Thursday, June 26, 2008

701. Teaching

Thank you, George, for asking--my student did a brilliant job! And, coincidentally, I was given an aliyah when she read; the gabbai had no idea I was her teacher. Her hands were shaking long before we both stood at the bimah. But she sailed perfectly through two aliyot, and will read again this morning and on Shabbat (I think she's relieved I won't be in attendance either day). She's already planning to learn more for the end of the summer. Very cool.

I'm relatively new to teaching anyone anything. During the days when I worked for companies, I always mentored junior designers--but it was part of the job, more for my benefit than anyone else's. I was never excited or inspired by the task, nor did I feel I was sharing knowledge in order to help the other person grow. My parents weren't big on honoring teachers; I now realize this was a strange attitude in a Jewish home. I always had the sense that teaching was just like the cliché, a fallback career for failed artists. As for those who mastered the skill--good for me if they were my teachers, but no need to emulate them. A real job involved producing, creating, and then engaging in intellectual or material commerce. Teachers, like cops or librarians, provided a service, a lesser kind of ability.

Whether my parents really meant to impart this line of reasoning, I have no idea. Their lives were about hard work, survival, and making a better world for me; I can understand how they saw teaching as a means to an end rather than an art. There just wasn't time in their lives for that nuance. But as an adult I realized the error of my bias, and began to see teachers as somewhat mysterious and possessing talents I sorely lacked. All throughout college I was a little afraid of all my professors. And when first approached by a chanting student, my instinct was to run in the other direction--but, after getting through a lesson or two, I realized that there was little hidden, secret knowledge involved. I just needed to listen, be patient, and plan ahead as much as possible. And try to remember everything my own wonderful teacher did to help me learn.

Monday, June 23, 2008

700. River of ink

A river of ink, racing over falls
Squeezing through tributaries of veins and roots
Finally crashing into a column of parchment
Resting, then smudged, as it tries to make sense of the world.

I puzzle over tracks above and below
Where thousands preceded, a finger dug into the bank
For a hundred years of eight days, a new river its sacrifice
Waiting for me to dive in.

The quick beginnings of a poem in honor of my student, who will be making her Torah chanting debut in about an hour in honor of her father's yahrzeit. I love introducing adults--people like me, finding their connection--to this smudged ink.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

699. Being, doing

This week's Torah portion, Shelah Lekha, noted the rabbi at Shabbat services, presents a conflict between "being" vs. "doing." The Israelites expect God to protect them despite their transgressions because, well, they're the Jewish people. But that's not enough for God. (According to commentary in Etz Hayim : "God is prepared to forgive... slights against Heaven, but not sins against the idea of the Jewish people [who refused to believe Moshe and Aaron] as the people of God.") God does protect Caleb and Joshua, however, who take action--who do--and risk their lives in the process.

What better defines a Jew, wondered the rabbi, being or doing? The latter idea was irrelevant during the Nazi era; only blood counted. Traditional halakha is equally unforgiving: feel free to call yourself Jewish (aka Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform), but of course don't try to have a legal religious wedding in Israel unless you're Orthodox (according to whatever the current standard might be).

But there's also the case of Brother Daniel, aka Oswald Rufeisen, a Jew who escaped from a Nazi labor camp. He survived by hiding in a convent, and then decided to convert to Christianity and become a monk. In 1962 he applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Despite his religious beliefs, he saw his fate and destiny as part of the Jewish people, and was a halakhic Jew by any standards. His application was nevertheless denied: " The Supreme Court [...] ruled that despite the halakhic logic of the rabbinate’s position and the unusual circumstances (Daniel had single-handedly saved several hundred Jews in the town of Mir), you couldn’t be both a Catholic priest and a Jew. " To decide otherwise, suggested the rabbi on Shabbat morning, would have been tantamount to acting like the Nazis, for whom only blood counted. Rather, the Supreme Count deemed doing Jewish more important than being.

Where do we stand today? In the 1990s, Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, put most of their efforts into creating events (otherwise known as the "Jewish bowling syndrome") that brought Jews together rather than engaged us in prayer or tzedaka. Connection, being, was considered most important for survival; the rest would follow, or not. For many Americans whose forbears came here during the last century's great wave of immigration, it did not. But we're still as Jewish as our grandparents, or are we? Is it just semantics, or does it really matter?

