Eight Messengers Eight Nights, Night Two

 

 

On the second day of Thanks-giving, the messenger came with a story of extreme gratitude:

Near Thanksgiving on a visit to one of the high security institutions, one of the regulars was missing. Where’s S? I asked. In the hole.

The hole. I had never seen the hole, it’s a twenty four hour lock-up used to contain trouble within the institution.

I asked the chaplain if I could see S in the hole.

He deliberated for a moment, then: Sure, come on. Quick. We walked into the only building within the complex that was surrounded by an extra barrier of wire, the windows wired, we had to be buzzed in again as we entered, a prison within a prison.

It looked like Alcatraz, what I’ve seen from the movies anyway. Two floors, one down one up, big heavy metal unpainted doors with one small window, two guys in a cell, a lot of yelling from behind the doors but I could not see faces until I stood right in front of the cell. S was on the ground floor, I saw him through the window. He was delighted to see me. A lot of the guys I visit spend a good deal of time in the hole.

We talked through the window, hard to hear, a lot of hand signs and hollering.

I could see S’s work through the window behind him. He draws. He had been drawing.

As I was leaving, he pounded on his window before I got out of earshot. He was mouthing something.

I looked back and stood by the doorway just as the door slid open to let me out.

Rabbi, he was mouthing, rabbi – I’m alive.

 

Eight Messengers Eight Nights, Night One

Eight Messengers Came on Eight Nights

Each one brought a story of Thanksgiving

On the first day, the messenger came with a Thanksgiving wandering Aramean message:

When you enter the land go to the priestliness take baskets of first fruits go where G*d tells you give your baskets to the priestliness then tell what happened, in brief: we have been lost we are coming home.

End the story with gratitude bow down and sit together with the bigs and the strangers among you eat together set up large stones inscribe these teachings every word on the stones. – Deuteronomy 26

We became plural in the telling, we began singular it always feels singular when you make that break for freedom. You think you’re the first the only one to have to push on that way in your courageousness you have to go this alone, this leaving that we all have to strike in order to make freedom.

Then we join similar pilgrims, they all had to leave their complacency behind they had to get up and get on with it – you did – you got up and got on with it and when you did you arrived in the great swirl — the movement of time the flow you entered the flow — and you came into something, you got somewhere, and when you are telling your story to the priestliness you became plural, came into a place you could not have predicted you did not expect you could not have imagined because you were bold and went by yourself and once you did you became a part of the great freedom walk of human beings and came into something. Then you expressed gratitude.

O human being, you are strong-strong by your getting up and on with it and you believed for a while maybe a long while you could not do it but you could do it and you did and once you did you had a whole posse of similarly experienced souls joining you in that journey and you got somewhere and told the story. We became plural and it means something.

It’s a shorter trip than you think, you can make that trip from singular to plural, come into something, become plural and get on with it. It can happen within a paragraph.

Be grateful for the trip. This is what Torah says.

jsg

It’s Always Messy

It’s Always Messy

The Serenity Journals
Shalvah means Serenity, Support for Recovery

It’s happened a few times but always de-stabilizing. Someone comes to the meeting drunk, smelling like drink anyway and acting strange, I assume drunk. As do several others around the table. We are all authorities on drunkenness, as it were.

Still we say it out loud and clearly in our opening: the only requirement for participation is willingness. If they are present, we assume willingness. Generally no one says anything, unless there’s a disturbance.

Generally there is a disturbance. It’s alcoholism or addiction or substance abuse or mental illness, whatever it’s called it’s always messy. It is always messy. So someone came to the meeting smelling of alcohol. She cried, teary through the lead, and punctuating the speaker’s words with her own grunts and acknowledgments. It was uncomfortable but no one said anything. The woman sitting next to her passed her some Kleenex.

She was, of course, one of the first to speak in the sharing. She gave a lecture. Entirely theoretical against defining a human being in any way other than beautiful, I am not my problem, etc. We all get this, of course, but we let her go on with the theoretical part of the meeting.

There is no theoretical part of these meetings. We are always speaking about our own experience and what we have learned from the poetry of our own lives. We never talk theory.

I was reminded of Dr. P of blessed memory, our beloved teacher of theology in rabbinical school. He was a great theologian. Once early on in our training, he said this, something I didn’t really understand at the time but I remember specifically him saying it at the beginning: theology is story telling for adults.

