A Very Narrow Bridge

The world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. ~Nachman of Breslov

What’s Already There

Once when he was pretty little, maybe three or four, I was telling Elly a story. At one point he stopped me and asked where the story came from.

“I’m making it up for you.” I told him. “Just for you.”
“But how do you know what to make up?” he wanted to know.
“I dunno, Habibi,” I said, “I guess I’m just listening to what’s already there.”

I’ve been telling him stories for years. Stories filled with characters we’ve gotten to know very well. Dosa the Spice Merchant; The Witch of the Woods (who is really a healer) and her impossibly old student Samuel; The Librarian Prince; the Spider who wove herself a violin; The Soldier Who Waited.

All these characters move in and out of the stories I tell him. Sometimes spending months with us, sometimes disappearing for years to make room for new people. It’s a big story. And I make up each part as I’m telling it.

That’s not easy. At all. It means I have to do a lot of listening. I have to listen to him. I have to listen to myself. And hardest of all, I have to listen for the story.

Not easy.

Because sometimes listening is incredibly simple. The story is love. Sometimes that’s loud and clear. Sometimes even overwhelming.

But sometimes that Love story is drowned out by the Wrong story. The story of doubt and shame and everything I think makes me wrong.

And both stories are already there.

They have to be. I wouldn’t know love without heartbreak, I wouldn’t know courage without fear, and I wouldn’t know joy without sorrow. They have to be there for the other to exist.

Last week I was having a hard time hearing the Love story. Maybe because Elly was away and I didn’t see him. Probably not, though.

Really what was happening was that I was spending too much time listening Wrong story. The other voices.

I let them convince me that I wasn’t deserving of those things I want, that my perceptions are wrong, that I’ve over-estimated my abilities. That I’m wrong. About everything.

So I wrote to one of my teachers. She gave me some very difficult practices to do.

And she also said “[The heart] is an empty vessel for light to come through.”

The Love story is loudest when the heart is open. The Wrong story is loudest when it’s closed. That’s why at some of the most difficult times, we feel most constricted. Emotionally and physically.

Sometimes it’s hard to open your heart. Being human is hard. We have to balance a lot. Those things that frighten us and those things we love. We need to accept both. Both are already there.

Both stories are with us for this whole life.

But it’s up to us to choose which one gets our attention.

It Might Get Loud

So… it’s been pretty loud lately. All over the world, and for a lot of people I know.

And for me.

Loud.

And, you know, there are all sorts of sources for this loudness. So many. I won’t go into all of them; I think we can each name something loud around us. Or within us.

We can’t do anything about the external loudness. It’s going to be there, no matter what. I live in a city, and it’s loud here. Trucks are loud, construction sites are loud, Facebook is loud.

The future is loud and the past is often louder.

We are surrounded. Loudness shakes us, rattles us, confuses us and we can’t concentrate.

And we are loud internally.

Fear is loud, shame is loud, desire can be loud, regret is loud, anger is loud. But we can do something about the internal loudness and maybe do something about the external loudness too.

This is from a guy who collects silence:

When I speak of silence…I mean silence from modern life, silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system, which is busy communicating. Wildlife are as busy communicating as we are, but it’s not just messages coming from wildlife. I can name some that have been really transformative in my personal life, but it’s also the experience of place, what it means to be in a place.
—Gordon Hempton, interviewed by Krista Tippet On Beingbroadcast July 4, 2013

So silence is about being present. Silence is about being vulnerable. And that’s the hardest thing to be. It requires courage to be vulnerable.

Each week we read two different parts of the Tanakh in the synagogue, the Torah and the Haftara (which is from the Prophets). This week’s Torah is Parshat Pinchas (Bamidbar [Numbers] 24:10–30:1).

It’s loud.

Zealotry is rewarded (not my favorite), land is divided up (which will lead to more loudness, later), Holidays are outlined. There’s a lot going on. In the midst of all this loudness, God speaks to Moshe. (27:12–13)

 …וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עֲלֵה אֶל-הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה; וּרְאֵה, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ
…וְרָאִיתָה אֹתָהּ, וְנֶאֱסַפְתָּ אֶל-עַמֶּיךָ

God said to Moshe, go up this distant mountain and see the Land…
And when you have seen (understood) it, you will be gathered up with your people…

Okay, so I chopped the verses up and my translation isn’t exactly what you might find anywhere else, but here’s what I think it means: In the midst of all the loudness around us, sometimes we need to pause. We need to stop for a minute and really see. And it’s not easy. That understanding can be as hard to reach as a distant mountain.

