Stuck Inside of Elul with the Tishrei Blues Again

Here we are again.

We made it. Congratulations. Last year’s Rosh Hashana can’t have been a total disaster.

Now what?

Look, I know you’re busy, and honestly, one more discussion about how profoundly meaningful it all is and I’d be spitting nails myself.

“Meaning” is overrated, seven pale splintering letters holding up the levy, preventing the flood of the world from obliterating the way of G-d and summing up what makes “having” “Him” “in” your “life” so special after all.

Might as well admit it – “Meaning” just means that the room has a sunlight, that the stupid system (all systems, including intelligence itself, are stupid) is not the end but only the beginning of a reality, a metaphor, a symbol, shadows on the cave wall.

So yes, Elul is “meaningful,” it’s not just a month but the time that we blah blah blah.

Elul is nice. it makes us happy, productive, it’s healthy and helpful and really good for getting where we’re going and doing deep things along the way with the people we love and even with our Creator. There are scales, a king, a judge, memory, music, honey, apples, joy, a field, guilt, a desert, sin. It hurts but in a good way, and we’re definitely going to change.

Okay?

Okay.

I know, I cling to my cynicism as a crutch because I’m really afraid of the bright light of God’s salvation. I don’t change because I don’t believe I can change, which I can change, by believing I can change. I’m being overly dramatic or not dramatic enough. I’m whirling in epistemological circles. I need to just get over it. I need to farbreng. I need to study. I need to daven. There are solutions.

The problem is too much I; it’s too little I. It’s not enough learning. It’s too much learning. It’s idealism, it’s pragmatism. I need to spend more time outside; I need to stop thinking I need to. The answer is street performance or street violence or street sweeping. Real men are busy making money. This is not how a business runs. Get it together. It’s insulting not to have it together. It’s insulting to have it together. Read my book. Five simple steps to fixing everything. Acquire something, lose something, follow the steps, fit the form.

I know.

I’ll figure it all out in the morning, with a structure, with a calculus. I’ll cobble something together at the last minute, find the cruse of sincerity in some un-excavated corner, make some dumb resolutions, keep half of one.

It will be drenched in meaning. Meaning will suffuse it like a fine chai. It will be so soaked in meaning I’ll need to use three Clean & Clear cloths.

It’s probably part of the plan, one of those dastardly Jewish plots to crash the stock market or end apartheid or circumcise the lizard people.

For weeks they trot out all the lectures and the books and the explanations and the alcohol and the heartfelt sincerity, intentionally trying to goad and annoy us.

So what? So what?

The only relief from all the meaning, from the too-familiar face, is G-d, arbitrary, non-existent, the chooser.

He wants it all for no reason at all; he wants it for what it is; it means nothing.

Either clean up your pathetic act and do the damn Mitzvos, Tzvi, or don’t. If you choose the former, you just have Him. If you choose the latter, you have nothing.

There are no stories about Him, there are no words that capture Him, nothing compares in individual or species.

How do you even know it’s Him you’ve met?

You’re just going to have to trust Him.

If He is indescribable, what’s so good about Him?

Answer the question before you show up here.

We find Him either in the brute manipulation of stuff into the correct configurations, or not at all.

If the correct configurations correspond to forms emanated both necessarily and willfully in a mode of infinitely detailed inter-inclusion as a web of meaning that captures all of the creation and neatly dices each being and all of their properties into a perfectly balanced framework whose very shapes convey the Truth unknowable and permeate reality with unlimited purpose, okay.

Whatever.

It’s only because He wanted it that way for no reason.

Or didn’t.

It means nothing.

Just do the damn Mitzvos.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Bar Mitzvah Lesson: A Tragedy

Shaul’s father misunderstands why I’m here and apologizes for his son’s stop-and-go Hebrew and ignorance of Judaism while Shaul himself listens politely in his baseball uniform. They don’t know that I have no expectations of prior observance or tradition. In my personal life, I am in a position to notice flaws. Here, it wouldn’t help.

And just as I plan to ignore his shortcomings, I’m not going to track his growth, not precisely. It would be a miracle if, consequent to these sessions, his Hebrew improved or he could recall a word I say. A boy from a family like his could theoretically grow in observance in his teen years, but then, Sancherev’s army could theoretically be struck by a debilitating plague at the walls of Jerusalem.

At least the father is honest; I’m not. I can’t tell him that Bar Mitzvah lessons are triage, that his priorities, a respectable Maftir and a decent Mussaf, are not what his family needs if they hope to preserve the future of the Jewish people. I can’t tell him that while I hear his son repeat his memorized aliyah my mind scrambles for options. How can I fill our time with more Mitzvot? What questions about Judaism does Shaul have that he does not want to ask, and how can I find an excuse to preempt them in our remaining fifty minutes? Is there a way to breach intermarriage? Should I bring up the history of Judaism?

One week, I decide to ask Shaul if he knows about Moses. He doesn’t, not really. But then, on a different occasion, when I have used Mussaf as an excuse to talk about prayer in general, he floors me when he says the soul is compared to a candle. In my capacity as a private citizen, I sneer at the bumper stickers and boilerplate of the popularizers of Judaism that at this moment I want to embrace, to kiss, to fall to my knees to worship. Somehow, he learned this! I can’t spare the time to wonder how this small scrap of mysticism has made it through the raging cataracts of his teenage mind, past the sports trivia and phone apps, to be remembered in a place where news of the Jews’ greatest prophet has yet to reach. The Chabad House Bar Mitzvah lesson, like life, is too short; these miracles must be ignored, for the mission. There are only forty minutes left.

