Tuesday, August 29, 2006

369. The King's Singers, part 1

Last week I watched part of a program on Bravo about The King's Singers, a British a cappella sextet with whom I was a little obsessed in college. I have never, ever heard as perfect a vocal ensemble. They're my paragon of tuning, phrasing, tempi--like the two drummers in the Grateful Dead who synchronize pulses at the beginning of a performance, I wouldn't be surprised if their six hearts all beat in the exact same rhythm. Their sound is so flawless it seems to hypnotize, an exquisite, clear lake upon which I can see not just a reflection of heaven but of myself, as well.

On the program they sang part of Spem in Alium, a 40-voice Renaissance masterwork constructed in the studio by laying their six voices over and over each other. The resulting sound reminded me of a prism focusing sunlight on paper until, like a refiner's fire, it begins to burn. For many years I thought this kind of painful precision was the best possible way to make music. I yearned for those moments, elusive as that split second when the DeLorean leapt into the future, when perfect faithfulness to the composer's intent created a state out of time and without boundaries between myself and the sound. When I heard the rabbinic teaching that Torah is "black fire on white fire," God residing between each letter, I understood immediately--for the magic to work, every mark, every space, like the notes in a score, was sacred and had to be honored. And when I first learned to chant, the crowd of lines and dots that comprise trop symbols made me almost dizzy with anticipation. I was both comforted by their structure and challenged to find holiness within their limitations, just as one of the rabbis at my synagogue described the laws of kashrut.

So I was surprised at my reaction last week to The King's Singers. I wasn't transported. Rather, I felt like reaching through the TV screen and shaking them all by the shoulders: Chill out! Loosen up! Instead of beautifully controlled, the music felt to me like it was tied up in a straitjacket.

(To be continued.)

Monday, August 28, 2006

368. Trees

I had a sort of OK weekend at the meditation retreat, and was reminded of a number of things:

1. I can learn a lot from trees. They stand up straight, are quiet and focused, and never seem to forget who or where they are.

2. A few hours walking alone in the woods can be much more therapeutic than twice that time listening to a rabbi go on and on about emptying one's mind during meditation of obsessive thoughts of self--and who then frames all subsequent advice in terms of his (not terribly interesting) own life.

3. You can call it "[insert your favorite religion] meditation" but it's really just psychology, and all about letting go and learning how to be, one small moment at a time. The message is invaluable, no matter how annoying the messenger.

4. I love that that the rabbis at my synagogue teach as if they have as much to learn from us as we from them, and model a way of sharing knowledge that precludes hollow declarations of humility, disdain for paths different from one's own, and groupies.

5. Despite my heartfelt acceptance of all spiritual practices, my comfort zone is breached by not very good folk guitarists who, in the name of prayer, sway back and forth and grimace in pain like Nora Dunn in that old Saturday Night Live sketch "Make Joan Baez Laugh." I know much of Judaism embraces this style of music and yet (quoting my friend D., who always gets to the point) I dislike it with a passion equal to the heat of a thousand flaming suns.

6. You can make some great friends when bonding over bad teachers and worse music.

All that said, this weekend offered moments of great calm, peace, discovery, and much-needed sounds of birds and rain falling on leaves. It was good to be away from schedules and deadlines and I did, for a few moments, taste eternity like you're supposed to on Shabbat. I need more of this in my life. So my gift to myself this Elul, my acknowledgment that ani l'dodi v'dodi li, I deserve my own compassion, will be long, slow walks--not in woods as lush as the ones I just left, but in a park where the trees will stand equally straight and remind me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, quietly and calmly.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

367. Breathe

I want the universe to have a backspace key. I would like to re-do today. Apologies in advance for the grumbling.

This afternoon, as I fielded calls from annoying clients (who were probably not at all rude, but in my foul mood I was incapable of seeing anything else), I got an email from the cantor with my assignments for the High Holy Days. My heart leapt--and yet, the moment I read it, my heart dropped even faster. I think I expected that receipt of this email would fuel me with some sort of elusive, hidden power, or make the world seem like a happier place. But it didn't. It was just a list.

As I was castigating myself for this reaction, my dearest friend in the world called to say that her father was in the ICU and would I please come to the hospital. So I did, for the next six hours. He's stable now, thank goodness. I, on the other hand, am in need of a big, psychic colander to sift through a stew of emotions, remove the nastiest chunks, and leave a clear broth of gratitude--for health, friends, and joy that drops right in my lap even when I forget to notice. I'm going to a meditation retreat this weekend which I hope will remind me of the following (from yogajournal.com, via the always wise Regina Clare Jane):

Part of yogic philosophy is the idea of "detachment." This means that, instead of hanging on desperately to people, activities, or objects, we should learn how to flow with the current of life and recognize that change is the only constant.

