The Mercy of Truth, part 3

Chesed shel Emeth

Is the name of the Cemetery in University City, Missouri, that was desecrated the weekend of February 18, 2017

Part 3: I look at the language

Chesed Shel Emeth, it means something like the mercy of truth, these are hard translations because the terms are fluid in one sense and in another they have depth, nuance. Truth is a harsh standard; standing alone with truth, nothing would qualify. Truth however with a measure of mercy, that’s a recipe we can live by; in the phrase chesed shel emeth the dominating noun in this expression is truth. The mercy within truth, truth modified by mercy.

In the Torah chesed and emet appear differently, as two equal nouns connected by a conjunction “and,” mercy and truth. One does not serve the other, there is no hierarchy as there is in the phrase chesed shel emet, shel indicating possession. In Biblical Hebrew it doesn’t appear at all, only as sh … and in later Mishnaic Hebrew it becomes a preposition shel, as in the mercy of truth, merciful truth, something like that. Mercy and truth is the Torah version, and an implied equality of the two terms.

And not as in hendiadys (from the Greek, “one through two” as in two notions becoming one notion as in flesh and blood for a person etc.) indicating one concept; in the Torah chesed and emet are two separate nouns connected by a conjunctive “and” mercy and truth put them together and you have what Ezra Pound referred to as the ideogrammic method that supposes a fundamental relationship between the two words. Think: mercy and truth. Mercy and truth.

What does it mean, mercy and truth? It might be like what Rashi is referring to at the beginning of Genesis when he cites Chazal that God created the world out of the standard of din, law, and it wouldn’t stand so God added mercy and we have a living breathing organism of Existence. Truth alone too demanding a standard it needed a little flexibility to endure.

Plus there are multiple standards of truth, some may be too demanding for life, so truth needs a diluting, a little cream in its cup so to speak. But the dominating noun in the phrase chesed shel emeth is emeth, the mercy of truth, truth’s mercy a possessive, and it becomes attached to our dealing with death. What I’m thinking is that it’s a worthy phrase to think of in thought, not just about death, about everything.

That’s what I was dreaming at the cemetery as I visited after the crime of desecration, I was feeling myself through the complexity of responses I was experiencing when the holy ceremonial ground was violated — the voices of the ancestors, the respect we give to those who have passed before us, our loyalty to them, to holy — all of this was a complex bundle of feelings and thoughts as I stood waiting for the ceremony at the desecrated site.

Then there was a complexity of responses from those who were or weren’t present, but to me the first response is always silence. I ascended into silence and waited for the truth to rise, this I learned from one of my heroes, ibn Gabirol the greatest of the 11th century Jewish Andalusian poets.

The chesed in the story was the cooperative effort of good-hearted people who showed up in overalls and with rakes and field tools to clean up a cemetery that on its best days needs a good cleaning, who were then delayed by the Secret Service who warned them that many of their tools could not be brought into the cemetery because the Vice President (whose name can be mentioned, Pence) was going to make an appearance.

That to me was the emet in the experience: the news story that this Administration clearly needs in a rush of almost 30 days of negative stories. Was it dominant? Emet, truth, is the dominant noun, I thought, though the mercy or the good intentions that the Governor and the Vice President appropriated was not lost on me. It was not an either-or notion, it was both beautiful in its spirit of cooperation (chesed) and it was also a sell-out in the dominant emet of the appropriation of the event by what I consider to be the voices that contributed to the atmosphere in the land that made room for such criminality.

No one can convince me that there is not much difference now than there was eighteen months ago when the current President (whose name will not be mentioned) announced his candidacy with a negative diatribe against Mexican immigration and a vocabulary of Other-ing that opened the gates in my mind on the kind of ugliness we are now experiencing as minorities in our beloved country.

That’s what I was thinking as I ascended into silence in the desecrated grave-yard of the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery, University City, Missouri. Into that silence was a sound that broke my reverie, a kind of rhythm I have come to recognize in my community. It was the sound of my landsmen patting each other on the back for the good work we were demonstrating there. Pure chesed.