I’m still not sure how I ended up as Shaul’s teacher. I don’t even know how to read from the Torah myself; if the Rabbi hadn’t made Shaul a tape to memorize, I’d have been lost. But I am not cynical and jaded and ignorant, not in Shaul’s eyes. I am, to him, a representative of the collective wisdom and heritage of the Jewish people, even though he doesn’t know what that means, and if I was chosen mostly because I have patience and spare time and a beard, he’s unaware.

Dad is into Holocaust remembrance, so we talk about putting it into Shaul’s speech. Some families choose Israel, some the Holocaust. Either way, this is what constitutes American Judaism circa the apocalypse, and I dare not squander any passion I can find. Mortality and calamity are on the menu, and if no thirteen-year-olds wish to partake, at least the parents will be satisfied with the graduation from Jewish life that the Bar Mitzvah too often signifies. I don’t argue, though. There is no time to convince him off the holocaust in the next twenty minutes, and besides, his father’s right. Shaul should know about the Holocaust.

In addition to the tragedy, we work sports into the speech as well. Jackie Robinson is a hero of his, and of course Sandy Koufax. “There are a couple of stories about the Rebbe and baseball,” I say. It is a statement of faith. If I speak about Judaism and baseball to Shaul’s father it would just sound like salesmanship, and bad salesmanship, because I’m not a salesman and Judaism is not about baseball. But when the Rebbe speaks about baseball, Judaism is about baseball. Just like when I’m trying to teach this kid something, I am the right man for the job. This is one of those Rebbe things. I can’t explain it. I tell him to search for baseball on Chabad.org.

Even with only fifteen minutes left this week, I try to weigh my responsibilities to the mission. “Perhaps these words will…help,” I think, and try not to think, “Like a bug helps slow down a car as it hits the windshield.” That is a trap. I must never fall into the trap of, “These people care only what the neighbors think of the nice party they’re throwing.” If I think it, they might think it, and that will not happen. I try to acclimate to the impossible.

And it is impossible, a thousand ways. At thirteen, we expect this to work? He is already gone; his mind is in athletics when it is fully anywhere at all; he skips two whole lines of Maftir when one of the Bat Mitzvah Club members wanders into the office looking for something. Though he’s from a traditional family, he doesn’t know who Abraham is or what a gabbai does. He’s mostly worried about his public speaking, and I don’t blame him. His knowledge is actually, all told, above average. Nowadays, circa Götterdämmerung, who has the chutzpah to hope for more?

But he is the one who happens to be in front of me, twice a week, for the blink of an eye, and that “happens to be” is part of the mission and what miracles are made of.

Hurrying, in ten minutes I teach him to wrap his Tefillin, over and over. They won’t be worn every day, but I speak to him as if they will. I don’t expect him to be religious. I expect him to be Jewish, and to be Jewish is to know how to do this.

He follows my instructions obediently. “Shaul is a good kid,” I tell myself. “Polite, disciplined, happy.” It’s what I always tell myself. It’s what I told myself about my students in summer Yeshiva and my campers in upstate New York. He has a good family life. His parents care about Judaism, in their way. I can see the seeds of it, the exact spot where the miracle will take root.

I do not, in my mind, compare Shaul to Mottel, whom I used to drive home from cheder. I do not consider how Mottel at eleven spoke fluent Yiddish, knew dozens and dozens of niggunim and a thousand Chassidic stories, memorized Tanya and Mishnayos. How at eleven, Mottel had a wit sharper than a razor and studied the Rebbe’s talks after Shabbos dinner. I do not spend time, in the last five minutes this week, on the small thought dawning like a winter morning in the back of my mind, that nowadays, circa The End, even Mottels sometimes leave Judaism behind. What hope could there possibly be for…

It is not for me to understand. I am just a messenger. I have no expectations. It is not my place to despair or rejoice. I am not myself. I am here for the miracles. I am here for the impossible and the nonexistent, and then I will be gone from him, and he will move on.

G-d, the Rebbe, Shaul’s soul –

Your move.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

G-d Followed Me On Twitter

It was the end of a long summer Shabbos, the Atlanta sun finally giving in after 9 pm. I started my computer booting and prayed the evening service; I turned on my phone and prepared for the Havdalah, the dividing ritual. We thank G-d over flames and spices for separating the holy from the mundane…

I logged in and opened Chrome; the tabs of the previous week reasserted themselves like dry bones rising. Tweetdeck’s columns unfolded, first on the left my TL, second, my notifications, and there among the likes and the retweets, I saw the Creator had followed me.

His username was not “G-d” (that would be the first sign it was some fourteen-year-old) but rather a male name of vaguely Asian provenance. The profile picture was of a male, in his twenties, of vaguely Asian provenance. I knew in my head that G-d was not a man in his twenties of vaguely Asian provenance, G-d forbid. G-d is of course without a body or the form of a body, He probably does not use Twitter, and if He did, He would not follow me.

In my gut, however, I felt the world open. I was young again, in the way the morning is young, how at the sunrise everything is possible and the constant renewal of the world pierces the pitted facade of nature like the breaking dawn, and the soul tastes, just for a second, the infinite potential of what might be.

I felt something I haven’t for many years, a slight excitement deep inside at a meeting, the only feeling that can fight the implacable entropy of death and parting.

Who is this new person, and what gifts do they bear?

What is this new development, unexpected and wonderful?

