Sunday, May 31, 2009

819. Back from Sinai, part 1

I had an amazing Shavuot.

This holiday is always awesome for me, in the truest sense of the world—full of awe, especially at the moment right after dawn when we gather, exhausted and depleted, in the dark sanctuary to hear the ten utterances (each, incredibly, shorter than a Twitter post) that are blueprints for everything that followed and came before. And for the past few years I've chanted the part right after this, when Moshe calms the terrified people—al tira'u, don't be afraid—and is then gutsy enough to approach the cloud of mystery for more instructions.

I think those last sections touch me even more than the thunder, lightning, and commandments parts. Stay calm. Don't worry. Between Moses on Earth, and Me everywhere else, you're covered.

In past years I've anticipated these phrases long before we read them, getting antsy and starting to count down the hours in the middle of the night during study. So when the moment arrived, the buildup was too great—the words themselves became an anticlimax. I think I spent so much energy waiting that I had none left for the moment itself. But this year was different. The teaching burrowed through my sleep-deprived loopiness; I learned, deeply and consciously. I became infinitely more tired as the night wore on but also more energized, although I didn't have the strength to act on it. I can't quite describe this sense of feeling physically diminished but also overflowing with conviction about the of the rightness of my place at that moment. I knew that I stayed awake this Shavuot not just not to wait for something, but to absorb. We studied art about Sinai; the poet Bialik; mussar; and midrashim about water and dawn. As the sun rose, my brain and soul were full, like a big helium balloon about to fly somewhere new and exciting.

(Continued here.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

818. On my way

Having Twittered mightily about it for the past 24 hours, I'm about to see and sing Sinai for the next 12. What a strange sentence to write, but every word is true. Be back Sunday with a travelogue... wishing everyone new, sweet Torah, and lots of cheesecake at the foot of the mountain, as well.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

817. New Torah

Shavuot is almost here, and I really want some new Torah. I always do, but the world today seems to need it more than ever. Not that there was anything wrong with the old Torah, but we haven't been paying attention. Maybe we need pyrotechnics, thunder and lighting on a mountain, or some still, small voices burrowing in our ears with the insistency of a cellphone set on vibrate, to make us sit up and notice. I can only hope. I'll be staying awake all night in study, as last year, and chanting at sunrise on Friday. I gladly anticipate, if not quite enjoy, that feeling of utter depletion after too many hours awake. Sounds become louder, colors brighter; all sensory input is overwhelming. And the sanctuary in half-darkness, as I try to make sense of letters that seem to fall off the edges of their columns while my eyes attempt to focus, feels like a cocoon, safe from the city just a few steps outside.

The comfort of community and that early-morning Torah reminded me of a short piece I wrote in my writer's beit midrash class class this past winter, about the time I almost, but not quite, fell between the cars of a moving train. The prompt was "With an outstretched hand."


The subway, right before lunchtime, crowded with hungry people late to work or escaping early from classes. I see half a seat, but instead squeeze over to stand against the door between the cars where it says "Do Not Lean." I am a New Yorker, and free to lean wherever I'd like. I open the book, trying to cram in concepts faster and tighter than the space next to the woman where I choose not to sit. I breathe in—and am no longer leaning. I watch the ground move quickly by. How is that possible, while I'm standing? I shake my shoulders in anger—I had so much more to do! Will I be able to breathe, walk? What parts of me will be gone? I turn over, feeling the pain in my ankle and watching the door overhead as it swings open. I look up and see five, no, ten arms far above, reaching out. They pull me up. I am whole. The conductor screams, but I notice only the hands of my fellow riders.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

816. Sitting shmira, part 2

(Continued from here.)

We were far underground, and it was very quiet. No sounds of the city or traffic could reach this place. But after a few moments I was jarred alert by a deep, mechanical rumbling: as my mother used to say, the refrigerator was running. (To where?) I was glad for the noise, which distracted me and made me work harder to concentrate. Noise, then quiet, then noise again, just like the rest of life. I read the psalms a few lines at a time, stopping often to think about what they meant, and then repeated each one aloud in Hebrew.

Time passed very slowly at first. I looked at my watch—only five minutes had gone by, then ten. But after awhile the minutes ran into each other, and I lost track.

The man with the beard and siddur came in, and took the chair perpendicular to mine. He began to speak (this is allowed, I wondered?—OK, I guess it's fine). He was the shomer of the funeral home, the staff member who sat with the deceased until interment, and also performed tahara on men. He had been there all night long, and would remain after I left.

He looked me up and down and then straight in the eye, and smiled and shook his head. "I've never seen anything like this," he said "Every hour, someone else is here. Who was she? Was she very important? Does everyone in your shul have to do this? How many members do you have?"

