Morte e Satisfação Ao Lado do Tejo

Beneath the needled boughs on the banks of the Tagus. Why ever move again? The air is cool and breezy off the mighty estuary. Gulls croak all around. Behind is the bustle of Lisbon, the distant breath of automotive traffic, the clashing of a pot in a restaurant no-doubt desperate for off-season custom. Today is a good day; it isn’t raining.

Why ever move again? The Ponte Vasco de Gama, longest bridge in Europe, unfurls to my left like a misplaced spasm of Louisiana, a momentary whiff of Pontchartrain and beignets and bayou. The cable car to the oceanarium drifts silently overhead. It is impossible to wonder with anything more than the curiosity of the content whether today they have any takers. Calm waters and limpid skies give way at the horizons to clouds, not the droning omnipresent gray of Sunday but white cotton East toward the rest of Europe, and upriver, future rain-bearers. One of the restaurants has hung chimes which soften the squeaking and clanging of walkers along the promenade, their presence just constant enough to remind me I am not outside of civilization but on the edge of a pocket of peace folded against its loving bosom.

The bridge crosses the river so I don’t have to. Why ever move again?

It is possible to step on the Vacso de Gama bridge and walk to Vladivostok without your feet leaving pavement. But Vladivostok is only an idea in Lisbon, an implausible theory. If I was the bridge, a simple unprepossessing miles-long concrete structure, I could have Russia implicitly. I would in some sense run there at every moment, be there by being in Lisbon, my body my grandfather’s whom I have never met.

But I am not even the bench I am sitting on, nor this pen, nor even the fingers manipulating it. I’m certainly not the distant dirty-snowed port, salmon and cod by the millions failing to warm its air. If I want to cross the river, I have to move. I at the very least have to move my thoughts. But why ever move again?

“Your body will need something eventually,” a voice within threatens. Perhaps. But perhaps I reject the notion. Adam didn’t need in Eden; courageous Korach didn’t need in the wilderness. They were perfect just as they were. Perhaps I will waste away here on the bank of the river, because it is an insult to beauty and G-d’s creation to need anything, a rejection of the lapping waters and the moment in which they lap and all else that fills it. Motion is betrayal. Maybe I will die here with honor, the empty bench remaining as a testament to my discovery of G-d right where I sat.

As the sages or King Solomon might connote, and as I’ve been trying to say for a few paragraphs: existence is suffering. And as father Avraham teaches us, my still death beside the Tagus would itself be a motion, a furthering of my existence, a departure from the non-being I smell within the infinitesimal fraction of here and now.

It is no simple thing to cease to be accessible at your own metaphysical address, to rig your front door so that when they batter it down they meet nothing but G-dliness. An accessible existence is a notoriously difficult thing to dispose of. When Descartes said cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, it was with a note of triumph, having ascertained that there was at least one thing he could not doubt, namely the existence of the one who was doubting, i.e., himself. He should have mourned. The prisoner cannot free himself. Actions grounded in our own knowing are grounded in us and so no matter their apparent valence shall always reinforce our existence.

Martyrdom is no escape. A monk sets himself on fire in protest. His form is lost in the flames; his soul passes from the material realm. His existence is no longer accessible, not as itself…right?

Do we not find the monk’s existence immortalized through his actions? Is he not found, there in the heart of his protest, for all eternity? He has become part of something larger than himself; he has traded a small mortal form for the form of the idea. His existence is now eternally accessible, more easily found. It is a martyrdom of self-extension.

The call sign of this self-perpetuating martyrdom is its logic. The human condition: our “independent” selves are functions of other selves. I’m bigger than little brother but smaller than father, smarter than a fifth grader but dumber than Einstein, a giver to students but a receiver from teachers. The tie that binds, the triangulating system binding us to other nodes in the web of being, is logic.

When the monk sets himself on fire, he does not sweep his locus on the web clean; on the contrary, he ascends to the state of pure logic, his node full of web. “The tenets of my religion define me,” he said before he was burned. “There is nothing here but the tenets of my religion,” he says now.

The node is not empty; it is so full as to merge into its surroundings. A living monk may sever the connections, shift his position, leave Buddhism for atheism or Sikhism. A martyr of self-extension has locked his logic into place. He has moved beyond being a single thing among all finite concatenated things, and become a principle of concatenation, an idea, infinitely more present, undying.

In other words, death and life are not continuing and ceasing to be in this world. Being is to be in the web of logic. Death can reinforce and intensify this being. It is not, itself, an escape.