What is this delightful shock, this pleasant upending, the joy of expecting the exceptional?

It is like being a child again, expecting each day to bring something not just new but something good. It is like having faith, knowing not just in your head but in the root of your stomach that your life has a plan, that it is progressing from a fine thing to a better thing, and that all you have to do is enjoy it. It is the feeling that somebody up there likes you.

It is not logical, this feeling. It does not remember experience or wisdom, the way people and life disappoint with disheartening consistency. It does not remember the reason you don’t feel it anymore. It is overwhelming precisely because it is a negation of experience, of the causal link between the past and the future. It is in this feeling that Hume came closest to being right. There is no induction; the past does not dictate the future; our soul can step outside the flow of time and see from above that there are no rules that can’t be broken.

The rules of time are an illusion, made to be broken, and if life has disappointed us it has no bearing on what it will do tomorrow.

The stranger who follows you on Twitter may come bearing friendship or strange gifts so great they are beyond imagining.

Then the moment is over. He follows 4,110 and is followed by 5,386, and when I join their ranks I get an automated DM. He wants me to follow his Instagram.

Blessed are you, G-d, who separates between the holy and the mundane.

For now.

On Legalizing Weeds

Here’s why fathers are important: They fret over weeds.

It is certainly the case, though it is not totally clear why (let’s face it, physical ability probably plays a role), that in the average middle class suburban American home blessed enough to have two parents, the mother’s role is usually in some way more confined to the home itself, whereas maintenance of the yard/pool/deck/etc. is more the purview of the husband.

So it was in my home, growing up, and the statistic was in no way mitigated by my mother’s propensity for gardening. It was somehow clear in subtle ways that her role was to plant and nurture beautiful life in riotous color but not to push the damn lawn mower around. Thus I, growing up, came to push it (being second in size to my father and chief honored recipient of his powers of delegation), and eventually, none of us really wanting to push it, we hired a yard service.

Yet still, after years of dissociation from the actual labor of dealing with our oddly shaped front yard, it is not unusual to hear my father, as we stride out toward the synagogue or take the dog for a loop around the cul-de-sac, assessing the extent of our weeds.

Very slowly, as I, over the past couple of years, have become ever-so-slightly less dense, I have come to secretly wonder whether this is the single most important thing my father can do for us.

This is not to downplay, of course, all his other roles. A provider is most basic and in most ways most essential, a protector, the law enforcer, etc. But I can’t help feeling that these are roles too appreciable by the lost philosophers of our Internet age. Fatherhood’s advocates tend to emphasize responsibility, particularly fiscal responsibility, in their efforts to get an entire generation adrift in nihilism to set aside their baser hedonism. They argue that family life is perhaps the only means of civilizational survival; they bring all the power of Darwin and evolutionary psychology and stories about cave men and fighting wild animals to bear on the problem of lost masculinity.

All of this is ultimately the fatherhood of the animal, and when it comes to convincing men, I take the old, counterintuitive approach. We do not first need to become animals to be human; stories of a father killing the bear that threatens his young brood speak to a place in the human heart little above the self-destructive pleasure-seeking boheme.

Fatherhood, in the human sense, does not exist to ensure any sort of physical outcome. The physical protection and survival of the family are themselves only animal means to a human end. And the human end is intellectual, purposive, and ultimately spiritual.

At the intersection of intellect, purpose, and transcendence, one finds the Kabbalistic concept of Chachma, the highest distinct faculty of the human soul, its ability to subjugate itself to, and thereby unify with, an external reality. It is the foundation of all wisdom, and it is the part of the intellect that lets a person open a window beyond the limits of their own existence and devote themselves to a higher truth.

And Chachma is often referred to, in the Kabbalistic texts, as father.

My father tells us that the weeds do not belong. He tells us that a human being is civilized, that chaos and all growing wild is fun, but order and civilization are right. He does not explain himself and does not need to. By dint of being the father, he is our collective familial Chachma. He sets the tone for higher truth; he tells the family that what they are is wonderful and more than he deserves, but what they can be, if they find purpose, is something much higher.

Don’t be an animal; don’t fight with your siblings; keep your promises; pay your debts; delete the weeds; take pride in your lawn.

There are things worth doing, a whole world of truth beyond what we are or even desire, and it is ultimately Good.

For this, I thank my father, and all fathers everywhere.

A Novice’s Lament

Anything is possible in the world of spirit.

There the universe is overturned. I used to think this glorious inversion was at the core of truth, that the opposite is always higher, that G-d loves underdogs in sports and metaphysics. This revolution, I thought, would take the modern world by storm.

I used to watch the latest studies for signs of Moshiach’s arrival; speed of light broken, event horizon a loose guitar string. The world will be perfect when we are all one. When we find the spirit in nature, competition, war, vying shoulder to abraded shoulder will disperse from the truth’s headlights.

In the the end, what is right will become what is easy. By His power we will mind our own business but no one will be poor, money will be dust yet life will not be boring, and those who die will truly deserve it.

All this, I know.

I can explain how G-d will reveal himself and why he concealed himself in the first place.

I can explain matter and form and placing the refined before the coarse and how all sin is madness and how not sinning is (not rational; that would be an insufficient reversal, but rather) suprarational.

I can throw out triplets like cardsharps slicing melons from twenty feet — immanence, transcendence, their unity; illogical laws, logical laws, testimonies; man, woman, creator; NissanIyyarSivan; infinitude, limitation, He Himself.

