Even Though Judaism Broke My Heart

As the day of my Bar Mitzvah drew near, my father impressed three things upon me:

1. Never to fool myself.
2. Never to fool somebody else.
3. Never to allow myself to be fooled.

~ Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson

He ostensibly came around to the yeshiva to visit old friends but actually, I think, to make sure the place was safely receding into the distance like a police car in the rearview mirror. My room would be his last stop and we’d shoot the breeze about everything except why he left and why he still hadn’t left, why he was still coming around, still paying attention. Our conversation danced around landmines like Israeli politics and his shaved face and the latest frum contretemps, and he’d return home with another brick in our friendship layed slipshod so the cold wind of the world came through the chinks in its walls.

It got better when I started buying books. I had a big windowsill back then, broad enough to be a shelf. From its left side extended my holy books in Hebrew and Yiddish. So it was for five years. Then, one week, with no great fanfare and no mouth of hell splitting my floor tiles, the English books began to sprout from the right side. Gödel, Escher, Bach. The Elements of Style. A History of the Jews. How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. Yom Kippur a Go Go. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Code. A History of Western Philosophy. Fear and Trembling.

He’d pick them up and leaf through them and we’d talk about what I’d read and how I felt about it. I always felt he respected my intelligence, and in secular interests we found common ground. (My mini-collection on atheism drew a spontaneous “Are you going to a convention or something?”)

I felt uncomfortable.

I felt uncomfortable because one week, with no great fanfare, I made a decision to revisit the pursuit of worldly intellect that enriched my youth, and I no longer knew what separated me from the beardless man who stood next to me, a well-dressed and well-coiffed law school applicant so far from my brother whose first day of Yeshiva was my first day of Yeshiva all those years ago in Jerusalem.

We came to Yeshiva with more or less the same goal: To find The Truth and pursue it the way only teenagers could. We learned together, we attended the same classes and farbrengens and trips. We swung chickens over our heads and wrapped tefillin on strangers and talked about G-d and His designs late into the night. I went home for Passover and let my parents know I wouldn’t be attending Georgia Tech in the fall. I had tasted life and had no use for  computer science.

Our studies continued. Together, we left Jerusalem for New Jersey, to learn in a “regular” (that is, frum-from-birth) Yeshiva. Exposed was the face of the beast: teachers who could barely speak English, hordes of jaded students compelled by their parents to continue their religious studies, a cheder full of feral kids, every conversation pervaded with gossip and scandal, sons speaking of their fathers with detached analysis, a culture of frugality bordering on the deceptive and the larcenous, rabbis who either convinced themselves the majority of their students were interested in spiritual pursuits or who otherwise gave in to despair and avenged their idealism by confiscating phones, books, laptops.

I devoted myself to finding the silver lining, and I did, for a while. I know too well that love of someone who doesn’t love you can only go so far. My appreciation for this life began to crumble. So did his, I found out later.

It only got worse. After a disillusioned summer in upstate New York, I went away as a student emissary/teacher to Tel Aviv. I had the toughest year of my life trying to relate to unrelatable people and to stay motivated. He remained in Jersey.  He watched the faculty of his Yeshiva (including one of his heroes) spin out of control with fatwa after fatwa meant to bring the students in line.

I came back to the States and he was gone.

***

I pressed forward – another year of Yeshiva, this time for my rabbinical ordination, my smicha. It was the natural next step after shlichus, and I’d convinced myself all the problems I saw were Israeli problems (many of them were, but not most of them, not exclusively). It was another tough year. The learning was beyond me and the rest of my life loomed on the horizon, begging the constant question, was it all a mistake? Where will you be going next year? What are you going to do with yourself? Do you even like anyone in the community you’re a part of? Do you relate to them in any way?

In a measured voice and with a slight but insistent angling of the head I learned from my Talmud teacher in Jerusalem, I would insist to myself, “I do relate to them in some way. G-d is real. Chassidus is real. It’s all true. This was not a mistake. I will not give up.”

I gradually read the books on the left side of the shelf for pleasure less and less, and the right side sat empty.

The crisis came halfway through that year. The long night when I got off the phone with my rabbi and lay weeping in bed, trying to figure out if my investment had been for nothing, if I had made a terrible mistake that only led me away from normalcy and happiness.

Almost two years later, I’m still here. I’m also back in Jerusalem spending a lot of my day trying to help others taking this same path.

What conclusion did I come to that night? Why did I remain? How can I encourage others toward disillusionment and heartbreak?

