Wednesday, May 31, 2006

328. Geeky post that has nothing to do with chanting

(Interrupting the story.)

When not thinking about Judaism, I'm trying to master the art of procrastination. To that end, please see the sidebar of this blog, where I've categorized all my posts with and got the topics to show up via FreshTags. If I were using a different blogging platform, I could add the tags within the application. But I like Blogger, so this solution will do until they decide to support tags. The only annoying feature of FreshTags is that after you've read a post selected via the dropdown list, you need to go back to the blog home page in order to access that list once again. It's still a pretty cool little program. I think tags are also picked up by Technorati, so I'm now categorized up the wazoo and can sleep well at night. I'm not sure why this makes me happy, but it does.


Update Nov. '06: Blogger Beta now supports labels, which I've applied to every post! Much easier, although FreshTags was great as an interim solution.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

327. Goldfish


I was embarrassed and confused by my tears, although I knew that only a sociopath could remain cold in face of these dead words of an entire people. But they hadn't ever felt like my words, despite my membership in the people. The Judaism I knew talked about the Torah but never seemed to live it, or make any attempt to teach it to me. My strongest memory of Hebrew School was the rabbi instructing me to feed matzah meal to my goldfish on Passover even though this would kill poor Golda, who was clearly Jewish and therefore bound by our laws. My mother pointed out that God probably didn't mind if other species ate treyf and, all things considered, would prefer that the fish remain alive until Shavuot.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

326. Earthquake


I had never before stood so close to a Torah scroll; I didn't recognize it at first. I knew the object only as the property of old men in the synagogue I reluctantly attended once a year. But then I did recognize it, and began to shake. This was wrong, evil. I felt the same as on the morning, many years ago, when I was awakened by a minor earthquake that hit the metropolitan area, and watched from my bed as the books and knicknacks on my shelves began to dance and shudder. Then, and at this moment in the musem, I felt something in my bones... an offense against nature, an obscenity, as if my insides were about to rip apart just like the parchment. I felt like my shoulders were being held down against my will as I watched a murder that had been in process for the past 50 years.

I couldn't look at the scroll any longer. I panicked, disoriented. Gasping for breath, I ran out of the room and into the next, a white vestibule designed for the very purpose of allowing witnesses to this horror a moment to collect their thoughts.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

325. Museum


I hadn't really cared--my family, incredibly, escaped those horrors--but my friend insisted we go. We waited for hours outside the museum along with hundreds of survivors who had been invited to be its first witnesses. I felt like an imposter, an empathetic outsider trying to understand but always able, unlike these other people, to walk away when I did.

Once inside, I learned that knowing history is not the same as feeling it. The low white rooms and dark, towering galleries of the museum began to seem, after a while, like places of crushing waves of death and hope, following so quickly after each other that I became dizzy. I pretended to be cool and collected until we reached one small room, empty except for a glass case inside of which lay torn fragments of white parchment. The scroll was folded over and over itself like a long ribbon of road crumpled in spots by little earthquakes, the letters shattered and slivered. Above the case was a photo of the broken, blackened town where this Sefer Torah once lived.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

324. Completion

We held our collective breaths as right above, projected on a screen at the front of the synagogue, the sofer poured flesh into skeletons with black ink and a quill and filled in the outlines of the final twelve words of the Torah. With one last stroke, he connected the backbone of the lamed of "Yisrael" to its curved leg, creating a character worthy of supporting the previous 300,000.

Seven months ago, I felt like I had witnessed creation as "Bereshit" took shape within a fog of tohu vavohu on that same screen. This time was different, more like a graduation, the words on the scroll now solid and strong enough to witness my life and the many to follow. The final lamed drew its first breath--the rabbi cried "Hazak, hazak!" "Strength, strength!"--and the sanctuary filled with the exclamations of a dozen shofarot. We linked arms and sang the Shehecheyanu, blessing each other for reaching this season, and then dressed the scroll in a silver crown and breastplate that shone so brightly I imagined they were smiling back at us. Then, under a huppah, a wedding canopy woven from squares of our own design, we danced with the Sefer Torah around the block and briefly into the world about which it would teach us. My Torah chanting teacher had the honor of reading from the new, clean parchment and providing its first voice:

Now write for yourselves this song and teach it to the Israelites. Make them memorize it, so that this song will be a witness for the Israelites.
--Deuteronomy 31:19

In the middle of all this swirling joy, I wiped away tears and thought about another scroll that also made me cry, years ago. Long before I cared about being Jewish, I found myself in on vacation in Washington D.C. on the weekend of the opening of the Holocaust Museum.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

323. Walls and doors

In addition to being knocked off my feet last week by the big, fat medicine ball of Anger, I was also sideswiped by the speeding taxi of Sadness.

