A Very Narrow Bridge

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

Month: January, 2012

Just Stronger

My friend Benno told me that Karen, his wife, has a saying: “It doesn’t get easier—you get stronger.”

Which brings me to the Billy Goat Trail. I am climbing the wall here with Elliot right in front of me. When he first saw it, he said that maybe we should turn back. Then he paused, watched some people going up, and said that we should try it.

“Okay, you go first and stay right in front of me. Stay very close to me, and we can do this together.”

This is the advice Benno gave me:  “Have the kid go up first and stay right behind him. You can help him climb if you need to.” This is how he got his daughter Clare to the top safely when she was about 3. Knowing I’m right behind him gives Elly the confidence to keep going—that and his kid’s desire to do difficult things, I suppose.

The entire way up, I try not to look at the river moving fast in back of me. In back of me and a couple of hundred feet below me. In back of me, a couple of hundred feel below me, and liberally sprinkled with large and pointy rocks.

At the top, Elly tells me it’s not so scary to climb the wall, but for me it’s about the scariest thing I’ve ever done.

Benno clearly gets the fact that a kid should know, not believe, that his dad is there to catch him, even if the dad in question has no earthly idea how the momentum of the fall will not send them both over the edge and into the rapids. But he and Karen understand how to do that now. They stayed on their feet when Clare fell. Not off the path—they could keep her safe from that—but when she succumbed to leukemia, something they couldn’t control.

I think they do it by knowing they can make it to the next day, even when their pain is so terrible that they don’t believe they will.

This can’t get easier, but they keep getting stronger.

Eleven Months, Part 2: Yoga and Tefillin

My arm hurts a little. Probably because the small box of Torah verses strapped there is digging into it as I pray.

“Bind them (mitzvot) as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet (totafot) between your eyes” (D’varim [Deuteronomy] 6:8)

Jewish mindfulness is pretty literal.  Those words are bound to my arm and to my head with leather straps. Why actually do this?  Isn’t it much better to take the verse from Deuteronomy as a metaphor? The teachings of the Torah are to be treasured, “like a piece of jewelry.”

Nice, right?

Nice, but not quite enough, at least for me. I like putting tefillin on. I like the fact that when I enter the synagogue each morning, I have to pause, to concentrate on wrapping the straps around my arm. I can’t just walk in with my mind on something else. I have to be where I am. I like the slight discomfort reminding me that I am bound to something much bigger than myself, like this teaching, or the people with whom I am praying.

Fast forward to a yoga class. The teacher is giving us a lot of instruction for Ardha Chandrasana, the pose we are in:

“Be aware of your foot planted on the ground, the rotation of your lower leg, your femur should be moving back toward the wall, settling into your hamstrings. Are your shoulders equally open? Your upper foot should be engaged, as if it’s also planted on the ground. Is your upper leg working as hard as the lower leg? How is its rotation affecting your groins?  Stretch out through your side body to lengthen your spine. Now, keeping your hips even, try to dial your sacrum to move your tailbone towards your thigh, like we did in Trikonasana….”

“Wow,” I say, laughing, “You gave us like fourteen different things to think about during that pose.”

“Yeah,” comes the reply, “But you’re not thinking about anything else, are you?”

In another class, the teacher “invites us to enjoy Eka Pada Rajakapotasana.” There is no enjoying this asana for me. Being true to my smartass self, I ask the teacher “Ever notice how when you ‘invite us to enjoy’ something, it’s going to suck?”

Sometimes yoga asanas involve some discomfort. Sometimes exploring our connection to something bigger hurts, maybe just a little, like having a box strapped to your arm. But concentrating on all the various parts of an action keep us in the moment.  The word yoga literally means “yoke.” Yoga binds us to existence. Putting on tefillin is another reminder of that.

Re: Dedication

Hanukkah ended December 28 at sundown, so—you know—I’m writing about it on January 3.

Hanukkah is complex.


A lot more complex than we think. The story of Hanukkah is the story of a miracle, and a military victory in a civil war. It is the story of a holiday postponed, and of  the rededication of a holy place.

Also, there are presents, potato pancakes, and jelly doughnuts.

Maybe it’s because of its history, or maybe because it’s a relatively low-level holiday in the Jewish calendar, but Hanukkah has been subject to more interpretation than pretty much any other Jewish holiday. Hanukkah, it seems, is all things to all people.

So, now the menorahs are put away. The excess candles have been thrown into a drawer.  The very notion of food fried in oil nauseates us.  Until we start all over again on 25 Kislev next year. Now it’s time to get on with the rest of the year.

But I’m still thinking about it.

Pretty much everything about Hanukkah goes back to the rededication of the Temple. It’s all of everything I said it is,  but at the center of it all is that rededication. That cleaning up and search for holiness. There is a lot of talk about using Hanukkah as a chance to rededicate oneself to one’s values. This is a pretty decent idea, I think, and it’s a good time of year for it.

Hanukkah falls near the Winter Solstice—the shortest day of the year and a day when many people, including me, take a look at themselves and think about what needs to change over the next six months, as the world is getting lighter each day and we need those candles less and less.

Hanukkah also falls relatively near New Year’s Day—the biggest day of the year for the business managers of gyms and yoga studios around the world.

But, as with all those gym and yoga studio memberships, it’s too easy to forget about the holiness we might have found. Actually, even the Hasmoneans—the famed Macabees of Hanukkah—forgot about their duty after not too long; in the end, they were best known for their corruption.

Rededication is hard work, and it needs to keep going even after the candles are in the drawer. So I am writing about Hanukkah after Hanukkah as a reminder to myself to keep up with that dedication. I should also probably eat more jelly doughnuts throughout the year.