And God appeared to Abraham – Genesis 18:1

I will bless you and increase you as the earth
as the sands of the seashore as the sea
look at the algae now
and the horseflies buzzing around your face
I will make you as great as the algae, as the grasshoppers.
Look up now to the sky, you will be as great as the stars
as the darkness too, you will be as great as the darkness.

As the sand and the sea and the stars
the mud and the dark and the green
the sticky stuff on the surf
the early rains and the later rains
the mud and the mud the green the sand the dark.

You will be a blessing
as great as the dark
as the sea
the sand
the green
the flies.

jsg, usa

Truth that Mangy Dog

Another story from the Thursday night group.

Grief in Recovery
Or: Why the Truth is a Mangy Dog

Grief in the recovery process has as much to do about the future as it does about the past. It has to do with all the “supposed to bes” of our existence. We grieve the life that we do not have, the health, the success, the love, the dreams we held close to our hearts about what our future was supposed to look like. It didn’t happen that way.

Nothing has turned out the way I had imagined it. My expectations are showing and they are demanding, insatiable really, uncontrollable, I am a slave to my expectations. Nothing will satisfy me until I begin to master my expectations.

Sometimes that means grieving. Grieving the “supposed to bes” acknowledges how powerful they are, that they area important to us. Because they are our dreams, and no one should ever underestimate the power of a dream.

Dreams: this is the way I wanted my life to be. For better or worse, realistic or not, these dreams represent our vision of a tidy world and full of everything we love. Then reality begins to unfold and we are stuck with our mouths hanging open looking at the unedited version of our own lives as if it couldn’t be. Not my life.

We would rather not look. But reality forces us to look, sooner or later we have to take off our expectations and take a good, hard look at what we are and what has happened. It is at those times of insight, of vision, that we come to see how our expectations have hindered us.

“I wanted my dream so badly that I failed to look at what was really happening,” she says to the group. She tells them about her life, about the years spent shielding herself from dealing with what was really happening in her world. “I just couldn’t look at it,” she says, “because it is so different from what I wanted.” Your expectations are in the way now, someone says to her. They are not helpful anymore because they inhibit your ability to deal with reality. They sap your best strength. Only the truth will set you free. Only reality now. Only the truth can set you free now. Only reality will give you back your power.

The truth is a mangy dog, once it is unleashed it respects no boundaries. You cannot set it free on the streets of St. Louis and keep it out of Chicago. The truth will follow you everywhere. You cannot unleash it on your husband and muzzle it against yourself. The truth is a mangy dog, it goes everywhere with you, barking at your heels. You cannot turn it on your neighbor without turning it on yourself. The truth is a mangy dog, and it always comes home.

When we look hard at our expectations, when we grieve the “supposed to bes” that never were, we are accompanied by that lone servant, a human being’s best friend, truth. This is what my life is, not what it is supposed to be. Truth is there with me sniffing out the what it is. This is who I am, not who I am supposed to be.

Truth loves you, of course, just the way you are. You will come to love truth too. You will come to love truth because only truth will set you free from your expectations. When you relinquish the expectations, you relinquish control, and you enter that great cosmic float on the surface of the great sea which is reality. The way it really is is a great sea that ebbs and flows in some ineffable way that has nothing to do with what you do or what you want or how you think it is supposed to be. It just is. This is a sea you cannot swim, you float. When you learn to float, it is so beautiful you wonder how you ever did anything else.

Here we have come to the end of the story, I leave you here: floating on your back on the great sea, up and down the gentle cadence, reliable, infallible, beyond expectations, the beautiful rhythm of life’s ebb and flow, accompanied by that trusty beast, that mangy dog, Truth, who follows you everywhere.

jsg, usa

O holy Shabbes Inspiration Lech Lecha

O holy Shabbes Inpsiration Lech Lecha

When Abraham was born
a star rose in the east
swallowed the four stars of the four winds of heaven –

to the east
to the north
to the west
to the south

Avraham’s star
a star of the east
swallowed the four directions.

God said to Avram
lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are
north and south and east and west
for all the land which you see I shall give it to you
and to your seed
forever [Genesis 13:14]

When the King Nimrod went riding
he looked up into heaven
saw a holy light over the Juderia
the Jewish quarter
signifying the birth of Abraham our father
dear father
blessed father

light of Israel. [Cuando El Rey Nimrod]

God in a specially created voice, unlike other voices
spoke to him from behind the curtain of heaven:

Avram, lech lecha
go, get thee out,
out of your country
and away from your kindred
and away from your father’s house
to a land that I will show you. [Genesis 12:1]

Get free first of your country
the simplest
then your kindred
more difficult
lastly your father’s house
a lifetime
maybe more

and then
we return.

How I miss you
buried now in a cemetery in Detroit
on Shabbes lech lecha
I am coming home
I walk into your kitchen
make tea.

