Friday, April 27, 2007

489. Percoset, part 2

(Continued from here.)

We're always standing before God, but I think we're pushed to the front row when in pain and at the mercy of our nerve endings. We try to regain control by taking medicine created by humans, and then wait for God--for the miracle of our bodies and brains--to respond.

At a class last night on the music and piyyutim (liturgical poems) of Shavuot, we talked about the vulnerability of the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. They were free, no longer enslaved, but also in a place of danger and unknown. So they trusted in God's power to protect, and reached the other side. And in those 40 years they regained their humanity, learned to rest, and gathered the strength to think for themselves and act like free people. Only then were they ready to receive Torah.

I don't believe my pain had a reason, or at least one I can label. To my limited comprehension as a human in an unlimited universe, it just happened. But think I saw God in that pain, in the awareness of an awesome power beyond my control--the God who made the beast in the nighttime desert. I also saw God in the doctor found randomly online, one grain of sand, who treated me with kindness and compassion even as he had to inflict more pain to make me better. In his presence was the God of strength Who keeps me safe when I'm vulnerable. And the friends who stayed with me and kept calling to see if I was OK--they were the God Who teaches me to rest and take care of myself so I can grow up and be ready for... what? I don't yet know. Maybe one day I'll understand all these lessons and examples, and will reach the other side.

Monday, April 23, 2007

488. Percoset, part 1

Many years ago, on my 26th birthday, I woke up with a toothache. It'll be just fine, I said to myself. I'm healthy, it's my birthday--nothing can go wrong.

I then spent the rest of the day having an impacted wisdom tooth pulled, and celebrating by sleeping off the pain medication and eating three spoonfuls of soup. Such is life.

This should have taught me a lesson, but I'm too stubborn for my own good. Last week I seemed to have a cold, couldn't breathe at all, and my teeth hurt. By Thursday the pain had localized to one tooth, the very front one on the right. I made a dentist appointment for Monday. By Friday I felt like hell and called the doctor, who thought it was a sinus infection and prescribed antibiotics.

I got through Saturday (see previous post) and figured I was on the mend. Went to dinner with friends on Saturday night, and by dessert felt like a large, vicious animal was slowly clawing at my face. My amazing friends took out their cell phones and began calling around to find a dentist who could see me that night or on Sunday, and we learned that weekends were a really bad time to get a toothache in New York. Yes, there isn't a single emergency dental clinic in this entire city. We found one creepy-sounding guy who wanted $1,000 in cash to open his office, and many others who didn't return messages, including my own dentist. Those who would talk to me agreed that my symptoms indicated a root canal, what fun. My doctor's service suggested I go to the ER and get pain medication. Since I didn't want to sit in a room with sick and bleeding people for many hours, a friend gave me a Percoset she happened to have from an old prescription. I felt like a drug addict who just scored big time.

Went home, went to bed, waited to feel wonderful. Nothing. The pain lessened for about two hours and then came back with a vengeance. (I don't understand the appeal of getting addicted to this stuff. In my limited experience this weekend, it barely helps extreme pain, and makes you nauseous and tired whenever it does manage to mask moderate pain.) At 2AM, sure I was about to pass out or die, I went to the local ER and got, you guessed it, more Percoset, which had no effect whatsoever aside from knocking me out until daybreak.

Next morning a friend did some masterful Googling and found an endodontist who would open his office on Sunday. Despite inflicting extreme discomfort, he turned out to be the nicest, kindest doctor I've ever met. He thought that the dead nerve in my tooth was caused by a long-ago trauma--maybe I fell off my bike as a kid?--and had been irritated to the breaking point during a recent dentist visit. I'm just fine now, although my face looks like a blimp.

While sitting in the dentist's chair praying for the Novocaine to take effect, I sang the entire Friday night service to myself as a distraction and tried to figure out some meaning or reason behind this surreal drama of pain, friendship, unanswered phone calls, and random angels found on the Internet...