The rabbi's words struck a nerve. When I first considered setting foot inside a synagogue after years away, I wondered for about a second if they'd let me in, or might see a big scarlet letter "chet" on my forehead and chase me away with cries of "Imposter!" I neither felt like a good Jew nor spared a whole lot of love for Am Yisrael, especially since I had more of a connection to church music than any kind of mumbling in a minor key. I had the same doubts the very first time I was offered an aliyah, as part of a group at the singles retreat that began my renewed spiritual journey. It was an exciting and confusing moment, and I half expected a bolt of lighting to strike me dead. Even as a child in Hebrew school, I always had a sense that I wasn't yet sealed into this place and people--that one day I might grow into my Jewishness, and then perhaps the contradictions and little hypocrisies would make sense. They still do not, but now that I'm engaged in doing, everything else--the part about being a good person and honoring the tradition which which I have chosen to cast my lot, the part about what makes a real Jew--finally does.

698. Theater

On Shabbat morning a week ago it was very, very hot at services. Almost unbearable. I debated leaving early, but then we reached one of my favorite moments: The Amidah ends. The rabbis race through Kaddish Shalem; a page number is announced. The b'nai mitzvah are invited to the bima. Conversations stop; everyone looks forward; families gather on either side of the Sanctuary and begin to walk slowly up front. A handful of people, or sometimes what looks to be an entire tribe, step up to the Ark, and a young voice shivering with anticipation begins to sing:

"Ein kamokha..."
"None compare to you, O Lord, and none compare to your creation..."

The families keep climbing, and we wait for this line:

"...tivneh homot Yerushalayim."
" the walls of Jerusalem."

Like sides of a building being lifted into place, we all stand as one. The gabbai motions to a nervous relative, who pulls open the Ark curtain.

"Vayehi binsoa ha'aron..."
"Whenever the Ark was carried forward, Moses would say: Arise, Lord..."

I love that first moment when the sifrei Torah are revealed as they lean solidly again one another, looking proud but tired (who wouldn't be, at that age?). No matter what's changed in my week, what I've left behind, unfinished, or abandoned, the scrolls are always waiting. One is lifted carefully and placed in small arms, and we follow it like a magnet around the Sanctuary.

Last week while the scroll rested, embraced, before its moment in the spotlight, the rabbi spoke about a midrash on the week's Torah portion, Beha'alotekha. Moshe tries to fashion the menorah and its many cups, knobs, blossoms and branches, but cannot. He complains to God: it's too hard! God responds: Look, I will show you. The lesson, said the rabbi, is to persevere and have patience; to ask for help, if we believe in something deeply enough and discover we can't do it by ourselves. I thought of the Torah service itself, and how week after week we repeat and practice its songs, choreography, and melodrama; it's long and complex, but we never give it a rest. We could pore over the same words in the humash alone at our desks, but we need the shared experience of theater to remind us why we come together in order to turn them inside out. Like the backstage crew of a Broadway play, week after week we rehearse, savor, and perfect every small moment of ritual. Read alone, the words can be hard, cold, an intellectual exercise. But performed as an ensemble, music on a crowded stage, the tunes stay on our lips and we can't stop humming. They come alive, part of our breath.

Monday, June 16, 2008

697. Malach

I don't believe in angels, but am slowly being convinced.

It had been a long week. Very often I'll reward myself for making it to Friday by going out to a big, late lunch, but it was very hot; I didn't have much of an appetite, and ate a little sandwich instead. A friend and I planned to have dinner, but she wasn't feeling well and cancelled later in the afternoon. So I looked forward to coming home by myself to some great Shabbat-style takeout Chinese. I knew I'd be starving by then.

On my way out of the synagogue, I ran into an acquaintance in the crowd. We usually exchange little more than a hello. But this time she stopped me:

"You're going to have a great feast now, right?'

"Well, hopefully somewhere," I said. She looked surprised.

"Aren't you going to L.s' for dinner?" she said. "I plan to stop by a little later."

"Um, I don't think so?" I answered... and then remembered. I was invited a month ago. I forgot to put it in my book.

"Oh my god," I said, "Thank you for reminding me. I totally spaced that it was tonight." She gave me a look that I was certain screamed, are you crazy? how could you DO such a thing, forget a Shabbat invitation? (But I'm sure that was just my conscience yelling back.)

