A Very Narrow Bridge

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

Category: Eleven Months

Eleven Months Part 8: Eleven Months and a Little More.

I am sitting in the synagogue. Again.

My friend Batya is standing at the front of the congregation about to give a short talk. “Here we are, all together.” She says. “Here we are, all together…again.” She’s making a point about Shemini Atzeret, the holiday we are observing, but maybe also a point about the sheer number of holidays we have observed lately. The Jewish month of Tishrei has more holidays than any other; in the past three weeks there have been twelve days worth of holidays. We have been together. A lot. And this particular holiday is solely about being together. Again.

But, while we might be ready to have regular life back, while we are even getting tired of holidays (the next Jewish month, Heshvan, actually has no holidays at all—possibly to give us a break), we are together and I’m glad.

On September 30th I said the last Kaddish in the eleven months of observing this mitzvah for my mother.

It was the day before Sukkot began. For eleven months I went to the synagogue just about every day. I took shelter there. I allowed my heart to heal within its walls. I got back on my feet, feeling its floor beneath me. I moved through seasons. Then it ended. I read a prayer of thanks for the community, received a lot of hugs and it was over. That night, Sukkot began and life moved, at least temporarily, outside.

Sukkahs are flimsy. They are meant to be. The same ceiling that allows us to see the stars lets the rain in and makes the floor soft with mud. The walls have gaps and a strong wind could blow the whole thing over. Overnight, I moved from the solidity of concerete and stone into the uncertainty of canvas walls and bamboo roof.

Except I didn’t.

The same people were there, all through Sukkot. The same people with whom I spent an hour every morning, or an hour on Saturday afternoon praying. The people with whom I shared meals, and who waited patiently while my sense of humor returned. The same people with whom I practice yoga, or drink beer, or watch baseball. The people who taught me to tie knots and pack a frame pack for days of hiking. The person to whom I read and with whom I play catch. The person who used to read to me when I was small. And the person who went with me to a sukkah in the Occupy DC camp in McPherson Square last Sukkot. They are all here with me as I move out into the world again.

So while those who continue to say Kaddish stand to recite it, I sit and I hope I support them–hold them up as much as they held me. Because we are all temporary and so much more fragile than those structures we built for the holiday that just passed. But today we are here. Together for one extra day.

Eleven Months Part 6: How to Pray

I wrote before about attending shacharit (morning services) every day—particularly in the context of mourning. As the year has passed and I’ve returned to the rhythms of Jewish life and blended those rhythms into my larger life, prayer has become more and more part of my consciousness.

I knew about prayer, I thought. I knew the structure of the service and the evolution of the service over the many, many years since Judaism adopted organized prayer as a spiritual practice. I understood the tension between keva (the formal structure and rules surrounding prayer), and kavanah (the intentional or mindful aspects of prayer). Despite that knowledge, or maybe because of that knowledge, I still need to constantly teach myself how to pray. Praying every day has underscored to me how much prayer changes each day, and I think that’s part of why there is a fixed structure. Structures, like yoga asanas or fixed prayers, provide a profound opportunity for reflection and even for creativity.

So I’ve made a list of various ways to pray, depending upon my mood, or my level of energy, or my spiritual needs. I wrote them for myself as a series of intentions to hold as I sing through the service; the “You” in this list is me.

  1. Enter the room.
    Your attendance means something here. Everyone in the room is counting on you. Without you and nine others, no one can pray the complete service. More than that, your presence counts for everyone in the room as well. Be there, be present.
  2. Say hello.
    Acknowledging that you are here with other people is how you begin praying with them.
  3. Imagine you don’t know the words or their meanings.
    You don’t know the nusach. You don’t know anything about this prayer service at all. Let the others sing it to you. Notice how they use their voices, the rising and falling of the music, the changes in tempo and pacing. Be receptive—that awareness is the opposite of passivity.
  4. Imagine you know the words to the prayers, but not their meaning.
    Pay attention to how those words are formed by the shapes you make with your mouth and your breath. This can be a gateway to understanding more about yourself.
  5. Know the words and their meanings.
    Count the number of times certain words come up, or simply note when they do. Try the Hebrew words for: Love, Compassion, Earth, Wisdom, Kindness, Gratitude, Redemption. Choose one each day. Try to take that word with you when you leave.
  6. Sit up straight when you cover your eyes and say Shema: “Listen.”
    Feel the vibration of the word travel down your spine to its base in your tailbone. Listen to your back body. What do you have held there?
  7. Vary your pitch.
    If you lower your voice an octave during the prayer that begins emet (true), when you get to the word yafeh (beautiful), you will feel it through your entire body.
  8. Match pitch.
    If you match pitch with the person sitting next to you, the moment of singing in unison with that person will remind you of the connection you have with that person. You are in this together in a very meaningful way.
  9. Stand
    Feel the floor underneath your feet. Feel the earth beneath the floor supporting you, holding you up.
  10. Open up.
    As you stand to pray the standing prayers, move your shoulder blades toward one another and keep the sides of your body long. Your heart will open and your spine will gently stretch. Remind yourself of the strength of the connection between your mind and body. There is no difference between them, really.