My mother lost touch with a dear cousin after they became adults. I think it was because of my father, who had this effect on many of our close relatives. In any case, the cousin no longer seemed like a real person by the time I grew up, but rather a stereotype on the edge of fame who married well and moved in circles far beyond our access. Quite by chance, I found the cousin when I was a freshman in college, and she and my mother had a joyous, emotional reunion. But I also sensed a wall between them, my mother a bit awed and her cousin confused by my mother's reticence. Me, I had never seen a private home with a two-story library complete with rolling ladder, and just held my breath and tried to remember which fork to use when they took us to a fancy private club that would not otherwise let my mother and I in the door.

After the stars in my eyes cleared, I learned that the cousin and her husband were lovely, brilliant, people. My mother died before they could forge a newer, deeper relationship; the cousin and I kept in touch, refusing to allow history to repeat itself. We exchanged letters on holidays, hers always full of pride at my accomplishments. Her words touched me deeply; she said things my mother might have. But we got together for lunch only once, five years ago, and I recognized a reluctance to invite me into her immediate world that I had seen in other newly-discovered members of my family. It was, perhaps, the opposite side of the wall that my mother had built.

Last week I got a call from the cousin's sister, whom I had never met, and I learned of the cousin's death a few days before. She invited me to shiva; the funeral had already taken place. Having been through this sort of thing before, I was familiar with the awkward exercise of walking into rooms filled with unknown family. I took a deep breath and looked around for someone with my same bone structure and soon found her, my mother's cousin's daughter. She introduced me to two other daughters and a nephew, and we all stared at each other in a happy, mournful kind of puzzlement. They knew I existed; they grew up hearing stories about my grandfather, their mother's beloved uncle, stories not even I knew. But they had no idea I lived five blocks away, and none of us could figure out why their mother never introduced us all. I suspect that my mother would have done the same if the tables were turned. Those same barriers would be in place.

We hugged and exchanged phone numbers, and will be in touch. I have no doubt about this. We are all our mother's children, but there are some traits I refuse to carry on.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

322. Balance

I learned this week that anger can paralyze. It's the drone of an alarm clock that won't stop buzzing, or a wall that gets taller and taller even as the lowest bricks crumble. Every time I sat down to write about something good and sweet, my anger, like that big foot at the beginning of Monty Python cartoons, crushed flowers and left no room at all for words on the screen.

I've been trying to find the humor in being a victim of sleazy, deceptive, financially oppressive fraud, and remind myself in every other breath of my many blessings. But it seems much easier to make jokes about God or death, overwhelming, incomprehensible concepts I can still somehow place in context of my life. Anger, like terror, sits on the surface like bad milk in your coffee; no amount of stirring will mix it into the deeper part. And the longer it floats, the more it stinks.

This week's Torah portion features a list of terrible curses to be exacted upon all who disobey God's will. Since liberal Jews try not to believe that human suffering is punishment from above, what relevance can we find in these frightening words? wondered the rabbi at services last night. He spoke of a Hassidic commentary that equated the state of being cursed with the inability to integrate our intellect and emotions: we can't function when these parts of ourselves are out of balance, one ruling the other rather than both working in partnership. Perhaps we invite the curse by not recognizing this aspect of God within ourselves. Shabbat, he suggested, is a time to set things right by creating room in our day for equal amounts of thinking and feeling.

His words rang true, and I realized my anger this past week had thrown me completely out of balance. Finally, this morning, I chanted Torah and my voice no longer sounded like I was being strangled. Elsewhere in Leviticus (19:35-36) we're instructed to use fair weights and measures, because cheating is an abomination against God. I think I'm starting to restore balance to my own scales; maybe one day the scales of justice will complete the process.

Friday, May 12, 2006

321. Back soon

I haven't forgotten about counting the Omer; I'm just, you know, counting in batches instead of one at a time. This has been an unusually strange and stressful week, with no brain cells available for writing. Please stay tuned.