I continued to thank her profusely (and this time I'm certain I sounded a little nuts), and then remembered to ask for L'.s address--I had forgotten that, as well.

If I hadn't eaten a light lunch... if my friend hadn't cancelled our dinner plans... if I hadn't run into this acquaintance by chance in the middle of hundreds of people milling outside... I would have missed out on enjoying a delicious, home-cooked dinner filled with warmth, the spirit of Shabbat, and new friends, and my rudeness would no doubt have cause at least one of them to think much less of me. I suspect there was some sort of an angel, a malach, directing all those little decisions and chance meetings, and making sure I ended up exactly where I was supposed to be.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

696. Father's Day

It's been a very long time since Father's Day registered on my radar. After my parents died, and after a few years of allowing consumer and cultural pressure to make me feel miserable, both that and Mother's Day ceased to matter at all. I learned to note them benevolently like someone else's religious holiday, and then go about life as usual. But this afternoon I was reading some beautiful and bittersweet essays in the Times, and couldn't help but remember.

He was a small, wiry man with big muscles in his arms like Popeye from years of lifting boxes of fruit--my father was a produce manager at various mom-and-pop groceries and supermarket chains, where he stayed until invariably getting fired because of some dispute with the boss. He was a complicated man of opposites: small and strong, with a basso profundo voice that shook the floor and which he used to great effect when yelling at my mother and I, but turned into a whisper when feeding the birds or playing with babies in the park. Animals and children flocked to him at every occasion, and my father could make both squeal with delight. He always had a pocketful of peanuts for the squirrels, and hard candies for the rest of us.

He had a fierce temper, which I inherited and then learned to control when I found myself in my early 20s taking care of two seriously ill parents; I needed all the energy I could muster and realized that being nice was easier than the alternative, and you ended up with more friends, as well. My father didn't need this lesson, because had a kind of dangerous charm that drew people around him no matter what. He prayed a lot; I remember him standing morning, noon, and night in the corner of the bedroom, wrapped in a tallit. Only recently did I understand that I inherited this tendency from him. But I wonder what God said back, or if my father listened, because he often observed in letter but not spirit. At times he was not a very nice person, but I had no doubt that he loved me more than life itself--the best gift a parent can give.

His hobbies, to my recollection, were watching Westerns on TV, praying, eating borscht, sauerkraut, and various other greasy foods, learning Kabbalah and (in his 80s) how to play the accordion, sending money to and corresponding with a Chinese orphan (I helped him write the letters), learning Chinese, playing gin rummy and poker, singing Yiddish songs out of key, and arguing. He had little use for popular culture, and seemed to be stuck in the wrong era. He belonged in the 1800s, the world of his grandfather, where roles were prescribed and he could have davened all the time and ruled the roost, as men did. He encouraged my independence and growth, but never my mother's. Only now, as an adult, can I imagine how difficult it must have been for him to straddle the line between now and then.

I didn't visit often enough during the years he was in a nursing home. I hated the place, the smells, the echoes against white walls, vacant-eyed people parked in wheelchairs in the hallways. But I also knew, deep down, that I had no reason to feel guilty for not showing up every weekend. I was still angry back then, and thought his illness was deserved. Anyway, we had little to talk about; my young adult life was incomprehensible to him, and he could no longer concentrate on gin rummy. And whenever I left, I felt like I was killing him just a bit--tearing away the part of me that was in his heart. No matter my resentment, I hated to put him through this ordeal.

Later on, after sorrow and understanding replaced indignation, I wished I had visited more often. But I also believe he spent most of those years living in other memories, the same ones I chose as well--of me at three years old running between the legs of old men in the front row of the synagogue, and then being lifted onto my father's shoulders to get the best view of the Ark as it was opened; of scooping me up for a kiss whenever he walked into the house after a long day of work; of taking me to the local jeweler on my 16th birthday to buy a gold and pearl necklace spelling out my Hebrew name, Ahuva (beloved). I wish I had more memories of long conversations about life, or apologies, but am grateful for these snapshots. I can still hear him tell me how proud he was, no matter what small accomplishment I recounted. I miss that very much. He had doubts about his place in the world, but never about me. I don't understand why he lived his life the way he did, but that life made me who I am--and I don't want to be anyone else.