I can outline for you the difference between philosophy, Kabbalah, and mysticism. I can show you the best footnotes of the sublime Hadranim. I have read that letter of the Rebbe, and I have opinions on its interpretation. I learn the sichos in the original Yiddish. I pronounce the words correctly.

I understand the role of the BTs and the FFBs and I don’t seriously undervalue either. I have found my own personal metaphors for many concepts and have memorized and delivered discourses before masters. I have thought of what I learned before and during prayer; I know the supremacy of action of speech and even thought; I am aware of the qualities of the simple man, that they far exceed my learning’s worth.

I know very specifically why someone always arguing against the alternative will at best be mediocre at pursuing his own path, and I know how to argue anyway. I have learned my own weaknesses in so many ways, found my worst in unexpected places, seen those who are more firmly on the path, who have it together and cannot exist even propositionally in the dark and worldly planes I sometimes tread.

I have logged morning and evening hours with the discourses and read Likkutei Dibburim on hard days. I have wrapped people in Tefillin, sung niggunim, comforted friends, rebukes acquaintances, listened to teachers, challenged farbrengers, played the skeptic and the believer, poured and drank, remembered storied with the names. I was close with good students and iconoclasts, valued principle and family, and even managed to sometimes not take myself too seriously.

Anything is possible in this world.

Except having a master, a ruler, a lord.

Except having a

God

over

me.

The Mistake Not To Make In 2017

The mistake not to make in 2017 is the mistake of thinking we know what’s going to happen, or, more precisely, that it makes any difference whether we know what’s going to happen or not.

This should not even be possible for a Chassid. Kabbalah is, if it is learned badly, gnostic, platonic, and reductionist; a learner can convince themselves that they are gaining knowledge of the secret undergirdings of the creation, knowledge that can be used in some practical way. These are the patterns; these are the rules that bind the way things work.

Philosophy, on the other hand, does not claim to know of a priori categories from which everything is built with little variance; philosophy is essentially at liberty to follow the evidence where it leads, and if it leads to a place that we cannot know, we can at least be certain of the truth of what we don’t know.

Chassidus is an unfair, paradoxical melding; it says that we can be what we cannot know and we can use all that strange, intervening Kabbalah to get there. Chassidus says that it’s all about G-d, but G-d wanted it to, in a sense, be all about us, and so condescended to make a world that runs parallel to our structures in every way which in turn run parallel to His chosen mode of expression which means that the place which is furthest from him is not so different from one facet of his infinite truth. Chassidus says that the Darwinists have it backward, that it is not that something is True because it happens to survive long enough but that life itself is the truth which is following G-d’s plans.

So much for all of the inevitables, the things that must be, the Kabbalah, with its forms and faces and spheres, the spiritual blueprint of the world that allows too many students to mistake the map for the landscape and assume that the world actually IS predictable.

But the joke was on us; the Kabbalah is just the post-hoc interstitial stuff, the logical outgrowth; “I wish to create a terrible, dark thing called a world, but I wish to dwell there as well, on its terms — I had better create some sort of blueprint, so that all my pieces can find their way back…”

No, our reality is more like philosophy, which seems mundane when “follow the evidence wherever it leads” includes only the broad, stable categories but grows increasingly tumultuous when “the evidence” includes independent beings with wills of their own. Indeed, this mode, in which G-d allows Himself to consider things purely on their own terms, is what allowed the world of Tohu to arise, unsustainable, wild, real, the short-long path, similar to G-d but not close to Him, just like an “independent” human being, just like a world that, with man at the reins, can shoot off at a moment’s notice into the wild unknown.

It turns out that G-d and what He creates in his image are not rule-followers by nature; they do as they please; they create. The world is full of madness and randomness and unpredictability, and (to the horror of the badly-learned Kabbalah) he who knows that he does not know is wisest of all.

And so, according to all the “right” thinking, the “religious” thinking, the rules that all dead things follow, 2016 was just some arbitrary bound, a meaningless set of time signifying nothing of great significance. But we are not dead things, and in some sense a significant time has passed; many of us have felt it, cursed it.

I entered this year with hubris; forgot my place and the place of my chosen discipline. We are not here to understand it — on this, at least, the Darwinists may agree. We are here to take our potential for doing whatever we damn well please and actualizing it in selflessness; we are gods set free with the greatest faith of all time, the faith G-d has that we will choose to be servants to him than deities over our own worlds.

Until we reach that unity and there is only One Will in this domain, literally anything can happen, and this year, it did. We were certain; we thought it could not be; just as certainly, it came to pass.

The reaction is not to cry over our own uncertainty like a first-year student whose Sephiros chart does not match all thirteen tribes.

The reaction is joyous, rapturous awe; the happiest feeling in the world, to lose ourselves and find some truth instead, to remember that we are not the creators and we do not understand.

The mistake of 2016 was to think we could understand.

The lesson for 2017 is to give up more easily, to have faith, to trust, to be willing to follow it wherever it leads.

Just like He does.

A Night In Morristown

A story from yeshiva, based on true events.

They are singing though they hate to sing and listening though they question respect. Not all of them; the library welcomes all sorts tonight, the kind and the quiet, the studious and the odious, drawn forth from the dorm where they have been resting, chatting, drinking, drawn forth for the spectacle. Farbrengen!

