A Very Narrow Bridge

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

Category: Mindfulness

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.

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.”

Our Guy in the Field

Hey. I’m back.

If you missed me, I’m sorry. Actually, if you missed me I’m pretty happy about it.

It’s nice to be missed. Sometimes.

Sometimes it’s nice to miss. Sometimes it’s a waste of time.

So, you know, if I miss you it’s either nice or it’s a waste of my time. But, even if it is a waste of time, thanks for everything you taught me. And that fantastic experience we shared. And the book you gave me. And that amazing conversation we had until the next morning. Seriously, you added something to my life. I mean it.

Anyway, that’s not what I’m going to talk about. I’m going to talk about last week’s parsha: Vayeshev (Bereshit [Genesis] 37:1 – 40:23)

I know. It was last week. Sometimes we need to miss things though. I miss last week’s parsha. I mean I’m not clinging to it, but it’s nice to think about. Even this week. Probably next week too. It’s just a nice thing to bring along.

Because of the guy in the field.

In last week’s parsha, we met Yoseph: He received his special tunic (Rashi says it was made from nice wool, not many-colored), he dreams dreams, and his brothers hate him. Then, despite the fact that they hate him, Yaakov sends him off to see how these hateful brothers are doing with pasturing the family’s flock. So Yoseph heads out to find them, but something happens along the way:

 .וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ, וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה; וַיִּשְׁאָלֵהוּ הָאִישׁ לֵאמֹר, מַה-תְּבַקֵּשׁ
A man found him; there he was, wandering in the field. And the man asked him “What are you looking for?” 

It’s just this guy. In the field.

What’s he even doing in the field? Is he looking for Yoseph? Does he even know what he’s doing there? Did he wake up that morning and think: “I should really head out to the field”? We don’t know his name or his job.

We don’t know anything about him except that he’s this guy in the field. And Yoseph tells him that he’s looking for his brothers, who are supposed to be there with the flock. And he tells Yoseph that he heard his brothers say that they were going to Dotan.

So Yoseph heads to Dotan where he finds his brothers and they throw him into a  pit and then sell him into slavery. He’s taken to Egypt and then there’s Potiphar and his wife; and the prison; and the baker and the butler and their dreams.

And all this moving towards really big things happening for Yoseph. For everyone.

All because of that guy. In the field. Who pointed Yoseph exactly where he needed to go. And we don’t even know his name.

The other day when I was waiting for the train, I was wearing my Twins hat and this guy asked if I’m from Minnesota. I am. Turns out he is too.

So we talked about all sorts of things. Driving on frozen lakes. Northern Lights Records Seeing bands at the Uptown Bar. The CC Club in general. The bad kids from the rich school district. Getting in to fights. Our kids. How our kids might not get to do the things we did because they aren’t growing up in Minnesota and also because the world is just different.

I know. I’m old, I guess.

Then, pretty much out of nowhere, this guy says this:

“You know when I think about it, as glad as I am that my kids won’t do the things I did, I’m happy I did them. Aren’t you? I mean, didn’t doing those things…even getting the shit kicked out of you…didn’t they make you less afraid? Isn’t being afraid the worst thing in the world?”

 I needed to hear that.

I needed to hear that because I miss you.

Really, I do. I miss you a lot and it’s not always nice. And that’s because I’m afraid.

I’m afraid I will never meet anyone else like you. Even though I have met someone since you. And since her. And since her. And even since her. And I’ll meet someone again. And I’m afraid when I do it will go all wrong. That I’ll screw it up with my fear. That I’ll get myself in a pit.

I’m afraid of a phantom. It’s just me deciding to be afraid of those things.

Because, having had the shit kicked out of me before, I know what it’s like and that I don’t really need to hold onto that fear. I can even turn missing you into something nice again.

And I know this because of the guy in the train station. Or the field. Or wherever.

Because he pointed me in the right direction. And I know this because Yoseph got out of the pit.

Eventually.

This is the Blessing

Close your eyes and think of your first love.

Yeah… I know.

We spend so much time on first love. We celebrate it. We mourn it. We claim it will define all our other loves.

How often do we talk about last loves? How will we know who our last love will be? Or possibly who our last love was?

I’ve been thinking about Moshe again. This week, at least on Monday and Thursday morning, we read וְזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה V’Zot Habracha, the last parsha in the Torah. It means “This is the Blessing” and it ends with Moshe’s death.

And it’s sad. And it’s also not sad at all.

It’s about love. Last love. But let’s start with first love first.

Who was Moshe’s first love? His mother, who hid him? His sister, who followed him as he floated in the Nile? Pharaoh’s Daughter, who drew him out of the water and raised him? Is first love really the love we learn at home? This is what they tell me. Though when you closed your eyes and thought of your first love, that wasn’t what you thought of, was it?