695. Mazal tov on your new bird

Mazal tov, Israel. I was happy to see that you recently declared a new national bird--what country is complete without one? And your choice of the non-Kosher long-billed hoopoe warmed my heart, because I had my own hoopoe Torah-related experience last year:

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.

--from here.

But Stephen Colbert said it much better than I ever could:

(On a more serious note, here's a beautiful meditation on Israel and the hoopoe:

"Will Peace Take Flight?" )

Friday, June 13, 2008

694. Faith

Yesterday Chaviva wrote a thought-provoking post about faith--what does that word mean in Judaism, anyway? I've been pondering this question myself lately, although not specifically in a Jewish context. My main beef with the school of mean, vocal atheists who write books (disclaimer: I'm sure they're very nice in their private lives, love their kids, support the local A.S.P.C.A., etc., but they always seem to be yelling whenever I meet them) is that they link faith and proof. I think you can boil down their arguments thus: Since the idea of God can't be proven, believers are deluded. Proof is one side of the scale, faith the other, and it must tip in one direction. There can't be balance.

But I don't believe these words are opposites. They don't belong in the same sentence, let alone definition. I think the words "leap of" should always precede "faith," because spiritual faith is like love--like jumping off a cliff with no idea how or where you'll land, but knowing you must. Faith is a conscious choice, always on purpose. It can be comfortable once you get there, but the journey is often terrifying. Just as having proof that your partner loves you can't guarantee that you love your partner back, so does the existence of verifiable data, or lack thereof, about the reality of God have little to do with an ability to take comfort in Divine presence. To me, faith is an awareness of not being alone, ever, and an expression of awe at mysteries beyond our understanding. Religious communities are places where these feelings can be articulated (and, yes, not always to the benefit of humankind--in this I must agree with the angry atheist writers).

Since belief in God is not a prerequisite for being a Jew, I think "Jewish faith" is about trust, and awe of the beauty, in one another--in our ability to share support as communities and a people, to honor the memories of our ancestors through ritual, and to gather strength to insure our traditions will continue. Some see the face of God manifest in these ideas; others don't. Either way, they are not concepts that require scientific proof to be valid, but rather are about taking a chance and believing that we will catch each other when we fall.

693. Language

At services Tuesday morning, the rabbi noted that we thank God, in the blessing we say upon receiving an aliyah, for "notayn haTorah"--giving of the Torah. But the word "notayn" is in the present tense; the giving didn't happen a long time ago and finish, but is a continual process. So learning and discovery can't ever end, because Torah is always new.

Afterwards I thought about how language still gets in the way despite so much effort spent trying to deconstruct every last tense, syllable, and letter of the Torah. Words that describe the completely unknowable are a bear to translate. "God is One," for example--I believe it, but can't tell you what it means. I imagine a God Who resides in us all, BitTorrent-like, one divided into many parts, rather than a big presence hovering above like a massive, fluffy cloud from a child's drawing--but no doubt some see this last image in their mind's eye when they pray. Or is God a power Who fills up all spaces like white fire between black letters, or cement between bricks in a building wall? And how do these perceptions of the Divine--or having no visual analogy at all--influence our actions? It's like trying to imagine what the color green looks to someone else. I will never know if what I see is the same as what you see, but as long as we agree upon what it represents, we'll both understand that red shoes would look really bad with green socks. Same with "God is One;" if we respect the ethical and moral teachings that developed from this concept, how we envision God, or not, shouldn't matter. (One of our teachers at the Tikkun suggested this was the flaw in recent books by Christopher Hitchens, et al. Their theories are based upon one blanket definition of God--but my compassionate God is completely different from your vengeful God, for example, so arguments to prove or disprove one can't hold for the other.)

I think we need a completely new language, a spiritual Esperanto of sorts, just for describing the Divine, with words drawn from the most beautiful metaphors of literature, and a really big dictionary--or entire academic disciple--devoted to defining these phrases with the same kind of detail and analysis as lawyers interpreting the Constitution. Then we could open a book and read all possible translations of the concept that most divides us, and perhaps understand just a little better what goes on in one another's heads.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

692. Automatic

Then again, God really is always present and even has a sense of humor--God's way of punching back. One morning last week I went into the bakery next door for my usual breakfast bagel. They had just made a new batch, and the server went to the oven in the back of the store to retrieve it. He reached in, and I could see a brand name on the oven door: "Panimatic," right next to a logo of three adjoining circles.

