Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Ongoing Wow

After much thought and contemplation, I decided to return to America, at least for the current time. When that "current time" ends is anyone's guess. Of course, my last moments walking around Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) still move through my veins, as Israel is not a place that one can forget. In fact, according to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, eventhough I left Yerushalayim, I am closer than ever. He used to say, "Everywhere I go, I am going to Jerusalem," meaning that in every corner of the world in which a Jew finds himself, he is there to do his unique job in that unique space in order to bring the world one step closer to completion, redemption, and the time when we will finally all live in the new, real Jerusalem.

So, for now, I find myself heading toward Jerusalem in America. While learning is something that I truly enjoy, my need for action has gotten the better of me. Having spent my first week back in New York, I am visiting my father for his birthday. My visit this time has proven to be more relaxing and enjoyable, and I don't feel as out of place. Perhaps I am coming more into myself, being able to be myself wherever I happen to be at the moment.

Upon my return to New York, I will start to look through the job opportunities that I found the last few weeks of being in Israel. Ever since I can remember, my aspiration has been to work in a profession where I feel myself making a difference in the world, and hopefully I will find myself working in such a job. I always feel the need to move around and get meaning out of everything in life, add to life, and try to find something new.

During my last few days in Israel, I really think that I got to that place where I was in love with everything that was swirling around me. I began to really stop and appreciate things, and recognize that my life was made up of, as Speed Levitch says, "moments flabergasted to be in each other's presence." However, my hunger and need to experience do not let me sit in one place for too long. It seems that each new place I see, I see a new part of myself. Interestingly, the Yalkut Shimoni (an homiletic telling and explanation of the Torah) says that this is exactly the case. In explaining the creation of man, the Yalkut Shimoni says that G-d gathered dust from the four corners of the world, and everywhere in between, in order to form humanity. And through this, relates the Yalkut, "every place a person walks, from there he was created, and to there shall he return." To me, this validates travel and life experience as part of true religious awakening, which is an infinitely motivating idea. Ahh, emes is good...

I once had a discussion with a man in a bank who simply could not understand a religious experience that didn't revolve around begging G-d for things like A's on tests, lottery winnings, and that your most coveted item at the mall soon goes on sale. I, on the other hand, couldn't fathom a religious experience that included such things. To me, Judaism has never been about finding a cure for life, or ways to escape reality, simply wasting time until some day comes in the future when you're "off to a better place." I've always felt that Judaism was much more honest than that. It's not escaping reality, but engaging in life head on, wrestling with angels and men to bring out the divinity in every place at every instant, knowing that that "better place" isn't found in a new location, but in a deeper understanding of the actuality of the here and now. Judaism doesn't seek to run away from physicality, but elevate it, transforming it by doing mitzvos that connect all planes and times of existence to reveal the hester panim (hidden face of G-d) residing behind creation. When that's the focus of your life, who has time for all the competition and begging? You're a partner with the Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe) in the continued creation and reparation of the world! That's always been the point of Judaism, and life in general, to me. So, for now, I guess I'm off to keep finding myself in places where I've never been, meeting G-d on new street corners, repairing little parts of creation, each step treading closer and closer to Jerusalem.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Slow and Steady

Yesterday afternoon as I was hurrying off to get lunch, I was stopped at the corner by an elderly man. The man, as I recognized, was the gabbai (person in charge of the inner-workings) of the Gr"a Synagogue in my neighborhood. Being very old and unsteady, he asked me if I would help him make it across the street, and then to the door of the synagogue. Of course, I said that I would help him, and I walked with him arm-in-arm across the street. As we got closer to the synagogue, a car pulled up behind us, and in an attempt to rush us or move us, began to blow the horn. Immediately, I attempted to move out of the way, trying to lead the gabbai onto the sidewalk. He refused, and after asking me if I understood English, told me, "Slow and steady".

After helping the man reach his destination, I started thinking about what he told me: slow and steady. As I walked to lunch, I began to look around much more, stopping to see things that I might have missed previously. Ahead of me, a woman also stopped at each small garden, pressing her nose into the flowers surrounding each gate. The rest of the day, I tried to do everything and say everything with much more intent and concentration. Walking, eating, and praying especially, are much more meaningful that way.

This morning, as with last night, I prayed more slowly than usual, concentrating on the words that I was reading, and thinking more about what they meant. That's the wonderful thing about Hebrew. No matter how many times you've read a text, or how obvious the meaning seems to be, you can always make a new connection, definition, or understanding, whether through proximity, spelling difference, numerical value...there's always something new to find.

This is true of everything. Within the legal times for prayers, the earliest time that one is allowed to pray the morning prayer is after a time called "Mi SheYakir". This is when there is enough natural light, or should be enough natural light, to recognize the face of an acquaintance at the distance of four cubits. Knowing this halacha (law) I never thought more about it, until when I recently read an interesting lesson on the particular zman (time).