I get now what he meant. We are not talking theory about Godliness or the nature of God or even the nature of human beings, we are basically talking about how it feels for us to be in the world, what the nature of existence feels like to us. Is it God-full? Is it fear-full? Is it in need of repair? What does it require of us to lead an authentic existence? What to do? In the daily sense, the every day all day of getting up and getting on with it. It is so non-theoretical, as in this theology my friend posted this morning off a wall in a coffee house:

Wake up.

Kick ass.

Repeat.

That’s a theology. I think in all my years doing this work, no one has come to me with a traditionally theological question. It’s always this: is it safe? Existence. Is it meaningful? How? How to make meaning when I lose the sense of meaning. Is it God-full? God hidden? How to coax God out of the hiding places. How to interpret the hiding places, how to read the texts of our own lives. So non-theoretical: how to live.

I didn’t say all that. I thought it.

After the meeting, the woman who was melting couldn’t find her car. Some of us didn’t think it was such a good idea for her to drive and I might have not told her where her car was if I knew her name or how to get in touch with someone, but she found it and whoosh – she was away.

I had given her my phone number and I really hope she calls me. I think she is in danger.

Maybe the hardest part of the night was the two new people who came, young girls, in their Twenties both of them. It couldn’t have been easy for them to come to that room, it’s a big vulnerability to walk in for the first time. But they did. And they saw. I talked to them afterwards and I think they’ll come back.

What I’ve learned: the mess of that meeting that night, the source of it, she may be making mess everywhere in her life and maybe for years like plowing a wake through the waters of existence, this may be her way and she could do that a long time. Until it’s enough. When it’s enough — God only knows.

Epilog:

She called the next day, The ship of her life has plowed enough water. She asked: Was I inappropriate? I don’t know the protocol.

The protocol is simple, I said, we read it at the beginning of every meeting. I will make a suggestion. Come and listen. Listen first, talk later. Listen for a month. I have found that we learn first the art of listening. Then we learn the art of talking.

I’ll be there, she said. She hasn’t been back. She calls every now and again.

From What To Do Active Mental Health

From What To Do

And then sometimes he went only within. He didn’t go outside, he went inside and maybe you have to have been there, you have to have gone into a darkness within, if you have spent some time there you know that when you visit there, even briefly, something can happen. It’s not a well understood place and it’s not well lit, the overwhelming sense of futility and pain and helplessness, this least understood part of the most private world of especially sensitive people, you understand that to have been there you might not come back so easily.

You may not come back at all.

Sometimes even with help, family, friends, a community, you may not touch that darkness, sometimes it is something that cannot be penetrated and not easily dissipated and you understand that but that’s the way it is. It happens.

And for those of us who do understand, we have to start telling people what it’s like, help other people understand, let everyone know so we can treat each other with kindness, above all, kindness and gentleness and understanding and respect and without judgment, without judgment for these problems, and be easy on ourselves for not knowing for not having known for having done this or not done that, we have to treat ourselves with kindness and with mercy because it’s right and we need to heal. And we will only heal with mercy.

Mercy

My wife Susan Talve and I have organized a series we call Shanda: There is None. We are devoted to lifting the shame curtain that surrounds these under-discussed subjects. All are meetings are open meetings, each one a series of teachings and talk. I wrote a pledge and I took it:

1) I pledge to bring someone in. If I light a candle, I will share the light.
2) I will be a reminder in every way I can to my family, friends, and community: we have these problems, they are difficult, but there is no shame attached to them. There is no one outside who cannot be brought within.
3) We can live with our problems.
4) I pledge to break the *shanda* barrier, which means:
5) Talk, talk, and more talk.
6) I pledge to remind my community that we are working our problems, that being secret may be part of the problem, therefore:
7) I will not practice aloneness. I will talk with somebody. I will pick up the phone.

*Shanda* means shame. There is none.

I’ve been using this pledge at all our sessions. It’s not sloganeering; it’s a raising of the curtain that hides our shame. Our shame is deadly when it keeps us from asking for help. The more we lift that curtain the more likely our most vulnerable ones will find their way to some help and relief.

Let’s get to work. Tell your leadership and your intimates and your trust-worthies that we are suffering and we need to crack our best effort to split the darkness. We need to be a community.

I think it’s the next frontier: the inner world when it goes dark.

jsg
#freethestories

On Suicide, from a longer piece

From Suicide and Other Difficult Subjects

In the group that I lead on Thursday nights, Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew) we are familiar with the subject of suicide and whenever it comes up it tends to take over the meeting.

The meeting is basically a teaching and a sharing, support in the simple sense that we show up for each other. We listen, we understand, we are understood. We get why we need each other. Also true: we need each other because we get each other. The first thing we learn in the group is to listen. From there we come to understand each other – to know and to be known — and that may be the most important element of our success.