I would add another, very good constant: Shabbat, flowing on the current of time. Change is part of that same river, yet we fool ourselves into believing we can defy the laws of nature and make it stop. The truth is that this year I will sing differently than last year. Today my friend's father will be here, tomorrow perhaps somewhere else. It's not the destination but the parts in between, the flowing, breathing, crying, singing, that make up a life.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

366. Some words from before

The other day I was going through some old files on my computer and discovered a folder called "writing"--a bunch of stuff from the days when I was afraid to commit very much to words, but screwed up the courage occasionally as long as I didn't have to show anyone. I found these paragraphs from May, 2001, written right after Shavuot and half a year before C. convinced me to learn to chant Torah:

"The experience I had [three years ago, when I first joined my synagogue] felt like I had fallen in love. But I would never actually use this metaphor out loud; it sounds crazy.

But at the Tikkun Leil Shavuot tonight, I realized I was not crazy. The more I learn, the more I see that I knew so much of this already. I've just not had the words to express it. It seems so right, so complete, and that's what I felt at that moment three years ago. An awareness of reality. 'Truth' doesn't describe it. Rather, it was simply the way things are, which until that moment had been obscured.

...After the Tikkun, everyone started singing a niggun and clapping. This, of course, is [how things are done at my synagogue], but it seemed very profound to me at that moment... A happiness like Simhat Torah, but measured, because there is so much promise yet to fulfill.

...[The rabbi] ended his talk by saying that learning is always unfinished, and that in itself is the privilege of Torah. Neverending. I've been looking for so many explanations over these past three years. It's kind of exhilarating to realize I will never find them, but will always be assembling the pieces.

I was less excited than usual about going to this Tikkun. Lately, I've started to feel my enthusiasm wane. Things become rote. The enthusiasm is far from disappearing, I should add, but perhaps routine has clouded my excitement. But tonight brought back that feeling when I least expected it. I was also reminded that this community, in many ways, knows me more honestly than anyone else. Who I am with them is who I am, right now, to my core. With work, with [singing in my secular choir] there's always an element of artifice, which of course is what life is about. But here I can be sad, or happy, clap or sing, be interested in arcane matters, and I am not judged. I am accepted and celebrated, along with everyone else. How rare to have this privilege."

I don't remember writing this, but do recall the shock of discovering that authentic part of myself. If I had said no to C.--if I had never learned to chant Torah--would I have stayed to around to find more answers? Or would I have fallen into the trap of routine, unable to recapture the excitement of those first moments? Who would I be today, and how would I talk to God, if I hadn't discovered the voice with which to ask these questions?

Monday, August 21, 2006

365. Morning Minyan

Last week I chanted twice at morning minyan, welcome practice for those 29 verses this past Shabbat. Morning minyan happens whenever there aren't services for holy days or Shabbat, and a minyan (more than ten adults) usually does show up. Like our congregation in general, the minyan attracts a diverse bunch: retirees, people on their way to work who need to say mourner's kaddish, stay-at-home moms, students, and others who just like to start the day with some calm, intimate prayer. We meet in the sanctuary, sitting not in rows of chairs but around a table like a family gathering for dinner. It always feels a little subversive to be part of such a small group in this large, ornate space, as if we had a special secret no one else knew. I love chanting at morning minyan; I'm never as nervous as on Shabbat, and the quick pace (half-hour service; three aliyot; go home and eat a bagel) means my adrenaline doesn't have time to rise to stratospheric levels.

Services are led by a rotating cohort of rabbis, rabbis-in-training, and laypeople who know enough to be rabbis. M. is there almost every day, a sweet man in his 80s who's gabbai on Mondays and Thursdays when the Torah is read. His job, much like that of F. on Shabbat, is to hand out honors and make sure the choreography of the service proceeds without a hitch. M. also stands at the bimah and follows along with the reader to catch mistakes. I've rarely seen him without a smile; although we've never exchanged more than a few words, I'm certain he's one of the gentlest souls on earth. As is his wife, who pulled me aside after I chanted Esther while dressed as a MetroCard, canary-yellow wig on my head: "Your hair looks really nice! No, I mean it! You should be a blonde!" She was so earnest that I gave the idea serious consideration for a second or two.