Not easy.

We also read my favorite moment in the Tanakh, from I Melachim (Kings) 19:11–12. Eliyahu is hiding in a cave and he sees this:

וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, לֹא בָרוּחַ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ, לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְהוָה…
וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ, לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ, קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה

There was a huge, strong wind that was tearing the mountains and smashing the rocks to pieces in front of God; God was not in the wind. And after the wind, there was an earthquake; God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire; God was not in the fire. And after the fire, the thin voice of silence.

Loud. Ra’ash, the word for “earthquake,” also means “noise.”

But God’s name here, the name I prefer, is “What Is.” That’s the way I think of God. We’ve talked about this before, right?

God is What Is.

And that’s after the loudness, the storms and the noise and the fire.

What Is. The Present. That’s in the Thin Voice of Silence.

And that’s within us. And we can get to it. We can find the silence. But it’s so hard to do. It requires being vulnerable. Because we can’t do it without acknowledging love. And that takes more courage than traveling to a distant place, and more effort than climbing a mountain because love means being vulnerable. It just does.

But it’s here. And we can find it in a game of catch, or in a walk in the park, or sharing a meal with someone, or in a conversation with a friend, or in one of those hugs that you think might be too tight, but really isn’t. It’s in all those places and in our breath.

Right now.

The Shape of Silence

I am drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book.

It’s silent.

It’s early in the morning and it’s quiet—my favorite time of day.  But what I’m experiencing is silence, not quiet. It’s the silence I only feel when my son is waiting for me to wake him up. A defining silence. A silence with a shape.

Once I was in a yoga class and we were chanting with the teacher. It was a small class, but it was a small room and it was crowded. And here’s the thing: I couldn’t hear the people next to me.

I couldn’t hear their voices.

It’s hard to pick out a single voice in a room with a lot of people chanting together.  I tried listening to the person next to me.

Nothing.

Then I noticed the silence around her voice.

Not her voice. The silence. And I got it. We were chanting because of that silence. That silence in between our voices. The silence that connects us.

Our voices move into that silence and the silence makes room for them. It doesn’t resist. It can’t because without our voices in that room the silence couldn’t exist. And without the silence we would never hear our voices. They would be mixed together. Competing.

We need that silence because silence creates humility. I could hear because of the silence around me. If I had only been listening  to the sound of my own voice, I would have missed the beauty of other voices and I would have been worse off for it.

This week we read Parshat Hukkat (Bamidbar [Numbers]: 19:1-22:1). The Israelites are in the desert and there is no water. Miriam has died and her well, which had provided water until that point, has disappeared. God tells Moshe and Aharon to assemble the people and speak to a rock in their presence and it will provide water for them to drink. It doesn’t work out that way. The story goes that Moshe hits the rock with his staff and, because of this, he’s not allowed to enter the promised land. Because he hit it instead of speaking to it.

Actually, he does speak. Just not to the rock.

… וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם…
He said to them, “Now listen, rebels, can we get you water from this rock?” (20:10)

Then he hits the rock.

I’m not sure it’s the hitting that’s the real problem. I think it’s the speaking to the people, rather than the rock. To me it sounds like he’s speaking to hear the sound of his own voice. He’s not speaking to the silence of the rock or, even more to the point, to the silence of the water. He’s talking to the people. To the rebels. He’s talking in opposition. About how great he is.

He should have spoken to the water. The water would have given him more shape than just talking did.

Water is yielding, it makes room for us. It moves out of the way to accommodate our shape, the same way silence gives our voice its shape.

It’s time to wake my son, so I open the door to his room. He’s awake. Reading a book. And the silence between us is a connection. It gives shape to our relationship: A son-shaped silence and a father-shaped silence.

Sinking In

I’m in the shower.

I’m being very thorough.

Not that I’m not always very thorough—I am.

Shut up.

As I wash between my toes, I realize that I am silently narrating what I am doing. I used to do this when I would give Elly a bath. When he was tiny. “Now we’re washing your feet, we’re getting them super clean…”

I’m washing between the toes of the left foot and I’m relaxing my right foot on the floor of the shower—standing on all four corners. Then I switch feet and balance on my left while I clean the right.

This mindful shower takes a long time. And it gives me a chance to pay attention to my body. To trace meridians, to feel energy moving up and down my spine, to notice the muscles, and bones. And scars.