I never left
I am coming home
slowly slowly.

I am wondering what Avram
owes his father Terach
Terach brought them out of Ur
took them as far as Haran [Genesis 11:31]
Avram left Haran
lech lecha Terach heard
away from your father’s house
lech lecha Avram heard
away from your father’s house

we are all leaving our father’s house
all the time.

Father took me as far as Haran
Harry – I am leaving Haran
for you
and me.

Avraham heard
Lecha lecha — go get thee out
leave your past your shame your violence your wars
your inherited enmity

go to a land
a new land
that I will show you.

And Abraham went
as God spoke with him.

At the end of his life
Abraham ascended to the top of the chariot of Ezekiel
it was covered with the dew of light

From atop Ezekiel’s chariot
Avraham dressed in hand-me-down celestial garments
saw the future
a vision of reconciliation
from what was missing in his generation
he saw the perfect peace of his descendants


There was something partial
in Abraham’s generation
that only the future could repair [Zohar]
the children of Abraham
Isaac and Ishmael
and all the Isaacs and Ishmaels
long into the future
Abraham — go forth and make a path for your children
for everything that happened to you
will happen to your children [Bereshit Rabbah 40:6]

We say to you today in a loud and clear voice
enough of blood and tears. Enough.

From atop Ezekiel’s chariot
Avraham saw and understood everything

Just as Avraham left his father’s house
so his children left his house —

lech lecha they heard
get thee out
out of your country
and away from your kindred
and away from your father’s house

to a land that I will show you

And from atop Ezekiel’s chariot
Avraham whispered

jsg, usa

Teaching D To Ride

I promised the Thursday night group I would post the stories that I share with them at our meeting. Here’s one. Most of these stories I wrote some years ago for a publication in our town called Inside Recovery.

Teaching D to Ride

She’s certainly old enough for a two wheeler, though she never really went through a training wheel period. We had borrowed an old training wheeler bike that D never took to, now all her friends were riding free of training wheels and D wanted a bike, too, without training wheels. Why not, I thought, she’s ready.

We bought a beautiful teal bike, no training wheels, one hand brake in addition to foot brakes, no gears, a good beginning bike. We added a kick stand, you can kick it either forward or backward and there is no deficit either way.

I recalled the first thrill myself of riding on two wheels. I remembered my father running with me down the street, then I remembered casting off on my own down Norwood Street howling with delight and sailing on two wheels down the mighty concrete sidewalk. I remembered that first ride on two wheels, I remembered nothing about the training wheels and training period that led up to that first ride, but I remembered the ten seconds or so hurtling down Norwood street before the bike ran out of momentum and I tumbled onto Jamie Carson’s lawn.

I wasn’t thinking about that, however, as I took D on her new teal two wheeler over to the black top at the school. It was hot, I was frustrated. I had already failed at three major events that day.

My first failure was the hot water dispenser in our new state of the art kitchen that dripped dripped dripped itself into a steady stream, and I couldn’t fix it. I had callouses older than this piece of simple machinery upon which my morning coffee depends and I couldn’t make it work. As a matter of fact, I made it worse. What once was an experimental drip drip drip had turned into a current that would surely wear a geologic pathway through the stainless steel sink as if it were a rock formation along the mighty Colorado river. I imagined urban archaeologists in some future age digging up my kitchen and demonstrating by my lousy hot water dispenser the inexorable power of nature to wear itself through steel.

My second failure came after my brother informed me that my brake lights were not working on my Scandanavian automobile. There are three brake lights back there, two on the fins and one in the middle of the rear window, none of them worked. I made it worse because I removed a protective plastic cover over the middle brake light which I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to replace. Then I had no brake lights and the guts of the brake light in the middle were exposed and hanging out, and everytime I glanced in the rear view mirror, I was granted a vison of my own incompetence.

The third thing I had failed at on that day had to do with the computer. I have a good mind, by all accounts. I bought a new hard drive for my computer from a company that promised effortless set-up and immediate use. So I tried to connect up my new hard drive that day. Not only didn’t it work, but I made it worse. I got confused about which peripheral was connected where and I couldn’t use my modem, though I could shred lettuce through the printer.

Here I was, a three time failure, pushing my seven year old on her first two wheeler over the hot hot black top, grumbling and beginning to feel like a fourth failure because there was no two wheeled sailing going on this afternoon. “Don’t let me go, Daddy,” D said to me.

“Maybe you need to go back to training wheels,” I heard myself say. There was impatience in my voice. “No, Daddy, I had training wheels.” I’m puff puffing up and down the black top, the teal bike wobbling under my touch and certain to go down if I let go. We need training wheels, I was thinking, and the next thing I heard was a specially created voice, not at all like my own, speaking words I did not at first recognize.