Probably you thought of a middle love.

Who were Moshe’s middle loves? Aharon and Miryam who were with him along the journey that defined his life? Pharaoh, the adversary who forced him to find his courage and power? Tzipporah, who saved his life in one of the strangest incidents (Exodus 4:24-26) in the Torah? Yitro, who offered help when he needed it most? Korach, who broke his heart? Already middle love is more interesting, I think. The middle is the interesting part, isn’t it? The hardest part, at any rate.

Middle loves hurt us and are hurt by us; they teach us and learn from us. We run from them; we regret losing them. We long for them; we hate them. Sometimes they are the kindest people who ever left us, and sometimes the most cruel people we ever allowed to stay with us. Any of these can be true in turn. All of these can be true at the same time. The middle is the hard part.

This is the blessing.

I don’t know what last love looks like. I don’t think we can know until the end. But there are hints. Last love starts out looking like first love for some of us. Sometimes it stays like that. More often, I hope, last love starts out looking like middle love. If we are lucky—and I hope to be this lucky someday—the middle love becomes a last love.

We read about Moshe’s last love at the end of the last parsha in the Torah. Moshe climbs Mount Nevo and God shows him the Promised Land. The Land he won’t be entering. And then He kisses him and buries him.

This is last Love. This is the Love who scares us, who forces us to become more than what we think we are. This is the Love who supports us, and with whom we fight. The Love who denies us our wishes and who also gives us so much. This is the Love whose attributes, comforting and maddening, we understand. This is the Love next to whom we stand and look at what we’ve accomplished together. This is the Love for whom there could never possibly be anyone else like us. This is the Love who, in the end, kisses us and buries us. The Love who has been with us all along. This is the Love who provides the Proof. Because it is the Proof that provides this Love.

Yom Kippur is almost here. The hard work is finished. The middle, for this year at least, is behind us. We are looking at a beginning. And we are searching for something–
and we are being searched for.

On Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur we are reminded in Unetaneh Tokef: [Our lives are] “like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away.”

Our Last Love is searching for us, and we are like a dream that flies away.

Prove it.

I am sitting at a bagel place with Benno and Nikki.

“What is the thread that connects us?” Benno wants to know. I think he already knows, but he wants us to start thinking.

Faith?

No. Faith isn’t what we have.

Belief?

No. Belief doesn’t cover it either.

Finally, a little embarrassed, I suggest that what I have is Proof.

Benno’s eyes light up. Nikki says “Yes!”

The three of us are sitting together in a bagel place (where else?) Three people from different traditions, different cultures, at three very different stages in life. All of us sitting together in the bagel place and agreeing that we have no faith. No belief. Just Proof.

Faith is predicated upon some outside factor, like the system. You can’t have faith without something separate. Even having faith in yourself seems to look at the part of you in which to have faith as something separate from the part of you where doubt, heartbreak, and hopelessness live.

Belief is all about the individual. Believing in something means you hold it to be true.

For me, Proof is something else. Proof needs both. Proof wants us, forces us, to see the connection between those things outside of us and within us. Proof wants us to know there’s no real difference between those things. Proof is Proof. And sometimes Proof scares the crap out of us.

We don’t want to be connected. We want to be ourselves. We want our beliefs. We want that outside factor to rely on.

A person can’t just go around talking about being the same thing as the table or the cocker spaniel down the road, or the head of garlic he’s wearing on a string around his neck. That’s just weird.

But Proof is also comforting. So comforting. Because Proof never goes away. We might not notice it. We shouldn’t always notice it (please see, for example, the guy in the kaftan with the head of garlic on a string around his neck). But Proof is there.

Proof is the melody of זִמְרָת יָהּ (Zimrat Ya), the Divine Song. Proof is there when we are תָּמִים (tamim) present with an open heart. Proof is what stays our hand, or our tongue, when we are tempted to destroy hope. Proof is what causes us to fall in love, and to stay in love when the rules make no sense. Proof is calling to us every time we sound the shofar during the month of Elul.

Proof is at the bagel place and on the hiking trail. Proof is in the difficult conversation and in the uncontrollable laughter.

The last Shabbat in Elul has passed. We read parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech (Devarim 29:9 – 31:30). And we learned exactly where Proof is:  כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד:  בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.  “Because it is very near to you, this [Proof]. In your mouth and in your heart so that you should enact it.”

Proof is there, not for the noticing, but for the acting.

Grammar and Love

It’s halfway through Elul. How’s that heshbon hanefesh coming along, Harry?

So. Anyway…

I’m just going to cut to the chase.