When Elly was a baby and I would give him a bath I was always amazed that he had no scars. Every night I wondered how long he would go with no scars. How long could the boy last without getting hurt? How long could I protect him?

I’m in the shower to wash off anything that can come between me and the water I’m about to sink into. The dirt. The oil. The dust. But also the distraction. It’s preparation—realization before I stop for a while. Before I pause.

I have scars. I have muscles. I am aware of my own energy. This body is a nice place to live. It has history. Power. Holiness. I need to remember that.

Out of the shower, I walk down the seven steps and into the pool of rainwater. I stand still for a moment, getting used to it.

There’s something different about this water. It’s not quite clear, and not quite cloudy. It’s holding the light from the fixtures overhead, rather than reflecting it. There’s a closeness to this water. It is as if I am not so much in it, as it is around me. Mikvah water is called mayim hayyim. Living water. And it feels like that.

Exhaling, I empty out my lungs and let myself go under completely. Opening my eyes, I see that the warmth of the light I noticed on the surface is even more pronounced down here. I lift my feet up and I’m suspended underwater. I’m not floating and I’m not sinking. I am neutral and it is silent.

I break the surface, inhale deeply and recite the blessing for this experience. This completely weird experience. This unlikely moment. And everything that went into it.

Another exhalation and another sinking. I watch the air leave my lungs through my nose and bubble to the surface.

My yoga teachers taught me that the pause between the exhalation and the inhalation is the gateway to our deepest Self. I break the surface and inhale again. Pause. Exhale underwater. Pause. And break the surface for the last time today. Pause.

This past Shabbat we read Vayikra (Vayikra [Leviticus] 1:1-5:26) It’s all about sacrifices and it’s pretty boring. I think Rashi must have been bored too. But the name of the parasha (and the name of the book of Leviticus in Hebrew) is וַיִּקְרָא. It means “And He called.”

Rashi notes that every topical section starts out with some description of God speaking, calling, saying…something to Moshe. But there are also subsections. He wonders why there are subsections. Why bother? The subsections are about the same topic after all.

The answer is so that Moshe will have a chance to pause and take it all in. God is teaching Moshe some very specific things that need to be done. Maybe unpleasant things. Difficult things. But necessary things. Best pause for a minute and let them sink in.

I came to the mikvah this morning to mark the beginning of a change in my life. I am going to change what I do for a living. Completely.  It will involve going back to school. And learning. A lot of learning. Some of it will be boring. Some of it will piss me off.

And it will involve sacrifice. A lot of sacrifice, probably. But it’s what I need to do.

Best pause and let it sink in.

Enough to Get Us Here

I am sitting in my apartment. Right now. I am sitting at my kitchen table and I am writing this. And this whole scene is completely unlikely.

The table. The computer. What I’ve learned so I can write this. The plant in the corner. The light above my head. They are all products of thousands of variables. The wood for the table was grown.The lightbulb is burning because of electricity. The seed was planted in soil. The aluminum for the computer was mined. The plant was watered. And all of these things came together tonight. Right now.

And me.

I am about to write about something I learned. And the series of moments that taught me that are each made up of thousands of elements. Thousands of variables.

I read some books. Because I found teachers. Because I walked in to a yoga studio. Because my friend loved it there. Because I made a friend.  Because we made a very short, very silly, film. Because I moved to Washington. Because I was heartbroken. Because my son was here. Because my ex wife got a job. Because my son was born. Because I loved her. Because I met her. Because we both worked at a Jewish camp. Because I loved Judaism. Because I studied Torah. Because I loved the people there. Because I was born into my family. Because my mother wanted another child. Because my parents met. Because they walked into the same room. Because they lived in the city where they lived. Because their parents came for jobs. Because they were in America. Because their parents wanted a better life. Because they were born….

And I skipped a lot. I skipped some very important steps. But I only have so much time to write. And there are only so many atoms in the Universe. But every moment and every moment that moved toward that moment was equally filled with complexity. And chance. And miracles.

This week we read Parashat Vayakhel (Shemot [Exodus] 31:5-38:20).

Shabbat and then another shopping list. Really a list of things people brought for the building of the Mishkan. And Bezalel. He’s back with the same job. He’s still called out by name. He still has within him The Divine Spirit, Wisdom, Understanding, and The Deepest Knowledge. Which is cool. I like Bezalel.