The first thing I realized: everybody is looking for something. We have vacuums we must fill one way or another, and we find that there are things in Judaism that satisfy us, be it the peace and warmth of its Shabbos, the  elegance of its theology, its salvation from the nihilistic void of existence. We become attached to these things; they become to us like a lover’s face, a memory of the first walk we took in the rain together, huddled under the umbrella, one.

Then times become tough; there is always more than we bargained for; the parts we love cannot be cut out from the undesirable whole that does nothing for us, and that we begin to resent. The things we once loved become the lies we tell to convince ourselves our love continues.

(Even now I still have these moments. I was in Beitar last Shabbos, walking to shul at ten in the morning, the sun warming my face, the sweet breeze blowing off the patchwork farms of the valley, apartment buildings thrust into the blue sky like white sails, so bright you almost had to look away, and a little boy ran in front of me, crossing the calm road with a bottle of wine for kiddush to his father who stood erect like a prince, wrapped in his pure tallis and waiting for his son and the sanctification of the day, their world held gyroscopically still in reality’s storm, and I felt a pang of longing in my heart that carried me to Shacharis and beyond. It shook me. And then it faded into pale memory, and I became once again unconvinced about my choices, and the question ate at me more: Was it all a mistake?)

But it was not for nothing we walked this road. We have merely outgrown our initial impressions, and what we initially loved has been left behind. True, it does not feel like growth. It feels like pain. The little problems with Judaism accrue and become big problems; what you used to overlook is now all you can see. But the problem here is not Judaism changing. It is the way it no longer fits in the box we initially imposed.

And then comes the pivotal moment with its cleaving question: Were you merely blind before? Were you a fool? Is it true that only fools fall in love?

***

If you think you were only a fool, then you must cut your losses and move on. This was never meant to be, and the entire endeavor was merely an expression of your own frailty.

If you were not a fool, then you can come to love it as you loved it before. You were willing to ignore the faults of your beloved because her face was so beautiful. It is now time to do it again, to find the beauty. But it will not happen on its own; that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a child’s thing, the serendipitous interlocking of need and fulfillment. The difference between adults and children is that adults cannot rely on serendipity. We must work to find congruence.

We start by shedding our preconceptions. What we used to love about her was a projection of our own needs, and we can’t pretend it’s who she is any longer. We must take her on her own terms, pimples and all.

It’s all in the words. When we start out we say “Shabbos” and feel a rush of joy. But the word wears out, for what is a word but dead letters, sounds forced into an uneasy partnership and bound with imposed meaning. After enough time, it starts to sound like nothing at all, and after more time we start resenting it – “I have a soul; stop mouthing at me! I need to comprehend; the word means nothing to me.” Shabbos has become a parroted cliché. It has become death. Not death by terrorist, 7 o’ clock news; death deep in the Amazon where no one’s around to film it, death as a force of nature, a mute wall, a brute fact.

We have two options. We can either get rid of the word and go searching for some other sounds we hope will not eventually rot in our mouths, or we must find some way to reinvigorate this one. We must find a new definition of “Shabbos.” And what, I thought on my bed that night, is Chassidus, if not a long series of redefinitions, an insistent angling of the head that says, “No, it means this.” And those definitions by nature of their divine origin are of infinite depth.

The upswing: What we hate about it is not it, it’s what we had to call it when we were small. It is not foolish; we were foolish when we met it. Shabbos does not mean what we thought it did. It means something deeper, something G-dly, and in that G-dly reality there is room, say, to not feel bad about your hasty prayers and do feel great about the wonderful food you look forward to all week. From a deeper perspective, that too is Shabbos.

Romance lives, to the extent that the child is the father of the man. As long as there is still some room to expand the definition of our terms, there will always be a reason to stay.

So I teach Baalei Teshuva. I’m not selling a flawed product; I’m selling a deeper and truer place within themselves. I am selling them true love. The job is not to protect them from disillusionment and heartbreak. The job is to give them the intellectual and theological tools to deal with it when it comes. The bumps in the road are part of the journey, the feeling of their own skin too tight on their bodies. We cannot split the sea for them, but we will give them a staff.

When I asked my friend if he was okay with my writing a piece about us, he asked if he had anything to worry about. I told him no. I think we see things from similar perspectives, now. Though in some external ways we come down on opposite sides of the table, we are at least both sitting at it. We have each, in our own way, shucked our childish pursuits, and taken steps to becoming men in this world, men who aren’t fools, men who live according to their convictions. Are we really so different, after all?