I feel the proximity of laughter and tears at our meetings, they are right next to each other at the table of human responses to the challenges of living. Tears are sitting in one seat at the table, right next to tears is laughter and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and a moment later you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat laughing. We are alternately serious and silly, sometimes at the same time, one eye laughing one eye crying.

Every suicide is a trigger for the discussion of the group, a kind of wrinkle in the cosmic order for all, because everyone around the table has stood at the crossroads of life and death and every person at the table has chosen life. And we all know people who have chosen otherwise.

But taking one’s own life is always a challenge, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table is vigilant. Daily.

I didn’t know him but I knew him. I bet his interior was painfully soft and vulnerable, sometimes hidden and unknown. I look at his sweet face and I see his soul.

Our group has heart for the stranger because we are all strangers. We do not judge. We show up for each other. I really don’t know what was in that poor man’s heart but I do believe he died alone. At the moment before it became irreversible, he didn’t call someone. His beloveds will suffer from that for a long time.

We don’t have an antidote. We have each other. I think lives are saved around our tables but we have no certainty. We have the group. We do not practice aloneness, and we talk about a spiritual thing, not a religious thing. We have today, and that becomes enough.

james stone goodman, rabbi, human being

I Was Present for the First Tikkun

I Was Present at the First Tikkun Layl Shavuot

Note: all melodies are from Salonica

There is only one medieval text that mentions a tikkun layl Shavuot
Zohar – book of Illumination — classic text of Jewish mysticism
Parashat Emor (sefer Vayikra)
Zohar mentions Hasidim Rishonim
First Pious Ones
Who did not sleep in the night of Shavout
Occupying themselves with Torah.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his chaverim
Rabbi Shimon and his friends sat and studied Torah all night
As the bride about to be united with her beloved.
 
The Tikkun is not mentioned by the holy Yosef Caro himself
Not by the Rama
[Yes by the Magen Avraham, citing the Zohar],
 
Though it could be inferred from the yearning of the Shekhinah
For Tiferet for Hakadosh Barukh Hu
For Kenesset Yisrael the people of Israel
The anticipated meeting
The longed-for betrothal of G*d and Israel
The integrating notion the marriage of Israel and G*d on Shavuot
The cosmic coupling of Shekhinah and her love
Tiferet and Malkhut
Shekhinah and HaKadosh Barukh Hu
Amen v’amen.
 
The first certain tikkun
the first all night session of study in honor of the holy integration
Has been preserved in a secret letter
Iggeret Alkabetz
The letter of Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz.
 
I wrote the letter
I am the word merchant of Lekha Dodi
The wedding song welcoming every Friday night
Shekhinah
Malkhut
Kallah the bride
As she comes looking for her beloved
HaKadosh Barukh Hu
Tiferet
K’nesset Yisrael
The community of Israel
On the occasions when we allow ourselves to be
Found.
 
I sing Lekha Dodi
 
In the secret letter
Mid sixteenth century
Circulated through Europe
Written by me
Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz
Recalling a Shavuot night in 1533
Salonica [now called Thessaloniki]
In the polyglot Ottomon world
Salonica — conquered by the Sultan Murad II a century earlier [1430] —
It would remain Muslim until 1912
And a good 1/5th Jewish until 1943
When its entire Jewish population was carried off to Auschwitz.
 
Between the Wars
Salonica was the only port on the Mediterranean
Closed on Shabbat.
Living in Salonica in 1533 were myself – Alkabetz —
And my teacher Rabbi Yosef Caro (HaMeChaber of the Shulkhan Arukh,
— the Well Set Table)
Who I refer to as He-Chasid
The Pious one
Caro Spanish for dear the dear one the pious one
He was already known for his first halakhic work Beit Yosef
He came to Salonica in 1530 and indulged his fascination with Che”N
Chokhmah nisteret, the hidden wisdom
Kabbalah –
Cagey Yosef Caro.
 
Caro would be visited for over fifty years
By a maggid
A spirit a voice that spoke through him
He read Mishnahs
Mishnah an anagram for neshamah
And through his being spoke a maggid
It was an angel that spoke through him
Sometimes masculine
Sometimes feminine
Sometimes masculine and feminine.
 
I sing Shalom Aleikhem
 
The darshan the kol the dibbur
The mishnah the Ima the Shekhinah
He/she was called all these names
This from the compiler of the central text of organizational halakhah
Masculine halakhist
Feminine kabbalist
Yosef Caro
Whose descendant is buried in the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery
White Road, Chesterfield Missouri,
Rabbi Stone Goodman buried him there himself in the year 2000.
 
