A Very Narrow Bridge

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

Month: July, 2013

Benno U’veini

I was talking to Benno a while ago. Here’s some of what we said:

Benno:  Can we talk about being disciplined?

Harry: Yep.

More highlights:

“We are taught that being disciplined is about doing the things we don’t want to do, and that it’s unpleasant.”

“I am struggling with what I want vs. what I am willing to do about it…and I realized this morning that being disciplined (for me) has more to do with being thoughtful, and less about denying myself something.”

“A Lenten discipline is about being thoughtful. Not about self-denial. We make choices…we agree to those choices. That is discipline.”

“Throughout the year, we take some things on, and give things up. We make choices, mindfully.”

“I am struggling with the ‘agree to those choices’ part.”

“I am in control. I have made my choice–I can be angry at [the situation], or I can just be myself with an open heart. I have agreed to the choice.

I can also say “No” throughout my day/week/month/year. Or to respond to requests with a suggestion for something I feel would serve the project—or whatever—better.”

“I just have to hold myself to my agreements, like walking more, better, or accept that they aren’t working and make a new agreement with [myself]; if walking’s not what [I] need, what could I do instead?”

This week we read Parshat Re’eh (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 11:26 – 16:17).

It begins:

.רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה

Re’eh anochi notein lifneichem hayom brachah u’klalah.

“See, I give you today a blessing and a curse.”

We have choices. The parsha (Torah portion) continues (and I’m just going to translate and sort of paraphrase it):

A blessing if you will listen [for] the connection to God, which I explain to you today. A curse if you do not listen [for] the connection to God and turn away from the Path which I explain to you today…

We can choose what we want to do. We can listen for those connections, or we can ignore them.

But we need to accept our choices and live with the consequences.

The parsha goes on to give 55 mitzvot, which is kind of a lot. Actually, it’s definitely a lot if you think about them as commandments. When I was taking liberties in my translation, I used the word “connections” for mitzvot. You can see where I learned that here.

55 seems like a lot.


Discipline isn’t about being forced to do things we don’t want to do, or not to do things we really want to do. It’s about mindfully making choices and accepting what will come from them. Blessings…or curses.

It’s really 55 opportunities for mindful connection. To yourself, to the community, to God. That’s the practice.  That’s why I love being Jewish.

I’m incredibly lucky to have my Episcopalian friend to teach me Torah.

Oh, the title for this post is a pun on “Beino u’veini” which means “between him and me.” I didn’t make the pun and I can’t take credit for it.

Cowboy Up

Last week we read, in Vaetchanan (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 3:23 – 7:11), about Moshe’s plea to God to forgive him enough to allow him to enter the Land—just for a look around.

God won’t be moved. The answer is no. The answer is actually:

רַב-לָךְ–אַל-תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד, בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה

Rav-lach–al tosef daber alai od badavar hazeh! (You have enough! Don’t speak to me about this any more!) (Devarim 3:26)

And that’s that.

Sorry. It’s just not going to happen.

This week, in Eichev (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 7:12 – 11:25), it’s time to see what the people are all about.

When they enter the land, will they be scared? Will they turn to other gods? When they experience abundance, will they forget that they didn’t do it all on their own? Will they decide they’re special? Entitled?

Will they be able to tap into the fierceness necessary, not only to conquer, but to continue to live their lives with discipline and authenticity?

What are they made of, anyway?

Moshe thinks he knows, and he’s not at all happy.

Moshe. Rejected Moshe. Moshe who got what he’s getting. Who shouldn’t bring it up again. Hurt Moshe. Moshe who’s read ahead and knows what’s coming.

Moshe who had to intercede on the people’s behalf so many times. Who fasted for 40 days–twice (and at his age) in order to receive the Torah. Who’s already buried his sister and his brother.

That Moshe.

That’s the Moshe who has to go before these people and tell them, in effect, that it’s time for them to cowboy up. These people who’ve been a pain in the ass from the first day he met them.

And then.

Then something amazing happens. Because we find out how they are going to accomplish that:

וּמַלְתֶּם, אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם; וְעָרְפְּכֶם–לֹא תַקְשׁוּ, עוֹד

U’maltem et arlat l’vavchem, v’arpechem lo takshu od. (Devarim 10:16)

Want to know how you’re going to grow up? To let that cowboy out? You’re going to open your heart and stop being stiff-necked and stubborn.

Know why that works?

Because you’re going to get hurt. That open heart is going to be broken.