My definitions have stretched so I no longer feel distant from my friend in law school. Every day, we seem ever more two sides of the same coin; in fact, every day, everything seems like a side of it. When your definitions are robust, all of a sudden G-d can get in everywhere. On both sides of the shelf, in both friends, and in that mysterious interstitial space that separates all matter and unites it.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

My New Year’s Resolution Is To Make No Difference

I resolve, for the New Year, to not “make a difference.” I must accept what I cannot change and find the strength to change the things I can, to paraphrase a wise prayer. I will remember this year that strength is rarely measured in page views, Facebook likes, or marketing budgets. True strength is strength of character.

I resolve to neither need the status quo nor resent it, but to see it for what it is – the reality. Needing it is imprisonment and needing to change it is imprisonment. A relentless flow of news from around the world assures me that terrible things happening elsewhere are my concern. But while empathy is excellent, delusion is not. I resolve to care for the people in my vicinity on a daily basis, and for myself most of all.

I resolve to mind my own business. People say that minding your own business lets evil grow as no good people bother to stop it. People tend to forget that what makes the evil so bad in the first place is its failure to mind its own business.

I resolve to not read death tallies. Death tallies are only powerful for those who think there is something worth doing before the end. Are we alive because we’re alive, or because we happen to not yet have died?

I resolve to evaluate endeavors before I commit to them. Often, that which seems meaningful is merely a yoke. It says, “I am worth only the difference I make.” That which seems to affect no one but me in my own mind appears inferior. I will spend less time doing, or worse, worrying that I’m not doing. I will spend more time being.

I resolve to fight not just for external freedom but for internal freedom – the freedom to be alone, to think the thoughts I want to think, when I want to think them. One of the great teachers once said that the only difference between a man and a horse is the man’s ability to see a tree and think something other than “look, a tree.”

I resolve to experience wild abandon and childlike joy. They are in everything, from running wildly down the street to turning a page. I hear they can even be found in profound grief. May G-d keep me from knowing.

I resolve to appreciate the here and the now and the is, on its own terms, since it is. Existence is not a simple thing; it is bestowed. So much depends upon a red wheel barrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens. Not upon a metaphor or complex symbol, but upon the wheel barrow itself, a gift from G-d. I will take the time to count my wheel barrows.

I resolve to notice the color of people’s eyes when I first meet them.

I resolve to taste my food.

I resolve to understand the words I read.

I resolve to break free this year. I will find my redemption. It is not hiding behind a police barrier, a soapbox, or a ballot box. It is hiding in a place of mystery deep within my own heart, a fortress with no front entrance only vulnerable from above.

I resolve to step away from the light and into enlightenment. I will find the silent place where I can see the G-d who should disown us but is stuck with us, the one who invented the music. I will find at least one way in which He doesn’t appeal to me. I will do the same thing with his creation. By these I will set my compass.

I resolve to pursue these resolutions not with a fierce sweat-stained striving, but like a cat finds balance on a sun-mottled garden wall, proud to do what it is born to do, warm to the touch in the morning light.

 

Image from Flickr. Thanks for reminding me about the red wheel barrow, David.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

How Jews Wage War

Today, a synagogue lies drenched in Jewish blood, and our nation mourns as one.

The soul cries out: What do we do? What can we do? What is the answer to those who hate us?

This afternoon, as I pull myself away from the news and the poetry and the terrible pictures, I find my mind wandering to the past…

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I’d been in Israel for about half a year when the Jews of Jerusalem marched to war. It was the first day of Adar, 2009. We left Yeshiva under the cover of darkness and walked (the light rail was still an open ditch running down Yaffo street) toward the city entrance. Our small group joined with rivers of people, thousands of men and women. There was an electric excitement in the air, mixed with solemnity – a sorrowful volatility, a joyous melancholy. As we neared the battle, the music grew louder, shaking us awake.

A year earlier to the day, an Arab terrorist slaughtered eight Yeshiva students at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, most of them minors. A year earlier to the day, the Jews of Jerusalem were plunged into a nightmare. And now was the time for vengeance.

Throngs of people converged on the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. The music had reached pulverizing strength. We pushed forward through the thousands, close to the Yeshiva’s gate, where in the yellow streetlight stood a chuppah, a portable marriage canopy. Under it danced a new Sefer Torah, a scroll resplendent in a brilliant mantle and adorned with a silver crown. It danced with Jews from far and wide, Ultra- and non-Orthodox, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, storekeepers and Talmudic masters. It danced with a fiery fury, a phoenix, born of Jewish ashes.

