Wednesday, April 30, 2008

668. Cut in two

Today I did something that pained me greatly, although my decision was determined by wonderful blessings. I was asked to help lead services again in a few weeks and, for the first time ever, had to decline--because I'll be at a synagogue retreat, attendance at which was given to me as a gift. "We'll miss you," emailed the cantor. I sat at my computer and cried. How lucky can a person be, to have these two options at her feet?

But I must admit that as of right now, at least, leading services seems to be the greater joy. I've never been to this particular retreat, which is for women only. I've tended to shy away from those kinds of events for none but selfish reasons: most of my friends are women, I'm happy with my own empowerment and visibility in a complex, gendered world, and the area where I need the most help (and should be spending time and money) is in meeting men. Not women. Also, despite the stew of emotions that always pours forth after I sing, I'm wary of touchy-feely situations. Beyond a certain level, I want to run for the hills. Not that a women's retreat will be this way, but I'm a little afraid.

But I'm going, thanks to someone who probably knows what I need better than I do, and it will be a different and wonderful experience. Although I wish I could cut myself in two, Solomon-like, and leave one half back in New York to sing and pray.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

667. Two haftarot

I was given a choice of both or either, and—mostly as a challenge to myself, but also because I was feeling a little greedy—chose both. So I read haftarah twice during Pesah, on the second and seventh days. I almost regretted this decision once I began to study, though, since the seventh day's text was long and melodically repetitive. I did like the much more interesting second day, the story of how King Josiah brought Torah to his people, abolished cults (and "the necromancers and the mediums, the idols and the fetishes—all the detestable things..."), and taught everyone about Passover. "There was no king like him before who turned back to the Lord with all his heart and soul and might, in full accord with the Teaching of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him." You go, Josiah.

The haftarah for the seventh day took me longer to grasp. It's a warriors song of gratitude to a God who granted victory in battle. You can almost see David, utterly exhausted, desperate with panic and relief, covered in mud and crawling on the edge of a field littered with bodies:

For the breakers of Death encompassed me,
The torrents of Belial terrified me...

The Lord thundered forth from heaven,
The Most High sent forth His voice;
He let loose bolts, and scattered them;
Lightning, and put them to rout...

He reached down from on high, He took me,
Drew me out of the mighty waters;
He rescued me from my enemy so strong,
From foes too mighty for me.

David knows why has had been spared:

For I have kept the ways of the Lord
And have not been guilty before my God...

To humble folk You give victory,
And You look with scorn on the haughty.

and that his own violence was according to God's will:

You have girt me with strength for battle,
Brought low my foes before me,
Made my enemies turn tail before me,
My foes — and I wiped them out.
They looked, but there was none to deliver;
To the Lord, but He answered them not.
I pounded them like dust of the earth,
Stamped, crushed them like dirt of the streets.

This was the challenging part. I understand paralyzing fear, and gratitude so great that you want to tear you heart out in thanks. I don't understand being glad because God chose to ignore the pleas of someone in pain, even if that person is an enemy. I have also never fought in a war, and can imagine it makes you a little crazy. As I sang, I envisioned David telling this story to his children with pride and strength--but also a little tenderness, wistfulness, when he came to the verse above. He is still a warrior, single-minded and obstinate, but as he gets older is beginning to entertain the idea of peaceful alternatives. Maybe he's a little sorry for some of the actions of his youth. But he doesn't regret a single moment.

Keeping this imagined scenario in my mind helped me sing, and I think for a few minutes I wasn't even standing at the bima--I was somewhere else in time, just occupying space and voice.

Monday, April 28, 2008

666. First bagel

As I sit here eating my first bagel of liberation (yum), I realize this is also the first morning in about a month that I didn't wake up and immediately begin to practice upcoming Torah or haftarah. Instead I am humming snatches of "Betzeit Yisrael" (from Hallel and the Haggadah) as sung with a melody from an Italian community. Pesah is over and I should move on to new tunes--but the old ones still taste so good.

Although I love to chant, sometimes--just sometimes--I don't always want to practice. But that wasn't the case these past weeks, when the melody and very breaths required to make those sounds seemed to sustain me from day to long day. I miss this. I will surely have more to learn soon and breaks, like the eight-day one preceding the eating of this bagel, are good even if only to remind you of what you're missing.