I sing Shalom Aleikhem
 
When Yosef Caro spoke
The angels appeared in an invisible ring of fire around him.
Amen.
 
Yosef Caro imagined himself as Moshe Rabbeinu
And myself Alkabetz 
I was his Aharon.
 
This is how I described the preparation
For the first Tikkun Leil Shavuot:
 
 
We agreed — the Hasid and I — to stay awake
Three days before the holiday
We immersed in the mikveh
We purified ourselves properly to accompany the bride.
 
We agreed not to stop learning for even one second
Thank G*d we were successful.
 
I prepared verses from the Torah
We chanted aloud in a spirit of great awe
With melody and verve
What happened next will not be believed.
 
After all the verses
We recited out loud all the Mishnahs of Zeraim
The first of the Six Orders
And then we started again
Learning it in the way of true learning
We completed two tractates.
 
At midnight
The Creator graced us
We heard a voice coming from Rabbi Caro:
 
Listen my beloved those who most glorify the Creator
My loved ones shalom aleikhem
Happy are you and happy those that bore you
Happy are you in this world
And happy you will be in the world to come
Because you took upon yourselves to crown Me on this night.
 
It has been many years since My crown has fallen
There has been no one to comfort Me
I have been cast to the dust embracing filth
But now
You have restored the crown.
 
I sing Lekha Dodi
 
Strengthen yourselves my dear ones
Forge ahead my beloved
Be joyous
Know that you are among the exalted
You approach the King’s palace
The voice of your Torah and breath of your mouths
Arose before G*d and pierced through the many firmaments
Until the messenger angels were quieted
And the fire angels hushed
And all G*d’s lofty retinue listened to your voices.
 
I am the Mishnah that advised humankind.
I have come to speak with you.
If only there were ten of you
You would have ascended even higher
Still you have elevated yourselves and those who bore you
I have been summoned this night through those gathered in this great city
You are not like those sleeping
You cleaved to the One and have pleased G*d
My children, strengthen yourselves and push forth in my love
My Torah
My awe.
 
With a loud voice as on Yom Kippur
Say with me
Barukh Shem Kevod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.
Sing it again in the melody of our Salonica
Sing it slowly
Close your eyes and sing it in a melody rescued from Our Salonica
Where I sit in 1533 with seven of the dear ones
Who sat and began the tikkun on this night 2,845 years since Sinai
The repair of our past
Take a deep breath and sing with me now
Barukh Shem Kevod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.
 
I sing melody from Ir Me Quero
 
We recited verses until daybreak
In the morning we went to immerse ourselves
As we had on the two previous days
And at the mikveh we met the three others
Who we had been waiting for —
Now We made the minyan.
They promised to join us on the second night of the chag.
 
On night two we did the same as the night before
Except this time we were ten
And the voice did not wait to begin at midnight
As it had the night before
But it made itself heard immediately
And it began to teach:
Listen my dear ones, those most glorifying G*d, arise and raise those who are
lying in dust, through the mystical secret of the dust from Above.
 
 
Many matters of wisdom were taught
And afterwards the Voice said
Happy are you my dear ones that raise me
How high you have been elevated now that you are ten
As is proper in all matters of holiness.
If permission were granted, your eyes would behold the fire
Surrounding this house.
Strengthen yourselves and do not break the bond with Above
Say aloud with me
Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.
Barukh Shem Kevod Malchuto L’olam Va-ed.
 
We sing Melody Ir Me Quero
 
After another half an hour, we returned to studying the secrets of Torah
Exactly at midnight the Voice returned a second time
Teaching for over an hour and a half
It praised the learning and said:
 
See and hear this voice speaking?
Ask your elders and know that for hundreds of years
You are the only ones to merit such an experience
Be alert to help each other and to strengthen the weak
Hold yourselves as leaders
For you are the princes of the King’s palace
And you have merited to enter the hallway
Now come into the inner chamber
But do not forsake the entry
For one who leaves the gate
His blood is on his head/[is a dummy].
 
Behold the day is coming when men and women will abandon the Exile
And their silver and worldly pleasures their gods of gold and desires of wealth
And they will travel to the Holy Land
It is possible
You have merited what others
For many generations
Have not.
 
 
I sing last verse Shalom Aleikhem
 
 
On the following Shabbat
The Voice again came to my teacher Rabbi Caro
He again gathered the ten together
[I am one of the originals, Alkabetz]
Urging them to enter the inner palace
They agreed to set aside every desire
To refrain from meat and wine
And mourn the Exile of the Shekhinah.
 