The story goes that a rabbi onced asked his students how one could tell that the night had ended and the day had begun. "Perhaps," one suggested, "it is when you can see an animal in the distance and determine whether it is a sheep or a dog." However, the rabbi answered that this was not the determinant. "Could it be," asked another, "that it is when you can see a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?" Again, the rabbi answered that this was not how to tell when the night had ended. Finally, after all had suggested their own idea, they demanded that the rabbi tell them the answer. The rabbi looked at his students and said, "It is when you can look at the face of a man or woman and see your brother or your sister. Because if you cannot see this, then it is still night."

Monday, June 1, 2009

The More I See, The Less I Know

This Shavuos seemed to drag on longer than those in the past. While the staying up on the first night did feel like it flew by, I think the following day-and-a-half took three days to pass. Initially, everything seemed to be going well: I had a nice, small meal followed by learning with one of my roommates. With the learning, I felt like I accomplished more than I have my whole time here, which was very inspiring. However, when it came time for shacharis (morning prayers), things took a turn…

Instead of staying in the yeshiva like most other people, I decided against the warnings of those around me, and my own reason, and opted to walk to the kosel. Once there, I realized just how much of a mistake I had made: I was confronted with not a sea, but a wall of people, thousands upon thousands, smashed into the area around the kosel. Not wanting to turn back, and completely exhausted, I fought the crowds to make it inside the kosel where there are bookcases normally holding siddurim (prayer books). Clearly, I knew that this wouldn’t be the case this morning, but I felt that something had to go well after such a night of learning. Finally, after digging and searching behind books that were behind books that were behind books, I found a small siddur. Having been awake for more than 20 hours, and being amongst a wall of people in the same state, the prayers were a mixture of exhaustion, frustration, and tiny glimpses of solace. After finishing, I walked back to my apartment totally alone with the sun rising around me, trying to beat the masses and get into bed.

Once back home, I got into bed only to have my roommate’s alarm go off three hours later, reminding us that we had a meal to attend. The meal was at the home of my favorite neighbor, and the lighthearted, relaxed nature of the meal (with the addition of lasagna, quiche, and cheesecake) was enough to alleviate my fatigue momentarily. After the meal, I committed myself to walking with my roommate to the kosel again. After the trek there and back, I finally got into bed at 4:30, and slept a whole three hours again. At night I went to a meal with people I didn’t know, only to find myself talking to the 30-something year old cousin of the hosts about annoying Israelis. After this meal, I went to Belz, which was packed beyond belief. Eventually, I made my way home and crawled into bed at 2:15. Through the rest of Shavuos (the second day of which was also Shabbos), I basically slept, only to wake up to feed myself and daven (pray).

While I was at the kosel, watching the interaction of the people and experiencing the way in which things were handled, I started thinking about something that I previously began to write about, but never finished. I could try to explain it on the basis that people were tired, but that wouldn’t explain other times in which the same holds true, and regardless, excuses only go so far. The issue is this: while religious people always seem ready, even proud, to take on stringencies in their religious practice, they never seem to want to take on any stringencies on the mitzvos dealing with interpersonal relations. This seems ridiculous to me, as human beings are the creations and extensions of G-d. Why would you miss a chance to engage with, be kind to, or express general love and compassion to such a creation? Indeed, the great sage Rabbi Hillel said that the whole point of the Torah can be summed up in the mitzvah to love another person as you love yourself, with the rest of the oceans of knowledge and practice meant to drive this point home. Many, however, sadly feel too proud that they keep more restrictions on themselves, bringing their religion to be about objects and stringencies instead of love and expressions of Divinity. This is something that I continue to struggle with, as I see it all around me, with people pushing, struggling to be first and right, and acting as if everything is going well in their learning and life. Can’t they feel that something is missing, or are they too far gone?

A story was told of the Satmar Rebbe, dealing with stringencies and the ways in which people view them. In the early 1930’s, a student from a more modern yeshiva came to visit the rebbe. This student, being from a more modern city and background, had his beard completely trimmed off, a leniency that no one in the yeshiva of the Satmar Rebbe would dream of taking. After the young man left, one of the rebbe’s students approached him, asking him how he could welcome and meet with a Jew who didn’t take his religious life seriously enough to be stringent in this area. Sensing the complete lack of understanding and truth in his student, the rebbe responded, “It is possible that when this young man reaches the World to Come, HaKadosh Baruch Hu will ask him, ‘Holy Jew, where is your beard?’, but it is also possible that when you come into the World to Come, you will be asked, ‘Holy beard, where is your Jew?’” The simple story speaks volumes.