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Because a year after eight students were murdered at this Yeshiva, the Jews brought to it eight new Torahs, eight new beacons of light. This is Jewish retaliation; this is Jewish war. For thousands of years, no matter what darkness suffuses this fell world, we fight against it with light, with menorahs in winter windows and scrolls of wisdom clutched in wrinkled hands. For millennia, the world has trampled on the Jew. For millennia, the Jew stands up, dusts himself off, and lights a candle.

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Our war band, dancing and singing and embracing each other, marched through the Yeshiva gates. The press of people was unbelievable, the pressure an unbearable cleansing. We pushed our way inside the building itself, into the humid Beit Midrash, its overflowing walls shaking from the sound of delirious joy. There, gripping one of the new scrolls like a lifeline, was a relative of one of the holy dead. Hot tears rolled down his cheeks as he swayed side to side and sang with the Jewish people.

Through that ink and parchment wrapped in velvet and crowned in silver, he hugged his brother, his son, his cousin. For the first time in my life, my brother, my son, my cousin. Through that holy weight, we united, and our songs flew into the night.

With light, joy, and love, we inflicted on this cruel world an everlasting victory.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The People Who Don’t Know How Much I Love Them

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke

 

I was going to write a piece called “Why Kosher Pizza Sucks.”

But…

Tonight I feel battered.

Tomorrow, I won’t. But tomorrow is tomorrow, and tonight is now. And whenever I get pensive, melancholic, and withdrawn, I find my thoughts centering on those I’ve loved in secret. In secret not because of fear, but because the words are not meant to be spoken, are meant only for clutching to the heart as scraps of intimate poetry, to haunt and uplift me in the night. These people wake up and walk around and go to sleep, and they don’t know that I love them.

It’s not that they mustn’t know. It’s that they can’t know.

It can’t be expressed.

For me, it’s easier to salve my intellect through writing than my heart. “The chambers of the heart cannot be written down,” says the Talmud.

But I’m going to try.

In the merit of feeling broken open, witness those who draw me across the infinite divide:

***

(1)

She was my friend in middle school, and as we got older we drifted apart until the only rope between our tugboats was Facebook. She is quirky, from a family of quirkies, and has a smile like sunshine. She was more into drugs than I was…I may have said some things. What did I know?

What do I know now?

One day, I commented on something she said on Facebook, something small, a stupid TV show. And a mutual acquaintance of ours attacked me (the first thing he said to me in any form in perhaps a decade) for being religious. And there it was, all laid out: we used to be similar, with similar interests, and we grew apart, and maybe it’s all my fault for running away to Israel and ensconcing myself in Yeshiva and this life and if she wanted she could twist that knife.

But she didn’t.

She came to my defense. She said he should leave me alone, that I’m a Jewish man trying to be Jewish, and that it deserves respect.

Never in my life have I felt more vindicated.

 

(2)

I step down Jerusalem sidewalks, watching Jews flutter outside my sonic enclosure, drummer breaking the beat they don’t know they’re stepping to. As is Jerusalem custom, they stare notes through the cracks in my walls.

A Yiddishe crone creaks in the breeze like a flagship, a mother to fleets wrapped in black sailing, crow’s nest wreathed with faded pink flowers, aged prow tacking at the spray of the changing tide. She goes about her business.

At the sound of my heavy footfall, she glances aft, and looks away, probably without a thought. She can’t know that I’d die for her at 3:30 on a Jerusalem Sunday.

I wouldn’t die for Moon or Mercury, nor for Harrison or Page; they paint my stars but won’t carry my weight. But she…she is everything, for an instant. I watch over her until she finds a safe harbor.

 

(3)

He got on my nerves, always tagging along, laughing at my jokes too often, saying “Hi” more than was reasonable, twice in an hours’ span.

We just saw each other, what do you want?

We’d learn together, and he wouldn’t understand how I like to casually drift in, to feel comfortable, to take the situation’s temperature – he was too eager, too fast, unable to keep from looking over at me ten minutes before lunch was over, silently questioning my preparedness.

I started dreading the time we spent together. He threw my rhythm off.

One night, I felt downtrodden and exhausted, angry with everything, and especially that I’d have to learn with him. As I recited Hebrew words with a heavy heart through gritted teeth, he grinned and made one of his unfunny jokes.

And, because I felt broken and downtrodden, it was funny. It was wry and penetrating. It brought a grin to my face that I couldn’t understand.

He is an orphan.

It occurrs to me that I didn’t understand him because my heart wasn’t broken enough.

 

(4)

I sat, begrieved and aching from the mess my life became. He approached, walking lightly, as if his body was weightless.

That’s what he does for a living. He takes the weight away.

He asked me what was wrong.

I shrugged.

He told me I should listen to happy music.

