and all those consecutive days of reading Torah were starting to dull its metaphoric edge.

Late Wednesday afternoon I found myself in the middle of Times Square, long, boring story. I leaned against a building and, like a curious alien on my own doorstep, observed a million people rush by. I didn't feel guilty, which made me feel a little guilty. I knew I made the right decision by sleeping until ten, being slow and lazy and enjoying freedom just like my desert ancestors. But I also understood that my other home waited patiently whenever my head was clear, doors to the sanctuary opened like the start of an embrace.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

307. Anniversary

Yesterday morning four years ago, the fourth day of Hol Hamoed Pesah (the intermediate days of Passover, between the first and second, and seventh and eighth, "holy days"), was the second time I chanted Torah. (The first was that preceding Sunday.) Yesterday morning, this past Tuesday, along with the friend who convinced me to do it in the first place, we both read the same portions as in 2002. It was a pretty low-key anniversary and didn't feel much different from my reading of that aliyah, plus one or two others, last Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Monday. (On Monday we had unusual trouble gathering a minyan and had to enlist an early-morning synagogue security guard, who did not seem at all pleased even when we gave him the honor of holding and lifting the Torah. I don't blame him; it's not like he was invited because we wanted his specific presence. Any tenth Jewish adult would have done.)

I can now recite the Maftir aliyah in my sleep, and feel like I own it. And I hope and pray that the letters on the scroll will, for my next fifty or so anniversaries of reading this aliyah, continue to look as old and familiar as they did this week.

Monday, April 17, 2006

306. Angry and amazed

So in the spirit of partnership, with people I know in person and others through words on a screen, this seems like a good time to ask all of you to keep my sister-in-law, whose Hebrew name is Esther bat Fayge, in your thoughts and prayers. She's just beginning a long, grueling course of chemotherapy and radiation. I'm both angry and amazed at a God Who allows us to be fine one moment, have a headache the next, and a malignant brain tumor the third. The sensible part of me wonders why I can believe, in face of such ridiculousness; the rest of me, most of me, sees it as evidence of something much bigger than I'll ever understand, and so worthy of honor.

I can't comprehend the reason for and magnificence of trees and music; I give the name of that awed bewilderment "God." I'm equally confused and humbled by suffering, so shouldn't this also be my proof of God? And it is. But I wonder how I'd feel if it was me doing the suffering. I don't know, and hope I never will.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

305. Together

At the second seder we begin to count the Omer, the 49 days between Passover, when we're freed and begin our journey, and Shavuot, when we reach the journey's end and receive Torah. (Omer, in ancient days, was a measure of grain, and Shavuot a harvest holiday.) In the mystical tradition,

"...the spectrum of human experience divides into seven emotions and qualities, known in plural as sefirot. Each of these seven qualities, in turn, subdivides into seven, making a total of forty-nine." (From an excellent guide to counting the Omer, excerpted here.)

So imagine a chart with seven weeks (and attributes) on top and seven days (and those same attributes) along the side; where the columns meet are each day's combination. Today, for example, is the intersection of week one, hesed (lovingkindness, benevolence), and day three, tiferet (harmony). Today we should concentrate on how to be empathetic and compassionate in our love. Seven weeks of working on ourselves in this way will, we hope, make us worthy of receiving the Torah. (I try and remember to say the short prayer each night. In the past, I've mostly forgotten. Am hoping this year will be different.)

At services Friday night, one of the student rabbis told us about a new tradition at her seder: filling Elijah's cup with wine from the cups of each guest, and so envisioning redemption as a partnership. (He and the Messiah, according to tradition, will one day stay a lot longer than the time it takes to sip from a cup of wine). I was again struck by how so much of Judaism is about needing each other, and God needing us--an endless, nourishing circle. The acquisition of knowledge, love, compassion, and everything else for which we count the Omer is a pointless exercise if we don't apply and pass it on. Becoming rich or learned, or even religious, for its own sake, for the pride of accomplishment alone, is not a Jewish value. There can be deep and meaningful Jewish life without faith; many of us are sustained more by inquisitive and hungry doubt than comforting belief. But we would die without community.

Community, unfortunately, has been trumped in the American value scale by individuality, of which I also happen to be the universe's biggest fan and practitioner. There's room for both; joining with others does not signal weakness or lack of personal creativity. Many New Yorkers believe it does. One of our rabbis calls the idea of community, particularly at our synagogue, "countercultural;" so much of organized religion, any religion, in this country has been about following rules, fitting in, gaining status, or being scolded rather than combining souls and strengths to help the world.

I get very frustrated when I think about this, and friends of mine who choose not to reach out in any context, religious or otherwise. I try to help, but face a closed door. Maybe counting the Omer this year will teach me how to understand, and be a better friend.

Friday, April 14, 2006

304. Stay close

Last year, right after the second seder, I did nothing but pray. I've never prayed so hard in my life. I have no way of knowing if God listened at that moment or had been listening all along and had already written me into that big Book, but do know that I'm still very much here. Everything else, as Hillel said, is commentary. My path is filled with bumps and muddy patches, but so is everyone's; life would be boring otherwise.

There are a total of seven aliyot at the Passover Torah service, and yesterday I read number three as well as the final maftir aliyah. There was a gap of about ten minutes between the two. As I finished the first and turned to leave the bimah, the rabbi leaned over:

"Don't go too far," he whispered, with a smile.