No, they vary. But some of them, the only ones I really notice (their transgressions fill my ledgers) are as statues come to life and for no good reason. Most of the time they are cold rock, closed to the world, denying its qualities. “Rabbi so-and-so (whom I have never met) scrabbles for power in his distant city in the most amusing wormlike way.” “Singing means nothing.” “It’s all just externalities, that’s all it is!” Usually I smirk and bear it because I know (though I can’t yet put it to words) that by rejecting anything but their own high standards they are rejecting their own humanity and that one day I’ll grasp their inferiority, and if that’s not faith, I don’t know what is. So I don’t mind them so much.

But tonight, in the library, the chairs pressing all around, table set in plastic austerity and dotted with oily salads, the holy books of responsible students, and one warm bottle of Smirnoff, something inside me gives way and my contempt for them rises to my nostrils. Here they sit, acting as if they respect a man for more than his participation in the correct schedule, as if the music moves them even though it’s pointless, far beneath blood or purity.

The Rabbi says “L’chaim,” strokes his brown beard, tells a story. I’ve heard it before, and if I’ve heard it, so have they, a thousand times. I’m some confused can-kicker from Atlanta who fell into a shred of wisdom by accident; they were swaddled in it and fed by it; this story is to them their whole family back to Adam, an artifact torn from the Siberian snow, still frozen. The story means what their father said it means, what their grandfather said it means, what Moses (“My mother’s father’s ancestor, head shliach to the Sinai, a sweet guy but a real mamzer in politics”) said it means. We do not need to add our thoughts. We are here to participate in it and transmit it. But I do have my own thoughts.

I can’t help it; I’m trying to quit; I see an inherent parallel to a sicha I learned once, though it raises certain questions, and I make a mental note to learn that talk again though I have a bad habit of losing heart these days because most people don’t know enough to relate to my inferences and those who do turn back to stone when the clock strikes midnight and the farbrengen ends and the license for sincere self-expression is revoked.

I wonder whether I might obtain such a license one day, but saying you want one is the first step to never being taken seriously again and besides, I am not a descendant of the shliach to the Sinai. Whatever. We all know those licenses censor as much as they permit and there’s a reason these farbrengens mostly sound the same. So I leave.

It’s the beginning of Winter and the Jersey air greets me like a puppy and the bottom of the stairwell. It tells me it’s been wandering since I saw it last; while I was breathing garlic and body heat it had blown down from Canada, free of worry or regret, and is now on its way to the city. The stars glimmer in their eternal sublime silence, their agonizing beauty. They are content to inspire man, to be painted and rhapsodized in poetry, but they do not condescend to help us when our mouth tastes like onion and tomato and we look to the deer stalking across the dark baseball field with a strange, pagan envy.

I roll the sleeves of my white shirt down and sit on a bench. My yeshiva looms around me. It was once a monastery up on this wooded hill and it is not hard to imagine a student walking his luggage down the length of the parking lot, expelled, shaking his fist at the buildings’ soaring mass with a visigoth’s contempt, his heart brimming with the barbaric pride in never having erected a single pillar because all excellence is oppressive and civilization is a siege tower against the soul’s embankments. It smolders within me, the hint of this resentment; it warms my heart. I want to pull down the damned building and what it symbolizes brick by brick until my arrogant detractors tumble into the field with me and I will show them just how human they are –

Somewhere nearby, water hits the bricks of the courtyard with the velocity granted by a long fall. It sounds almost like the splashes you sometimes hear mid morning when the bochrim on the third floor, late for class and too lazy to find a sink, empty their bedside basins out a window with a charm that may or may not violate the Code of Jewish Law. But this is a more continuous pouring, more focused, almost as if – there! A body stands silhouetted in a high window, hands holding onto its inner edge as he urinates with aplomb into empty space. Behind him, I can hear laughter and singing. I make the calculation. The window belongs to a classroom near the study hall. My curiosity is piqued.

I roll up my sleeves, give the night a last, longing look (the deer are long-gone) and walk inside.

There are different degrees to which Judaism demands we violate the space between us. I have worked through long witching hours at the Western Wall, alone in a vast plaza; I have been there are the bustling pilgrimage festivals. I have felt the pressure, the smothering heat before the gravestone at Meron. But none of these are quite the same as the Farbrengen With Limited Room. One cannot compare the standing/stumbling of crowded prayer to this seated insularity, food and drink passed and spilled hand-to-hand, the table supporting the inside of it and the tension of love or mere attention crackling in the ether. The classroom excretes cigarette smoke through the still-open window and I breathe others’ hot vodka-tainted breath.

The one who peed upon the world has already retaken his seat to keep his mysteries forever. He could be anyone present, for arrayed before me is a proper thieves’ farbrengen, the scoundrels’ council of the Yeshiva. In the thick of it sit the clean-shaven chain smokers, the lower-grade scalawags who spend half the week begging for Shabbos leave and the other half resenting the declination, the wilder Frenchmen, the ideological philosopher dissidents, the cross-bearing floaters too delinquent to succeed at anything except keeping their parents blissfully ignorant.

They’re not mine, these wilds. I’m sure, as I stand in the doorway, that thinking they might see me as some sort of rat is making them see me as some sort of rat, but they are hardly paying attention. Berel is speaking and it’s his words that prevent me from closing the door and dashing off. “I want to be good,” he says.

It strikes at a flint deep inside and for just a moment I feel as if I shine. Here, the men are made of flesh. Here, none will ever own a license, barring some transformative experience that will allow them, in their middle-age, to say “In a past life.” Perhaps this chaos is mine. Perhaps it is the true order.

“Just do one thing,” Arraleh suggests. “Don’t go too fast.” Berel nods heavily; they are equally in their cups.