I told him that the world said I was tone-deaf, and sang too loud.

He shook his head in disgust. “Tzvi,” he said, “you don’t even want to know what I think about them.”

My voice choked and my eyes watered.

As he walked away, his feet didn’t touch the ground.

 

(5)

He knows, and he never says anything.

How does he do that?

 

(6)

She is the embodiment of my every doubt; not about people, but about G-d. She is a good person. She is nothing but kindness and benevolence, and in case you think that’s blind, I’ll tell you this much – she does as best she can.

Well, she did.

Because it all fell apart, and it can only be put on G-d, and how can He do this? It’s worse than war and world hunger and even Nickelback; it’s personal, and one thing after another, and in direct proportion and a consequence of her kindness.

Suffering in direct payment for goodness.

Yet she goes on.

I guess I must, as well.

***

 

Image from Flickr

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Enlightenment: Crude. Unsanitary. Ultra-Orthodox.

As every Jew knows, the religious ones are the rude ones. They jostle and shove and step on you and they’re not apologizing anytime soon. The first thing I ever saw in Meron on Lag Ba’omer, almost five years ago: a father slapped his son’s face so hard he pirouetted a full circle before bursting into tears.  There was no time to reflect, because the river of thousands pushed me forward. We entered the food tent and drank a lot of alcohol. Then, into the cave-building that houses Rashbi’s grave marker. The masses plucked me into their hot flow and my lungs drew at burning air as I said Tehillim into the back of the man in front of me. Some people panicked and clawed their way out. Others fainted, and a path opened in the full room for the paramedics and it was no longer my words but my entire face in the shoulder of a stranger’s silk frock. When I couldn’t stand it anymore I fought for the exit and the crowd spat me into the cool night, my entire body turned to sweat.

At sunrise, we returned to Jerusalem and my Rosh Yeshiva found me beaten and empty. He smiled a knowing smile.

He asked, “Tzvi, did you push?”

I hated it. As the cat says, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Why can’t the religious life be like an Israeli salad course, cool and colorful, varied and healthy and delicious? Why must they make a brown oily cholent out of everything?

But I kept participating. Push. For years, I convinced myself that this way of life is more meaningful, that it could all be explained, bit by bit, from the battered black New Balances up through the sheitels. Push. I told myself that only family can trample on one another with impunity. Push. I tried to ignore my discomfort on the High Holidays in packed shuls and graveyards. Push. I told myself that when Moshiach comes and gathers the exiles to the Holy Land, there will be crowds. My struggles are practice for that day. Push. I reminded myself how important it was to love my fellow Jew, to appreciate their souls –

What a bunch of garbage. His soul? His elbow! That’s what I felt in my stomach as he pushed me aside. No more, I decided. I’m not attending. I’ll take my dead American high holidays in the nice synagogue in my hometown, where I have a seat and no one bothers me and my prayers float on the Rabbi’s beautiful words. I’ll spend Shabbos in a deserted Yeshiva alone, but no one will step on me. Of course, my Chassidic training made this decision difficult. There are several teachings that come to mind in objection to my new behavior. Rest assured that, in general, whatever lessons a two-hundred-year-old story may hold, they are easily ignored. Until…

This morning, I davened at Zichron Moshe. A synagogue. A neighborhood center. An institution. Its sacred, profound mission: a minyan, day or night, seven days a week, three hundred and fifty-four days a year. When no one is praying anywhere, someone is praying in Zichron Moshe. The synagogue is smelly and loud and the Ebola virus might originate from the ever-damp towels by the sinks.

Why would anyone go there? Some, as tourists – though after a visit or two you’ve seen nearly everything. For others, it’s simply the closest shul.

Today I realized: I go there to forget.

I want to wrap myself in my Tefilin where no one knows me. I want to pray slowly and sob, or so fast that the straps don’t mark my arms. I want to be the stranger who uplifts downcast spirits and who steps on feet in crowded crannies and I want it not to matter which, because we’re all just bits of white and black cloth caught in currents beyond our control with our voices crashing in holy counterpoint, “Amen! Baruch Hu uVaruch Shmo! Amen!”

I’m in the middle of talking to G-d (at least, that’s the official story) but the beggars stick their hands in my face with audacity bordering on inevitability, as if they claim to be the answer to my whispered prayer. They don’t take and I don’t give, because Zichron Moshe is all there is and the coins changing hands (or not, as I give the slightest shake of my head) are only small moments in a riot. I hope the performance means something to Someone, but it doesn’t mean anything to me, and it doesn’t have to, and that is freedom. It is inauthentic and impersonal and it leaves me giddy and thirsty for more.