You know what happens then? You learn that heartbreak isn’t the end of the world. And if you loosen your neck, if you stop stubbornly clinging to the idea that you deserve more, you’re going to realize that what you got actually is enough.

Rav-lach isn’t just “you have enough,” it’s “you have a lot.”

I need to remember this. I need to remember to open my heart and accept the abundance I have been given; the fierceness is always there.

What are you waiting for?

“What are you waiting for, Tisha B’Ab?”

My dad loves that expression. As I think about it, I’ve never heard anyone else say it. Maybe he got it from my grandfather. I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure he’s ever really considered the deep meaning of Tisha B’Av. That’s fine—it’s not his thing.

For better or for worse, it’s my thing. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this less than three hours before I have to be at the synagogue to listen to the book of Eicha being read and to begin my long fast. What I really should be doing is eating a light meal and drinking a lot of water. This is going to be a quick one—there will be typos.

I talked about Tisha B’Av last year, so I’m only going to recap:

Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av) is a day of mourning and a fast day commemorating a series of tragedies that have struck the Jewish people throughout our history.

I don’t want to minimize tragedy. I am not going to minimize tragedy. I would never say this to someone who is in the midst of experiencing something tragic.


I’ve been thinking about tragedy and I’ve come to the conclusion that what tragedy is (not what it means—it doesn’t help to search for the meaning in tragedy): A radical shift in the nature of the moment.

A loved one is here and then they are gone. Buildings stood, now they are rubble. There was hope and belief and a sense of order, now there is despair, doubt, and chaos.

It appears that way from the middle.

But from further down the road it’s different.

Babylon gave us Jeremiah, and one of the most beautiful phrases in the Tanakh: Kol sasson, v’kol simhah, kol, hatan, v’kol kalah. (The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.) We sing it at weddings, filled with hope and love. And it goes on. From the ruins of Jerusalem we went to Yavne and created the Mishnah and began to focus on prayer. In our expulsion from Spain, we traveled to Turkey and Morocco and composed unimaginably beautiful music.

Things don’t go according to plan. Life is not what we imagined it would be and it feels like everything’s flying off the rails. At least from the middle. We feel no control because the reality of the moment has radically changed.  This is where we are.

And, frankly, it sucks.

Tisha B’Av is important. We should weep and mourn. We should look at ourselves and the hatred we nourish despite the fact that this hatred kills us. We should remember what it feels like to be in that place where everything has changed in an instant and we are lost.

We should recognize that we can’t always control what happens. And this is where we live.  If we accept this, we will see God in that moment. And hear the Voice of Joy, unlikely as it seems.

“What are you waiting for, Tisha B’Ab?” my dad asks.

What are you waiting for? A radical change?

“It may not happen, or it may happen in a way you never imagined,” he seems to be saying.

“There is nothing to wait for; this is where we live,” I reply.


There aren’t rules as much as there are expectations.

Neither of us is going to intentionally throw the ball into the street or the woods. It’s just not done that way. But even with our expectations, we can’t always count on the ball not sailing over one of our heads. I had a bruise on my knee for days when the ball got away from him and hit me there–hard. Catch is not a game without risks.

It’s hot and humid and we are both sweating, but this is an important game. I throw the ball to Elly with my right hand, he catches it in his glove with his left and throws it back to me with his right.

It’s late in the day, and we are getting tired. We make mistakes, but chasing after the ball is part of it because the game is about learning, not perfection.

“What happened there?” I ask as the ball passes 20 feel to my right—I’m not fast enough for that.

“I wasn’t looking at you.” comes the response.

My fancy sidearm throw flies over Elly’s head and I apologize: “Sorry–held on to that one too long.”

He laughs, “At least you’re better at sidearm than I am!”

A while ago I saw a play performed in American Sign Language. The actors, students at Gallaudet University, signed and there was a voice interpreter offstage reading all the parts. The characters repeated one line over and over: “There’s nothing to be done.”

At intermission the ASL interpreter with whom I saw the play pointed out that while the interpreter was reading the line directly from the script, the actors were always signing “There’s nothing to be finished.”

I liked that better.

Being human is hard, not hopeless. We are here, and that’s sometimes hard enough without becoming mired in how upset we are that we are limited to this hard existence. I need to remember how lucky I am to have this life at all. This life, this kid, this game. I need to remember that it’s about learning, not perfection.

It starts to rain. Soon we are soaked and can hardly see the ball.

“One more!” I shout from across the field where I’ve chased the last errant toss. I throw the ball in a long high arc across the field. Elly is ready. He watches the ball come towards him through the rain. And he’s smiling because there’s never been a bad day to play this game.