We held the tikkun layl Shavuot the next year, 1534
A few months later plague broke out
Pious Yosef Caro lost his wife, two sons, and a daughter
The angel stopped speaking from his mouth
At the end of the year of mourning
He remarried and moved to Nikopol
On the banks of the Danube in Bulgaria.
 
Caro became ill
By 1536 he had declined so that I –
Alkabetz, his student,
came from Salonica
— To say goodbye.
 
When I arrived, Rabbi Yosef Caro revived.
He would live another forty years.
The voice from heaven returned
And on a Sabbath in February, 1536
The angel appeared in my presence
And asked that the two of us keep their oath.
I then wrote my famous letter
Recording the events of the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot in Salonica
That had taken place almost three years earlier.
 
In 1536, during the Hebrew month Elul,
Caro and myself, Alkabetz, sailed from the port of Constantinople
Ten days later we landed in Eretz Yisrael.
We set up residence in Safed
Rabbi Caro became the chief rabbi of Safed from 1546
To his death in 1575.
 
Safed — In the north
The holy city on the hill
So began the golden age of Kabbalah in Safed
The ascendance of the imaginative circle
Who gathered around the holy Ari
I would create Lekha Dodi
Become a teacher to my brother-in-law Cordovero.
 
Rabbi Yosef Caro and everyone in his circle
Honored the Voice of the maggid the rest of his years
His spirit would move through his ancestors
One whom Rabbi Stone Goodman buried
On an October day in St. Louis –
 
I feel the poets of the Diaspora speaking through me now
The halakhists and the kabbalists
The Caros and the Alkabetzes
All the dear pious ones –
 
When you open your mouth
Whose voice do you hear
When you open your mouth
Who speaks through you.
 
Be a mouthpiece
Be a poet
Be a prophet
Be a teaching
Be a vessel
Be a voice
Be a Torah
A maggid
A Mishnah
Be a neshamah
An anagram for the soul
Be a listener
Be nothing
 
An empty vessel for G*d
 
 
 
Amen.
 
 
Alkabetz, through
James Stone Goodman
 

Torah Speaks Steps

Eavesdropping at the Imaginary Yeshiva

From Kedoshim, 7th portion in the book of Leviticus

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ).

You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am G*d (Lev. 19:18).

 

Two friends are learning in chevrusa (traditional form of yeshiva learning, based on studying in cells of two).

One: what do you make of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” in context?

Two: You shall not hate your brother in your heart, hmmm, that’s where we begin, cleansing the heart of hatred.

One: Of course, that’s obvious. Brother!

Two: Brother! Like us.

One: You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor. Now that we understand it in context, it’s unusual isn’t it, this progression from you shall not hate to you shall surely rebuke, why would you rebuke your neighbor? What has your neighbor done?

Say your neighbor is a drug addict.

Two: Oh my G*d.

One: Stay with me. Your neighbor is taking drugs. You don’t approve. You see it, you have evidence, you may have even witnessed it yourself. It’s not a theoretical problem. You remember Jamie don’t you?

Two: Poor Jamie. Nobody knew what to do for him, so we did nothing.

One: Yeah, well that’s what we got going here. You don’t approve, you know something is wrong but you may not even know what it is, but something is not ay-yai-yai so you rebuke your neighbor.

Two: You rebuke him?

One: Yeah, you do something. You tell the truth, even at the expense of relationship, you approach him and say hey — I’m worried about you, you do this, you do that, you don’t put him down but you have to do something. You talk to someone. It’s not a theoretical problem.

Two: You got that right.

One: You rebuke him, because to have that knowledge and do nothing? That’s contributing to the problem. I’m not using rebuke here in the sense of shaming him but in the sense of saying: stop. Drawing a line. Maybe even getting in his face. Hey – get some help. Suggesting how he might get some help.

Or maybe even going to somebody else.

Two: Wow. What a concept. Just like with Jamie. We did nothing, and you know what? When it came down, I felt kind of. . .you know. . .responsible. I really did!

One: Yeah, so did I. You know why? Because we didn’t rebuke him. But the verse continues, don’t think that I came with just this one word to rattle in a bottle like a coin. . .

Two: Stop with that.

One: Let’s continue with the verse: you shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ). Not bear sin because of your neighbor, that means, like with Jamie, it was our responsibility to rebuke him, but not to bear his sin. With Jamie, sin means sickness. Because it was, after all, his problem. But there’s the rub: it’s his problem, still we are called to rebuke him, but not to carry responsibility for his sin. It’s his illness, but still, we are called to do something.