This week we read Ki Tavo (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 26:1 – 29:8).

There’s a nice part about bringing fruit to the Temple. More blessings. More curses. More things to avoid doing so you won’t be cursed. Threats of never-ending hemorrhoids. Seriously. Never-ending hemorrhoids. Check it out: Devarim 28:27.

But in the middle (before the hemorrhoids) there’s this, which is more important (26: 17-18):

אֶת-יְהוָה הֶאֱמַרְתָּ, הַיּוֹם:  לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו–וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ

 וַיהוָה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו

26:17 Today you have selected Adonai to be your God, to walk in His ways, to keep his hukim and his mitzvot, and His mishpatim, and to listen to His Voice.

26:18 And God has selected you today to be His treasured people, as He told you, and you should keep all his mitzvot.

Hukim are statutes and mishpatim are ordinances. Both are important.

I’m just going to keep thinking of mitzvot as connections.

Traditionally, mishpatim are laws that reason would suggest are necessary. Laws against murder, robbery, adultery—that sort of thing. Hukim are different. They don’t make sense. Laws about not mixing wool and linen in the same cloth. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Hold onto that thought for a minute. It’s going to be important, I promise.

I suck at Hebrew grammar, so I will probably get this completely wrong, but the verb form that the word for “selected” takes in those verses is the hiphil which is often used to denote the causative. In fact this extremely informative video explains just that.

So, the verses could be read: “Today God is causing you to select Him…” and “And you are causing God to select you…

Honestly, that’s not my interpretation. Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam said it first.

So what?

God caused the Israelites to select Him. The Israelites caused God to select them.

Remind you of anything?

“You told me that silly story, and it made me fall for you.” “You always listened and remembered, and it made me love you.”

 God and the Israelites fell in love.

Love is a connection.

Love involves some rules that make sense: “Don’t cheat on me.” Or “I want you there with me on the best day of my life and on the worst day of my life.” Those make sense. They are logical. Right?

Sometimes love involves rules that don’t make any sense: “I took out the garbage last time, it’s clearly your turn.” Seriously, who cares as long as the garbage goes out?

Love sometimes makes sense, and sometimes it makes no sense at all. But it’s always a connection. It should always be a rootedness.

If it doesn’t have that connection, that rootedness, no amount of making sense will make it work. And, I suppose, if it doesn’t have that completely illogical part, it will be boring.

How often have I missed that?

Welcome to my Elul.

What is Tamim?

Have I mentioned how much I love Devarim (Deuteronomy)? Probably. I love how it wraps things up. I love it’s reflectiveness. I love how it spends so much time on what the Israelites need to strive for when they are on their own after they cross the Jordan. How it fits so perfectly with this time of year. It’s like the guide for heshbon hanefesh for our soul’s accounting.

This week is Shoftim. (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 16:18 – 21:9). It’s got a lot going on. Appointing judges and magistrates, how to deal with complex legal cases, “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue!” Who has to fight in wars, and who doesn’t. Stamp out paganism now! Don’t be a soothsayer.

Then, right there, in the middle of the soothsayer part, this line shows up: תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה, עִם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. Tamim tih’yeh im Adonai Elohecha. Be wholehearted with your God.

The weird word here is tamim. Is it really “wholehearted?” Is it only “wholehearted?” Other places it’s translated a lot of other ways: Innocent, complete, whole, entire, wholesome, unimpaired, having integrity, pure, blameless…the list goes on and on…and on.

Here’s what the famous medieval commentator Rashi has to say:

Walk with God simple-heartedly (bet’mimut) and look for­ward to what He has in store. Do not probe the future, but rather accept whatever happens to you simple-heartedly…

Basically, don’t keep looking for the next big thing. Don’t look for the better person to go out with or marry, don’t go looking for the cooler job, the more fashionable city…just be here for a minute, please. Be present. Be aware. Seriously, be here. Otherwise you’re just going to be miserable.

My havruta says tamim is the best way to hebraicize the word “zen.” I love that guy so very much.

He doesn’t mean the “calm” sense of zen. He means the perfectly present, open hearted, totally cool with the situation, trusting, kind of zen.

So there’s the tamim part. But there’s another word. A tiny word with two letters in Hebrew: עִם im. It means “with.”

So it’s not openhearted, simplehearted, present, innocent, trusting to God. Or about God. Or of God.

It’s with God.

If we are tamim, God will be tamim. God, the Universe, Humanity…whatever you want to call it. I say God. God will be present. That’s where God lives. In temimut. (That’s the noun form.)

Shoftim is mostly about the importance of justice and compassion.

Both of those depend upon being present.