Avraham is the first to break free of the web, to wrench himself free, to non-be. Our father rebels against all his holy logic by binding Isaac upon the altar. In his mad devotion to G-d he sets aside his beliefs and religion and the extension of his line. When logic tells him “G-d promise a nation through Isaac,” that his son and he are tied by the web, Avraham ties his son and thereby cuts the connection. When logic tells him G-d does not desire human sacrifice, he turns away. When it insists that martyrdom is only for a cause, Avraham is willing to not be a martyr, then. There is no ground for the sacrifice of Yitzchak in what Avraham is. On that mountain he exerts none of his own logic.

Is this not the very inscrutability of G-d made manifest? When Maimonides writes that we cannot even affirmatively say that G-d exists, what he means is that G-d is not a being of the web. He exists only because He is himself, relative to no other thing, and so the verb “to be” means something incommensurately greater in his case. Avraham is only able to be nothing before G-d by dint of the G-dly nothingness within. He is not nothing by external relationship to the Creator (a further web) but by faith, the inner path, a capacity built into his very being.

If he is not defined by any web, what remains is not more of Avraham, but none of him, which is also, absurdly, Avraham— the deepest truth of Avraham, his G-dly truth. He found it not through stillness and death. He found it by riding to the mountain on G-d’s command.

Why ever move? Because it is the only way to stay still. Why abandon this moment here, where the birds of prey swing low on the winds of the continent to hunt the glassy blue waters? It is the only way to keep it.


November. Dusk. Lisbon.
All the demons here
are my own.

A million moorish tiles weeping.
Strangers on the Praça offer hashish and cocaine in stage whispers.
Dark cobbles, dark thoughts.
The square was urbane, European, and soothing
before I learned
from the Bubbe in the purple bonnet
urging me to plunge my youth
into the city
before the single synagogue
is returned by demographics and economics
to the post-Inquisition peace
with the pogrom.
Here they burned the Jews.

All the demons here
are my own.


The Jews of Lisbon saw the waters of the Rio Tejo from the Praça do Comércio before they were burned at the stake. They were no mere martyrs. They were descendants of Abraham, torn from the web, instantiating the inner G-dly void closer to them than any logic or definition.

There was, in the preceding silence, a perfection against which there is no rebelling, a stillness that could not be moved. There were no bodies that hungered, no directions to reach in, no seconds to measure. Why ever move?

Then, a sigh, and there was light.

11 Lessons for Existential Tourists

The Chassidic masters recognize there is something both profound and wrong with uprootedness, travel, the state of being on the road. Their approach is too complex for a full survey here, but we need for contrast look no further than the (desirable) recognition of the Maggid of Mezritch that he is but a traveler in this world and the (undesirable) doubled and redoubled darkness of the exile to which the Baal Shem Tov referred.

What seems clear is that Home is where we belong, but we may need to travel far afield before we are able to reach it, a “long short way”, through the deep night, the muddy road, with a faulty wagon and good cheer and a chassidic melody and perhaps just a drop of mashke.

This week I have been a tourist in the simplest physical terms, in cities of flesh and blood. Folded into the experience, resonant within its bones, are lessons I recognize from the long ride ’round to the entrance of the shining city of G-d.

1 – You only need to know a little to help others.

The Rebbe says, “If you know Alef, teach Alef.” A single letter, a simple principle. The beggar receives enough charity to give charity of his own and is in a way less the beggar with only two coins. I have never in my life been to the town of Sintra before this morning, but I already know more about it than I think. A Korean couple asks me how to get where they are going and I am wrenched from my private musings and find, to my surprise, I have the wherewithal to help. This never would have happened, had I remained home.

2We can choose what is best to see, and remain ignorant of the rest.

The Holy Baal Shem Tov says, “Where a person’s mind is, that’s where he is.” I am sure there are Portuguese politics and Portuguese complaints and sneering cynics who see the whole affair coming apart at the seams. These are things I am in America. But my surroundings have changed, and I wear my ignorance of even the language like a cloak. Is the architecture of Lisbon less magical because I’ve never seen “Iberian Peninsula’s Got Talent”? The question answers itself. Direct your heart to the good and true and beautiful, and the rest can simply fall away.

3 – There is obvious beauty where the crowds go, and less obvious beauty where they don’t.