And this:

 וְהַמְּלָאכָה, הָיְתָה דַיָּם לְכָל-הַמְּלָאכָה–לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתָהּ; וְהוֹתֵר.
And their efforts (at donating the items needed) were enough to do the work. More than enough. (36:7)

So we had a shopping list last week. And this week everyone brought in the items on the list. More than they even needed to. And then they finished designing and building the Mishkan.

But a couple of things happened last week that I didn’t mention. Interesting things.

The first is when Moshe and Joshua are heading down from the mountain. Joshua hears what he thinks is a battle. And Moshe listens and he says something weird.

.וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹת גְּבוּרָה, וְאֵין קוֹל, עֲנוֹת חֲלוּשָׁה; קוֹל עַנּוֹת, אָנֹכִי שֹׁמֵעַ
He said: It’s not the voice of heroism, and it’s not the voice of weakness. I only hear the voice of singing. (32:18)

That’s not all that weird, really. What he hears is the Israelites and their party with the עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה, the molten calf they started to worship out of fear when Moshe took so long on the mountain.

Then there’s this:

 .וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָעֵגֶל אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ, וַיִּשְׂרֹף בָּאֵשׁ, וַיִּטְחַן, עַד אֲשֶׁר-דָּק; וַיִּזֶר עַל-פְּנֵי הַמַּיִם, וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And [Moshe] took the calf that they made and burnt it in the fire until it was dust. And he threw it into the water so that the Israelites would drink it. (32:20)

Okay, so that’s weird, right? I understand getting rid of the calf. But why the whole water thing? Why did he want them to drink it?

Rashi cites the Talmud and says Moshe wanted to test them. If they were completely guilty and they drank the gold water their stomachs would swell up and they would die. Others would die in different ways based on their level of guilt.

But then, very soon after that, the Israelites bring more than enough material to complete the work on the Mishkan.

It doesn’t make sense to me. If so many people had been involved that Joshua and Moshe could hear their singing from so far away, how was it that there were enough who escaped punishment (and who would be willing to give up so much) to complete the Mishkan? Were they scared into it by seeing all the punishing happening? I refuse to believe the Mishkan, the Place of Presence would have been created out of fear.

In Taoist thought there are five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each one has different properties, different, seasons, organs, and different emotions with which it is associated, and each one interacts both positively and negatively with another.

Fire weakens metal, so it makes sense to burn something made of gold when you want to get rid of it.

But metal strengthens water. Metal gives water its properties. So mixing gold with water underscores the water’s wateriness. Water is the element associated with calm, wisdom, and flexibility. Maybe it’s the water that calms them. Water opposes fire. The angry fire that Moshe uses to destroy the calf would have been put out by water. Maybe the calming water gives the Israelites the courage to access those gifts within them: The Divine Spirit. Wisdom. Understanding. The Deepest Knowledge. Maybe that’s what happened. I don’t know for sure.

Here’s what I do know: I know that we all have those elements within us. We all have wood, fire, earth, metal, and water aspects. We all contain The Divine Spirit, Wisdom, Understanding, and The Deepest Knowledge. I’ve seen it at work and it’s just true.

And I know the זמרת יה, the Divine Song, the sound made by all those elements and molecules and moments that came together to bring us to where we are—me writing, you reading—I know that Song is not a song of heroism and it’s not a song of weakness, it’s just the Song singing each moment into the next.

And I know listening for that Song makes it impossible not to realize that we have more than enough material within us to create a place for the Present.

Look back and think about what got you to this moment. The incredible set of circumstances that had to happen to get you here. It seems impossible. This moment seems impossible. But here you are. Here we are. Me writing, you reading. All that that impossibility bewilders me and it makes me so grateful.

Home is The Present

My friends are getting new furniture. And painting. And rearranging. They are spending a lot of time with paint chips, and catalogues, and at furniture stores.

And they are so happy with this project. And so excited to see how it will turn out. And, honestly, it’s amazing to watch. They are making their home reflect who they are. Who they have become over the years.

But there’s more. There’s a lot more at work. They are creating a space that will remind them of who they are. The colors they are choosing aren’t just pleasant to look at.

They are more.

Those colors are manifestations of who they are. And who their children are. And who they all are together, as a family. Even as their kids are getting older.

As they are painting and rearranging, they are noticing that things they’ve owned for years fit perfectly into the new places. That they match the new colors of the walls as if they’d gotten them with this house, this color, this corner in mind.