665. The tiger

Yesterday morning on the way to services, I ran into a very short woman with a large tiger draped around her neck. It was, in fact, a stuffed animal tiger, although this was not immediately clear from a block away. But as she stood in the middle of Broadway and tried to hail a cab, I could see that the enormous animal whose hind legs hung over her right shoulder, and head and front paws dangled nonchalantly over her left, was not alive, and had never been. It was still the kind of thing that makes one look twice, and I did. The woman glared back angrily as if to say, "Hey! Sometimes you just need to get across town with your stuffed tiger! What's it to you?" I love New York.

I also realized this tiger sighting was a perfect metaphor for the eighth day of Pesah. On the first day we rush out, ecstatic about freedom and trying to do everything right so God won't change God's mind. This year I went to my traditional first seder out in Queens, where you can set your watch by the same jokes every year (13 and counting), and wouldn't dare miss a word of the haggadah. And I would have it no other way. By the second day (for those who celebrate it), we are free! and listen to Shirat HaYam at services to prove it. Now we can sing, bang timbrels, break the rules a little bit; the first evening was just practice. On the second night I inaugurated freedom with members of my synagogue at an ecstatic and non-traditional community seder, where we also heard words from members of a foreign domestic worker's union and a Tibetan representative of the Dalai Lama. (More to come later in the week on these topics.)

The holiday winds down--but now we have space in our minds to focus on things other than survival. By the seventh day we have learned to let in love (Shir HaShirim) and on the eighth, the memories of those whom we have lost (Yizkor ). All resources must focus on survival when we're burdened by slavery. There's no time to remember; sadness, even happiness, uses energy sorely needed elsewhere. But by the end of Pesah, no longer paralyzed or intoxicated by our liberation, we are able to pause, catch our breaths, carry stuffed tigers absolutely anywhere we want, and begin to explore how to be fully human--and get ready for Shavuot and the best possible gift of this knowledge, the Torah.

I was lucky to read the haftarah twice this week, an experience that helped me understand some of the above. It was a great holiday, to say the least. More to come (and I really mean it this time).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

664. A sweet Pesah to all

I Broke Shabbat To Write This Down

Because I didn't trust my mind's eye to remember
tan grasses piled on each other in the shape of a hill
so wide that the span of my eyes can't see it
just like the painting that hung over the piano, gleaners bending over wheat
and rolls of gold mountains behind them and sky the color of a robin's egg.

Today the sky is grey, but the robin herself takes tentative steps
at the edge of the lake,
finally jumping in for the tiniest second
before I can even see her chest puffed out below the water.
Then she runs after the duck, shaking herself vigorously, and I know.

The night before, I watched indentations of rain
against a brown paisley soup of mud and pebbles under the lake shore.
The next morning I saw the sky turn silver and trees black-green
in a pattern of triangles
and, from the edge of a pier, I sang Torah to the air.

On this beautiful, warm Shabbat afternoon, the kind of weather the Israelites must have dreamed about as they set out on their journey, some words from last weekend's retreat. I haven't written a poem in years, but plain old grammar didn't make sense when describing this gift of calm and silence. Some of that feeling still remains, miraculously, even after this week's pre-Pesah craziness, and I grasp what's left with great care. Wishing freedom and peace to all who read this, and also many of those great fake-fruit sugar slices. And macaroons, too.

Friday, April 11, 2008

663. Balance

Balance: this has been a week completely without it. In its place, much coughing, sneezing, working crazy hours, and biting my tongue with nasty clients. I'm heading off to a weekend of meditation with members of my synagogue and hope to return with some of the equilibrium I've lost these past few weeks. Last night I searched for a text to share with the group, as we all will, and happened upon this quote from Rilke via the Velveteen Rabbi (one of Time Magazine's top blogs of the year! yasher koah!)

I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

-- from the letters of Rainer Maria Rilke

I hope I can heed these words and listen to all the questions that arise during these two days of silence--and above all, that I may be patient.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

662. More soon, honestly

I am still here, and will finish part 2 very soon. Since then I've also led a shiva minyan, had a wonderful birthday, and come down with something that feels like the flu, but I think is on its way out. More to come when the Tylenol takes effect and I am no longer shivering from a fever...