Torah of Vigilance

“Pay attention! and be prepared
To do it right
The Super Thing — the thing
That makes you bigger than life.”
— Devo, The Super Thing


Tonight marks the beginning of Shavuot, the ancient harvest festival which post-Temple Jewish tradition identifies with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Legend tells us that the nation slept late on that momentous day; to make up for our ancestor’s heavy-liddedness, we stay up all night studying Torah. (Or, as is usual in my case, fall asleep around 11:30 p.m. nestled in a pile of books.)

Judaism has been described as “the world’s oldest permanent floating book club;” in that regard, Shavuot emphasizes the centraility and importance of the nearly 80,000-word document we’ve been discussing for (at least) the past 2,500 years. But whether we believe the Torah’s account of its origins to be literal or figurative, there is in this holiday (as in most things Jewish) a couple of meta-lessons:

1. No matter how well we think we know something, there’s always more to learn.

2. The holiness we ascribe to a thing is in direct proportion to the degree we actively engage with it.

This applies not only to Torah, but to birds, trees, cars, computers — and more importantly, to our fellow humans. We’re all we’ve got, after all; and in a world which increasingly seeks to divide us between “red” and “blue,” “us” and “them,” perhaps Shavuot’s meta-lesson — in the words of Reb Mothersbaugh, “Pay attention!” — is as timely and new as the Torah itself.

Chag sameach!

Na(t)ive Torah

Considering that this is how many of us returnees (including myself) came to study Torah in this unannounced-but-nonetheless Golden Age of Judaism, Plotz’ wide-eyed innocence struck a deep chord with me. Perhaps this is one reason why the Torah remains a “living document” after 3000+ years…

Blogging the Bible: What happens when an ignoramus reads the Good Book?
By David Plotz
Posted Tuesday, May 16, 2006, at 7:00 AM ET

[…] I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I am fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So, what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents? What will delight and horrify me? How will the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School?…

Omer’s Where The Art Is

“Meanwhile, we dig.”
— Big X (Richard Attenborough), The Great Escape

Pesach is over, the last of the matza crumbs have been vacuumed up, and our stomachs have finally returned to normal (or soon will).

Now what?

When we were kids, we thought (well, I thought) that freedom was a “done deal.” Freedom was the be-all and end-all of existence. If I could only be 18, thought I, I would be free to do whatever I wanted: bounce on the bed, eat cookies for dinner, shout fire in a crowded theater.

Of course, the realities of post-adolescent life soon disabused me of those notions. Bouncing on the bed meant I had to buy a new one when it broke. Eating cookies for dinner made me sicker than the smiling faces on the box had led me to believe. And shouting fire in a crowded theater, even metaphorically, meant hurting innocent people.

Hence, a lesson: Freedom implies responsibility. The ability to act implies — rather, demands — that we act with an eye toward consequences.

By the Jewish calendar, we’re now in the Omer period, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. The first festival celebrates the going-out from Egypt, from the narrow confines and blind thralldom which keeps us from living to our full measure. The second celebrates the Sinai Event and the acceptance that endless and unforseeable permutations arise from even the simplest of our actions: whether thought, or speech, or deed.

The Omer period teaches us that freedom and responsibility are not binary exclusives, but endpoints on the scale by which we weigh our lives. May we all find — or help each other acquire — the perfect balance for every challenge.

Thanksgiving v. Thanks Giving

During the course of an online discussion of Jewish practice in the United States, someone asked the resident rabbi if it was “kosher” for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving. His terse but memorable reply: “Sure — but we do that every day.”

His point, of course, was that gratitude is not only an essential part of the Jewish daily liturgy, but also of our lives. However, like most ideals, many of us find ourselves honoring gratitude more in the breach than in the moment; we face so many irritations (exacerbated by email, cellphones, Blackberries, traffic, infotainment, talking-heads, talking points and static cling) that the end of any given day often finds us more grumbly than grateful.