The hooks they are choosing to put up near their front door are more than a convenient place to hang coats. They are a welcome to those of us who visit. Their house is becoming a place to live their values, more and more.

So of course it makes them happy to do this work. And of course it makes me happy when my friend shows me ideas in catalogues and then waves her arm across the room to explain where a chair or a sofa might go. It is important work. Work filled with joy.

This week we read Ki Tissa (Shemot [Exodus] 30:11-34:35). It spends a lot of time on a shopping list. A shopping list of items to build the Mishkan. The dwelling place.

The Hebrew word: משכן‎, has the same root as one of the God’s Names: שכינה‎ (Shekhina), which is how we refer to the Divine Presence. The Immanent God. It’s sort of the noun form of the idea of Being Present.

The Mishkan was temporary; it was taken down and set back up as the Israelites moved through the wilderness. It was a Place for the Present. No one was pretending it was permanent.

Then, a little way in–past the first part of the shopping list (Can you please pick up a copper basin for the priests to wash their hands in? Oh…right…also and myrrh—500 weight should be enough. And cinnamon…should I write this down for you?), we meet Bezalel.

.רְאֵה, קָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם, בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן-אוּרִי בֶן-חוּר, לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה
.וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָל-מְלָאכָה
…לַחְשֹׁב, מַחֲשָׁבֹת
See, I have called Bezalel…by name, and I have filled him with the Divine Spirit, wisdom, understanding, and the deepest knowledge of every craft…to design designs (to think thoughts)

Bezalel is chosen to be the master craftsman, the designer, of the Mishkan, the home for the Presence. 

For a guy with no lines, Bezalel has a lot to do. And that name. Bezalel means “In the Shadow of God”

But Bezalel has within him some pretty remarkable gifts. The Divine Spirit. Wisdom. Understanding. The Deepest Knowledge. And, with these, he can design designs. Think thoughts.

He’s been called by name. He’s been given these amazing gifts. And all he has to do to make it happen is be himself. Be true to himself. Be present. He’s creating a home for that Presence. One that will be more than the copper, gold, silver, wood, cloth, spices, water, and fire that are going into it. They are lovely, these elements, but there’s so much more going on here.

So much more.

Because all these items, all these designs, and plans, and choice…all this work is about creating space for the Presence. One that’s a manifestation of the Divine within him and that can only happen with all that work. That work to build something that manifests that Divine within all of us.

Spirit. Wisdom. Understanding. Deepest Knowledge. We all have them. It’s just that sometimes they are in the shadows.

My friends are busy at their work. Similar work. Maybe even the same work. Building their own space for the Shekhina. For the Present. And all they have to do is be themselves.

And they are having so much fun.

Who Do You Think You Are, Anyway?

Benno: Ha, ha. You’re a spiritual teacher whether you own up to it or not. Ha, ha!

Harry: Am not!

Benno: You are this thing you are. And I, personally, really don’t care what you call that. Colleague, friend, advisor, teacher…don’t care. I just like that we have the conversations that we have.

Yes. My friends are really like that…some of them are even worse.

It’s easy to repeat the question “Who do you think you are?” to yourself. It’s easy for me to repeat it to myself, anyway.

But am I the best judge of that? I’m not sure. I think maybe not always.

I have all sorts of ideas of who and what I am built up. Some of them are right and some of them are very wrong. Sometimes I am able to just be who I am, unapologetically. Sometimes I get myself tied up in Gordian knots and I have no idea how to cut through them. So I try to be something else. Try to present people with what I think they might want me to be.

But that doesn’t work. When I try to prove how mindful, smart, thoughtful…whatever else…I am, I just end up asking myself again: “Who do you think you are?”

And the more I choose—or avoid—titles for myself, the worse it gets. Sometimes to the point of absurdity:

“You call yourself Shabbat-observant, but you just turned the light out in the bathroom?”  or “You call yourself a yogi but you leaned on the horn and called the guy in the Escalade an asshole to yourself for driving like that?” or even “You call yourself a loving father and yet you would buy conventional bananas instead of organic?”

I’m not always completely mindful. Of my spiritual practices, of my temper, of what I eat. You can ask around, people will tell you it’s the truth.

But those same people, some of those same people at any rate, will tell you that I am mindful, smart, thoughtful and a whole bunch of other things. Because, they see me.