This past Thursday, as usual, M. took his place up front as I got ready to read. "This morning we'll be treated to even more beautiful chanting than planned," announced the rabbi. (I had learned an additional aliyah earlier in the week.) I blushed.

"And she's a looker, too!" added M.

From anyone other than an 85-year-old man, I would have responded with a withering glance or treatise on why this comment was highly inappropriate during a religious service. But from M.--as he shared the bimah with a female rabbi fifty years his junior--I knew it was meant as a grand compliment, and with utmost respect. I had a sudden image of M. as that sailor in the middle of Times Square in the Eisenstadt photo, kissing a pretty lady on VJ Day. I'm sure he never imagined, fifty or sixty years ago, that he'd be gabbai for a woman chanting Torah. I blushed again, grateful for his time-shifted chivalry, and began to chant.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

364. Details

So I read those 29 verses yesterday morning, the fifth, sixth and seventh aliyot. I was also slated to chant the maftir ("additional") aliyah, the honor after number seven that goes to the reader of the haftarah. This time, as is often the case, it was simply a repetition of some of the verses I had just read. Easy. I moved off to the side to wait for the Hatzi Kaddish, the short prayer before the maftir aliyah that signals a transition from one part of the service to the next.

The rabbi leaned over. "Do you want to sing Hatzi Kaddish?" he whispered.

"No," I whispered back, and immediately regretted it. How rude of me to turn down the honor... but I was so busy sighing with relief at completing the bulk of my task that I could barely remember my own name, let alone another tune. I had to go right back to the bimah to chant the maftir, so had little time to dwell on my really bad decision.

I rested the yad at the first word I would read from the scroll, and waited for the soon-to-be haftarah reader to kiss the spot with her tallit. And then my peripheral vision registered something quite out of the ordinary, and alarming: the cantor, who had been sitting off to the side, rushing up front, open tikkun in hand.

Services at my synagogue, despite frequent moments of spontaneous ecstasy, run like a well-oiled machine. Any unnecessary delay is considered disrespectful to the congregation; the rabbis work hard to keep things moving. So when the cantor, looking serious, suddenly stood right behind me at this moment of high drama, I got very worried. The only other time I recalled a pause in the Torah service was when an elderly man tripped on his way up to the bimah and fell down unconscious. Did I screw up? Did I read the wrong lines?

"Don't start from verse 27," he said, sotto voce. "Start from 24."

Meanwhile, everyone was waiting for me to chant... something. "Just a moment," announced the rabbi, clearly bemused. "They're discussing an important point of Torah."

But where was verse 24? The scroll is one long sentence without punctuation; I had practiced finding only the beginning of verse 27 in that sea of words. The cantor saw my confusion, leaned over to help me locate the spot, and then disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. I waited for the blessing. "She already read it," someone whispered. Ah. I proceeded without incident. The whole delay took less than a minute, but felt like an eternity.

After services I gingerly asked the cantor to explain what happened, not convinced it somehow wasn't my fault. No, no, he said; not at all. According to one of the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of rules about chanting Torah, at least three verses must be read for an aliyah--and those three have to begin at least two verses away from a natural break in the text on the scroll. (Each Torah portion has prescribed divisions according to different traditions, but it's also permissible to take some liberties.) When the cantor chose verses for the maftir aliyah, he looked at our humash and saw no break. But in the middle of the service, for some reason, he suspected that the humash put the break in the wrong place. He ran backstage to check the tikkun, which looks exactly the scroll, and his doubts were confirmed--seconds before I had to chant. So I had to begin a few verses earlier to make sure the reading was ritually correct according to Jewish religious law.

I was really impressed. The difference was just couple of lines...would anyone have noticed the mistake? But God is in the details. And this is the time of year when we remind ourselves that words do count, and make amends for when we might have used them to hurt rather than heal. Maybe getting the verses right was one little drop on the positive side of the scale, encouraging God to inscribe us for good in the coming year. I can only hope.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

363. Ani l'dodi v'dodi li

This evening, in the middle of writing this post, I took a break in order to attend a shiva minyan. As meaningful as these are for me, I felt a little like a loser--shouldn't I be doing something more exciting on a Saturday night than visiting a house of mourning? But, as is usually the case, the universe knew where I was supposed to be. We met in a 40th floor apartment overlooking the entire west side of Manhattan, with a breathtaking view of miles of nighttime lights like strings of diamonds and rubies lining each side of the Hudson. The son of the deceased explained that sharing one or two great memories wouldn't do his father justice because his father's entire life was a blessing, a blanket of goodness, kindness and gentleness that enveloped everyone he met. Today at services, noted the rabbi, we announced the arrival of the month of Elul. Afterwards I found this site, which echoed the rest of his teaching:

...The entire month of Elul is dedicated to preparing for the New Year. It is said that the acrostic of the Hebrew letters, aleph, lamed, vav, lamed stands for the beautiful phrase from the Song of Songs, Ani l'dodi v'dodi li, I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. The month of Elul is also a time for opening the heart to one's beloved. This includes healing relationships with oneself, with others, with the earth, and with God...