Monday, May 08, 2006

320. New

The Omer count is half over, Shavuot in less than a month. I can almost feel that new Torah making its way down the mountain. I never before gave much thought to these daily mystical interpretations, but I've been astonished by how accurately they reflect the challenges of traveling through life as a good, ethical person.

Today, day 25, was Netzah of Netzah, Endurance in Endurance:

We have the capacity to endure much more than we can imagine, and to prevail under the most trying of circumstances... Do I fear being trapped by my commitment?... Exercise for the day: Commit yourself to developing a new good habit.

The best new habit I can think of is this one, what I'm doing right now and have almost every day since January, 2005. OK, my interpretation cheats a little. But what I've been able to learn through this writing exercise about words, Torah, singing, and honesty, both from myself and a dozen other good people from all over the place whom I've mostly never met but are sharing in my journey, is definitely new and wonderful in my life.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

319. 23, 24 and 16

The title of this post isn't gematria, but life sometimes does happen by the numbers.

Break one bad habit today, suggested the Omer guide for day 23, Gevurah of Netzah, Discipline in Endurance. On Friday every eye, nose and throat in New York, including mine, was itchy and scratchy, but I felt fine while warming up to lead services*. But after the first few prayers I realized was oversinging, trying to compensate for problems breathing (mine) and hearing (the sound system's). I was very hoarse. I tried to concentrate even harder and started to zone out like I did two weeks ago, becoming so involved in the music that I almost forgot what and where I was singing. A strange, new place, and a good one, but I kept looking for the ground below. I need to be more present, I thought. Or maybe I'm too aggressive; I should pull back, sing less.

Then I thought about the Omer and figured this was as good an occasion as any to break the bad habit of criticizing myself, and so tried to remember that I knew what I was doing and had no reason to imagine otherwise. It was legitimately difficult to concentrate; the sanctuary was very, very hot, the energy level uneven. Not every week can reach the kind of ecstatic high notes I'll finish writing about one of these days. This particular Shabbat reflected reality; I think the roomful of us had a bad week, and climbing to a place of peace and safety was harder than usual. We ascended slowly, and were most definitely there by the Aleinu. I wished we could have kept singing.

Today, day 24, as I catch up with the count, I consider Tiferet of Netzah, Compassion in Endurance: Does my determination compromise my compassion for others?... Exercise for the day: Be patient and listen to someone who usually makes you impatient. I did this, too, for many hours over a cup of coffee after services with a friend and then for myself during a lazy, indulgent weekend of resting my brain, body, and doubts.


* ...for the 16th time.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

318. Power

Tonight begins Netzah, week four of the Omer: endurance, fortitude, ambition, the exercise of one's own strength. On this 22nd day we consider the relationship of lovingkindness to endurance, Hesed of Netzah:

For anything to endure it needs to be loved... Endurance without love can be counterproductive. Raw endurance can come across as harsh and aggressive, which undermines the cooperation of others.... Does my endurance cause me to be, or seem to be, inflexible? Does my drive and determination cause me to be controlling? In order to get my way, would I allow others to get hurt?

(There are, by the way, other excellent Omer guides out there, but Rabbi Jacobson's is direct and succinct, like the abstract to a scholarly article, and therefore simplest to quote.)

I've never had a lot of power to wield, so I'm very careful when it does happen to come my way. I've been a good boss. If anything, I bend over backwards in the other direction; I'm too nice, and tend to overlook the flaws of others. I don't let myself be stepped on, but could stand to be more aggressive. In one realm, however, I am harsh and inflexible: my kindness to myself. I work too hard, for many reasons all of which are logical and none sensible, and cut myself insufficient slack. It's an old, bad habit that's been difficult to break.

But tomorrow I'm cashing in on the universe's reward to me for getting through this crappy week: I'm once again helping to lead services. I could have said no* and stuck with existing plans for dinner with friends, but instead I'll make motzi on my own and grab a quick bite beforehand and then, immersed in music and Shabbat, forget about any wall that pretends to invest me with power but only keeps me hidden, any strength except that in my own voice.


* OK, to be honest: no way could I have said no, unless I had pre-existing plans for dinner followed by the implementation of surefire world peace, or something along those lines.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

317. Lucky

Today was a strange day.