Two: Yeah, wow, I remember with Jamie. When Yudie did say something, Yudie rebuked him, he turned it against Yudie. Who are you, Jamie said to Yudie, to get in my face? It’s my business, what’s wrong with you? he said to Yudie. So Yudie ended up feeling bad, bearing Jamie’s sin, but you know what? That was part of Jamie’s problem: place the responsibility everywhere but himself. I really see it now.

One: Yes, now let’s finish with our verse. Leviticus 19:18, You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am G*d.

Two: We rebuke, but we don’t hate, nor do we bear the sin — it’s Jamie’s problem, not ours — and when Jamie plays us like he did? We don’t get vengeful. The guy is, after all, ill. Not only do we not get vengeful, but we bear no grudge, we don’t judge him. That’s the hardest part. As a matter of fact, we love him. We love Jamie because only out of love will come the right action. Only through love will the healing happen.

One: You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am G*d. That’s the way of G*d, to know that if healing is to happen, it has to happen through love. No matter what our history is with each other, we cannot be a source of healing or help or truth or transformation for each other — because that’s what it takes with someone like Jamie, with someone like me, I’m no different from Jamie — that’s what it takes to be a healing force in another person’s life. No expectations, no blaming, no shifting of responsibility, no avoidance, no revenge, no judgment, only the truth. And love. It has to come out of love. Only love has that kind of power to heal.

Two: That’s what we could have done with Jamie. Here’s the principle: lead with love, always. It seems so simple, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t obvious.

One: Maybe that’s the deal with these two verses. Notice that we don’t lead with love, but we come to love, after having moved through don’t hate, surely rebuke, don’t bear sin, don’t take vengeance, don’t bear a grudge, but — love. I am G*d: the way of love, the true course.

Two: Phew.

One: Good session.

Two: Yeah, thanks. Be here tomorrow?

One: For sure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming Soon

Maybe she will come to our town.

Who. The Shekhinah?

Yeah.

 

Or: Tracking the Language of the Sefat Emet

I learned to consult with the Sefat Emet while studying with Avivah Zornberg in Jerusalem. I was a regular attendee at one of her weekly classes on the portion of the week, especially the sessions at the New Age Yeshivah where I had become comfortable attending.

My friend Moshe lived just down the street from the Yeshivah, and that’s how I found it, one summer when I was staying with him and studying the oud.

Avivah was teaching at the New Age Yeshivah. She had acquired a good following and her teachings were always something wonderful. She handed out source sheets that were numbered, usually beginning with Rashi then some of the other classical commentators and often ending with one of the radical English psychoanalysts or Kafka or D.H. Lawrence and then the Sefat Emet. The Sefat Emet was near the culmination of the lesson and something equally surprising or exceeding Kafka or R.D. Laing as applied to Torah.

I figured I should get to know the Sefat Emet; I found the material that Avivah brought down of his stunning.

The Sefat Emet is actually the name of his book, it’s not uncommon to be known by the name of your book, this one the Language of Truth. Yehudah Leib Alter was the rebbe of Ger (near Warsaw). He died in 1905. Avivah had deepened herself in his work and his commentary often appeared in her teachings on the parashiot.

I also used to pray in the synagogue of the New Age Yeshivah on Shabbes, and there Avivah and I were accustomed to nod to each other. I don’t think we ever exchanged words, but we exchanged greetings as if we knew each other. It was a spirited minyan in those days, many of the tunes were tunes from the Shlomo nusach (melody style) that was excellent for the mix of voices in the room.

Avivah began to recognize me at her teachings as a regular, and one evening when her husband who usually took the money was not present she gave me the cash box and asked if I would collect the money.

So I sat at the front table and took the money. There were books for sale, and questions to respond to, and schedules of her teachings to quote. Of course I knew nothing but I scrambled around and figured it out. From that evening on and for the months remaining of my sabbatical in Jerusalem, I sat up front and took the money, sold the books, quoted her schedule. Are you related? Someone asked me. Well, yes, in an elected sort of sense.

Ten years or so passed. I had not been back to Jerusalem. Avivah had written another book. She was on a book tour of the States, and the rabbis in my town were invited for a private session with her as she came right from the airport. We were to meet on the campus of the University, at the Hillel house.

I wouldn’t have expected her to remember me, we had never even exchanged names. I arrived a little late at the Hillel. Just as I got out of my car, she got out of the car of whoever picked her up at the airport and so we were walking across the parking lot towards the building at the same time.

She stopped when she saw me, as if in amazement and said, what are you doing here?