I don’t sit because I have never smoked and I still want to be excellent, maybe. I’ve spent too much time thinking to take these late words on their faces, and I wish to get up on the table and ask – if you want to so badly, then why don’t you? Are you an honest thief doing wrong and respecting right or are you crying over your vodka to stay the same because the wages of crime are so great?

I take my own bribes, but I take them in private. I can’t give up being true for being good. The world is too big to be merely a cancer on my self-justification; the stars are not my friends; the path from rebellion down to nothingness is well-worn and turns love to loathing…

I, of the first person, am not unforgiving stone, not an angel, not an animal.

In the morning, the classroom will be a desolation of stale smells and damaged property, and the library will bear the dutiful repeating of the Rabbi’s words.

I choose my bed.

The stars watch on as I carry my sore head up three flights to my waiting Wal-Mart sheets. My roommate the saint sits under his bedside lamp, studying as always. He will go on to greatness, we all know.

As for me, the month of Kislev is coming, and the snow. As I fall asleep, I remember a promise from years ago that somewhere here in yeshiva the living G-d bides his time, a new coat in his hand, waiting to bring me in from the cold.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Smells Like Elul Spirit

Writing about it won’t help.

I’m so angry.

I’m so angry for being born and for being in this place. Not really. not authentically. Not in a way that I’d want to reverse the process of being born or being in this world. See, even that’s not real. And that’s part of why I’m angry.

I’m not really angry either, if anger is some sort of wild-fire. This is not wild. It is low, a low simmer, a single coal glowing at the heart of a cold galaxy, but it last and lasts and lasts, and so do I, and that is not happy and it’s not sad and it’s not completely dead. It’s a long, slow, imperceptible wrath. It is a punch to the face that was thrown when I was born and is still in a state of constant arrival, and that arrival is somehow wrapped up with this thing I can’t control, which is being. Here.

I’m angry that I have a body, that it’s limited and that it pegs me in one place and one time and people can look at it and see me. I sometimes forget I have it, and every time I look in a mirror and remember first there is shock and then the dull thud of that one warm coal.

I’m angry that all I am is angry. I’m not “motivated” or “passionate” or even “furious.” These almost imply that something other than me exists. Nothing other than me exists. There is me, and there is my anger at being here.

I remember a time when there was more. My childhood seems like some atavistic echo of Eden. I loved and hoped and had faith, though I wouldn’t have called it that. The older I got and the more I learned and the better (for a time) things got on paper the more I spun away from myself. It’s not because of anything I did. I know it. I’m still angry.

I’m angry that I had to become this broad to survive, that nuance and contradiction are the walls I must dash behind to avoid the glaring light. I wanted to be made whole and not half to lie here bleeding, pieces held together by force of will: You will be one. You will be one. You will be one.

I’m angry that G-d is small and I am big and that I don’t know how to fight that anymore but I am still not going anywhere, not going to admit I’m going anywhere, not going to countenance the slightest suggestion that I’m going anywhere, because I am as stubborn as this stupid world, a rock cast into a stream, sinking and unchanged and uncaring whether the flow’s subtle alteration at my presence ultimately does or effects or is anything with a name. I’m angry that I’m here for vengeance: Midah k’neged midah, measure for measure, I keep showing up at this table, and so will you, and it’s always your move.

I’m angry that I cannot remember where I hid the key to my ball and chain but that I can remember in aching clarity every time I have tried to claw my way out and fallen, every failed attempt, every cycle the same story, and though things change it is never the way I want or the way I intend and never because I sat down and decided they would.

I’m angry that I still know I’m here for a reason and that one more soul in one more body for one more moment is your infinite pleasure and that sometimes I even glimpse it…

I’m angry that I remember the way I used to dance on Simchas Torah, ripping my throat raw and trying to stomp holes in the floor, crying, slamming, because it is the nature of my romantic side to try to say how I really feel once a year and if Simchas Torah isn’t real and the Jews’ backs lacerated with holy and unrepentant whip scars are not your flag and they don’t dance anyway then it’s all nothing and the world can sink into a flood for all I care. But all of that was a long time ago and now I just can’t anymore because there’s been too many and your face is still hidden and there is not a single day that this stupid world doesn’t spit in my face and you don’t care.

I’m angry that you put me in this place where I can forget you care, where I am broken and we sing to you on Yom Kippur to a tune rending and sublime that we are like clay in the hands of the sculptor, an anchor in the hands of the seaman, and maybe you will reel us in. Maybe you will reel us in. Maybe you will keep our form. But perhaps not. Perhaps this is all some joke, and that we went from love to hatred to cold, uncaring apathy is just some preparation for the next test or demonstration.

I’m angry because you probably think it’s funny that I try to defend you sometimes. It’s funny because I wouldn’t know you to defend you, and all words in your defense are hypocrisy anyway, and besides, when was the last time you came around? But it still makes me angry. It makes me angry like a child who has lost his head, and that’s all I am, pathetic and myself.

I’m angry that your excuse for creating people who will always look but never find is that you, too, are committed to always looking and never finding. Perhaps you won’t reel me in, but: It’s a stupid pastime and I’m sick of it. I’ve had it up to here. Not because of some righteous and noble cause of your people in history or defending the weak or hating evil. Because I am so tired. I am so angry. I am tired and angry and here, still here, always here, one day and then the next, and I cannot step into the boats you may have sent with the rising tide, and that is your fault too.

I take credit for none of it. I am not responsible. I am responsible, maybe, for still being here. Always. A coal.