We are good at patting each other on the back so I recognized the sound right away. My community loves to reward itself, each other, for obvious or even sub-standard activities, it makes us feel good. I myself have been rewarded several times the same way (the one I have most earned is Best Dressed Pain In the Ass).

I think I’m done writing about this for now, I have identified my dissatisfaction on that day: On the ritual level, too much blah blah blah, all chesed, that sound of patting each other on the back for a job well done, but the emet the truth in the Chesed Shel Emeth is that the Governor and the Vice President breezed in and out made some standard remarks and took over the event and the rest of us chesed-niks got pooked (I may have made up this word, I mean we were fooled because we had only good intentions), and what hurts is that I believe this officialdom contributes to the atmosphere that made room for this ugliness.

As I was leaving the cemetery, a young girl all chesed came up to me and gave me a lovely round piece of rose quartz. I love rose quartz, my son is a gemologist and he has taught me that rose quartz has a deep healing quality. It’s a love stone, it’s all chesed just like the young lady who gave it to me with tenderness and hope in her eyes, so I left with a good omen and the sense that the notion that may rise from these two nouns – chesed and emet in proximity – may be a matter for the future. Who was she? The future.

What will become of the energy at play in the graveyard that day, from recent months, and into the future? What will we do with what we feel, with what we know? What will rise in our time in our communities in our country that will take shape in weeks months and years to come that will demonstrate the play of these two nouns: The tough dominant standard of truth moderated by the flexibility organic sense of chesed of mercy, the trans-action of the two that will save us, or not.

 

jsg

Satire Writing Itself, pt. 2 about a Cemetery

Satire Writing Itself

 

I heard the repetition of what sounded to me like jargon: first name it. As of this writing, we have been practicing covert talking on the naming theme. What is it? Anti-Semitism. Is it vandalism? Is it a hate crime?

Does it make a difference? It makes a difference when we mark the rise of such events within an eighteenth month or so window that if you’ve been breathing you know corresponds with the rise of Trump in our country and the atmosphere of Other-ing that he with the complicity of his changing co-conspirators capitalized on in our country. And when the Vice President showed up to sweep around a few leaves we have a story more symmetrical than I could have written. It’s satire writing itself.

So we haven’t named it, that for starters. The Republican infatuation with power and its complicit cowardice has now filled in the story, add a glee to proximity to power at the local level and we have the media romp at the desecrated Jewish cemetery the other day. Gogol. Tom Wolfe. Philip Roth.

Standing next to me was a visitor from [what looked like] another planet. He kind of followed the crowd and wandered in because he was hanging out on the street that day and thought something big was going down. What’s happening here? He asked me.

What do you mean? Is it a party? He asked. It was a good question. If you were a visitor from another planet and landed there that afternoon you might not know that a crime had been committed: Almost two hundred graves desecrated, a kick in the stomach of an already vulnerable minority, so far no arrests, several days into the story and it’s beginning to recede from the news.

A crime, I said, he looked confused. Cemetery never looked so good, he mumbled (this was his corner).

We have a name for our enemies. In the tradition, we have a mythic designation: Amalek. What is it about Amalek that the name has punch in every generation? Amalek attacked at our most vulnerable place: the edge of the moving camp, where the infirm and the old and the children tried to keep up. Here Amalek attacked our memories our inviolable story our sacred relations who rest at the foot of the Throne of Glory.

Not here, I said to my new friend thinking out loud, we’re in a new era. New era, old story. We haven’t named it. We should all be crying, ripping our clothes, sitting on the ground.

Stay tuned. More at ten.

jsg

Jewish Cemetery Desecrated in University City

Traditional Jewish Cemetery

Desecrated in University City, Missouri

Clean-up and Ceremony scheduled for Wednesday, February 22, @ 3 PM

More News at 10

Well, it seemed like a media event to me. I was driving home when I saw a thickening of traffic, uh oh if I don’t go now I have a notion I won’t be able to go at all. I was dressed in a tasteful charcoal grey suit and a sandy brown fedora, white shirt Jensen silver cuff links and a gold jacquard cravat which becomes relevant to the story follow me. I walked through security (more than for the governor I was suspicious), busted for excessive obsession by the Secret Service (are these all pens?) I entered the cemetery relatively easily.