My first thought--panim el panim, face to face with God, right here in this very store! And automatic, requiring no action on my part. But what was the third circle? Maybe the three of them stood for Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim--follow these principles and God will surely appear.

Then I remembered "pan" meant bread in any number of languages, and that bagels are round. And acknowledged that I needed a vacation. Still, it's always good to get a reminder over morning coffee about what's really important.

691. Call my name

Tikkun Leil Shavuot, 5AM

It's 5AM; call my name,
I'm waiting. I want you to see who answers
and shoves back when you try to elbow past
because if I never end,
if I am many roads but no walls,
how can I stop you?
I yield; you flow through me;
all we do is surrender. The mirrors
confuse, and we forget which is real
and which the rebuke, a hoarse cry of hunger, letters on a scroll
that refuse to dance when you run out of breath.

There are no mistakes, and even if there were,
I would give you more
because this night I beg you to change,
be frustrated, break my arm,
don't bother to peek, just tear down the curtain.
How can it be morning? There's a woman walking her dog.
We make music on a street corner.
Back inside I catch you as you shiver and fall,
and you pretend to forgive. But I sing back:
Eagles' wings, altars of mud, they're all the same
because it's 5AM
and I need an answer.


I think I did receive new Torah last night. Only problem is that I can't read it. Maybe the ink wasn't dry and the letters smudged. I'll give it a few months; OK, much longer. But it would be really nice to understand, one of these days.

We had a long night of wonderful learning that began with ideas about what "being Jewish" might really mean, the question of where God resides, and if it's possible to perform a mitzvah without accepting a challenge. Then, after midnight and some great pastry, we again sat on the floor among rose petals and considered conversion, sacrifice, caves, magic potions, blame, forgiveness, and rebuke. My brain was full after an hour, and I mostly propped myself up against a wall and watched words float past, but at about 4AM I got a second wind just in time for a subject I can barely tackle when wide awake: a text from the Netivot Shalom about the utter, empty quiet at the foot of the mountain before Israel received the Torah. The Slonimer Rebbe compared that moment of complete union to how we, as a holy people, must always be:

We must completely surrender and give ourselves to God... We merit receiving the Torah and all the insights that come with receiving the Torah in the same measure as we are capable of surrendering.

"Surrender": an uncommon word in Jewish theology. The rabbi wondered what we thought of the idea. To me, at first, it seemed obvious: how else can one pray but with the goal of surrender, of a naked and open heart? That's part of it, said the rabbi, but what about the times when you confront and argue with God?

I had no answer, because I don't really pray that way. I don't blame God for anything; what is, is. But I am self-critical when I don't understand what God is trying to say--when I don't listen to the message. Last night at around 4:30AM it occurred to me that I needed do a better job of praying outwards, not necessarily through prayer itself but directly, through words and actions, to make sure God hears MY message. Surrender, openness and honesty, is not always passive. Maybe it's just a semantic difference, but it was a jarring thought just the same. I read Torah and stumbled (I wasn't the only one); I got annoyed with myself (no one else seemed to mind). I came home at 7AM and slept for many hours, and awoke to the sound of my cat demanding food and the words "It's 5AM; call my name" left over from a dream. I realized that the night served its purpose: in my exhaustion I really did reach a stripped-down but safe state of powerlessness that let some ideas slip in where there might not have been an opening before. I felt very chutzpadik writing this poem from God's point of view, but our relationship is reciprocal. We mirror each other; in love, we share the rebuke; and mine needs to be a little louder.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

690. Home

As I sit here listening to thunder and rain interrupt unbearable city summer heat, the kind that seems grab your legs and strangle you to the ground the minute you step on pavement, I imagine the moment tomorrow morning as the sun rises, or maybe tries without luck to peek through clouds, and we read about the scariest possible lightning. I also remember a dream from last night, one I've had before. I'm back in Flushing, Queens, where I grew up, walking past the public library on Main St. (much bigger and fancier now than when I was a kid; I tried to find an old photo online, no luck). I'm passing familiar landmarks: LIRR tracks, the Manufacturer's Hanover where I opened a bank account in high school. My favorite shoe store. A Hebrew school and synagogue. This stretch of Main St. was always much emptier than two blocks away by the subway, which smelled of pizza and bus exhaust and was teeming with people carrying big bags of stuff just bought at Gertz or Alexander's. But right past the LIRR I see the white library walls, and then skinny birch trees lining the ten blocks home, as the landscape changes to red brick six-story buildings and an occasional hopscotch game in chalk on sidewalk. In my dream, I'm standing at the corner where the crowds disappear and looking past the library and down the block. I don't think I'm trying to get home, exactly; rather, I'm clearing my head in anticipation of arriving somewhere different, but also comfortable and comforting.