It’s the first week of Elul. The first Shabbat in Elul. It’s heshbon hanefesh time. Reflecting time. Honest accounting time. Looking inward time.

Have I been tamim enough? Openhearted, compassionate, present, enough? Have I spent too much time looking for the next best thing? If I haven’t opened my heart to the present, why not?

Shabbat Before Elul

…The Sabbath is endowed with a felicity which enraptures the soul, which glides into our thoughts with a healing sympathy… It is a day that can soothe all sadness away. —Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, p 20.

It is Shabbat afternoon. I have been silent for hours now. The only words I have spoken today are prayers at the synagogue this morning. Walking along the trail in the park, I am still silent. I am having a silent Shabbat to see what it’s like.

It’s not easy.

I am having a hard time feeling the felicity Heschel writes about. My soul doesn’t feel enraptured. It feels alone.

As I walk, I find myself looking at my watch. But it is Shabbat and I don’t need to be anywhere at any particular time. I take the watch off and put it in my pocket.

Then my thoughts creep in: Why wasn’t I stronger? Why wasn’t I bolder? Why wasn’t I more willing to stand up for what I knew to be correct? Why didn’t I do things years ago? Why am I always alone? Why do I attach myself to lost causes and then become upset when I lose?

It is the last Shabbat in the month of Av. This coming Wednesday will be the first day of the month of Elul. I will sound the shofar at shacharit (morning services) at the synagogue. We do this every morning for all of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. We are waking people to their heshbon hanefesh, to the beginning of their soul’s accounting.

Suddenly you are awakened by a strange noise. A noise that fills the full field of your consciousness and then splits into several jagged strands, shattering that field, shaking you awake. The ram’s horn, the shofar, the same instrument that will sound one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah, the same sound that filled the world when the Torah was spoken into being on Mount Sinai, is being blown to call you to wakefulness. You awake to confusion. Where are you? Who are you? —Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, p 64.

How can I be expected to wake my community when I am so unsure of where I am, of who I am? When my own accounting doesn’t seem to be adding up?

I take a breath. I let it go. I take another and let it go. And another. And another. I begin to allow my thoughts simply to be thoughts. They come up and I can let them go with my breath. I begin to listen to the sound of my feet on the trail. The crunch of the gravel, the sound of my shoes on the dirt.

The only words I have spoken in hours are prayers.

And my favorite words from any prayer come to me: עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה Ozi v’zimrat Yah vay’hi li lishuah. My Strength, and the Divine Song, and What Will Be—My Salvation.

My Strength is not trivial. I am a physically healthy and substantial man; I am filled with purpose. But that is not enough.

My Strength and the Divine Song.

Once my friend Dale brought me to the chemistry lab and showed me a machine that analyzed molecules based on where they appear on the spectrum. Each molecule resonates at a different frequency.* Essentially, the entire universe is singing. You, me, the stars, and the cocker spaniel down the street. We are all vibrating at the frequency of the molecules we are made of. The Divine Song. But even my strength and the Divine Song are not enough.

My Strength, and the Divine Song, and What Will Be.

What Will Be? Very near the end of 2013 (as opposed to 5773, which is the year according to the Hebrew Calendar), we will read Parshat Shemot (Shemot [Exodus] 1:1 – 6:1). This is a good one. It has the baby Moshe in the basket, it has the Burning Bush, and it has “Let My people go!” Some real Cecil B. DeMille stuff.

At the Burning Bush, Moshe asks God what he should say to the Israelites when they ask who sent him. God’s answer is אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה. “I Will Be What I Will Be.” God is present in every moment. This hike, the sadness I am feeling, my awareness of the sound of my feet on the trail. This moment is filled with the Divine Presence. Whatever this moment Is or Will Be.

My Strength and the Divine Song, and What Will Be—My Salvation.

On Wednesday I will sound four calls on the shofar: Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tekiah. “Tekiah means that which is rooted; shevarim means that which is broken; and teruah refers to an image of shaking.” (Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz)

Tekia: The strength which grounds me.

Teruah: The shaking vibration of the Divine Song.

Shevarim: The brokenness we can feel in any given moment.

Tekiah: Moving from that brokenness back to strength is My Salvation.

The order of the shofar calls is not the same as the prayer. Life doesn’t always happen in order. When I hear those sounds I will hear my whole past year beginning to be laid out before me and I will be reminded that the order of the events of the last year no longer matters. Not as much as the strength with which the new year will begin.  

At the end of Yom Kippur, the final tekia of the holidays for which I am preparing will begin my year with strength, rootedness, an improved awareness of where I am, and who I am.

But I can’t get there without facing the shaking and the brokenness; the Song and the Presence. 

* Please forgive me if I have the science wrong—this was almost 15 years ago.