The cemetery is holy ground. I feel that. I spend a lot of time in cemeteries and it is always humbling and sacred and quiet and inside beautiful to me. I was standing around leaning against a tombstone when one of my pals introduced me to one of the half a dozen imams who showed up in solidarity.

What can we do together? This is hate and we have to do this together, several of them said to me. Exactly what I was thinking. They were still talking vandalism from the microphone, even in the newspaper this morning, this is another deal I said: this is hate. The Imams agreed.

When the Vice president showed up, that cinched it: Media event. They need some good press. Nobody said much though from the back of a truck like a campaign event was tasteful and accurate I suppose. The governor was expected but the Vice was in town for a visit to a company in Fenton and certainly they need some good news. Today they got it. It’s not a story; it’s a desecration of holy ground.

Nobody said much. The word hate was mentioned, in addition to vandalism, but it was much weighted toward vandalism. How this is vandalism eludes me. As an amateur armchair sleuth (reader of mysteries) and a former private detective (a story told elsewhere) I figured all by myself that toppling over almost 200 gravestones in the middle of the night that weighed way more than the topplers took some muscle, some organization, some equipment.

One imam after another came up to discuss the situation with me. Why me? I was thinking. There’s a dozen rabbis here and I’m dressed for Niemans not clean-up at the cemetery though I believe with my long departed beloved parents that everything is about fashion. They were in the business and I am committed to fine merchandise.

The imams first wanted to compare burial customs. I told them what I knew: Though there seems to be no unanimity about which direction to bury a body in a Jewish cemetery, I did see that the Chatam Sofer cited a custom that in many communities bodies were buried with their feet facing the entrance, in confidence of the ultimate resurrection and the avenue of exit. In some cemeteries, the feet are facing east, toward Jerusalem. This was common in Europe, for the feet to face east, or south. In the Talmud, it seems that graves were placed in a cemetery in many configurations (cf. Baba Batra 102a).

Then the imams wanted to talk about hate, about hate crimes, about the vulnerability we are all feeling as minorities these days, about bringing that vulnerability to the attention of the local, the state, and the Federal government. We need to be working together on this, they said, we all agreed. We exchanged numbers.

Then two guys from the Justice Department came up to me. Why me? I was thinking (suit, silver cufflinks, etc. see the story I Wore a Suit to a Riot). You’re just the guys I wanted to talk to, and we discussed how this could be referred to as vandalism with the climate in the country right now. This is hate.

An interfaith service followed that was as boring as anything I’ve attended and there was a helicopter hovering so hardly anyone’s words could be discerned anyway. There was a prayer for healing that I saw from a hand-out. It was unsatisfying so I wrote my own:

 

A Prayer for Healing

All the accompanying angels appeared for them it takes a squad

A conspiracy of angels

A Mezuzah of the spirit guarding the entrance

To make a complete healing.

 

And later in the night when everyone is asleep

Just as it was desecrated it was restored

The angels parachuting in from the east and west

Angels ascending and descending

They wander in from the coast

Both coasts

Some have satchels slung over their shoulders filled with amulets

All the energies converge for this community

And the others who throw in with them.

 

The desecration restored

And by day

A cleaning.

 

Then a prayer for healing and gratitude

A specially created voice howling in the square

These words suspended between horror and grace

An expression of thankfulness

Why not after grieving

Honoring the dis-respected dead

With our hands clutched to our chests

Right hand buried in the left.

 

The desecration restored.

Sneak away for a chat with God –

 

Come on God

Show up for us and

Bring all your people —

And God said

Sure.

 

I felt better once I wrote the prayer. As of this writing, it is an unsolved crime. There was a little too much tilt toward the celebratory for my taste; a cemetery had been desecrated, it feels to me like a hate crime, the language today wasn’t correct, the balance was off, and the appearance of those who were contributing to the atmosphere of fear and Other-ing in the country had co-opted the event and turned it into a media romp.

I went home and wrote this.

 

jsg

Mental Illness on the Fringe

Mental Illness On The Fringe

 

I call this the mental health-mental illness effort a beginning because we are square one on this subject. I thought we were further along. We are not. We are schooled by the anecdotal increase in tragedies associated with mental illness; by we I mean those of us who are working the front lines. The statistics that we care about are people.