I was surprised by his questions—everyone doesn't do this? Or maybe he was shocked because we're not an Orthodox congregation? Either way, I was very proud of us. I told him a little about her life, and our community—that we were not required sit shmira, but our rabbis taught that it was our responsibility. And we all loved her, so were honored to help. He nodded again, and plucked another volume of Talmud from the shelf. We sat in silence for another twenty minutes, and then my hour was up. I said goodbye, and thanked him; he smiled. I went through a small door and climbed up a few narrow, winding flights, and suddenly found myself on the sidewalk, blinking in bright sunlight. I felt sad and calm, as if I had just been close to a different, softer kind of life, not death.

(Please also read the Velveteen Rabbi's beautiful musings about sitting shmira here.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

815. Sitting shmira, part 1

Last week a beloved member of my synagogue died. She was the epitome of quiet, graceful strength, a woman for whom every day was filled with hope and promise—in her 60s, she had just finished another degree and embarked on a new career. I have always felt powerless in the face of death and this time, even more so. God does what God does, death happens; questioning won't change a thing. But this loss seemed as wrong as that of a young person, or war. Why can't God fix it? So when offered the chance to sit shmira and keep vigil in the hours before the funeral so her body and soul would never be alone during that time, I volunteered. I wanted to take some kind of action, anything, to try and right the balance of the universe.

I had never done this before. I was always too chicken, but am less frightened by the prospect of coming near a dead body than I used to be. A few weeks ago I attended a fascinating study session about the texts recited during tahara, the ritual cleansing and purification of the body prior to burial, and thought... perhaps one day. Not yet, though. Sitting shmira felt less daunting, and a bridge to the other possibility. I chose the hour right before Shabbat morning services so that I could walk to the funeral home in early morning quiet and then leave knowing I could think about my experience during prayer, and in the company of friends.

The front door of the funeral home was was open, the lobby deserted. I made my way downstairs and looked for "the room with the caskets" through which I was supposed to walk. The large, dark space was empty, though, except for a few sofas that had seen better days. Seated on one was a man with a beard and siddur. He looked up, smiled, and pointed to a brightly-lit corridor, where I saw a member of my synagogue. I nodded in thanks and made my way across to the other side.

There was nothing more than a low-ceilinged space ringed with doors, some to elevators, some worn around the handles and adorned with complicated locks, and one that looked like a bank vault upon which hung a big biohazard sign. Below that was taped a sheet of loose-leaf paper containing three names, one familiar and with an asterisk. Below that, a sign in careful, heavy print: "All remains must have head block!!!" I didn't want to think about what that meant. But I also knew the space couldn't be holy without that sign, an important, if prosaic, admonition for everyone to show respect in all possible ways.

A short row of dingy, plastic folding chairs lined the wall across from the door, just a foot or two away. The man from my synagogue, a good friend of the woman's, looked tired but calm—not upset. I was a few minutes early so sat down next to him, not sure what to do. I took out my book of Tehllim, Psalms. I rubbed my eyes, not yet awake.

"Are you OK?" he asked. Maybe he thought I was crying. I smiled. "Just fine." And with that I opened to the first page, glad I had this copy and didn't need one of the books without an English translation that spilled off a crowded shelf to my right.

The man from my synagogue left after a few minutes and I moved into his chair, across from the vault door. I looked at the woman's name, imagining her asleep inside as her family traveled, in pain, right at that minute. I didn't understand how what was about to happen could comfort them, but hoped it would. I silently asked the woman to forgive me for anything I might do that was wrong, and began to read.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

814. You might think

A teacher of mine once remarked that Judaism operates on the principle of "You might think." You might think, by all outward appearances, that this text (holiday, ritual, mitzvah, etc.) is saying X. But, in fact, it says Y, or even Z. (Discuss.) So you might think, since I haven't written in about a month, that I am no longer blogging. Not so. I just got a little tired, and maybe even burnt out. It happens; all is well. Meanwhile, I Twittered (er, Tweeted, whatever) and was surprised at how much time and energy was required to compose those two or three or ten pithy, pointed lines, and for a month was dissuaded from trying to write any more.

But after reading many articles like this one about the dangers and benefits of being distracted by constant media input, I decided that the flow of new ideas, even in tiny, Twitter-like bites, was a great way to whet my creative appetite. I just need to remember to stop occasionally, take a deep breath, and reboot. I think that was the purpose of this past month of 140 characters at a time. I'm still singing, chanting, writing, pondering Torah (and #torah), and all those other important things that make up life--and will be blogging about them once again very soon.