The voice was coming from me, but it was no longer impatient and a three time failure, this was the voice of a zen rider, a master teacher of wheeling, the grand rabbi of cruising paused and poised for the holy moment of breakthrough the first experience of free flight, making a memory for my daughter that some day will be as deep and as old for her as my memory of my first bike ride is for me. These are the words that the road rabbi the great zen master of momentum spoke, “find your center, keep your balance, stay in your center.”

Stay in your center. I said it over and over as I let go with one hand and held only the back of her seat with the other. Stay in your center. Then I heard D say, ever so quietly but firmly, “you can let go now.” I let go and there she was off on her maiden voyage, sailing down the black top on her first two wheeled bike ride, having found her center.

“I’m riding, I’m riding!” I heard her howling as I ran behind her. Later that night at dinner she motioned to the chair next to her, “I want to sit next to Daddy.”

Who had the greater experience? Me, no longer a three time failure, not a plumber, not a mechanic, not a computer technician, but a master zen rabbi, or D, who had conquered space for the first time and sailed down the black top on two wheels?

“I’m riding, I’m riding!” she cried. Everything is possible even for a three time loser who in a moment became a master mentor of flight, everything possible when in one moment a seven year old fledgling wobbling around on a teal bicycle finds her center and sails down the black top chasing the wind on her first voyage.

Everything is possible, even with the hard case scenario, the pure possibility of every difficult transformation. From one moment to the next might be concealed the transformation that is accessible to everyone. This means you never give up on anyone. This means that the possibilities for repair and reconciliation, transformation and reclamation, are always present. You never give up on anyone. Especially the hard case stories. I consider myself such a story. If I could get it, anybody could get it.

It’s about the possibilities inherent in each moment. Take D, for example. On the day she learned to ride, she found her center and settled there, sprouted wings, and began to fly. It is a day she will never forget.

jsg, usa

Story for Rejoicing with the Torah

Every Rosh Hashanah, something new is drawn into the World
For Simchat Torah

Several years ago we had Simchat Torah and it was raining. It was a difficult time, we were perched at the edge of war. There was a small group at the synagogue, we took out our borrowed Torah, and the moisture in the air raised an animal smell from the Torah scroll that drew me into the text. I popped into the story and walked around in it.

Simchat Torah fell that year on the first night when there was winter in the air. Cold. Rainy. We unrolled the Torah scroll on some long tables so everyone could look at it before we gathered the Torah scroll up in our arms and danced around the room.

Someone made a Torah joke, “I want to eat it,” quoting the Psalm (34:9), taste and see that God is good.

I felt that if I would have sat there longer, maybe a week, maybe two, and stared into the scroll, the entire story would have gobbled me up in a way I only at that moment felt in my bones.

We sat there with the Torah in front of us in silence, inching closer to the scroll, leaning in towards the skin spread out on the table between us. The jokes stopped, the children had strayed from the table but the adults stayed as if bound to the story in the scroll by invisible fibers of relation. We all felt the release and deep cleansing exhalation of meditation. We shed our separate skins and entered the story, drawn into the tale by the smell of it, the taste of it, the touch of it. I wondered if we were going to enter the story, step into it, how long would we sit before the tale simply drew us in like fire?

Perhaps we would pop into the story again, walk around in it for a while, and pop out.

Then it was Simchat Torah the next year, we had acquired our own Torah. After celebrating we sat quietly with the Torah, our new Torah, now the one we own, laid out on the table in front of us. A blanket of thoughtful silence covered all of us.

Again, something curious arose out of the Torah, something that is out of the Old Story the Scroll Story that drew us down into the text and into the dream where the Torah thrives. I felt it. The quiet I suppose is awe, isn’t that what awe is, to be surprised into silence? Maybe it was the death of Moses, the sadness of the ending story, the stream of consciousness of those last few lines, the story accelerating as it does into an ending but not closure. A seam.

I had written a story about S, the angel who wanted the song I sang, the Arabic holy chant. I sang the song onto her answering machine, then I stopped singing the song. I felt like a minstrel, a peace minstrel, a PC minstrel, and I couldn’t sing the song anymore because I was angry and scared and wondering if it was true. I even rewrote the story and turned the chant into a song “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” and I began to sing that, because it’s easier, but it’s another song.

I had been in the very places that were then erupting. I went there alone. In 1995 I took a break and went to study music in Israel. I studied Arabic music with a master of the oud. I drove three hours from Jerusalem every week to an Arab town in the north where I sat with my master and listened for the sound that is common to us both. We met only in the music and that became our language.

There have been many Jewish and Arab masters of the oud, but it is certainly the music of Abraham, from a place before the separations, before the alienation of Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael. I suppose that is why I went there, to play from a place deeper than the divisions. I heard it in my blood in my bones, it was a mystery to me how why I heard it but I heard it and I went to learn it at the source.