 

We all know individuals who went down suffering with depression, other forms of challenges — the inner world when it goes dark. And the increase in use of heroin and other dangerous drugs in our neighborhoods and communities have multiplied; we know those stories too, we don’t have to cite figures from the NIMH.
We are under-prepared, under-educated, under-equipped. We are still laboring under the shanda curtain of shame. Some of us took on the shame barrier with drug and alcohol abuse starting in 1981 (see SLICHA, now called Shalvah), we are turning our attention to the next hurdle which I believe is mental illness. We all have the experience in our families, some of us more hidden than others. We begin by talking about it; let’s talk about mental illness.

 
What to do, that’s always the question. Start with talk and more talk, real talk about real problems. We need to do that with depression and suicide and the other challenges to life that dwell within, the inner world when it goes dark. Take up a candle, light it, give that light to someone else.
Don’t let anybody go dark on our watch.

 
I wrote this pledge, and I took it:
The Pledge
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 and we live in a Big Tent.
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 at least to some relief.

 
Our problems are serious, deep, numerous. Our problems are lucky to have us; our devotion to them endless. Let’s get to work. Spend some time listening and talking, tell your leadership and your intimates and your trust-ables that we are suffering and we need to crack our best effort to split the darkness. We need to be a community.

 
Don’t respect the silence. Then push.

 

jsg

New Site

I decided to re-do my website for music and stories and poetry. I didn’t feel the need to bring over all the other material that I posted on the former site. I write a lot.

I will use this version for more select postings. I’m going to focus more on getting published. It feels right now.

I hope you enjoy my offerings.

Welcome to the new Stonegoodman.com!

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From Black Fire on White Fire

tiferet

Lotus Torah

I let it be known in the cyber-circles I frequent that I was in the market for a Torah. Start-up synagogue, fledgling, stressing excellence serious study of languages the deep story and good music, the kind of institution that will retain standards but never fashionable, we received a secret grant from two couldn’t-be-more-different quiet sources to purchase a Torah. The synagogue also teaches the healing arts to suffering individuals: addicts, alcoholics, those living in and around mental illness, prisoners in-and-out of jailhouses.

One gift came from the mother of a son struggling with at that time a crack cocaine habit, she had a little family money and quietly whispered in my ear: buy a Torah. Another source from a family clear-headed about values and without need for recognition, neither source cited then or now.

I received a message back through the Internet: We have a dozen Torahs. From my home town, pursuing the message a phone number in return (it was the era of beepers): call this number when in Detroit and we can arrange a meeting.

Such a connection in Detroit was not unknown to me and it was as good a lead as any. I went to Detroit.

In Detroit I punched in my number, a phone call returned, and a rendezvous arranged at a warehouse space in a small strip mall next to a discount carpet center.

I was met at the warehouse by a man with a beeper. The Torahs were from a synagogue near my boyhood home that I recognized, the symmetry of finding a Torah from a synagogue not a mile from where I grew up stirred something in me approximating trust.

Maybe it marked some sort of spiritual reconciliation with my past, that would be nice, but I don’t think so. The place I came from is far away, nothing like the place I landed. It was tugging at me to think-feel it through but I was on a mission and I had money in my pocket for one purpose: Torah. A legitimate Torah.

He opened the warehouse and took me into the back where there was a table full of Torahs. It was summer and a little close in the room but the room had high ceilings and the climate was right.

The strip mall location was the last stop of a synagogue that had been in decline for years. It was now time to close up.

At the warehouse, I eye-balled a table full of Torahs. I was drawn to one that needed some repair, the Torah staves were broken and the cover was seriously discolored. I opened it up anyway, and it unrolled to me with an unusual style of scribal art, unfamiliar to me, not too big, not too small, exceedingly clear and clean but different from the style of Torah scribal art I was familiar with.

It didn’t look like the borrowed Torah we had been using. But there was something beautiful, more Mizrachi (eastern) in the swirl, in the movement in the letters that I felt as I stared into this particular Torah, and somewhat intuitively I picked that one, the one that looked from first inspection a little funky with its broken wood and faded cover.

