Comfort of Nothing

Addressed to a mailing list of old and dear friends, during one of the perennial and genial “Nature of God, or Someone Like Him/Her/It” discussions, and whether Immanence vs. Transcendence helps one sleep better at night:

Back when I first learned the noble trade of printing, I noticed that matchbook covers looked different to me: I could /see/ tightness of registration (e.g., printing a red border around a blue square), or if the press had had too much ink or water in the ink/water mix; soon the entire printed universe looked different too. Similarly, I’ve recently become interested in geology (in a purely amateur, that is to say love-inspired, sense): and thus the hills look different to me now; I can /see/ the slow subduction of the Pacific Plate in the ripples of the surrounding hills, and am beginning to /see/ the two-million-year process which started with the Sonoma Volcanics and, in my brief lifetime, has become a rich winemaking paradise (and, I can /see/ nomadic hominids coalescing into cities whose long and varied line of cultural gestation led some of them to settle here to grow that wine, and others to create the words and technology by which I can type these thoughts and send them to you).

And in all that, there’s only one of me, and of you, and of everyone we know, and those we don’t. The cosmic and infinite seamlessly married to the finite and human: complexly connected, simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, trivial and important. “You may see where I have been, but no man may see My face — and live.” For me, that perspective/experience — the vasty void pinpricked by kindness and curiosity, which are the signs by which “ye shall Know” — is more comforting than the boxed-in Gd painted by human prejudice and predilection.


Circles, by definition, have no ends — each is a continuous line which, as the philosopher Charles Fort tells us, “one measures … beginning anywhere.”

However, like life’s other complexities, not all circles conform to strict definition.

Consider: Earth’s orbit is (mostly) circular, yet because our planet’s rotation is tilted relative to its orbit, the perspective of us surface-dwellers reveals two distinct “ends:” At one, the daily cycle favors light; at the other, darkness. Both make for fine beginnings, even if today’s — which we Northern Hemispherites call “summer solstice” — may be too hot for anything other than thinking.

May the One Who keeps it all in motion favor our undertakings whenever we begin — and so on through their other end.

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.