I live here, I said.

She looked confused. I wondered what had happened to you, she said. You live here? Since when?

Twenty years.

This confused her even more.

There’s an expression in the Midrash, jumping the road, k’fitzat ha-derekh. The midrash is often a mythic literature, a character may jump the road as if the intervening time and space do not exist. I never did explain it to her. After all, we really didn’t know each other, but we knew each other. I offered to take the money at the Hillel house too, but they had someone for that. Her driver by the way was a big shot in our community who until that day had paid no attention to me in twenty years. I never explained it to him either.

Sefat Emet on Genesis

There’s a vocabulary in the Sefat Emet that he returns to throughout his work. It appears in the first portion of Genesis, in a teaching about the holy Sabbath, and quoting one of the Friday evening prayers — God spreads out the sukkat shalom, the sukkah of peace – over us. This verb for spreads out is elastic, pores, it can mean several things.

Everything has its root in heaven, the Sefat Emet opens with, then quotes a Midrash: there isn’t a blade of grass that doesn’t have a star in the sky that strikes it and says: grow (Genesis Rabbah 10:6).

This Midrash often appears in what I call my mind with the verse from Micah: what does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

The Sefat Emet then quotes the verse, God separated the waters that were below the heavens from the waters that were above the heavens (Gen.1:7). The Sefat Emet is setting up a foundation of all mystical thought: there is a correspondence between here and There, so to speak, as it is among human beings, so it is in some cosmic sense.

Each creation below has a corresponding creation above. So on the holy Shabbat, the upper root descends and unites the two forces. This is the meaning of spreading the sukkat shalom, it is a unifying integrating concept, and so when we welcome the angels — the spiritual energies — we are awakening and integrating with the spiritual energies within and we are spreading that integrating notion not only horizontally all over the world, but vertically. As it is There, so it is here. Shalom, shleimut, wholeness in the sense of some grand spiritualized materialized integrative notion, the upper root and the lower root join in a spiritual sense, the upper nature and the lower nature join in a physical sense, and we have the celebration of integratives.

I love this language and it feels like the same notion that we encounter in the Raza deShabbat: the integrative power of upper and lower, the twos that find their way into One.

I wrote the following poem once I picked up the pieces of my mind and spent a while thinking through the implications of that idea.

Everywhere God Dwells Is Whole

I see the workers in the upper and lower waters

gathering the streams into their arms.

Once the divine integration was made in my presence,

delirious you said I love the world,

did you mean all of it or some of it?

 

I track the ascents and descents,

the upper root and the lower root will find each other

but don’t leave me alone. If the ends have been calculated,

I have not seen them. All my broken bones are whole,

my broken heart too, every shard complete.

 

I love the partial, the broken, individual, incomplete,

the fragment, the wounded,

I love the separate, you said,

because it integrates,

and even if not,

it is whole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Survivors

 

From the Survivors

Holocaust from holokaustus or holokautus (Gr.) meaning completely burned up,
as in an offering in Leviticus, as translated into Septuagint Greek

I had no intention to tell a Holocaust story. I used to think I didn’t feel up to it because I experienced it one generation removed. I don’t feel that way any more.

Trauma, I feel it and the older I get the more the trauma I feel. It was passed to me in a more oblique way.

I come from a generation in which our parents protected us from that story. There were many survivors in my neighborhood when I was growing up; we knew they were different, we knew they had a story but we didn’t know what it was. It would not clarify until later in life.

There was a seriousness and a sadness about the survivors that I knew in my neighborhood. I felt as if I knew them, but I didn’t know them. There were hidden parts to their lives, I knew this. There was a hiddenness in our world that was different from other people.

Not long ago I helped a family bury their mother who was a survivor of Auschwitz. I didn’t know her, didn’t know her daughter or any of the family, all had relocated out of my town in recent years. The mother was to be buried here so I volunteered to help them out.

In telling me about her mother, her daughter described a scene that her mother often talked about. As a young girl her mother had been in the selection line at Auschwitz and her daughter told me how her mother had described the dreaded Mengele standing at the head of the line making the selection. What was most chilling was non-verbal in the description: the daughter made gestures with her hands that were precise and I am sure just as her mother had communicated them.

They were simple gestures, obscene in simplicity and obdurate judgment. The picture of Mengele making gestures that signified this one lives this one dies was abhorrent. It sowed and planted a ghastly picture in my mind I have revisited many times since I saw it.