Within the space of an hour, I escaped being hit by a car (which plowed into another just a few feet from where I was sitting in a diner, eating lunch; no one was hurt, miraculously), and learned that I had been screwed mightily, pardon the language (but I can think of no other, better word) by my insurance company, who went out of business yesterday without prior notice and was apparently lying when they swore just last week, after scores of phone calls, that overdue payments of thousands of dollars to my doctor for last year's surgery would be in the mail any day now.

I'm both ecstatic to be alive and so angry I could scream (and have). I looked at tonight's Omer count for day 21, Malhut of Tiferet, Nobility in Compassion, and wondered how in the world this concept related to my extraordinarily luck and simultaneous misery:

Examine the dignity of your compassion... For compassion to be complete, it should boost self-esteem and cultivate human dignity--both your own dignity and the dignity of the one benefiting from your compassion... Exercise for the day: Rather than just giving charity, help the needy help themselves in a fashion that strengthens their dignity.

I think about this concept often, in fact--it's impossible to avoid in New York, where homeless people live on every street corner and subway car. I try, without complete success, to give what I can, and look each man and woman in the eye. After I lost my job five years ago I volunteered, for reasons as self-serving as they were charitable, at my synagogue's soup kitchen. Whatever my motives, I'm embarrassed to say that I learned what I had never before taken completely to heart: those in need deserve as much respect as the rest of us.

Today my dignity was stolen by a sleazy company presumably in the very business of compassion. I can comfort myself by remembering that tables do turn and justice usually prevails, if slowly. I can sear in my brain for future, corrective use the feeling of being treated like garbage. Above all, I can remember that I wasn't hit by a car this afternoon, and still have a voice with which to complain and sing in joy at being alive.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

316. Bonding

Day 20 of the Omer:

Yesod of Tiferet: Bonding in Compassion
For compassion to be fully realized, it needs bonding. It requires creating a channel between giver and receiver, a mutuality that extends beyond the moment of need; a bond that continues to live on... Exercise for the day: Ensure that something external is built as a result of your compassion.

How is it that each day's focus applies so clearly to specific events in my own day? Tonight was the start of Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day; I got to count the Omer for real, in a minyan after evening services at my synagogue's holiday celebration. This is the first time since I was, oh, about 10, that I noted Yom Ha'Atzmaut with more than uncomfortable dismissal. Israel, for most of my life, was an interesting concept that included me only in theory. So I studiously avoided the holiday for the same reason as I did synagogues: I didn't care very much about them, so why would they want me?

I no longer think this. I understand so much more about the bond between us, and the place of my heart on that chain. I hope, in coming years, to help make this channel wider and deeper, with room enough for a river to flow freely in both directions.

Monday, May 01, 2006

315. Rally

Well, my gevurah ( discipline) needs a little work, because I missed the day right after I vowed to post a daily reflection on the counting of the Omer. But I have a good excuse: I was busy living this week's quality (Tiferet, compassion). On Sunday, along with 15,000 other Jews, Christians, Muslims, liberals, conservatives, and everything in between and on either end, I was at the Darfur rally in Washington, DC. I wish more people had shown up, but was greatly encouraged by a crowd that cut completely across religious and political lines.

I didn't do very much, just sat in the sun, ate fruit, and listened to speeches underscoring my own opinions. It was almost too easy; my biggest challenge of the day was waking up on time. But I was there. I counted. This, said the rabbi on our way back home, is what creates a kiddush hashem (sanctification of God's name). Mourners at a shiva minyan don't do much, either, but their very presence helps honor someone's memory and ease someone's grief. The appearance (and absence) of thousands at the rally spoke louder than any one speech ever could. Today was the 18th day of the Omer, Netzah (endurance) of Tiferet (compassion); I hope and pray that we have the patience and stamina to remain standing for Darfur for as long as it takes to get noticed by our government, and the rest of the world.

Tonight begins the 19th day of the Omer, Hod of Tiferet: Humility in Compassion. Rabbi Jacobson writes:

If compassion is not to be condescending and pretentious, it must include humility... Do I feel superior because I am compassionate?... Am I humble and thankful to God for giving me the ability to have compassion for others?

It was certainly easy to feel proud of myself yesterday. What a grand, kvetch-worthy sacrifice I made: oy, the bus is leaving so early! Where's the sunscreen? Too many people on the Metro. We're getting back so late; when will I do the laundry? Those for whom we rallied would love to have freedom enough to make such complaints. I need a little more of the Hod that never lets me forget this truth.