487. Antibiotic

(I wrote this on Saturday evening, but was distracted by the toothache mentioned below and never got around to posting. My last line wasn't quite accurate, either. See the following post, to come shortly, about the interesting aftermath of that toothache. Never a dull moment. [But don't worry, I'm OK!])

I was pretty confident, when I first volunteered, that I could learn 17 verses in three days. I like a challenge. But I didn't count on feeling lousy all week long, or having to stand at the bimah with a toothache. I still knew I'd get through the aliyot without major mistakes and that everything would be fine, relatively speaking. How relatively, I wasn't sure.

I'm very relieved. It went well and I was proud of myself, when all was said and done. I lost the trop at one point, a line with repetitive words set to different melodies; the rabbi sang quietly (although to a different version of the trop than mine, which got me a little confused), and I picked up the thread a moment later (although it felt like an eternity). Last year I might have panicked once I got that sinking feeling of words being in the wrong place, which did happen this morning for about a second. But I remembered the parts I call landmarks, distinctive words and trops to which I could latch on amidst chaos, and that the rabbi would rescue me no matter what. I was also determined to do a good job on behalf of my new yad. (We're still in the honeymoon period; maybe in a year or two I'll be comfortable if it sees me in my bathrobe, so to speak.)

I also realized how much I miss reading from our new Torah. I guess the gabbai is giving it a vacation or, more likely, it's too heavy for tiny Bat Mitzvahs to carry around the Sanctuary. This morning we used one that I'm sure encouraged many generations of congregants over the age of 40 to make appointments with their optometrists. Extra-small scrolls mean that I need to drag the yad extra-slowly, and not blink or I might miss a letter. On the bright side, its sofer eschewed curlicues and crowns and words were clear, evenly spaced, and rather casual and friendly. But very tiny. Between praying that my short-term tonal memory was up to snuff, deciphering the letters, and trying to ignore the pain in my face, I was concentrating so hard that a brass band could have dropped from the heavens into the middle of the first row and I wouldn't have noticed.

A few weeks ago for Parashat Vayikra, the rabbi shared a teaching from Tiferet Shmu'el:

"If a single person sins (Lev. 4:27)"... Everything that is cut off from its root receives impurity. When it is connected to its root, it doesn't receive impurity... This is also true with respect to people. If they are connected to one another, impurity will not rule them...

Perhaps that's the meaning of Parashat Metzora, as well. If you define being ruled by impurity as being being overwhelmed by bad situations, illness, evil--succumbing to problems against which you lack the strength to prevail--then the support of community can surely go far to "avert the severe decree." I think my reading this morning was proof that standing in the middle of a room filled with good people can sometimes be better than any antibiotic.

Friday, April 20, 2007

486. Ouch

I'm most definitely still here, in case anyone was wondering. On Monday I came down with a cold... which turned into sinus problems... which I think turned into a sinus infection, although I haven't been to the doctor yet. And which also turned into a toothache, don't ask, and hopefully the dentist will fix that on Monday. But I've spent this past week thinking a lot more about Advil than chanting, although whenever I could breathe have been cramming to learn two aliyot of Parashat Metzorah (the fun parts about dirty bedding and plagues on walls). I am very grateful that physical imperfections no longer make us tamei, or else I would have to recuse myself from reading those aliyot.

Shabbat Shalom, and here's to the miracle of painkillers.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

485. Dialogue

The six of us sat in a circle in a student lounge last Friday afternoon on the kind of easy chairs that that make you want to fall asleep or nurse a hot drink for a few hours. But those were the last things on our minds. We were not relaxed. The first person spoke.

"I can't tell you exactly why I believe it's wrong, but it is. And I think the decision will bring pain to those who become rabbis and cantors, only to find that they can't get a job because congregations don't want gays and lesbians to lead them." Silence. No one moved.

"I'd like to respond," said the woman next to him, also a student. "I have gay friends who tried to commit suicide because they were told they had no place in Judaism. Change has to begin somewhere. But I'd like to know why you think this way," she added. "What made you reach your decision?"