What better moment, said the rabbi, to celebrate a man who, through a life of patience and love, brought out the best in everyone he encountered.

This morning I chanted 29 verses, tying my own record for the most verses at once. It no longer seemed like a ridiculous amount, and I was nervous to a manageable degree. It occurred to me afterwards that my unfounded fears didn't escalate until last year, right after the High Holy Days and my moment of facing the congregation without a voice. Although everyone assured me I didn't screw up, the experience drained me of confidence. Now, as we approach another cycle of holidays, I feel like I've wrung every possible ounce of irrational reaction out of my psyche; enough already. Time to start anew, and remember that with an open heart, with love given and received, there's no reason to be afraid.

Friday, August 18, 2006

362. Law & Order

Enough about New York, back to chanting...in a minute.

Last night I turned on the TV to a ubiquitous rerun of "Law & Order." I was just about to change the channel when I noticed that the street behind Dets. Briscoe and Green looked very familiar. They were standing right across from my synagogue! I watched intently as they interrogated the owner of a fake locksmith store, played by a real hardware store. My synagogue was just an extra, no lines at all. Did it get paid for the appearance, or was it just an innocent bystander? This wasn't my first second-degree of separation with L&O; my mother once worked with Jerry Orbach's brother when she was the bookkeeper at a company that made apartment-sized steambaths. (Really.) It's been rumored that all actors who live in New York City eventually either appear on or fail an audition for the show.

Perhaps in some future episode Jack McCoy will wander inside while pursuing a drug dealer, become entranced by the sound of niggunim, and decide to convert. Now that would make an interesting series.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

361. It was very dark and my feet hurt, part 2

Finishing the story of what happened three years and three days ago:

In retrospect, the cop probably yelled out the first avenue that came to mind; every block was bursting equally with clueless New Yorkers. But with an officially-sanctioned destination, I suddenly felt much safer.

I also realized I could probably stay overnight with friends downtown or in Brooklyn. But a vestigial memory, maybe of the moment on 9/11 when I ran inside and locked the door behind me, or of a millennia ago when my ancestors sealed the entrance to their cave with a big rock so the mountain lion wouldn't get in, told me to keep walking until I reached my own dark, sweaty living room.

I trudged forth. I soon observed a new economy forming on the streets of Chinatown, as bottles of Poland Springs and melted Haagen-Dazs bars went to the highest or lowest bidder depending upon the mutual desperation of seller (food rotting in the freezer) and buyer (hungry, thirsty, and without access to an ATM). I assessed my needs: alternate footwear that would last 100 blocks, and nourishment to keep my feet moving. I scored a banana and package of M&M's with one of my three dollars, and a bottle of water with another. (This price would rise 500% by the time I got to midtown and stock began to deplete). On the next block I found a street vendor with a pile of bright pink flip-flops; he charged $2, but I begged and waved my high heels in the air, and I guess he either felt pity or just wanted to get rid of the crazy lady. My last dollar.

So I joined a herd of thousands moving uptown in a slow, sticky tide. It was uncomfortable, but not awful; our collective sigh of relief was almost palpable in the thick air, now that we knew the world wouldn't be ending any time soon. Twilight fell as I reached a shadowy Times Square, dark as a stage set on a Monday night. I sat in exhausted silence for almost an hour next to a stranger on a bench outside Lincoln Center; we said hello as we got up to leave, needing to acknowledge this strange, sudden intimacy. I was very calm, maybe because my brain was foggy with dehydration.

I began to panic only when I got to the Upper West Side and the last sliver of light disappeared from the sky. Sidewalks aren't designed for use in complete darkness; I had to wait for the headlights of passing cars in order to make it up and down curbs without falling on my face. Finally I reached my building and a collection of neighbors milling outside trying to help, none of whom volunteered to carry me up 12 flights of stairs.

All that stood between me and the food going bad in my refrigerator was a big, black vertical space dotted with emergency lights whose batteries hadn't been changed in a decade. I started climbing the stairs on my hands and knees until I remembered my cell phone, which emitted enough light to see about a foot ahead. I took a leisurely rest at each landing, cheering myself on by figuring out how much weight I must have lost by carrying the laptop for eight miles vs. if I'd been sensible and left it in a Dumpster on Mott St.