I think this is a Shavuot dream, as well: I'm looking for Torah that's new, but (as long as I remember to open my arms in return) also part of me in the deepest possible way.

689. The first time

Last week in a wonderful class about Shavuot, we read this passage from the Zohar (incredibly complex text at the center of the study of Kabbalah):

With love she approaches her lover to arouse love with him. "Come and see the way of Torah."

At first, when she begins to reveal herself to a human, she beckons him with a hint [
remez, also the word for the traditional second level of understanding of the Torah]. If he perceives, good; if not, she sends him a message, calling him simple [peshat, the first level of understanding: literal interpretation]. Torah says to her messenger: "Tell that simple one to come closer, so I can talk to him." He approaches. She begins to speak with him from behind a curtain she has drawn, words he can follow, until he reflects little at a time. This is derasha [a deeper level of Torah study: interpretation]. Then she converses with him through a veil, words riddled with allegory. This is aggadah.

Once he has grown accustomed to her, she reveals herself face to face and tells him all her hidden secrets, all the hidden ways, since primordial days.

Now he is a complete human being, husband of Torah, master of the house. All her secrets she has revealed to him, withholding nothing, concealing nothing.

She says to him, "Do you see that word, that hint with which I beckoned you at first? So many secrets there! This one and that one! Now he sees that nothing should be added to those words and nothing taken away. Now the
peshat of the verse, just like it is. Not even a single letter should be added or deleted.

This last paragraph, said the rabbi, is the most important. We can study a Mahler symphony, understand its complex interplay of theory, themes, and sound on an intellectual level, but do we think of these details when we finally sit down and listen? No--rather, we hope for an experience like the very first time we heard it, when the music was newly exciting and mysterious--when it seemed to flirt with us like the Torah peeking from her veil, a glimpse of boundless beauty yet to come.

When we pray the same words for the hundredth time, do we remember when they were also new to us, that first moment when prayer made sense? Or are they rote and repetitive, lost in detail, like a lover with technical prowess but no passion?

And when I chant Torah, do I worry so much about getting it right that I sometimes forget the awesome privilege of singing even just one of those words in front of my friends and teachers? Maybe I make mistakes for a reason--to remind myself of the peshat, a time when I had no idea what I was doing and could barely see the road ahead, but knew it would be amazing. This is the whole point of Torah study, suggested the rabbi--to get back to the beginning and do it all over again, each time with a different route and discoveries along the way.

Tonight I'll be at a tikkun leil Shavuot, a night of study, ending with sunrise services at which I'll chant three aliyot. Two years ago I read two of them; this time I'm adding another, including these words:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me.
—Exodus 19:4

How I wish God would always carry me on eagles' wings! and that I could see the entire world spread out in front of me in one glance, nothing hidden, and be safe and protected as well. I think this line is my first promising, loving peshat of the year--a new perspective from a brand new Torah. Wishing the same to all who read this, as well.

688. Proud

Last Wednesday morning--the morning after Obama became the Democratic nominee--I was in a taxi, late to a meeting.

"How are you this morning?" asked the driver.

I forced myself to be polite; I am never OK, or in the mood to talk, when rushing somewhere at 6:45AM.

"Just fine, thanks, and you?" I answered.

"I'm great." he said. "My son just got accepted to Cornell Medical School!"

I woke up. "Wow," I said. "Congratulations!"

And then, all the way down Fifth Avenue, he told me how his daughter was about to graduate from law school and go into criminal justice, and how they both studied too much. But even though he always encouraged them to go outside and play, they loved to learn and made their own decisions about what they wanted to do with their lives. And how he took a second job as a taxi driver to pay for it.

"They're amazing kids," he said.