For a moment, I forget my physical discomfort and I forget to be insulted. These are pennies I exchange for gold. I am entangled in a system that doesn’t know me and doesn’t want to be known. I am gone, and I’m alive. I remember I’m part of something.

I push.

 

Image from Flickr.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

I’m Tzvi… Wait… Who Am I?

I’m not an atheist; that’s the first thing. Though I certainly don’t (or, at most, don’t certainly) believe in G-d. I’m not religious, but try finding a non-white shirt in my closet. 

I’m not culturally Jewish; I can’t stand kugel, herring, or kishke, Israel bothers me, and I do not live every day with the inheritance of the holocaust like a millstone around my neck.

I’m not South African, though that’s where I was born; I’m not American since they haven’t heard of Asterix and, in a display of new-world savagery, they drink their tea milkless. My accent adapts to its surroundings. 

I’m not cool; I cry at movies. Scratch that, I’ve cried at comedies. I can’t be uncool either; when I see sincere people my eyes roll so hard I almost lose my balance; when I see people rolling their eyes at sincere people I want to deck them.

I’m not funny; I never shot a moose.

I’m not an introvert if the number of times I’ve been told to shut up is any measure, but being social makes me feel hollow as an empty school building.

I’m not a good person; instead of driving someone to the airport I’ll tell them I’m busy and then take a nap. Then for that casual acquaintance’s birthday I’ll take them to Disney World.

“I touch no one and no one touches me.”

I’m not even properly overweight.

Who am I?

I don’t know, but something is left over, and from there, the words emerge.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Control

Shabbos ended three hours earlier but none of us had changed out of our sweaty slacks. My two companions, one a local, the other a visitor like me, wanted to see some sights in the town. I came with. We drove down the road parallel to the sea with the windows rolled down and the cool salt-sprinkled air soothed our every ache.

We made a few stops. First was the dramatic sea wall, where the breakers offered themselves up in spraying plumes and the sweep of the bay and arched sky dwarfed us. We clambered, dress shoes slipping, onto a rocky promontory that jutted from a tiny peninsula of huge houses on million-dollar acres, and felt like a coin in the Atlantic’s palm, unity just a wave away. Eventually we wandered a green park beside a harbor still clear of its summer yachts and cracked jokes about the two high school kids standing and smoking pot near the bathrooms instead of sitting on a bench by the water as G-d intended.

The wind shifted, warm and cool and warm again, and the conversation deepened. In the moon’s wavering reflection, one friend found freedom from the stress and worry of recent days. The other friend shared his desire to build a house there on the water’s edge, to possess the scene forever.  But, he mused, it was a false wish. We mustn’t live in the future and miss our current experience. That park and that night were ours for free, and a lifetime of work to “earn” it, constantly living in the future, would leave us in our ocean-view mansions hungering for somewhere else, and so on until death, unsatisfied.

It struck me that their feelings meshed with mine.

All things within our experience were born, and to nothing they must return. “Nothing gold can stay,” says the poet. It is inescapable, and, especially to my myth-rattled mind, sad. The problem: Humanity as a whole may last ‘till the end of the story, the stars may watch forever from their midnight balcony, but eternity is beyond the individual’s grasp.

It came to me all at once:

One friend lives with a business mindset and he felt, not wrongly, that he must control his world, must manipulate the flotsam and jetsam of material existence (e.g. Starbucks, Gmail, checkbooks, TAG watches, sheitels) into a structure that will protect him and his family and allow them to thrive in the adverse conditions known euphemistically in Chassidic parlance as “Olam HaZeh” (“This World”).  The other friend wanted to own the waterside, to put it behind his own walls, to conquer it. I was depressed by my finitude in the face of G-d’s vast creation.

We’re all addicts.

At first glance, we might think that an addict is controlled by a substance or behavior, that an alcoholic is someone with an alcohol problem. In truth, an alcoholic is someone with an alcohol solution. Alcohol is the alcoholic’s way of controlling his or her life, or in other words, of being his or her own G-d. An addict is a remarkable spiritually sensitive person who, to deal with a painful world, turns to a behavior that relieves his or her pain. As Rabbi Shais Taub writes in his excellent GOD of Our Understanding, “(1) [Addicts] are profoundly disturbed and unsettled with their own existence as an entity apart from God; (2) for reasons unknown, they can somehow briefly simulate relief from this condition by taking their drug of choice.”