The other four people, two students and two facilitators, one of whom was me, sat in rapt attention. We were participants in a dialogue group, a structured conversation about Jewish life. Most of the groups run by this particular organization focus on discussions about Israel; this one was about an equally thorny issue, the recent decision of the Conservative movement to ordain gays and lesbians. I'm learning how to facilitate these groups. I never before did anything of the sort, but read about a training session and was intrigued--for selfish reasons as much as by a desire to do something useful for my community. I'm not always the greatest listener. Yes, I'm open-minded and tolerant--with those on my same wavelength. I have a tendency to lose patience with, and want to strangle, those with whom I disagree. When we're talking about leaders of countries I'll never meet, I'm happy to vent my frustrations by grumbling loudly and voting for the other guy. When it's a client, however, I can drive myself nuts, responding with with high blood pressure or complete denial that a problem even exists. ("It's easier to attract bees with honey," said my mother. Not always the best advice.) This dialogue session, with a trained facilitator modeling how to set fair, neutral guidelines, interrupt gently but sternly, and navigate charged waters, was a great reminder that people on opposite sides really can sit in a room together and not kill each other. We reached no conclusions, but that wasn't the goal. We did listen with respect and kavannah--mindful intention, presence, awareness. So many good things can begin from this place.

484. Hoopoes, bustards and kites, oh my

Mad props to my yad. It led the way this morning like a pro, not too long, not too short, perfectly weighted in the middle so I had something solid to grab on to. My favorite part is the little index finger at the end, which is taller than most and really seems to point rather than just come along for the ride as I drag. I try to stop myself from getting attached to objects, but this piece of silver and I were meant to find each other--

--even if our relationship began with one of us not knowing what the other was talking about. As I finished reading, the rabbi turned to me and whispered, "What's a hoopoe?" "I have no idea," I whispered back, and immediately wanted to beat my breast and declare "Al chet." What kind of Jew was I to study and chant a passage and not even bother to crack the dictionary? Then again, the rabbi had been reading this section for many decades. (Although I'm sure he knew the meaning in his native language.) He caught the eye of the other rabbi. "What's a hoopoe?" he whispered. The other rabbi shrugged. I felt slightly less guilty.

After services I bumped into the cantor, who had sent around an email the day before. Usually the Torah reading lineup is planned a month or two in advance, but every once in awhile people back out or take vacations and a last-minute plea is issued. I didn't reply, thinking I needed a little break. "Can you help next week?" he asked, smiling and shaking his head up and down, yes.

Well, OK. I'm addicted, and always love a challenge. If I can learn to pronounce the names of arcane birds, songs about bodily fluids and emissions will surely trip off my tongue.

Friday, April 13, 2007

483. Dawkins' God

As I continue to avoid work by pondering the meaning of life, I'm reminded of this great article in Time magazine a few months ago. It's a discussion between Rickard Dawkins, atheist, professor at Oxford University, and author of The God Delusion, and Francis Collins, non-atheist, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

I know I'm biased, but Dawkins' arguments seemed hollow. His reasoning didn't make sense to me.


COLLINS: By being outside of nature, God is also outside of space and time. Hence, at the moment of the creation of the universe, God could also have activated evolution, with full knowledge of how it would turn out, perhaps even including our having this conversation. The idea that he could both foresee the future and also give us spirit and free will to carry out our own desires becomes entirely acceptable.

DAWKINS: I think that's a tremendous cop-out. If God wanted to create life and create humans, it would be slightly odd that he should choose the extraordinarily roundabout way of waiting for 10 billion years before life got started and then waiting for another 4 billion years until you got human beings capable of worshipping and sinning and all the other things religious people are interested in.

COLLINS: Who are we to say that that was an odd way to do it? I don't think that it is God's purpose to make his intention absolutely obvious to us. If it suits him to be a deity that we must seek without being forced to, would it not have been sensible for him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal his role in creation?


This, to me, says everything about why atheists often seem as passionately religious (minus the God part) as believers. How does Dawkins know what may or may not be the proper timetable for God, or even for the laws of nature? But he's certain, minus any scientific evidence, and calls that proof of his position. Collins, on the other hand, sees in his own doubts and questions the possibility of answers he doesn't understand, which might be God. Collins is the liberal believer, Dawkins the reactionary.