But coals do not fold themselves into words for others; embers are not seen.

And writing will not help.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Crying Over Spilled Whiskey

Nodding in despair, leaning on the Chevy, I considered my options. It was a bright Friday morning in May and the southern sun beat down on my hat and jacket, mocking the choices that tormented me as they torment all mortal men. The short ceremony at the imposing villa was over and I’d retreated to the sidewalk where the Tahoe stood waiting at the edge of an immaculate lawn. Clutched in my fingers, golden in the outdoor radiance, was a plastic tumbler half-full with exquisite Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey, smooth as satin.

And I couldn’t drink it. Because I’m a shy introvert who lives in Atlanta. No introversion, no problem; I’d still be inside for another half-hour, more than enough time to swallow such a small amount of liquor and drown it in cake. No Atlanta, no issue either; when do you ever need to drive in New York City? Maybe I could just bring it along for later, I considered. But that’s no good – I really don’t need the stress of breaking that law. I also wasn’t gonna just stand around for a while and drink it on the sidewalk; it’s weird, and besides, I’d already begun to perspire.

So – looking away like I was shooting my dog, I spilled the whiskey out onto the grass, jumped in the car, and fled.

The drive home was long, too long, so I had plenty of time to reflect on my guilt.

My first thought was that watering weeds with $180 whiskey is akin to flushing money down the drain. This is, in fact, the one act universally recognized as sacrilege in America. Flushing money down the toilet is far worse than crucifixes in urine or Mary smeared with elephant dung or mean cartoons about Muhammad. Crucifixes and paintings are useless, after all, whereas money is God. ISIS or the Taliban might burn the American flag but are never zealous enough to burn American dollars; no communist on the planet is so incensed at capitalist transgressions that they won’t pinch pennies to help fund the revolution. Even in turn-of-the-century Vienna, someone bought the coffee. And here I, in plain daylight, in the sight of G-d and (now) man, images of Michael Scott crumpling bills and proverbial Rabbis throwing checks into graves flashing through my mind, had the temerity to commit the mortal sin of vainly spilling…scotch.

But it was against just such thoughts that I received my eldritch schooling in the paths of mysticism. My Chassidic education involved not scotch but a lot of cheap vodka and stories about mud. Mud is central to the Chabad outlook; it was both the literal and figurative ground of shtetl life, that pervasive Russian “bloteh.” Eventually mud became the primary Chassidic metaphor for money. After all, what is the physical without G-d? What fleshly riches prevail when the riches of the spirit are withdrawn? Honestly, it’s hard to cry over spilled whiskey without my cheeks stinging just a bit. Mendel Futerfas was joyous in Siberia because he could still serve G-d in a vicious labor camp, but I’m sad about scotch on the grass? Where are my priorities? If Reb Mendel spoke English, he’d say, “Feh.” To a Chassid, G-d is what matters, and all else is idol worship. The destruction of money is no more an outrage than a wagon rolling through the square.

However…We are not peasants, and it is too simple to call the Johnnie Walker Blue Label blended whiskey merely physical. This is disingenuous. The peasant could weigh all that is limited against G-d and choose the creator with a free conscience, for he generally took little pleasure in the structure of those limitations and therefore ignored it. Much more complicated were the paths of those who knew the world and basked in it and categorized its pleasures into top-ten lists. The Russian peasants could taste and see physicality and chose G-d instead. But their minds were open to the divine words of a nigun, or the tune of a Chassidic story. Never had they read a convincing treatise on the origins, relevance, gradations, and revolutionary importance of mud. Their thought process was: “Mud can buy food. But all food really comes from G-d.” Then, for kicks, they’d say, “Really, we only eat because it’s a divine commandment.” Sublime.

But I, regrettably, have sunk much deeper than an illiterate Russian peasant. I have, in my low exile, tasted not just the body of whiskey but its sustaining soul. Johnnie Walker Blue Label is not just mud. It is the product of artisanal effort and craftsmanship. It is what happens when man does not suffice with mud but decides to make something, to invest the powers of his soul into the mud to grow grain, and then through an ancient and delicate process refine the grain, and blend tastes, and age the mixture in casks. Then, boldest of all, he places his name on the label and calls the thing his, his soul made it, and no other’s; he is a creator, and he is proud.

His golden product enraptures not only the senses but the mind; it is not merely subtle, but also an achievement that stands for something. It stands for how we can take coarseness and refine it, take the common and make it valuable, take the dead and give it soul. If whiskey is mud and we feel no regret returning it to the earth, then whence the sorrow in returning the whiskey maker to the earth? His worldly efforts were naught, the joy in his craft was misplaced, and those hours in between prayers when he toiled over the stills were only so much stirring of the mud.

No, my mind cannot wholly swallow this religious doctrine, cannot consign so much of our endeavor and billions of Chinese lives to formlessness and death. In my appreciation of the soul of that animal, man, I have lost touch with that animal’s G-dly purpose. Either worldly value or G-dly value prevails. Either we cry over whiskey, or we cry over our divine souls.

This, then, is the challenge of Johnnie Walker to those of us who would have both G-d and man: Dare to call the scotch more than mud. Dare to wonder at the worldly industry and audacity of humanity. And then, and only then, measure G-d’s true stature as he who both creates that greatness and transcends it. Only once we learn to measure worldly value in G-dly terms can we finally sit down to a hard-earned drink…

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Thank You, Orthodox Jews

Dear frum-from-birth Orthodox Jews (even the ones I know),

I’m just writing to say thank you.