Me. Not their conceptions of me. Or my conceptions of myself.  Me.

And they know that I am what I am, and who I am.

Because I opened to them. I just let them see me. Whether it’s upside down in the yoga studio, or at the bagel place, or in the meditation hall, or wherever. I just opened to them.

And it was terrifying.

And that’s hilarious.

The other day I read this:

It is essential to surrender, to open yourself, to present whoever you are to the guru, rather than trying to present yourself as a worthwhile student. It does not matter how much you are willing to pay, how correctly you behave, how clever you are at saying the right thing to your teacher…. Such deception does not apply to an interview with a guru, because he sees right through us. Making ingratiating gestures is not applicable in this situation; in fact it is futile. We must make a real commitment to being open with our teacher; we must be willing to give up all our preconceptions.

—Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (39)

You can substitute any number of titles for “guru”, “teacher”, or “student” and it will still be true.

Those titles don’t matter because we are these things we are and the people to whom we truly open ourselves don’t care what we call ourselves. They will always see us for who we are no matter what. And we will always see them the same way: Honestly, compassionately, and with love.

The trick is that we have to also send some of that love to ourself.

Terrifying.

Hilarious.

While I Have Your Attention…

My havruta is laughing.

From across the table I want to know what’s so funny.

“This chapter is pretty appropriate—just read it.”

…Arrogant people think that since they have afflicted themselves and practiced self-mortification they they are tzaddikim, but the truth is not so…

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Kitzur Likutey Moharan 10:5

Now I’m laughing too.

Tzaddikim are spiritual masters. Like Rebbe Nachman, for example.

On the face of it, what he’s saying is “Don’t think that a little fasting is going to make you capable of doing my job.” He later writes that it’s wrong not to bring one’s prayers to a true tzadik.

But first he goes into a whole bunch of stuff about how ordinary people carry around a bunch of shame and energetic baggage left over from their conception.

I know.

Okay. I took a couple of liberties with the text based on our conversation while we were studying, but that’s pretty much it. We are flawed and filled with shame, us ordinary people. We need spiritual masters to guide us.

And there’s a not-so-gentle tap on my shoulder and a very clear message:
“While I have your attention, don’t think that just because you know some stuff and study cool texts with your havruta that you’re immune. You are not lacking in shame and self-mortification.” 

But Tzadik is also a name of one of the sephirot. It’s associated with Yesod (foundation), which connects heaven and earth. I think of it as the Jewish Muladhara (Root) chakra, pretty much because it is the Jewish Muladhara.

Anyway, Rebbe Nachman could also be saying that unless we get to the root of things, to the place where the rubber hits the road, we’re going to be stuck with that shame and self-mortification. Stuck in a place where we forget how much we are loved.

And that would suck.

And that’s why I’m laughing.

Because there’s another tap on my shoulder. Quite a firm one, actually. And the very clear message:
“While I have your attention, I’d like to remind you of that casual conversation you had before moving into silence at your retreat. About shame being the worst thing there is. The most destructive thing there is. And remember how the person who told you that sat behind you in the mediation hall and laughed that amazing laugh for the rest of the week? And how it made you laugh? I want to remind you there was a reason for that.”

And I’m laughing because we’d just been talking about all of this. All of it. Before even opening the book.

And that’s funny.

And I’m laughing because these taps on the shoulder are so lacking in subtlety.

And that’s funny.

And I’m laughing because I’m so annoyed at Rebbe Nachman, and my havruta, and the Very Clear Messages because I know what they are all saying. And I know what they expect of me. They want me to open my heart, even if it breaks again. They want me to attach myself to a lost cause. And lose if I lose. And they want me to laugh as I do it.

And that’s really funny.

I’m at a yoga class.

It’s a very hard yoga class.

The teacher keeps saying “I’d love for you…” As in “I’d love for you to feel the relationship between the lower and upper frameworks of you body…”

And, the thing of it is, she really does “love for us.” She moves around the studio proving that. That’s why we come to this class once a month. That’s why we love learning from her. And why we’ve been together in her classes for years. Because she brings such incredible love to her teaching.

And that’s why we suffer through the really hard asanas. And why we brave the really frightening ones—like the one tonight requiring a partner to support us while we drop back from a standing position into a full backbend.

Because of that love.

I allow myself to drop back into Urdhva Dhanurasana, which I can do because I trust the person supporting me so much, and because I have my feet solidly rooted to the floor. And, upside down, I look around the studio and see people I truly love, and they are all upside down too.