I reached my apartment door an hour later. I hugged the cats, drank a gallon of water, and realized I'd cleverly forgotten to shop that week and so nothing was in the the freezer except a package of lima beans. I woke up on the sofa ten hours later just as the lights were beginning to come back on.

As blackouts go, it was really kind of dull. I was four during the first one, my mother and I stranded in a Waldbaum's. Everyone grabbed candles off the shelves--"It's a yahrzeit party!" I said, a comment that would follow me to family gatherings for years and years--and then spent a fun evening sitting on folding chairs in the hallway, eating cream-cheese sandwiches and listening to guitar music. During the next one, in 1977, I wandered for hours in an empty fairground with my boyfriend as we dared each other to climb up the Ferris wheel, and hoped the looting would remain the other side of Queens. The culmination of this latest blackout--thawing a package of lima beans under the faucet and then wolfing them down with gusto because all I'd eaten since breakfast was a banana and some M&M's--was a bit anticlimactic. May all unpleasant events be as strange, boring, and completely lacking in catastrophe.

Monday, August 14, 2006

360. It was very dark and my feet hurt, part 1

Esther's post reminded me that, exactly three years ago today, my feet really, really hurt.

On the day of the third New York City blackout of my lifetime, I was uploading files at a design studio in so-trendy-it-will-make-your-eyes-bleed Dumbo, a neighborhood at the edge of Brooklyn. I generally work from home, but was seduced to the other side of the East River by the promise of projects that would be hip, cutting edge, and other silly adjectives. When the file transfer stalled, I figured it was just summer telling me to slow down. But after a few minutes I heard the sounds of dozens of feet racing down the stairwell--"It's a blackout!" someone yelled. I was skeptical; the Manhattan skyline, right outside and almost close enough to touch, was blinding, the sun reflecting off a few million windows. Which cleverly hid the fact that no light shone from behind any of them.

Then the phones went dead, and I decided to believe the stairwell guy. Everyone in the office ran outside as fast as we could, fearing another catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. Downstairs on the street, people were huddled around a car radio: yes, the whole city's dark. No, we don't know why. Since I couldn't swim home, my only means of escape was walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, conveniently located two blocks from the office. And so I joined hundreds, and then thousands, of hot, bewildered Manhattanites as we began the exodus. Some of us tried to strike up conversations, but retreated into silence when we saw big, black plumes of smoke rise from somewhere beyond Staten Island. For awhile I was sure my last minutes on earth would be spent in the company of a bunch of strangers and some oily aquatic life.

By the time we got to the other side, voices on cell phones had assured us that the world was not, in fact, about to end. I still wasn't happy; eight miles of subway-impaired, taxi-disabled Manhattan remained between me and the Upper West Side. The temperature was 90 degrees, I was was wearing high heels and lugging a laptop, and I had exactly $3 in my wallet.

We swarmed the sidewalks near City Hall and the courthouse like thousands of sweaty chickens in a coop. One lone cop stood patiently in the middle of crowd, lobbing answers to question after question. "What's the best way uptown?" I screamed. "Sixth Avenue!" he yelled back.


Sunday, August 13, 2006

359. Casements of the eastern sky

One of my favorite sections of the Shabbat morning service comes right after the Barechu, the call to prayer and the beginning of the series of blessings that leads to the Shema:

All creatures praise You, all declare: "There is none holy as the Lord." All exalt You, Creator of all, God who daily opens the gates of the heavens, the casements of the eastern sky, bringing forth the sun from its dwelling place, the moon from its abode, illumining the whole world and its inhabitants whom You created with mercy...

I grew up in an apartment which--in its heyday, until I was about ten--was the very model of a modern apartment. My parents were neither wealthy nor particularly materialistic, but my mother (who once studied to be an interior designer) was style-conscious in a sensible way. She wore pantsuits when it was still considered a little risqué, and reupholstered every few years to make sure the sofa blended nicely with the new wall colors she hired cousin Morris from Canada to paint. She bought shoes that weren't expensive but never fell apart, and looked like what they sold at Saks. And so I always thought that everything we owned and everywhere we went were the best possible things to have and do; my mother had a knack for making even the smallest choices seem special and elegant.