Do not separate from the congregation, but woe is to the wicked, and woe is to their neighbor. If thousands are walking down a certain fork in the road, chances are, there is something worth seeing down there. But why rush? Take the wrong fork, and find something equally new to you, perhaps smaller and more modest, but no less special. G-d brings us to exactly where we’re meant to be, and sometimes that may well mean breaking from the group. Do not be afraid! He is the light to all feet, even those on the unbeaten path.

4 – The locals go around every day not realizing how beautiful it is, and we are all locals somewhere.

There are people (I’ve watched them) who put their heads down and walk to work right past the Rossio Station, one of the more beautiful buildings this yokel from suburban America has ever seen. We must not judge them. We surely do the exact same thing where we live. A guest for a while sees for a mile. When my friend David moved to Atlanta, he was shocked by the beauty of the forests. We must sometimes forget our homes in the past before our plane flights in order to remember them.

5 – G-d creates and sustains and dwells in infinite lives of which we’re not even aware.

How many are Your works! We can know this sitting on I-75, but a small curled thing deep within us feels egotistically that everyone on I-75 is somewhat like us, that somehow in proximity to our home they are caught in the web of our being. On the train into the Portuguese countryside, you see maids and police, apartments in a foreign style brocading a hillside, shacks in verdant valleys, and the same thought hammers again and again: “What is it like to live there?” Again and again, we have no answers. Yet G-d is as close to the residents as He is to us, closer than our very selves, and attends to their foreign path just as he attends to ours. What mysteries He knows beyond the small walls we build to feel large…

6 – If you build something really good it can bring joy to others for generations.

Not only dramatic crenelations or fine tile-work make for gifts to the future. A life of good deeds, each one eternal, raises a structure that no time may dull.

7 – The priceless, majestic things are less comfortable than our life today.

The king of Portugal’s vacation bedroom was less comfortable than our bedrooms at home, most of us. The bed is made of who-knows-what, the room is drafty, it’s cramped and not very large, and no matter how much gold and silver you inlay in the headboard, it does not grow more accommodating. The trick to being a king does not seem to be an easy life in particular, and if it was, there might not be much to marvel at in the old palace. We are privileged in our generation to face little external oppression, to thrive in comfort. We may set out from this place to discomfort ourselves with the burdens of beauty and purpose.

8 – A lot of people like Jews, and if you look like a Jew you will have the pleasure of meeting some of them.

Fear displaying your Jewish identity because of antisemites and you will not reap the rewards of Jewish pride. The Uber driver from the airport asked me about the Jewish history of Lisbon, and in exchange for tidbits on Sephardic Jewry, gave me a free brief history of Portugal. The doorman of a hotel where I am not staying flagged me down, asked me if I was Jewish, and told me I must visit the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery; he tells this to non-Jews as well; they are an essential part of the city. The light at my feet shone extra bright in these moments, like a swell of nachas.

9 – Getting lost is okay if you value the journey.

Just as most sin results from a disbelief in the ease and efficacy of repentance, the angst of getting lost with the useless Pena Palace map results from a need to be somewhere in particular right now. Trust a little that you can get back to the right place from where you are, that you are on the right path though not the one on the map, and life is blown into the nostrils of your errors. They carry you to places you never could have reached had G-d made you differently, that is, perfect.

10 – Effort is easier with knowledge of a worthy prize.

Sometimes we don’t have the energy, and often it’s because it doesn’t seem to be worth it. I am not speaking about distant afterlife rewards. I am talking about the indwelling reward at the heart of the experience itself. We do not climb the impossibly steep hill next to the funicular or the insanely tall steps of the Moorish Castle because of some distant present from a passive observer. We do it because they are redolent with their own reward; is not every single step another notch in the angle of the view? Can you not stop to catch your breath and look over your shoulder and see new lights of the city you have created as if from nothing with the simple lifting of your feet?

11 – More travel leads to more roads, and so the proper destination may be right here… 

Arriving is a mindset, not a place on the map. There is no destination we cannot dilute into a step on the path with our own doubts. But this is a good thing; just like the impossibility of knowing the entire Torah, it points to the potential infinitude of our own experience, the way G-d has placed no limits on our own growth. To be a happy tourist, then, whether in the National Palace or this life, is to hold two opposites in mind and appreciate both: we have reached somewhere worth reaching, and we have so much further to go. This is not a contradiction. The road lends meaning to our home, just as travel abroad lends meaning to our own country, teaches us how to look at it again, and find within it powers and potentials hidden by our tendency to see it as a sleeping place.

Not Again

A year ago:

“Again.”

 

Today:

Shavuos has passed, and the time has come, again.