The first three of the famous Twelve Steps are  to admit that one is powerless over one’s addiction, to recognize a Higher Power, and to turn one’s will and one’s life over to its care. A parody of those first three steps (also in the book) describes the mindset of an addict: “1. We admitted we were powerless over nothing – that we could manage our lives perfectly and those of anyone who would let us. 2. Came to believe that there was no power greater than ourselves and the rest of the world was insane. 3. Made a decision to have our loved ones turn their wills and their lives over to our care even though they could not understand us at all.” Rabbi Taub explains at length how the addict needs spiritual care as well as physical and emotional care, and for many, it is only letting go of the need to control their own lives and reliance on a higher power that will heal the root of their addiction and not just its symptoms.

Addiction = Control.

What at that Massachusetts inlet freed us?

A sense of the miraculous.

Okay, the water merely lapped the shore; it didn’t split for us. The stars watched silently just as they watched Rome burn and the space shuttle launch. But they made us modern time-slaves feel like the Hebrews on the shore. We felt that there is something we cannot grasp, and we were emancipated by it. The need to be masters subjugated us, and when we saw the sea and the stars that we could not hope to own, we were allowed to escape.

In other words: No matter how many statues topple, no matter how many oppressors fall or pharaohs drown, someone will always rule over us, namely our own egos, our tendency to view everything in terms of ourselves. It gives us a sense of entitlement (and insists we’d survive the Total Perspective Vortex). It asserts that we’ve got it all figured out (unlike all those other saps). It contends that our way is probably the best way (and it always is, after careful factual analysis). Every time we free ourselves from some external limitation, it rubs its hands with glee – more time for me and my plans and dreams.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having an identity. Ego, like everything, is healthy in moderation, and self-destruction in the name of humility might be one of the biggest challenges of our time, much more than the base arrogance common a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, enough self-absorption and self-centeredness and you end up on a beach in the wee hours of the morning, struggling. The solution to our pretensions of mastery and conquest is exposure to some form of the infinite, something that is above nature, beyond time and therefore beyond us. A proof that we are not G-d. A vast sea and uncountable stars. A miracle.

My father told me a story he heard second-hand of an atheist addict who struggled for weeks, perhaps months, with the concept of a higher power that the Twelve Steps demanded. One night he stood outside and looked up at the stars and came to a startling conclusion – “I didn’t make them. I cannot make them. Something else must have.” This thought was the linchpin of his eventual recovery. A quiet hour on a beach could do the same for us all.

The vastness of reality should not depress us but hearten us. What will happen, will happen, and the stars will watch on, forever.

 

 

Further reading: GOD of Our Understanding by Rabbi Shais Taub; ספר המאמרים עטר”ת פ’ חיי שרה

Image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

 

The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place

There was a Russian guy I knew in Tel Aviv who clearly lived with pain and depression. He hated everyone and everything, but not all on the same day. We got along. I once asked him if, when he went to sleep, he looked forward to the fresh start of the morning, whether he felt the potential of the new day when he woke up. He rolled his eyes and said, “What am I, twelve?” If I gave in to my own gnawing feelings of despair, I would’ve said fourteen, since G-d split my life open with an ice pick when I was fifteen.

Okay, there’s no way you’re not going to think that’s melodramatic after you hear the story. I wasn’t raped or abused, G-d forbid; I didn’t try to kill myself; I wasn’t forced to listen to Nickelback on infinite repeat. I just went to a party. Not even a real party; a nice-Jewish-kids-from-the-suburbs-try-to-party party.

That’s all.

It was a Saturday night in September of sophomore year. I remember because before my parents drove me there I showered and changed out of my Shabbos clothes into what I considered social clothes. It probably involved a T-Shirt and jeans. What did I know? I hadn’t been to a high school bash before, but my time had come; a guy in our class lived in a big house, and his folks were out of town for the weekend. I looked forward to it.

There was less Xbox than I expected.

I waved my parents off and went around the back entrance. Oh. Dude from school was hanging out in the Jacuzzi with some girls. Nice guy. Still like him to this day. Welcomed me and told me everyone was in the basement.

Through a beautiful, dramatic living room and down to the bottom. It was busy. A bunch of people were playing pool. Some were smoking hookah. On a side table, someone set up an electronic pocket scale exactly like the one my father uses to weigh gunpowder. Boys and girls cavorted (pardon my French) in the bedrooms. There was alcohol everywhere replenished from a bona fide wine cellar (never saw one of those before). It wasn’t really my thing. Or at least, I wasn’t interested in finding out if it was. Now, my father offered me beer and whiskey all the time and I had definitely noticed these girl things before. None of this should have been any kind of shock. Nevertheless… I retreated into myself, struck dumb. I sat on the side, fended off offers of fun & substances, and waited ‘till the morning for it to end.