But the ability to look past all that is crucial — to put aside inconvenience and indifference, to appreciate the countless miracles (astronomical, geological, meteorological, biological and technological) which have seamlessly and inexorably combined to bring us to this moment. So as we gather tomorrow for the feast modeled by its founders on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot*, in addition to giving thanks for the One who taught us about turkey (and the skill with which to cook it), let’s also give thanks for our ability to give thanks.

And if one day of gratitude leads to another, and another … we’ll have that much more to be thankful for at this time next year.

Be well.

* No, really — for example, see about midway down this page (just under the first blessing).

Feel The Fear

When Ann and I joined the small synagogue in our Northern California town back in 1998, it was with the understanding that we would get involved.

Neither of us had been, when we were younger. But especially since 2000, when I started teaching the b’nei mitzvah class and occasionally leading services, that involvement has (as anyone involved in congregational life can tell you) brought both heartwarmth and headaches. It’s nice to be part of a big happy squabbling extended family, but also sad sometimes to see and be part of the behind-the-scenes politics — especially if you’re something of a mildly bipolar idealist.

(Bit of background: our congregation — since its 1995 inception an informal, do-it-yourself kind of place — last year engaged a rabbi who liked to teach that “compassion” was not a Jewish value. Things got very bad for a while, but he quit earlier this year, and now things are better. We’re a community of smart and good-hearted people who like to learn and hang out together — and that brings its own blessing.)

Anyway, yesterday was the annual congregational sukkah-decorating party. As usual, it was mostly the schoolkids and their parents; but attendance was larger than I remember it being, and there was a nice intimate vibe that hasn’t been there before (or at least not as obvious). Everybody got to take the lulav — even some of the adults who had never before done so — and ate snacks and hung the world’s longest paper chain.

It was great, but for me also scary. I’m fairly enthusiastic about Judaism and enjoy leading services and teaching, but yesterday was One Of Those Days; sometimes my self-doubt divides me from the world, and I was looking forward to someone else leading the blessings.

That didn’t happen, though, because the someone else in question — a big enthusiastic guy who’s on his own Jewish rediscovery path, and a frequent attendee at our apartment every Shabbat morning for Torah study — handed me the lulav and etrog and said “Teach us.”

So I opened my mouth, and out popped the teaching that the Four Species — lulav (palm), hadass (myrtle), aravot (willow) and etrog (citron) — respectively stand for Jews who have much Torah learning but few accomplishments in mitzvot, many mitzvot but little Torah, neither mitzvot nor Torah, and both Torah and mitzvot. “And when we bring them together like this, it shows that we all need each other,” I concluded.

It’s not something I had thought to say — in fact, when my friend handed me the lulav I couldn’t think of anything at all but my own fear — but the warm-hearted crowd huddled under the chilly October sky welcomed it with a smile.

One of my favorite teachers, Rebbe Nachman, says “The world is a narrow bridge — the essence is not to fear.” Sometimes, though, the fear reminds you that the bridge is wide enough to cross.

Home Away

For me, there are five distinct stages involved in the building of our backyard sukkah:

Denial: “Is it Sukkot again already?”
Rage: “Where did I put the $#@! zip-screws?”
Bargaining: “Please don’t make me go to the hardware store again…”
Sadness: “I don’t think this is going to last the week…”
Acceptance: “It’s beautiful!”

Me & our summer cottage
I am a humble Jew (as a blogged statement, this may be self-contradictory), so our backyard sukkah is likewise humble:

  • One 4×6-foot Persian rug
  • Eight cinder blocks
  • Four 2×2-inch posts, six feet in length, with two small L-brackets on one side (six inches from on end and 18 inches from the other)
  • Three 6-1/2′ 1×2″ slats
  • Four 4-1/2′ 1×2″ slats
  • One 7′ aluminum javelin
  • One 12×24′ camo (“mossy bark”) tarpaulin
  • Two dozen 6′ slats (1x.25″)
  • One maroon king-sized bedsheet, pole-stitched on one long side
  • Power drill, zipscrews, cable ties

First, I stretch out the rug (making sure it’s under only bare sky) and stack pairs of cinderblocks in each corner. Then I zipscrew two of the 6-1/2′ slats to two of the 2×2″ posts atop the L-brackets, inserting the latter into the cinder blocks (for the back wall frame); the remaining 6-1/2′ slat joins the other two posts, which go into the remaining cinderblock pairs (for the front wall/door frame). Two 4-1/2′ slats are then zipscrewed into place for each sidewall frames. I carefully slide the bedsheet onto the javelin, cable-tying the latter to the front-wall slat; the sheet’s bottom-right corner is then cable-tied to the frame.