COLLINS: Faith is not the opposite of reason. Faith rests squarely upon reason, but with the added component of revelation. So such discussions between scientists and believers happen quite readily. But neither scientists nor believers always embody the principles precisely. Scientists can have their judgment clouded by their professional aspirations. And the pure truth of faith, which you can think of as this clear spiritual water, is poured into rusty vessels called human beings, and so sometimes the benevolent principles of faith can get distorted as positions are hardened.


We are all very messy works in progress. Belief in God, I think, is an acknowledgment that even though we may never find the answers we need, our search is driven by the assumption that they do lie somewhere beyond the realm of our understanding. And so we express gratitude for whatever holds those keys, and makes it possible for us to exist.

482. Einstein's God

This fascinating book excerpt in Time Magazine got me thinking deep thoughts for a few hours when I should have been doing far more prosaic things:

"...[Einstein's] belief in causal determinism was incompatible with the concept of human free will. Jewish as well as Christian theologians have generally believed that people are responsible for their actions. They are even free to choose, as happens in the Bible, to disobey God's commandments, despite the fact that this seems to conflict with a belief that God is all knowing and all powerful. Einstein, on the other hand, believed--as did Spinoza--that a person's actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star...

...But Einstein's answer was to look upon free will as something that was useful, indeed necessary, for a civilized society, because it caused people to take responsibility for their own actions. 'I am compelled to act as if free will existed,' he explained, 'because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly...'

...For some people, miracles serve as evidence of God's existence. For Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence. The fact that the world was comprehensible, that it followed laws, was worthy of awe."

--From Einstein & Faith, (soon to be published) by Walter Issacson.

I can see how his dismissal of the concept of free will would make sense for a scientist trying to reconcile faith with reason. Spiritual laws, for Einstein, ruled the universe with the same immutability as natural ones. Sometimes I wish I believed this, too; I could relax and know that my lot in life would be achieved no matter, or despite, my behavior. My thread would fit just as it should into the fabric of creation. I'd be comforted by the fact that I was here for a reason, even if I didn't know what that reason was.

I'm not so certain about this last point, although do believe that my existence, and all our lives, will never be in vain. And I also believe we're created in God's image--and like the humans in His mirror, I think that God, in God's state of perfection, is also a bundle of contractions. God is perfect, but not entirely good. The two words aren't synonymous. Free will, I think, falls into that category of not-good but nevertheless Godlike: we are here to discover, make mistakes, change. The Bible tells us that God did this, as well: He created the earth, realized He screwed up, and started all over again. My biggest faux pas will never be that bad. If God is perfect, this is surely an example of a perfect mistake.

All that said, I still don't know exactly what I mean by the word "God"--but I believe in whatever it is that I don't understand. I'm certain there are spiritual plans of action, even though I can't name or define them, and that we are bound together with nature by a force beyond our control. The world around me--and the fact that I can breathe, hear, touch, and feel this world--is proof enough. God made me, and Einstein, just irrational enough to see this.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

481. Very good

This has been a week full of angels, and I've been speechless in response. One of them gave me this perfect, elegant yad for my birthday and celebration of five years of chanting Torah; I'll use it for the first time in a few hours when I read my favorite list (Leviticus version) at morning minyan. Some other angels made it possible for me to go to Israel again this summer with my synagogue. And the rest--I have no words to describe. Bereshit says it best, and I will add an exclamation point: "And it was good!"