"Because of you, I'm sure," I answered."

"Oh no, no! All I try to do is teach them to be good people. They do the rest themselves."

I gave him as big a tip as I could muster, and imagined it in an envelope en route to the Cornell bursar's office. All morning long I thought about the man who had at least a 50% chance of becoming president, and of every other person in this country, including myself, who found success not because of money or privilege, but rather parents who sacrificed everything to make sure their kids had a good life. I am not always proud to be an American, but was last Wednesday.

687. Lost

Speaking of nerves (last Tuesday, that is, when I started this post), I had none when I read Torah a week ago. I was relatively cool and confident as I approached the bima, having chanted the section a few times before in past years. It was a bad allergy day, though, and my throat was dry and scratchy. The short, first aliyah went just fine. The second aliyah, to my surprise, was offered to anyone who had just given blood. Why, that's me! and a dozen others, I thought. We crowded around the bima, proudly recited the blessing, and then I looked down at the yad resting on the edge of the first letter--and suddenly remembered I wasn't supposed to say "Amen" when I began to read. One does so only when someone else has the aliyah (because there's no need to assert "Yes! You go!" when the words just came out of your own mouth).

I wish I had thought of this a little earlier. I tell my students to practice beginning both with and without the "Amen," because maybe they'll have the aliyah and maybe not--you can never be too prepared. Also, "Amen" sets your tonal landscape, and is a way to establish a range in which you can actually sing. Of course I ignored my own advice, and never practiced without the "Amen." For about a second I debated with myself: should I sing it anyway, very softly so no one hears? Can I just think it? Or, wait, maybe I'm SO good at this that I can wing it. Yeah, right. If there were a magical camera that saw through God's eyes, a snapshot surely would have revealed an angel on each shoulder--the daring one whispering in my left ear: Go for it! and the conservative accountant angel in the right: No, better safe than sorry.

I listened to the reckless one. The aliyah began with a pashta, not the easiest first trop. It's high, and doesn't really lead you to the next note. I sang--and suddenly had no idea where I was going. I couldn't hear the key; the sound seemed to float aimlessly in an empty universe. (Is this how tone-deaf people perceive music? Maybe they don't feel as lost as I did, because they don't know there's any other way.) I tried again, and heard some strangled notes through the speakers. The rabbi quickly came to my rescue, and sang the whole first line. Like a life-vest dropped atop a drowning woman, I grabbed hold and repeated his sounds. The key was too low, but no matter--it was a place, dry land, ground and direction. I sang the next two aliyot slowly and carefully, not wanting to let a single sound pass by too quickly.

All of this took place in about five seconds, but I felt as if I had swum across the ocean and back again.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

686. Blood

I gave blood last Thursday at a blood drive at my synagogue, the second time since very, very long ago when I was a freshman in college and experienced lovely hallucinations, as my life essence dripped into a plastic bag, that I was being buried by falling books. (The doctor said I was fine, that my body just didn't feel like giving up a pint of blood. The Red Cross ladies told me in no uncertain terms never to come back.) I tried again last year with complete success. As if God wanted to underscore the gravity of the situation, I found myself on a gurney directly in front of the Aron, the Ark that holds the Torah scrolls, which in our Sanctuary is as jeweled, ornate, and generally overwhelming as such a structure can be. Since I wanted at all costs to avoid re-enacting my teenage experience, I spent a very long time lying flat on my back with my legs raised, looking up at shiny bits of gold paint leading to an endless dark blue ceiling. I felt like an altar sacrifice, and half expected a bull of pleasant odor to fall from the sky. It was really cool.

This year's experience wasn't nearly as dramatic, although I did almost faint as soon as I stood up and took a bite of cookie. The blood technician, or whatever they're called, explained that our bodies do this because they don't know that we've willingly given up so much blood; rather, they assume it was taken under protest, and we're in danger. So our brains try to shut us down as a means of preservation. I am very impressed that God has given our brains the foresight to react in this way, and that they can tell the difference between possible physical danger and baseless terror (i.e., stage fright). Even though I've occasionally wished I would pass out as soon as I began to chant Torah (not often or even recently, thank goodness), the part of my brain in charge of this knows better, and has more faith in my abilities than do other parts.