In this week’s Torah, the reading connected to the events that we schedule around the Nazi horror memorials, after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, Moses refers to the surviving sons Elazar and Itamar (Lev.10:12) as survivors. That word survivors, I never noticed it before this year, ha-no-ta-rim. It’s used twice in that verse, once to refer to the sons and once to refer to the remains of the offerings made by fire. This is the book of Leviticus.

There is much written about the clumsy application of fire language and offerings’ language associated with the Nazi horror, thus the controversy over the word Holocaust. This year when I heard the story of the woman I buried, how inadequate the word survivor felt to me. It felt too passive for what this woman lived through; sitting with these people these lives these strangers who existed because she went one way the girl next to her the other way and in spite of the burdens laid on her fragile life she endured.

She endured became a mother and these people — her daughter kids grandkids a great grand child — they are ha-no-ta-rim, alive they thrive out of the devastation of mother’s early life. It seemed to me that’s more than surviving.

More. I recall my beloved teacher who walked out of Berlin just before the War and his response always to the perfunctory: how are you? Sur-vi-ving, in three sing-song syllables that even if you knew nothing about him you recognized a depth of story and triumph and ascent in that three syllabled response. Arbitrary and victorious, sur-vi-ving as in if not for this if not for that, I would not have survived and with a bow to those who didn’t.

Now this Torah, this word applied both to the remnant of the offering burnt by fire, and the two brothers alive ha-no-ta-rim, as against the other two who were not (they brought strange fire in Lev.10:2). Fire and survival, what is that link and what the danger what the aftermath?

And who gets through? Ha-no-ta-rim — we the survivors, the remnant, the rest of us. From the root yud-tav-resh that also gives extra, something from without, something acquired from an unexpected place, something brought in from without so to speak, or something that remains, remnant as if remnant was something inviolable and ascendant.

Ha-no-ta-rim, this year it has a necessity that transcends surviving. It’s a persistence about existence: what continues. What remains. What endures. What thrives.

jsg

 

Death Row part 1

 

Death Row part 1

This institution is the location of Death Row in my state. That sentence is an attention-getter but I found out when I visited at that time Death Row was integrated into the rest of the prison. It was not segregated, so to speak.

You mean the guys who are on death row are in your, uh, living area? I asked the inmate sitting across from me in the visiting room. I didn’t have the correct language.

Yeah, the next guy to go is right below me. I saw him this morning. As a matter of fact, he was just outside the door there. He refused a visit this morning.

He refused a visit? Why?

I don’t know. Just now.

Maybe it was his lawyer.

I walked in with a lawyer, he had a carrying case and a rolling file box full of documents and I offered to help him (he was older than me) but he told me he could bench press more than these bags and he does this all the time. In the hallway later as we were walking in together he opened with an irrelevant story about coming into the institution once with [horse] riding boots and how difficult it was to take them off, etc., I suppose his way of trying to roll off the rudeness with which he rejected my offer.

How many on death row would you say? I asked the fellow I was visiting. This was the first time I had met him and the first time I was given entry inside this institution.

About twenty eight, I think. It’s about one a month.

We were well into our conversation when death row came up, and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, etc., was all wrong. Frequently I am all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison.

No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them are of calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I read them through their eyes.

Later I looked it up. There was a challenge to the death penalty in my state in 2006, on the grounds that the lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because the instructions, the protocols around lethal injection were too vague, and were not administered by a qualified anesthesiologist.

The attorney general then, who later became governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and it does seem that the frequency approximated one a month. I don’t know if this was deliberate but it was mentioned by the man I was visiting as if it was.

I could see that executions happened with more frequency than under the previous two governors, but with even more frequency three and four governors ago, during the last decade of the twentieth century. The last decade of the twentieth century: more frequency of executions, anyone could see this with a simple search.

I didn’t want to dwell on the death row aspect of the institution, I had talked to this man several times on the phone but this was our first meeting. He had a lot to say.

He launched into his story though I don’t ask about their stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen, if it doesn’t I’m fine with that too. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit to this particular institution and I wasn’t approved for a class here, I could bring no materials with me. He had plenty to talk about and I listened and we talked a few things through, about the complexity of identities that he was working through, about what goes on inside himself and the institution, what it’s like for him, what he was looking to in the future, there were no silences as we sat head to head for several hours.

The details were rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice, but it is his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it is his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way.

On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains, I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of NO so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep coming back? I run into obstacles of no here and there and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? What sustains?

I was telling someone I know who has been in prison this story and he interpreted it for me. In prison you live in a reduced world, he said, it’s a small space and you came into it sat and listened to someone who gave over his expertise. It’s what he knows about. You listened.

jsg

#freethestories