There was a great master of the oud in the Negev near Beer Sheva who played for the court of the King of Morocco. The present King of Morocco personally invited him back, an offer he extended to all the Jews of Morocco, but few returned.

I had written about my experiences in a series of stories I call the Oud Stories. What do I do with them? I didn’t know how to integrate my own experience just then. I was playing the instrument but some of the songs I couldn’t sing. In rabbinical school, I took a year and studied Arabic, again I wanted the source connection that I felt in the holy texts I was reading, the deep level of rootedness that connects us, the commentaries of Saadia on the mystical texts written in Arabic, the Rambam writing in Arabic, I wanted to read them in the original. I did and I found it and I felt it and I learned it and it was correct. Sometimes I am aching with my own knowledge now, I don’t know what to do with it.

Maybe I know too much, maybe I know too little.

Just before Simchat Torah we usually have the Nachmuna, celebrating Rebbe Nachman, the first Jewish modernist story guide master. The year I am remembering, we set up the tables in a large rectangle with smaller tables around the perimeter. We sat in the center with no music stand, only a small table behind us, after three tunes my voice opened like a human flower and my sidekick and I played effortlessly and passionately for about two hours. Rebbe Nachman sat in the corner smiling.

That year we held the Nachmuna again during the intermediate days of Sukkot on Saturday night.

I made up a song about Rebbe Nachman, with a simple accompanying minor seventh riff, describing the life and work and lift of Rebbe Nachman. I told the whole story in song, including a fragment of his last unfinished story, which we have put to music, called “the great heart of the world.”

We made the slow-hand havdalah somewhat in the Shlomo style that I love, and after we were finished we packed up our instruments and on the way out to our chariots, my sidekick said, “I haven’t done the mitzvahs of the Sukkah yet.” I gathered the lulav and etrog out of my space van.

With my two sidekicks, we went into the Sukkah and in St. Louis, Missouri, under the middling Sukkot moon, the waning, we performed the two mitzvahs of spending a time there and of the four species. We talked about the elusive third mitzvah, joy, and the limitation of helping each other with that. But I was wrong. Completely wrong. It was the third one we could help each other with the most, and I felt it underneath the middling Sukkot moon. I knew it just as I was speaking the opposite idea. “I don’t know a darn thing about ‘ach sameach’ [entirely joyous],” I said, but what I felt was just the opposite. I felt, for that moment, underneath the moon with my two pals, completely joyous. I forgot everything and I had fulfilled the three mitzvahs just as the tradition prescribes.

We then welcomed the guests, the seven shepherds, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David. They entered from all sides, I noticed that none of them came in through the front opening. Each one of them had something to teach, which I have written in another story, but here is a synopsis: Abraham spoke about love, Isaac spoke about discipline, Jacob spoke elegantly about beauty, Moses spoke about bravery (his was a long discourse), Aaron spoke about dignity, Joseph spoke about stick-to-it-tive-ness basically, and David spoke about acceptance.

I wrote a story called my favorite Sukkot teaching about the moon as a metaphor for what is new and Godly that is drawn into the world this time of the year, the wisdom the Godliness the newness that plumps with the moon. We begin to draw something wonderful, something Godly, something holy, something that hasn’t been here before into the world every Rosh Hashanah, when it is hidden, like the moon.

We are now past the full moon of Sukkot as I am revisiting this story — still hidden. But not entirely.

addendum to Simchat Torah

I went to sleep but couldn’t stay there. What I call my mind was not delivered into the calm, I knealt at the delta but the elusive alpha and omega of sleep was lost to me, not forever, just until I finished this.

I re-read the last piece I wrote, thinking about the chase for something pure and absolute in the music and cultures that I have gone to the sources to study. I couldn’t grasp myself, my understanding, the hard tutorial of my own life. And peace, the most elusive notion of all, beyond my control for sure but even beyond my ken.

I picked up the reading which I often save for late at night. I read, then tried to put myself to sleep with meditation, the “being alone together” as Rebbe Nachman called it. I couldn’t sleep.

I picked up the New York Times and read the most recent installment of a series called Writers on Writing: “After Twenty Years, Meditation Still Conquers Inner Space,” by Alice Walker.

Here is the ending:

Heaven. Now there’s a thought. Nothing has ever been able, ultimately, to convince me we live anywhere else. And that heaven, more a verb than a noun, more a condition than a place, is still about leading with the heart in whatever broken or ragged state it’s in, stumbling forward in faith until, from time to time, we miraculously find our way. Our way to forgiveness, our way to letting go, our way to understanding, compassion and peace.

It is laughter, I think, that bubbles up at last and says, “Ho, I think we are there.” And that “there” is always here.

I am wild for sleep now, good night.

jsg, usa