Next, I unroll the tarp (which lives under our bed the rest of the year) and fold it sandwich-wise over the frames, securing the tarp’s grommets to each other along the bottom and sides) with cable-ties. Two dozen slats criss-cross the top, supporting whatever garden greenery I can scrounge (usually ivy, but this year some sort of weird ferny plant which sprouted over the summer). Two patio chairs go inside along with a TV-table (for meals and studying), et voila!

And this was how I spent yesterday afternoon. In many ways, Sukkot is my favorite holiday — I like its emphasis on life’s fragility; that it gets me outside to pray; the way the stars look through the sukkah roof; and the way the sukkah looks with my roommate inside it. There is nothing quite like building your own sukkah — just like there’s no one else like the one who builds it.

… re-echo …

here’s what I wrote in a recent column…

Screaming in the dark
By Neal Ross

If you live among human beings, you must never mention how terribly, nakedly vulnerable we all are ? because we all spend a good deal of our lives trying to pretend we?re not.

I don?t know why that is; I suspect it?s related to our biosurvival imperative, which tries to keep us going against all odds. Intense pain is one of those odds: we humans like to build little consensual hallucinations to overlay and influence our perceptions, and intense pain ? physical, spiritual, or emotional ? shatters our careful efforts like a child?s foot through a sandcastle.

Since Dec. 27, I?ve discovered that the most profound and interesting of these pains is known as “deep grief.” On that day, Jim “Sputnik” Gjerde, my lifelong best friend (read: “psychic twin and other half”), died after spending two weeks in a coma brought on by a genetic-diabetes-related heart attack. And since then, I?ve been sifting sand and wondering what happened.

(I rarely read columns written about best friends who have just died, and writing this I realize why: If you didn?t know the person, or experience first-hand a similar loss, it won?t mean anything to you. But as death is the price of life, so is grief the price of love ? and we will all eventually experience at least one of these, in some flavor or another.)

“Deep grief” is the term used by my counselor at the Valley of the Moon Hospice Team (935-7504 ? a hard, but important, phone call), who is helping me cope with this first (for me) major loss. Deep grief (or what I?ve been calling “The Gray Sameness”) is when you don?t feel like eating, or sleeping, or working, or playing, or really doing much of anything except gazing blankly into the middle-distance, howling like an animal, and trying to melt into whatever surface is currently holding you up.

It hurts. A lot. More than can be imagined beforehand. But it also feels like an initiation into an exclusive but universal club. And therein lies The Mystery: “It cannot be borne, and yet it must.”

Generally speaking, I enjoy ungraspable mysteries ? I like the fact that the universe is bigger than my head; that some things can only be experienced, not explained. Grief is like that, but amid the rust and ashes there are glimmers of light ? definitely present though not always seen. And that?s exactly as it should be, at least for now.

A longtime friend called the other day to check on me. When he told me that his brother had died five years ago, I stopped in mid-mumble. “You know,” I said.

“Yes, I know,” he replied.

“So I don?t have to explain anything to you,” I said.

“Not one bit,” he said.

He then told me about the day, some time after his brother?s death, when he looked up and realized that he had just had a good hour. Sometime after that, the good time expanded to two hours. Then, eventually, a half-day. Then a whole day, two, a week. And so forth. The pain never left, but it did become manageable.

My friend then apologized for sounding superficial, and I told him there was no need: “You?re someone who?s traveled further down a path I?m currently walking, and telling me what it looks like. So thank you ? because right now, I have no idea how to even get to that first good minute.”

At this writing, I still don?t. But at least I know it?s coming ? and I hope to recognize it when it arrives.