Monday, April 09, 2007

480. Washing machine

Cat as my neck rest, I'm sitting in the comfy chair wrapped in a thick blanket of silence (aside from the rumble of an occasional bus, or an airplane meandering over Harlem en route to my old neighborhood). The quiet feels like a warm bath. I don't want to move. This past month has been been full of prayer, song, introspection, joy, and many good words--perhaps too many. I love the spring holiday marathon, but can hear the warnings of my old trainer at the gym reminding me that rests between sets are necessary in order to make the sweat useful. Purim was exhilarating and exhausting; three chapters of Esther will be a breeze next year, but this time around felt like a great workout with no cool-down afterwards. I think my muscles were still sore when Pesah rolled around. Seders, services, reading Torah, more services, rinse and repeat (on Thursday and Shabbat I sing about those kosher birds once again, this time in Parashat Shemini)--I expect to get a little burnt out over the High Holy Days, but not now. I'm tempted to skip services tomorrow morning, chill like I did last year on the seventh day. I'll get to services early, instead, and close my eyes for a half hour during the silent weekday version of the Pesukei D'Zimrah and think about psalms and peace. I'm sated, it's true, but the spirit is not a washing machine. You can't over-fill. The extra suds end up in places you didn't even consider giving a good soak.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

479. Liberation, part 4

(Continued from here. Hag Sameah!)

We did break up, although not for years. By then I was very confused about being Jewish, but tried not to think about it too often. Few of my Jewish friends and none of my remaining family celebrated anything any more, and my recent holiday memories were tinged with loss and sadness. I spent most of the time singing Christian sacred music, which was much prettier than Had Gadya by a long shot. I began to wonder if all those many Christians knew something we relatively few Jews did not. Just as I was considering vaguely contemplating the idea of tossing around the thought of starting to imagine what it might feel like to leave Judaism, and how my ancestors would turn over in their graves with force enough to cause an earthquake, my dear friend R.'s mother passed away. The next year, when the empty places at both our tables were too much to bear, I began spending holidays with she and her father. We followed no ritual except eating chicken soup, and they were the best Passovers of all. I thought often of the tantalizing taste of songs and laughter back in Brooklyn, but being with people I loved, who needed me as much as I needed them, was more than enough music for my soul.

A few years later I discovered my synagogue, and that I loved being Jewish, and felt very torn. I wanted to be with my friend but had seen the promised land, as it were; I couldn't turn back. For the past eight years (nine? ten?) I've spent one seder at the home of old college friends, watching their kids grow up and listening to the same great, ancient jokes over and over again--and reading, in English, every last word of the haggadah, which helped me learn the story I had long ago forgotten, and never really knew. The second seder I've spent with friends from my synagogue, at first cooking and leading from my own, quirky Xeroxed version of the haggadah, and learning that it's much more fun when someone else does all the work. Yesterday we sat around the table until after 1AM wrestling with and discovering ourselves in the story. (And, of course, eating large amounts of wonderful food.) It was also my birthday; I read Torah and got an aliyah, and a beautiful blessing from the rabbi. My soul was sated from morning until long into the night. Part of me, like all of us, struggles daily to leave mitzrayim, the narrow place--and yesterday the openness, the light, was clearly visible. I pray that I can continue to keep it in sight.


Yesterday also began the grand countdown, 48 more days until we stay up all night and receive the Torah on Shavuot in a state of near-delirium (well, speaking for myself). Last year I tried, without success, to write daily thoughts about the Omer. This year I'll commit to occasional observations, a much easier goal, and will begin with a no-brainer. As explained beautifully in Rabbi Simon Jacobson's guide, Week One (of seven) is all about Hesed, Loving-kindness. Last night, according to the multidimensional chart of realms of the soul developed by Kabbalistic rabbis, was a double dose of love, "Hesed of Hesed." I couldn't imagine a better description of my day.

And tonight begins day 2 of the Omer, "Gevurah of Hesed," Discipline in Loving-kindness. My discipline today was to avoid discipline, and allow myself to rest and enjoy the remainder of these holy days instead of worrying about the imminent return to real life.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

478. Liberation, part 3

(Continued from here.)