Our apartment faced a big, green garden, in the middle of which grew two trees: the Tallest Tree In The World, and the Second-Tallest. The Tallest Tree, which extended far above the sixth floor, the very top of the building, was right outside our kitchen. I loved to sit on the windowsill and look for robins in its branches, or try to see past all the leaves into people's apartments on the other side of the garden. The best thing about this window, however--and all the windows in our 4 1/2 rooms--was the little crank that allowed it to open sideways. We had casement windows, my mother explained, much better than the old-fashioned double-hung kind. (What everyone drew when they drew pictures of houses: window = a square with a cross in the middle of it.) Only the best buildings had casement windows, which let you achieve just a crack of coolness with a flick of the wrist. (Never mind that in my bedroom you had to ply the hinge with a gallon of WD-40 before it would even budge. It was still, in theory, the Best Window In The World.)

When I left home and went out on my own, I encountered nary a single casement. I knew, of course, that no windows could ever achieve the quality of what I had as a kid. So when I read the above paragraph in the liturgy, I understood immediately that God loved me and had my best interests at heart. Why else would He have chosen casements for the sky?

Friday, August 11, 2006

358. Storm

As I was walking yesterday just a few blocks from home, the sky turned a familiar, peculiar two-dimensional color of grey. I could have started running to escape the storm but was struck by the sudden intimacy of this small world of dark clouds almost low enough to touch, as if my neighborhood was trapped in a box of fleece. So I continued on my way as thick drops of rain began to fall, slowly at first and then with some urgency, gracious enough to pause every few minutes as I darted from one doorway to the next.

At three blocks from my apartment, it seemed I'd make it home before the deluge. But then drops turned to sheets and sheets to waves, lapping the curb faster than sewers could catch them. Water danced from side to side on the sidewalk as if from a big, drunken, heavenly garden hose. I blinked at camera-flashes of lightning and rivulets running down my face.

I ran into a storefront where I listened, for many minutes, to the percussive rhythms of water, thunder, and car horns. It was beautiful, the thick, shuddering air, the new streams rushing around curves of street corners. I should be frightened, I thought, but I know storms don't last. They make noise and then leave. I thought of my two cats, who didn't know thunder was temporary, no doubt huddled together in terror at the back of the coat closet. They would be like I was on 9/11, when I ran in from the street where people were pointing at the sky and screaming, after I locked the door and curled into the corner of my couch, wondering when we'd all die.

I soon realized we wouldn't--not immediately, at least. And as the weeks and years passed, I shoved this fear into a corner of my brain and learned not to flinch when I looked down Sixth Avenue at a skyline missing the two front teeth of its smile. Is it good that I can no longer recall the immediacy of that pain? That news of violence and devastation shocks me, saddens me, but then, like a storm, passes for awhile and lets me go on with my life? I wonder. Sometime I think the world would be a better place if we all suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and like cats were unable to conceive of fear as anything but immediate and constant. Maybe then wars would stop.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

357. Battle of the Bands

I think my subsonscious is trying to tell me that I've been a little too serious lately, because I had the following dream last week (as I was in the midst of studying three different kinds of trop, Torah, haftarah, and Eikha):

Setting: A college sports stadium. I have somewhat less than zero percent interest in organized sports (apart from the Mets, only because I'm from Queens and happened to be at Game 7 in 1986, the most exciting event of my entire lifetime). In this dream, for some reason, my brain chose to access its -.0003 of knowledge of what happens in a stadium.

The stands are filled, but clearly divided: one set of fans is on the left, the other on the right. On the field are little creatures that kind of look like Gumby but white and with shorter legs, bunched together in two separate groups like marching bands minus the instruments. They're dressed in tiny football jerseys emblazoned not with numbers but, yes, you guessed it, trop symbols (the little markings that go under the Hebrew letters to tell you what melody to use when singing the word).

On the field in front of these two teams is a row of folding chairs, one of which I occupy. I'm a judge. This, it seems, is the Gumby-trop creature version of American Idol. I'm all alone out there; my fellow judges are at lunch. I pay rapt attention to the sounds from the two huddled-together groups of trop creatures as, one by one, team by team, they step forward and chant--wait, it's Esther! No, it's Eikha! They're not very good. The crowd yells, then boos. I listen, stroking my chin like a rabbi, weighing all the facts in order to make the best decision.

Finally I get up. I point to the Gumby-creature team at left. They're the best! I could tell that they were singing Eikha, not Esther! The frenzied crowd rises to its feet, screaming and applauding. I've done my job.

(I think this means I need a vacation.)

Monday, August 07, 2006

356. Parashat Re'eh

I volunteered to write another d'var Torah for my synagogue newsletter--and I'm getting a little faster; this only took about 8 hours, as opposed to the three months I spent on the last one. It helped that I stole from a bunch of my own previous blog posts. (Re'eh will be read on August 19.)