The reasons are still good, and the pain is still real.

But this time, I leave them.

I was never ‘supposed’ to stay in Israel for longer than four months, but I have been here a year. Why did I stay? Perhaps it was inertia. I love being comfortable. I love familiarity. And a year is long enough to get very comfortable and very familiar.

It hasn’t been like my first two years in Jerusalem when each day I breathed in the city with open eyes and a ready mind. I don’t visit many places anymore. In a sense, I let them come to me. I have traded dusty boots for upholstery from which I watch the world go by. And so, to use a cliche, I will have to remember the little things this time, rather than a sweeping countryside or an ecstatic exultation.

And the little things leave big holes. Hole: The dimness where the blinding, relentless summer light of Jerusalem used to be. Hole: A gaping space the shape of a crouched green dumpster, reeking, a cat poised on its lip watching me with slitted eyes. Hole: The space where the street lamps used to cast their yellow light, the perfect location for a private conversation. Hole:  My little room will continue to crumble without me, its walls shedding their milky plaster, ready for a new tennant’s tending.

And the people, the faces, who wished they were closer but could not scale the walls. The annoying shouted conversations in the computer room will slowly fade; the game surrounding who gets the shower next will recede. This time, these fine people may miss me more than I’ll miss them. I can’t figure out why they love me so. Do they so easily accept masks? Or do they see deeper, see some of the truth, and accept it? It’s a mystery, but one thing I know — It saddens me to think they’ll miss me. I have been on that end. I have been left. I know how it tastes.

And so, again. Again into the endless beyond, again down the long road, again, again, again. Farewell my Yeshiva, first and most beloved, stately and youthful, shifting and constant. I leave not just you, but probably all Yeshivas behind, and it ends where it began, on this same small sidewalk on David Yellin Street in the heart of Jerusalem, where almost seven years ago I stood exhausted and dirty before a white gate, holding so much baggage, ready for my life to change. I had no idea, then. I knew nothing Jon Snow. But I was brave and optimistic, and that bravery served me well.

I have walked a thousand paths since then and seen much joy and sorrow. I was open to a new world and at some point it entered me and I entered it and we became one, inseparable, despite everything. Because of everything. In some ways, I’m still the boy that pushed open that white gate. But I’m also wiser.

I haven’t seen the light; that is for greater men. I have, however, become a collector of vessels. Humble clay pots and wooden bowls, glasses and jugs, decanters, flasks, and bottles. Little structures fill my life and heart, each one possessing some empty space. I work in the dark, twining wires, waiting, waiting for the day I can flip the switch. And it is a good life.

Two or three dozen times since I pushed open that gate, I was certain I was dead forever, gone, that elusive object of my youth’s pursuit gone forever. It. Was. Over.

And again (and again) like the memory of the smile of a Rabbi who has become your doting father or uncle or brother, hope blooms, and I am proven wrong. There is power in our Jewish blood, and there is the immutable in what they taught us in this holy place. That power is far greater than any I have ever apprehended and those eternal teachings are beyond anything I have ever known.

As far as I am concerned, the English translation of “Mayanot” is “hope.” And I am not leaving.

I wrote last year that G-d is the pack we put on our shoulders. But is He not our shoulders? What is ours is His; that which lives may never die. Yeshiva isn’t something that you attend; Yeshiva is something you are. I have my G-d, and I have the gifts he has given me, and they shall prevail and not fade away.

As the airport looms, I feel a ray of a ray of a ray of that bittersweet moment when the Creator decides it is time for the body to return to dust, and the precious soul he loves too much he snatches away. The soul of Yeshiva, its people and its books, comes with me today. Not in the way I expected for so many years; I am so much less perfect than I expected. But I am also more perfect than I ever dared dream, because I was taught what my imperfection is, where it stands, what it means, and how it looks from above. And I am no longer afraid.

And so, again. But this time with a grin and a card up my sleeve, a time-turner, a miniature mechanism that reverses death and lets me keep what I’d otherwise lose, that lets me leave home to go home.

And I am going home.

For the first time in my adult life, I return to the house I grew up in with no intention of leaving. It is time. Time to live in a home, and, eventually, to make one. To leave the bosom of the monastery and place the pieces of everything I’ve learned on the board.

Again, I approach the beyond. But this time, I am not alone, and not afraid. A Jew is never alone, and that is why he does not fear.

And so, not again.

G-d is the altar you build when you finally decide some place deserves Him, and stop walking.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.