A Very Narrow Bridge

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

Category: Community

Eleven Months, Part 4: Clinging to Egypt

“You’ve worked harder [at feeling the presence of  Grace] than pretty much anyone I know…” She said.

Yeah, and sometimes I completely miss it. And, honestly, it’s much easier for me to miss it than it is to feel it. But Grace is there for the taking. That’s how it is—it’s just there. It’s everywhere. And when you open yourself up to it, you end up sharing it.

That’s just how it works.

And yet, believing this as firmly as I do, I still miss it. I still decide, at times, to stay in a place where I will never notice it. Even if it’s a place makes that me miserable. A place where I find myself thinking things like “Don’t love me like that, love me like this.”

It’s a place where my expectations are not based on reality because I’m not paying any attention to reality. It’s my own private Egypt. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Everyone I know who works on this stuff feels that way at times: “Don’t love me like that love me like this.”

This week the Torah portion is Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) Korach is the second of two portions that are pretty hard to take.

Last week in Sh’lakh L’kha (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41), we read about how the majority of the spies that Moses sent into the new land, the land where the Israelites would truly no longer be slaves, came back and said. “Forget it—there’s no way we can defeat the people who live there. They’re just to strong. Too frightening. We saw giants.” For this lack of faith, the entire generation that left Egypt is forbidden to enter the new land. Then, as if to top it off, a guy is stoned to death for gathering firewood on Shabbat.

This week, Korach and 250 others, all of them important people, speak out against Moses and Aaron saying “Why are you so special, everyone here is holy—God is with everyone.” So, Korach seemed to get that Grace is everywhere. But later, he missed the point. Moses calls some of Korach’s people over to discuss things, asking “What has Aaron ever done to you?” but they respond “Isn’t it bad enough that you took us out of ‘a land flowing with milk and honey?’ Are you going to lord it over us, too? And even if you’d have brought us to a really great place, you’ve still pulled the wool over our eyes (because you’ve got all the power and you don’t appreciate us)?”

In effect, “Don’t love us like that, love us like this.”

Egypt as a land of milk and honey? Seriously, those guys are forgetting what slavery was like. But we can get used to anything I guess, and it’s hard to let go.

In the end, Korach is buried alive. The Earth opens up and swallows him and everyone who follows him. A pretty strong metaphor for absolute isolation.

Letting go of old habits is pretty hard. It’s pretty easy to think back fondly on Egypt. But it always ends up making us feel isolated, cut off.

“Don’t love me like that, love me like this, Mom.” Egypt.

“Don’t love me like that, love me like this, Ex-Wife.” Egypt.

“Don’t love me like that, love me like this, because I’m feeling alone, and I deserve it, and because I want it.” Egypt.

Lately, I’ve been clinging to Egypt. Feeling the same things I felt as a kid. The same isolation. The same expectations that have no  real basis in reality. Feeling like this makes me want to be alone—to rebel against everything I know will make me more aware of Grace. I need to remember that the giants are a matter of perspective, and that rebellion is just going to make me feel buried alive.

The way out of Egypt may need to take me through the desert, but the heat, and the fear, and the heartbreak are just part of the journey.  So I’ll be back on the mat, back on the meditation cushion, back to the pause to open to Grace. It’s there, waiting for me to notice.

Unknown at the Center of Things

Near the center of the cemetery, among some of the oldest graves, there is a small marker. Near the center, surrounded by some of the largest and fanciest monuments. It simply says “Unknown.”

Grave marker for Unknown, Mount Zion Cemetery, St. Paul, MN

We don't know who is buried here, but that doesn't matter.

Is this a case of lost records, of an oversight when the cemetery was moved? Who is buried there? Someone who came to St. Paul alone? Without a family? A Jew?  There is no ready answer and it doesn’t matter—we care for everyone.

Today is Rosh Chodesh. On the most practical level this means an extra-long shacharit service, as evidenced by some surreptitious watch-checking this morning. It also means a lox platter after services. Gotta love a lox platter. But it also means a beautiful commentary on a beautiful commentary, and, most importantly, it means Hallel.

Today as I was singing, my voice cracked a little at the line: “Even maasu ha’bonim haita l’rosh pina.” (The stone that was rejected by the builders will become the cornerstone.) As usual, there are a lot of interpretations of this.

This morning, I thought about Unknown as I sang that. We are all, in some way, Unknown. We are all unknown, but we are also all asked to care for the unknown. Unknown does not necessarily mean rejected, and even if it does, those rejected people can be brought into the center, if we care for them as if they were known to us.

Rosh Chodesh is the new moon, the darkest night of the month when keeping a light going is most important. The moon (seriously, you should have followed the link on the word “commentary“) wanted to know the advantage to being visible during the night and the day: “A latern in the daylight is useless,” she said. But she was mistaken. A lantern in the daylight reminds us that night’s coming and darkness, the unknown, is just a part of life.

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 1

I am in the synagogue sitting around a table with some guys eating a bagel with lox. Normally, there are bagels in the coatroom after morning minyan, but no lox. The lox is special today, because someone is finishing his eleven months of saying kaddish for his father. He had breakfast brought in to thank everyone for being there with him for the year while he mourned.

For the past month, this has been how I start my day. I go to the synagogue and pray through the shacharit service. Towards the end, I stand, along with the other mourners, and say the Mourner’s Kaddish. For the first month, I could barely get through it.

Today, as I am eating my bagel, I am thinking about the next ten months. For the next ten months, this is where I will be. Every day. A month ago, I walked in to this synagogue for the first time, shell-shocked. My mother was not an easy person. She had no easy relationships. For her, being human was particularly hard and she didn’t make it any easier for people around her. I don’t think any of my brothers or sisters would say anything different.

But, for the next ten months, this is where I will be. Likely with at least some of these people around the table. Most of them were there that day when I walked in. That first day no one said much to me, but they looked at me and smiled. They looked at the torn ribbon I wore as a sign that I was within the first seven days of mourning someone and they got it. They didn’t know me. They didn’t know my mom. But they got it, and they smiled. Sad smiles that showed me that they’d been there.

So, for the next ten months this is where I will be. With these people. And with new people, who will walk in shell-shocked. And I will smile at them. A sad smile, because I’m doing this, and I get it now.

Born Cooperating

Being human is hard. It’s probably the hardest thing most of us will do, so it’s best not attempted alone.

From the very beginning, we are faced with dazzling complexity. The development of our physical body requires a head-spinning amount of biochemical splitting and sorting. One single cell divides innumerable times, and organizes itself into a human being; we are born made up of trillions of cells.

Fortunately, we have help at a very basic level. Most of our cells don’t even belong to us, outright; by the time we are adults, our bodies will contain ten times more bacterial cells than uniquely human ones. University of Massachusetts biologist Lynn Margulis was quoted in the New Yorker last year saying: “There is no such thing as an individual. What we see as animals are partly just integrated sets of bacteria.”

You and I, and everyone we know, are products of a long chain of symbiotic cooperation, Margulis has argued, (with a fair amount of controversy). Prokaryotic cells, such as bacteria, moved behind membrane curtains and evolved into organelles within eukaryotes, the nucleus-bearing cells that bind together to create pretty much all life except for, well, bacteria, blue-green algae, and these truly weird guys. Some of the earliest steps in evolution may not have depended upon survival of the fittest, but an inherent understanding that life survives best when it works together.

We are born into something larger than we can possibly know, engaged in an ages-old relationship with some of the most ancient life on the planet.