Clear Waters

In the sprawling living room of a Victorian-style dorm at a small college in Massachusetts, we eased into overstuffed chairs and waited for a young man to begin speaking. We were all here this July weekend to attend an a cappella singing workshop. Of varied ages and backgrounds, we had one thing in common--enough disposable income to treat ourselves to a fun little musical vacation.

Carl, our speaker and fellow participant, had a somewhat different story. Since last August, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed his city and the only home he had known for his entire 22 years, he possessed little else but the clothes on his back.

We shifted uneasily in our seats as Carl began to talk. Most of us had never met a survivor of Katrina in person; our knowledge of the tragedy came from second-hand accounts whose frequency diminished as time passed and other kinds of devastation took precedence on CNN. I remembered feeling helpless and powerless as I listened to [our rabbi] read Psalm 69 at the Friday evening service following Katrina's week of destruction:

I have come into deep waters and a whirlpool has swept me away.
I am weary with crying, my throat is parched, my eyes grow dim as I wait for my God.

But, he noted, the coming week's parasha was Re'eh: "See." See, this day I set before you blessing and curse (Deut. 11:26). We're commanded to look. And we can't turn away, surrounded on all sides by images of the horror that resulted from our past refusal to see--that wetlands and barrier islands were being destroyed, that the levees of New Orleans would surely fail. Maybe Re'eh was God's psalm, God's plea for us to see the faces of those in pain. And if we chose to look, perhaps blessing rather than curse would be our lot.

I thought of these words as Carl allowed us to glimpse Katrina through his own eyes. Even as the storm grew closer, his mother chose not to leave; there were false alarms before and, besides, their extended family of 19 had only three old cars between them. Finally, as water threatened to sweep the house off its foundation, the police forced them to evacuate. Carl was able to grab only one item, which he guarded with his life while at the Superdome for the next five days: his high school diploma. Among his more than 40 aunts, uncles and cousins, Carl was the very first to graduate.

We sat in silence as he told us, in words bearing the cadences and conviction of a preacher, of horrible days that followed: acts of violence at the Superdome about which he never wished to speak; fruitless attempts to reach another shelter; the separation of his family as younger sisters were sent alone to different states. Carl ended up in San Antonio, where he enrolled in college and joined a church. One Sunday afternoon the minister heard him playing piano and hired him as music director. The following week he overheard sounds of gospel music coming from a practice room at school, and struck up a conversation and then a friendship with the singer. From him Carl learned about the a cappella workshop, which he was attending this weekend on a scholarship.

Someone asked how he felt now--sad, angry, alone?

Hopeful, he answered. The name "Katrina," he noted, means "to purify" in Greek. I'm sad, he said, and I want to go back to my home one day, but my family is alive and I have a job. God was good to us. This is new beginning both for my city and for myself.

Then Carl moved over to the piano in the corner of the living room and began to play "Amazing Grace," his clear tenor soaring above our harmonies.

I listened to his music, watched his smile, and wondered if I could ever be as optimistic in the face of tragedy. Of the beginning of Parashat Re'eh--See, this day I set before you blessing and curse--the 19th-century Ishbitzer Rebbe writes:

This means that each time the Holy One, blessed be He, bestows goodness to man, He dresses it in a garment where it appears on the outside to be the opposite from that goodness. In this way man may refine himself by his actions and bring to light the goodness that is at the depths.

In an era of words and images bombarding us every moment of the day, how do we find this hidden goodness? Can we believe our senses, distinguish between the idols we're warned against (Deut. 12:3) and the truly kosher (14:3-21)? Carl did not let his eyes dim as he waited for God. Carl had the vision to notice that God was hidden beneath all that mud and deep water.

Parashat Re'eh arrives right before the beginning of the month of Elul, a time when we seek purity within our own muddy waters and prepare to be judged anew. We wonder if God will choose blessing or curse for us in the coming year. I pray that we have Carl's ability to see the blessings around us--to see hope in despair, life in death--and make choices that bring blessings to ourselves and to the entire world.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

355. Comforted

I hadn't been to Shabbat evening services for a few weeks (travel, a meeting of my havurah, a bad choice of lunch venue resulting in annoying and unpleasant indisposition), my longest absence in quite awhile. Maybe I was just hungry for the experience, but from the very first prayer exhaled this Friday night I felt like each one of us, from the people swaying and jumping up and down by the door to those hiding in the last row of the balcony, were engaged in a collective sigh of relief. Tisha beAv and its three preliminary weeks of mourning--not at all symbolic this year--had ended. It was Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, start of the hopeful seven weeks leading up to the High Holy Days. And the change of emotion in our music, in our rabbis' words, in the drumming and clapping that bore our song far beyond the sanctuary, was as obvious as a rope we could grab to pull us up from our seats.