And I feel a gentle tap on the shoulder. And a very clear message:
“As long as I have your attention, I’d like to remind you that they love you too. Very much.
Oh…and I’m still here.” 

And I’m laughing.

Please be Quiet

My train is being held.

I’m on my way to a silent retreat.

And my train is being held.

Indefinitely.

At 4:30 this afternoon there was a fatal accident north of here. That train is still being held. They gave the passengers water and snacks.

Today is officially the worst day of someone’s life. They received the phone call that anyone who’s ever loved another human being lives in terror of receiving.

Or no one received that call.

Being human is hard.

It’s the hardest thing I’ll ever do. And I am so lucky that I don’t have to do it alone.

I got to hug my son today. When I woke up this morning I had no idea that would be the case. I didn’t know he’d be at my synagogue this morning with his mom and stepdad and little brother.

But there he was.

And seeing him made so many thoughts and mental fluctuations float away. He does that to me. He stops me dead in my tracks like that.

And I’m so lucky to have him. To have him to love like that.

Someone got that call today. That worst day of your life call. I hope.

To think that there might not have been anyone for the callers to call is so much worse.

And so I’m hoping.

I’m actually hoping that today is the worst day of someone’s life. Because being human is too hard to have to try alone day to day.

Because we aren’t alone, of course. None of us is. But it’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to fail to hear the זמרת יה. The Divine Song.

How much harder must it be on the worst day of someone’s life?

So here I am. On a train.

Thinking about the week of silence ahead of me.

And hoping.

Hoping that maybe that silence will help someone hear that they don’t have to believe they’re doing this alone.

Maybe me.

We’re moving now. The conductor says it will be slow going.

But we’re moving.

What’s Happened So Far.

I’ve been given an assignment; I need to write a spiritual autobiography.

I’ve decided to share this outline with you .

I probably won’t share the completed one with you. Sorry.

Here’s what’s happened so far:

It all started with the people.

With the visit from The Rabbi to my house when I was three; I fled in stark terror and hid in my room.

Then Sunday school and “God is One” and the bronze doors on the ark in the sanctuary and trips to the choir loft.

With camp and laughter and boats and swims across the lake and Cat Stevens songs around campfires. With my best friend, whose house was filled with Jewish art and whose parents actually sang whole prayers at Shabbat dinner.

And then it moved to the unplanned-for Bar Mitzvah I demanded.

And confirmation, and studying Buber and Heschel with the rabbi and my friends in his office. To college and helping to take the entire Hillel budget and spend it on a colloquium about peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

To disappointment and anger and running very far away. To a gentle tap on my shoulder and the clear message: “I am still here.”

Then to studying Mishna in my professor’s office. To Israel. To the huppah. To sandwiches and beer and text study in Philadelphia. To youth programming in Baltimore. To Israel again. To blessing my son Friday nights before he was born:

 היה אשר תהיה והיה ברוך באשר תהיה
“Be who you will be, and be blessed in who you will be.”

Then to a bris and another blessing:

“Be like your namesake and listen for the קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה. The thin voice of silence. The still, small voice.”

Then heartbreak. And to the beit din.

To a gentle tap on my shoulder and the clear message: “I am still here.”

Then to potluck minyanim in apartments around New York for Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv. And holidays and Hebrew study.

To Washington DC. To traditional synagogues where I didn’t feel quite at home.

To someone telling me: “You know all this yoga and mindfulness and meditation is just going to bring you back to Judaism, right?” To “Yes, but not just now.”

To a gentle tap on the shoulder and the clear message: “I am still here.”

To a Rosh Hashanah potluck. And then my tallit wrapped around me at Kol Nidrei.

To my mother’s funeral. To shacharit every morning. To latkes and shabbat candles and holidays.

To studying with a havruta. To kashrut. To Shabbat. To Rashi. To piyyutim.

And then to this week: Parshat Vayigash (Bereishit [Genesis] 44:18 – 47:27)  and this line. This one simple line.

לֹא-אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה, כִּי, הָאֱלֹהִים
“It was not you who sent me here, it was God.”

I was mistaken. It wasn’t the people who got me to this week. The people were helping. Just, I really hope, as I have been helping them.

What has gotten us all here? You, me, the people who made everything in this post happen,  the cocker spaniel down the street—all of us?

It’s the thin voice of silence saying:  “I am still here. There is nowhere else but Me.”

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