Rabbis are teachers, not conduits to God--but I think he, without knowing it, was delivering a personalized message. I've spent the past few weeks thinking about last year, alternating between gratitude and confusion. I become paralyzed into inaction by the simple, awesome fact of my continued existence, and can't even formulate the questions to which I seek answers. I need to remember not to go too far; what I'm looking for is within myself.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

303. Spring

(A post begun on Thursday and finished late in the night after the best kind of seder, with great friends and wonderful, provocative discussion as abundant and delicious as the food.)

It is finally, undoubtedly, spring in New York. The sun was dancing around the clouds when I walked out of services this morning, presaging coming weeks of dew (for which we just yearned in the "Tal" prayer) and rain. I love the spring but it sometimes makes me sad, reminding me of all the decisions I avoided during months of darkness. The most glorious, birdsong-filled day of April always seems to happen on my birthday; I am both grateful for reaching this season and unenthused about getting older, not knowing where I'm headed.

But I long ago decided that since there's more sunlight in spring than shadows, I might as well wait until the winter to hide under clouds. The months of spring are a time to be honest. I need to follow the lead of my ancestors, who complained ("oy, this manna tastes just like gefilte fish!") but still managed to emerge, with joy and song, from the narrow place.

I chanted Torah this morning, the entire story in one spare paragraph: "In the middle of the night, the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt..." (Exodus 12:29-36). In time it takes to read a sentence, "there was no house where there was not someone dead." Pharaoh begs Moses and Aaron to leave, his screams loudest over the agonizing cries of the rest of Egypt, and in the next breath asks for their blessing. I was struck by his humility; even the most evil souls can change and become human. I would like to think God also heard Pharaoh's cry and was merciful when exercising His wrath, and that the killing of the firstborn was kosher and quick. When I reached to the word for "struck down" I tried to sing quietly and tenderly, pausing slightly for emphasis and then moving on. We need to remember, but not gloat; violence, even God's necessary, justified kind, is not something to be proud of.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

302. Re-set

I think I've been re-set, somewhat. My time at the mediation retreat was both jarring and profoundly calming. The rabbis who led helped direct our thoughts through the mitzrayim, the narrow places, of our paths and lives; the weekend was one big Amidah, a quiet, private prayer offered in the company of others on the same journey.

We even spent some time talking to God in a corn field, just like the 18th century Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:

"As often as you can, take a trip out to the fields to pray. All the grasses will join you. They will enter your prayers and give you strength--when no words come, do not despair. Come back day after day to your secluded spot and wait. Just wanting to speak to God is in itself a very great thing. Even if all you can say to God is 'Help!' it is still good. Repeat this over and over again, until God opens your lips and words begin to flow from your heart."

They did flow, but in all that silence I became acutely aware of two states between which my heart travels during prayer: one, a quiet, peaceful energy and the other, which I experience whenever I chant Torah, its complete opposite: electric, awed, nervous. Both are honest, but the latter sometimes becomes a kind of armor, hiding me from truths I might not want to face. And even as I try to draw close to the words I chant, I also push myself away behind a mask of trembling knees and hands. I wonder how much deeper this experience might be if I could walk up to the Torah and grasp the yad without my knuckles turning white. Maybe I will, one day, when my silence and music become parts of the same thing instead of opposite forces.

Meanwhile, tonight is the first seder and I'm off to the wilds of Queens to be with old friends. Hoping all who read this enjoy many, many seasons of freedom and renewal (and great matzah balls, too).

Friday, April 07, 2006

301. Still here...

When I don't post, it means I'm either spending all my time singing or working 18 hours a day, which has unfortunately been the case this past week. Not kidding. Things are a bit out of control, and I'm trying to find a solution. As a start, I'm heading off to a meditation retreat for the next few days... perhaps this will push the big, cosmic "restart" button of my consciousness, or else make the universe amenable to providing more clients who have lots of money. Meanwhile, I've been learning Torah to chant this weekend and on three days of Pesah, a welcome infusion of sanity. Shabbat Shalom, and I plan to have some peaceful, calm things to write when I return.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

300. Revelation, part 2

(Continued. Happy 300th post to me!)

(Also: I've spent the last week frustrated by my lack of writing time--too much work, too many posts half-started and interrupted by sleep. Then this evening I read Pirkei Avot 2:21: "It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." I am grateful to Rabbi Tarfon for this encouraging reminder.)

We ended the class with a selection from Adam's Return by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan brother. He writes:

"All transformation takes place in liminal space... It is that graced time when we are not certain or in control, when something genuinely new can happen. We are empty, receptive, an erased tablet waiting for new words... Much of the work of the biblical God and human destiny itself is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough to learn something essential and new. It is the ultimate teachable space [author's italics]..."

Those times, observed the rabbi, are when we're most likely to have the experiences we call revelation, moments that change our perception of ourselves in this world. They happen when we step or are pushed between paths and fall into the twilight zones of despair, loss, confusion. We resist these states; we hate discomfort, houses of mourning, encounters with the homeless. Can't we see God in the fullness of beauty and joy? Yes, but perhaps not as clearly as in their emptiness. You can find the path only when you step off it. An empowering idea: revelation is not always a random miracle, and we can hasten the widening of our own vision.

I understood. At the retreat in 1999, I was in a new place with new people, completely unsure of my footing. And every single time I chant Torah, I doubt my abilities and engage in exhausting, irrational mental gymnastics. Then I step up to the bimah and start to sing, and am flooded with the goodness that I forgot to notice was all around me. (But I don't want to rely on nervousness as a bridge to God. I like to think He'll enjoy my calmer state, as well, once I figure out how to get there.)

Recognizing these moments is only half the challenge; acting upon them is the far greater task.