But even with all this energy in the air, we refrained from dancing after Lekha Dodi. Perhaps it was an expression of sadness over the war, or because the rabbi had more to say than usual. Moshe, she explained, pleaded with God--Va'ethanan, first word of this week's parasha--to see the promised land. But Moshe already knew he wouldn't; why, then, did he persist in asking? Because he wanted to teach the people of Israel a lesson: don't give up. Keep trying to achieve what you believe is right. Maybe all our prayers won't be answered, but that's no excuse to stop praying.

She continued the thought in her d'var Torah on Shabbat morning. We read this week that God commands us to do "what is right and good" (Deut. 6:18). But God just gave us a whole list of rules--the Ten Commandments, with many more to follow--so what does this postscript really mean?

Coincidentally, I had just wondered the same thing about these same words in the haftarah for Tisha beAv. My naive conclusion: God trusts us to get it right. That's only part of the answer, suggested the rabbi. God added the reminder so that we would go beyond the letter of the law, lifnim m'shurat hadin--we must live the compassion for which this Shabbat, this new beginning after weeks of pain and despair, was named. Wrote the Ramban:

This is a very important principle since it is impossible to record every detail of human behavior in the Torah: embracing the relationship with one's neighbors and friends, business affairs, national and local welfare.

If doing right means compromise--or changing old rules that no longer make sense--we must do so. And with each act of rightness and goodness we're that much closer to a new beginning, a new Torah, and the hope of comfort for those who need healing--for all of us.

Friday, August 04, 2006

354. Tisha beAv

I'm still dizzy from Tisha beAv, which was very difficult for me this year. I never gave the holiday much thought until a few years ago when I began to attend its dark, flashlit evening service. The day was sad and poignant, but never personal. Unlike Yom Kippur, when I felt the acute pain of my own sorrow, I was far less hurt by Tisha beAv and the emotions of communal loss that we're demanded to experience.

This year was different. Maybe I've grown up, become more aware of the broken world around me. Or perhaps my Israel trip, or the daily reading of dispatches from an acquaintance in Beirut, increased my sensitivity to the pain of others besides myself. Maybe my chanting of Eikha forced me to encounter words of grief on a more intimate basis than ever before. These past few weeks I've been hoarse from allergies and air conditioning; my singing was as rough-edged and breathless as the words themselves.

In past years we've had post-service discussions of our responsibilities as Jews and citizens of the world. This Tisha beAv, instead, we read traditional Psalms of distress and rebuke, since no other words seemed appropriate:

Save us, Lord; the Sovereign will answer us on the day when we call.
--Psalm 20

For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping, Because of Your indignation and wrath; for You have lifted me up, and cast me down.
--Psalm 102

Who, in our grief, are we really calling? Is God apart from us or within us? Do we drown in our grief, in our state of being cast down, or do we listen to our own call and take action?

Yesterday afternoon we studied commentary by the great sages on words we just chanted:

"Take us back, Lord, to Yourself, And let us come back... "(Lamentations 5:21): ... God said to them, 'It depends upon you, as it is said, "Return unto Me, and I will return unto you, says the Lord of Hosts." (Mal. 3:7). The Community spoke before God: "Lord of the Universe, it depends upon You, as it is said, Restore us, O God of our salvation" (Ps. 85:5), and therefore it is said, take us back, Lord, to Yourself, And let us come back.
--Midrash Rabbah-Lamentations

It seems like we can argue forever about who's supposed to take the first step. But perhaps the very fact of this debate is part of the answer--both parties are communicating, and a door has been opened. In the haftarah for Tisha beAv afternoon, just as we're in the deepest pit of sorrow, we're given even more hope of escape:

Yea, you shall leave in joy and be led home secure.
Before you, mount and hill shall shout aloud,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands...

Thus said the Lord:
Observe what is right and do what is just;
For soon my salvation shall come,
And my deliverance be revealed.

--Isaiah 55-56

I'm struck by God's omission of the actual solution: how do we know "what is right and what is just"? God, I think, trusts us to get it right. As we begin the path to Elul and days of reflection and the asking of forgiveness, I pray that we're wise enough to figure it out, once and for all.