My parents divorced when I was 11, a very good thing. For many years thereafter I spent one seder with each, just my mother and I or my father and I. A few months ago I heard Dr. Susannah Heschel speak, and she noted that her family was a closed unit, although not at all antisocial. Her father had lost everyone in the Shoah, and this new family meant safety and love. He was reluctant to open the circle. I think my parents felt the same way; also, thanks to death and silly arguments, we now had very little family to invite. So I spent the first night, year after year, reading the Mah Mishtanah for my mother and then flipping briefly through the rest of the book until we came to the meal, greasy broiled chicken, sweet, crumbly brisket, and gefilte fish from a jar, and for dessert chocolate macaroons and wonderful Technicolor slices of fake fruit. Breakfast the next morning was matzah brei, the kind you didn't mix up like scrambled eggs but fried intact, like French toast. Douse liberally with salt; wash down with pulpy, fresh-squeezed orange juice. The second night my father speed-read the entire haggadah in Hebrew while I prayed the soup wouldn't boil over in the pot he kashered with a brick immersed in white-hot water. Those intimate seders, although a little depressing, were still more earnest in their attempts to follow ritual than the efforts of our family and friends, who had pretty much given up by then. I knew no one who cared about being Jewish. I'm sure they existed, but not in the circles I happened to inhabit.

In my last year of college I had a boyfriend, who invited my mother and I to his family's house for the first seder. My mother, although very ill, made the long subway trek to Brooklyn, where we both experienced a Passover miracle: a dozen happy relatives singing and joking, just like when I was three. His family was Conservative, their tunes different from what remembered in Hebrew School, but I picked them up quickly and even harmonized. My mother and I said little to each other that evening, but I knew she was hoping I'd marry into this idyllic tableau. And I knew I would not, but wouldn't dare say so. She passed away the following year just before Passover, which I once again spent with my boyfriend and his family, who I liked more than him but wanted to pretend otherwise so I could keep going to those big, noisy seders.

(Continued here.)

477. Liberation, part 2

(Continued from here.)

We were strictly kosher for Passover, one of the few things my parents ever agreed on. Most of our friends and neighbors belonged, as did we, to the local Orthodox synagogue*, but our community version of Judaism veered somewhat from the party line. Everyone observed kashrut, but with one set of dishes. Kids and men went to shul on Saturday mornings, and then my friends and I rode bikes or shopped for the rest of the afternoon. And that was it for Shabbat; even the kosher butcher stayed open on Saturdays. I didn't know a single person who had Friday night dinners with their families, or even lit candles. No one talked about God or Israel, although if you asked, we believed in and were passionate about both. We were also certain that our modern, adaptive observance was the one and only right way, and held in secret disdain those who belonged to Conservative or Reform shuls, or didn't flick a light switch on Saturdays. Our parents and grandparents survived wars and the Depression and knew that you couldn't ever stop being Jewish, but you could stop being free. If freedom meant working on Saturday to pay the bills, so be it. You were still in America, your kids were happy, and that counted more than religion.

My mother decided to take a break from cleaning during the spring of my ninth and tenth years, and we spent Passover at Brown's Hotel, second-tier crown jewel (after Grossinger's) of the Borscht Belt. Long past its heyday and fraying visibly, like most of its its clientele, Brown's still boasted a dining room that sat thousands, and very little for a kid to do. (I can't imagine what my parents did, either, since my father didn't play golf, nor my mother canasta. I think they spent eight hours a day reading newspapers and dozing off by the pool.) I hung out in the gift shop, which had a rack of paperbacks in the corner where I devoured The Andromeda Strain to feed my nascent science fiction habit. I also developed a crush on David, the cantor's son, also ten, impossibly cute with big eyes and long, dark hair like a prince of Egypt. He liked me too, amazingly, and we went on two dates with the blessings of my parents, who thought the whole thing was adorable and were probably beginning to plan the royal wedding. The first date was at the teen clubhouse, where I drank a club soda and pretended I was 13. The second, the day before I went home, was at that most traditional of romantic spots, the cesspool. Far beyond the bungalows, at the edge of a big green field, we stood next to round, smelly tanks and David took my hand and gave me my first kiss ever, a little peck on the cheek. (I'll refrain from further detail about how my subsequent romantic life tended to end up at same location.)

(Continued here.)
* Google tells me that the synagogue was raided twice in the 90s for hosting illegal, Mob-backed gambling, an interesting way to pay the mortgage when membership dues run low because the average age of congregants is 90.