I am a Baal Teshuva. I did not grow up within the traditional Jewish world. I was brought into it by people like you. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Now, I know you’re waiting for the sucker punch, for when I say “but” and then explain how your communities and lives would only be enriched if you would just listen to me more, or watch this movie, or purge so-and-so from our ranks, or repair such-and-such an institution. You’re waiting for the part where I tell my brave, dark truth about all the skeletons I’ve discovered in your closet.

But that’s not going to happen.

For one, I haven’t really discovered many skeletons. I read some things that other people have found (allegedly — I am not them, I was not there, and I do not know, and I feel no obligation to say I do) and they make me sad. But the situation is not all-or-nothing, and who knows what’s true about anything you hear, and there is no obligation to care, etc. etc.

Secondly, I worry that revealing your skeletons does not demand my bravery (after all, they populate bestseller lists and garner lots of hits for websites). I worry that the brave thing is to say what is not said enough, which is that sometimes we Baalei Teshuva can be a bunch of ungrateful little prigs.

And so, I say without caveats: I am grateful for you. Yes, you. Every single frum-from-birth Orthodox Jew. Collectively.

You are collectively guilty of changing my life for the better, just by being you and existing. Because you’ve taken me in and taught me Torah and shown patience for me and the countless others that are now a huge part of your community. Because very, very, very rarely have I ever encountered a frum yid who said, “You don’t belong here because you weren’t born religious.”

So I’m telling you, the FFBs, the ones who may think, a little bit, deep down inside, that you’re hopelessly backward for being born and raised religious — you don’t need to change a bit.

I’m telling you this because too few of us who come to this community later in life ever say “thank you.”

We who came as outsiders to your world are much more content to take the high road and enlighten you with all we know of secularism.

We are too happy to use the very principles you taught us to bind you to our plans for your lives.

We hear from your throats that have spoken words of Torah since infancy Chassidic stories on the holiness of illiterate peasants and we are thoroughly convinced of our own greatness.

We imagine that Torah and Truth belong to no one, that they simply pool around our feet, and we needed only to bend over to partake, that we alone have invested and we alone are to blame for our newfound piety.

We, who did not know “todah” until one of you beautiful souls mercifully slaked our thirst, cannot now say “thank you”.

“Thank you” is sometimes as hard as “I’m sorry.” Both of them painfully indebt us to another. But that pain is ennobling. Gratitude raises us up from our animal nature and compels us to respond to kindness with kindness — the foundation of all human relationships.

Chassidus tells us that the root of all evil is yeshus, separate, self-sustaining existence; its opposite is expressed in the bowing of the prayers, when we say Modim anachnu lach, We thankfully acknowledge…

So: I thankfully acknowledge.

I thankfully acknowledge not just those who actively reach out to the not-yet-religious, but even those of you who never speak or do anything for us Baalei Teshuva at all. I thankfully acknowledge that it was you who kept the flame of Yiddishkeit bright enough that I could see it in my corner of the world.

I thankfully acknowledge that you let people like me into your homes and onto your streets, even though you know the danger, even though you understand it will change your way of life in unpredictable and perhaps irreversible ways.

I thankfully acknowledge that even though you might see the arrival of people like me as some sort of godsend or blessing, you did not have to see it this way, and that until Moshiach’s times, everything has downsides, even me. I thank you for believing in us.

I thankfully acknowledge that you have generally been quite patient with my lack of knowledge and even my own self-importance. I remember saying once at the Mayanot Yeshiva in front of some of you that the entire hope for the Jewish people rests on Baalei Teshuva. Thank you for not slapping me. I kind of wish you did.

I thankfully acknowledge my many teachers, both my peers and my elders, without whom I would not even know enough to be a part of this conversation. I thankfully acknowledge your long hours listening to me as I mangled my Aramaic and Hebrew and Yiddish, and treasured me even in my arrogance, and nurtured me so I at least know something of my own heritage today.

I thankfully acknowledge your patience. I still have so much to learn, and my words sometimes exceed my wisdom.

I thankfully acknowledge your willingness to even talk about my ideas, suggestions, and innovations. The fact is, “we have always done/understood it this way” is more powerful than my great insight. You do not have to explain yourself to anyone, particularly someone who just got here and who may, tomorrow, leave.

I thankfully acknowledge those of you who wish I would no longer speak as a Baal Teshuva, but rather as yet another member of the community, the same as any other. This is perhaps your greatest kindness of all, but I hesitate to accept it. Perhaps you should be more discerning.

I even thankfully acknowledge those exceptions who prove the rule: you who are more strict, who will never see me as one of your own. I understand you, and I thank you. Your voice, too, is important (you don’t need me to say this, but since some might say the opposite, I will). You want to protect your people and your way of life from those who would unmake, through destruction or drastic transformation, that which you have built. You doubt whether we are truly invested, whether we will not, with the power that belongs to all that is young and new, use the life you have given us to destroy you.

No, I do not want you to forget that I am a Baal Teshuva. I want you to weigh me with your standards, as you weighed the advantages of taking me in, and I will thankfully accept your assessment, like a parched traveler who, at the end of the wilderness, accepts a sideways glance along with his life-giving water.

Thank you for hearing my ideas and stubbornly rejecting most of them.

That’s what your parents, and their parents, and their parents did.

That’s why you were born to a frum family, a family that accepted an idea at Sinai, and rejected afterward.

It is only through that age-old rejection, after all, that I came to be here.

Thanks again,

L’chaim,

Tzvi Kilov

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.