I use this list a fair amount. Some mornings I wake up excited to see where some of these practices bring me and I find that I leave the synagogue feeling the same way I do when I leave my favorite teachers’ classes. Some mornings—more mornings, even most mornings—I rely on the structure of my list to get me focus myself on being present as I pray. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Those days I struggle to keep up, to keep my focus, even not to be annoyed at the fact that I’m at the synagogue at 7:30 in the morning when I have a meeting at 9:00. Those mornings, I have done something just by walking through the door.

Eleven Months Part 5: Start Now

Tisha B’Av begins at sundown tomorrow Saturday, July 28.

The saddest day of the Jewish year is one filled with tragedy upon tragedy. One of these tragedies, the destruction of the Second Temple is said to have been caused by sinat chinam, baseless hatred.

Is baseless hatred actually justified hatred that nets the hater nothing, as is concluded in the lesson I linked to just now? Or is it hatred for hatred’s sake?

You know what? It doesn’t matter. You know why? Because everyone gets angry and everyone has the potential to hate. Sometimes anger seems justified: You break my heart, I’m hurt and I’m angry with you. You hurt someone I love, I’m hurt and I’m really angry. And, if I hold on to that anger, it becomes hate.

One story behind the destruction of the Second Temple is a story of clinging to anger, public humiliation, more anger, and vengeance.

Hatred destroys. It destroys our cities, but it also destroys us. Hatred focuses ourselves on ourselves. Hatred removes the possibility of connection to each other from our consciousness.

Tisha B’Av is about remembering these tragedies, but not in order to cling to the pain they caused the Jewish people. We can note our tragedies without adding them to a scorecard of pain and suffering and reasons why we have the right to be angry.

It’s about remembering those tragedies so that we can move on. We are hurt. We are angry. We are bereaved. These are normal human states, but we can take this day and focus on moving forward. Letting go.

As usual, someone else said this much better and more succinctly:

Tisha b’Av is the beginning of Teshuvah, the point of turning toward this process by turning toward a recognition of our estrangement from God, from ourselves, and from others. ( Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l): This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, 2003, p. 52)

And so, in the middle of summer, in the middle of the heat and the bright, long days, we can consider those limitless possibilities that summer brings to mind, but first we should turn inward and do a little letting go.

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.

Eleven Months, Part 3: Not at Some High Place Along the Way.

This has been moving through my mind for the last couple of weeks:

Birth is a beginning, And death a destination.
And life is a journey:

From childhood to maturity; And youth to age.
From innocence to awareness; And ignorance to knowing.
From foolishness to discretion; And then, perhaps, to wisdom.

From weakness to strength; Or strength to weakness
– And, often, back again.
From health to sickness, And back, we pray, to health again.

From offense to forgiveness, From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude, From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding – From fear to faith.

From defeat to defeat to defeat – Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage.

Birth is a beginning And death a destination.
And life is a journey, A sacred pilgrimage
– To life everlasting.

(Gates of Repentance, p 283)

It’s a poem from the Kol Nidrei service in Gates of Repentance: Reform Judaism’s machzorIt was written by a rabbi named Alvin Fine.

Growing up, my rabbi read it almost every week at Friday night services. My mother loved that rabbi.

“…Victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey…”

I wish my mother had gone to services more so she could have heard this man, for whom she had so much love and respect, repeat those words. She didn’t and I think, up until the end as the paramedics worked to resuscitate her for the final thirty minutes of her life, she hoped for some victory. Some victory that never came, but to which she was so attached that she missed out on massive amounts of potential happiness, and mired herself in misery and anger.

I’m on the table at the acupuncturist when the intern’s supervisor comes in and tells me, in no uncertain terms, that living primarily in my head is not viable. “In the end,” he says “The body always wins, so listen to your body now before it’s too late. That body will win—it will die.”

We don’t get a lot of time here and our bodies remind us of that most days. But listening to those reminders can enrich our life. Thich Nhat Hanh, in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, explains that “…Looking deeply at our own suffering can help us cultivate understanding and compassion…”

“Life everlasting,” I think, starts with compassion.

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.

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.