It still hasn’t.

The sun came up and I went to school on Monday and after a week the head cold from sleeping for a couple of hours under an air vent in the home theater burned away, but I was different forever. From something I doubt ninety-five percent of the attendees remembered two months later.

Now, by the time you’re fifteen, you already know that you’re screwed up. Some of us know it when we’re very little, but the teen years really ram it in everyone’s face. More and more of your waking hours are occupied by Screw-up; the kid you once were has to fight an uphill battle for every moment of your attention. I knew of my own daily struggle with Screw-up, and since I was a smarty pants in Honors Algebra I made the connection and assumed everyone had their own issues, even though we didn’t speak of the issues, we didn’t live the issues, and we didn’t campaign for acceptance of our issues. Our school was a happy place of music, learning and sunshine (who am I kidding? It was a hippie commune with textbooks. We didn’t even have a building) in a non-ironic, non-creepy way.

Why didn’t anyone release or even talk about the Screw-up at school? It’s possible they did, and I just didn’t notice. I was several years and dozens of disillusions away from beginning to notice other people’s issues, and to this day I have friends who were raised by Chassidic wolves with iced vodka for blood that noticed Screw-up better when they played with their Aleph-Beis blocks than I do now. The subtle web of damaged human contact in which I bathe leaps out at me like the ninja in this picture:

shluchim

I know for a fact, however, that my parents rarely released their Screw-ups, and from my early dealings with my own S.U., I grasped how difficult this was. I tried to live up to them. They were subtle, they were dignified (especially my mother, may she be well and not get too upset over anything I write), and I expected the same of everyone else.

That night, in my eyes, everyone’s worth took a dive.

Since that night, in some small way, people are animals.

You know what it’s like? Stand in front of a mirror, make sure no one’s around, and take the pointer and middle finger of each hand and insert them into your mouth (I’m going somewhere with this). Pull back and sideways at your mouth’s four corners so you reveal a good amount of tooth and gum. See how creepy that is? Aren’t your hyper aware of your skull right now? We love the sight of our own faces, normally. But that’s because we think of ourselves as ourselves, not as animated meat sacks. Like everything from umbrellas to ultrabooks, the sign of good craftsmanship is the sublimation of the atoms and the molecules and the wood and the plastic into something higher. Look just a little too much at the meat and it’s unsettling. The composite disintegrate into parts, matter disengages from form, we become aware of our bodies, and we don’t like it. I certainly didn’t like it that September night in sophomore year.

I want to go back. I want to be fourteen, when I was worried about my sanity but not about the world’s. I want days that end as optimistic and as integrated as they start. I want to greet the stars not with weariness and melancholy but with the wonder I felt as I gazed at the celestial and mortal glowings on the drives to grandma’s house and didn’t understand how the moon followed us home.

Most nights, I think it’s impossible, and sleep to forget.

When I don’t, it’s because an old Jew in Brooklyn who spoke English with an accent said that this world is not a jungle. This world is a garden, he said and says. He, whose sainted father wrote kabbalistic teachings that strike the mind like orchard-scented thunderbolts but died young surrounded by loincloth-wearing savages for insisting on Kosher matzah for his congregants. He, whose father-in-law had to send teenaged yeshiva students to their deaths to teach Jewish children about Moses. He, who from childhood struggled to understand how in Messianic times we will thank G-d for the tribulations of this longest exile, its inquisitions and its pogroms and its bookend holocausts.

He insisted and insists that the world is G-d’s garden.

Why do I believe him, when I do?

At fourteen I had high hopes for the world even though I’d met my own potential for ugliness, and I would have needed only the G-dliness within to right the sinking ship of my thought, words, and deeds. At fifteen, my eyes opened to a flawed reality, and I needed to hear a brave voice. I needed to hear that there was more at issue here than my feelings. I needed to hear someone deny, truth to power, that prayer was here to make us feel better about the messed up world and that the highest human achievement existed in the context of that mess. I needed someone to deny that everything good is only a metaphor for something evil. I needed to hear someone say that G-d is real, the most real, and that He runs the world, that it’s not a jungle and that so help us, warts and all, we will say it’s beautiful and we won’t be lying.

If I can trust that after plunging through layer upon layer of disillusionment and fear I will hit upon the solid ground of his conviction instead of some naïve dream, I’ll escape this place.

I really should call that Russian guy.

 

Featured image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0. Post title shamelessly stolen from an Explosions in the Sky album which you should listen to while you stargaze.