Monday, June 02, 2008

685. Suffering

Because I can't resist a challenge, I'm responding to this theodicy meme recently posed by Rachel aka the Velveteen Rabbi (and originating here). Theodicy is a branch of theology that tries to explain the existence of evil. The meme wonders:

1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?

I agree with Rachel that is it certainly too big a topic to tackle in a blog post!--but a few thoughts will fit. Beginning with question 4, these are not the right questions because they assume we can define the nature of God. I believe we cannot; the main definition of God, to me, is "that which is unknowable." I like to believe "omnipotent" and "benevolent" make up part of that definition as well, but who knows? Only God. The beautiful mysteries of the universe--everything I don't understand--are what awe me most deeply and I find more "powerful" than other more obvious expressions of God-like activity (creation of life, war, etc.). I disagree with "anthropomorphic," which presupposes human beings are more important than, say, mountains or birds. I believe all forms of existence mirror God, not just those who walk on two feet and go bald or hate their mothers-in-law.

A more useful question in terms of reaching greater understanding of the meaning of life might be, "How can we live with suffering?" I believe our existence is meant to embrace pain as well as goodness. I wish I didn't believe this, and could pull the wool over my eyes and ignore how evil appears to come naturally to our species, but I can't. We yearn for goodness; our lives are better and more fulfilling when we move in that direction, and I think God has much to do with the existence of that part of our natures. But just as the universe is comprised of opposites, night and day, sea and land, so is suffering an inextricable part of humanity. Just as God cannot remove night, neither can God create pain-free lives. That is one of the jobs with which we humans have been entrusted.

These days I think of God as a big quilt, with the different pieces of fabric residing in each of us. We can see God in a more whole and meaningful way when when we come together, reach out, and bind ourselves to one another. And to forget that the faces of God can be seen in our own is to dilute God's power, however we wish to define this.

I am tagging: anyone reading this who wants to try to summarize the meaning of life in a blog post.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

684. Roads

On Thursday at morning minyan, the rabbi introduced a practice used in the discipline of mussar, a movement emphasizing meditation and ethical teachings that originated in the 10th century and can't really be summed up by a Wikipedia article. He chose a line from Psalm 146--Ahal'la adonai behayai, azam'ra lelohai be'odi, I will praise the Lord with all my life, sing to my God with all my being--and we chanted it over and over again to a simple tune. Despite being a rabbi, he said, he often had no idea what to do while praying. You can say the words perfectly, but what does it really mean to talk to God? Where are the instructions for that part? And is that what you're supposed to do, anyway? For him, this kind of chanting was a means of simply being, of letting words and rhythms translate a message whose nature he didn't always know, but which transmission felt good and necessary.

And this of course is a discovery made by many different religions thousands of years ago, as well, and one reason why I love to chant Torah. I think it's why human beings invented ritual--to take ourselves to a state where conscious thought, decisions about what comes next and why, what foot to put in front of the other, can move to the background and make room for another kind of awareness. It doesn't have to be about God: there's ritual in business so you can work effectively (if you had to think about what words to use when answering the phone, you'd never get anything done); family (knowing you can share the stories of your day at dinnertime); and every other part of life. The repetition of these events is like meditation on a macro scale--the routine of their reappearance becomes mindless and therefore mindful, white noise that drowns out the sounds of traffic and lets you concentrate on something better.

Prayer can work the same way. The meaning and beauty of the words themselves is certainly important, but I think their repetition as part of a spiritual practice is more so. Rhythm and familiarity create a space where God can move about, so to speak, without being interrupted by our need to understand on an intellectual level. Like the rabbi, I also have no idea what to do while praying--but I think I'm learning what not to do, which is think too much as it's happening. Perhaps this is one part of life where we need to be less self-aware.

When I chant Torah, maybe because I don't fully understand what I'm saying, the sounds themselves move me forward and not the other way around. I can't tell myself what it means as I'm doing it. The yad quite literally pushes me from word to word, like flying down a hill on a bicycle and imagining you're in control of the journey, but are in fact compelled by greater forces. Sometimes you can watch the passing scenery and learn about the country you inhabit; other times the wind is too strong. Then you slow down, and suddenly find yourself in a new place.

(Here is another take on the nature of prayer, a wonderful post that got me thinking about this one. Do we need need to use the right words in order to stay honest in the conversation? How can we honor and be true to those words as we're using them? Does it really matter?)