There were other Torahs that were larger, with script more like the common Torah scribal art that I was familiar with, wood intact, covers in better shape. They were also about a thousand dollars more than the smaller Torah I picked, with the uncommon scribal art, with the broken wood, the faded Torah cover. It wasn’t about the money.

I picked out that Torah, pinned my name to the cover, left a deposit, returned to St. Louis to gather the money. I sent the chazzan of the shul in Detroit a check, waited for shipment.

It came boxed up. When I opened it, I realized that I had not been in good light when I rolled through it in the back room of the warehouse in Detroit. Perhaps I just didn’t look closely enough the first time I saw it, but this time, under good natural light, the rare beauty of this particular Torah was overwhelming.

It was perfect, better than perfect, it was beautiful, the way the sefirah [one of the ten energies] of tiferet [beauty] is at the middle of the sefirotic diagram, the way all the paths of connectivity pass through tiferet, the way all roads pass through beauty. It read, by the way, on the faded Torah cover, tiferet Tzion [the beauty of Zion].

I put it back in the box and brought it to a ceremony we were holding that night [Slichot]. I unpacked it and unrolled it on the table and showed it to everyone at the synagogue. Again, I was dazzled by the beauty of this particular Torah, coming from Detroit, out of the same loam I arose.

One of the Torah staves that was broken crumbled into several more pieces in the handling of it, we sent the cover off to the cleaners, and I wondered how we were going to fix the wooden parts. I took the Torah home. The next day I rehearsed with the band, I attended a master class with an excellent guitarist from LA (he played before Segovia when Segovia was in his Nineties, it was like playing before Grandpa, he said, as long as you didn’t come on too haughty, then he took you down), I came home trying to imagine who could fix the Lotus Torah the Tiferet Torah this week and have it ready for Rosh Hashanah.

About six o’clock I went temporarily insane and drove over to Home Depot, bought a little attachment to go into a drill to sand a delicate piece of wood, some stain, shellac, came home and set about the fixing of the Torah myself.

Ordinarily I can’t fix much. I sanded it, glued it, sanded it again, stained it, shellacked it, found some nice chunky Yemenite looking beads to decorate the wood on Ebay, I think I fixed the Torah.

There is a principle in the midrash, that something you love changes your nature, (something you hate can also change your nature by the way), it changes you, what you think you are, your definition, your limitations I suppose. Love changes nature, it reads in the midrash.

Maybe that’s what happened.

Epilog

A year later, one of my Aunties was visiting from Detroit. So you are in a new location? She asked me. Yes. Can I see it?

My work life had never been the focus of our relationship, though we are close, her request to see the synagogue surprised me.

I drove out there, showed her around, we had a small ark we had commissioned a nice carpenter across the river to build for us.

Do you have a Torah? My Auntie asked.

Yes, again surprised by the question, and I told her the story of the mystery purchase from our homeland.

Can I see it? More surprise. Sure.

I took out the Torah and opened it up, showing her the qualities of the scribal art I prized, and she looked at the end of one of the staves where there was writing, a place name, the date of its dedication, who the scroll was dedicated to, all details I had not paid much attention to.

Jimmy, she said, that’s the synagogue where your parents were married. I was there.

I then calculated the date from the Hebrew. It was the same year. One year before I was born.

My parents had been gone for over ten years. There was no one else to ask. She was the last person I know who had this information.

We stared at each other and at the Torah for a long time before we rolled it up and returned the scroll to its Ark.

jsg.usa

Secrecy is Part of the Problem

Head_of_a_woman_with_Her_Hair_Loose.1885.VGM..see_Hecht_2006,_p.7_copy

I am searching for the engine or the nudge to bring the community into focus on an integrated strategy to meet the challenges of mental illness-mental health. But we have been difficult to move.

Many of us feel the limitation of isolated responses to the rootlessness and hopelessness that characterizes so much of contemporary life. We could do better by putting our best resources to work on a community response that maximizes already limited resources and create new and more imaginative strategies. We should be a nudge. We should be telling everyone we know.

We all know tragic stories. We are on the front line so to speak. We are trying to seize the opportunity to assume a community mind on our tragedies so we can deal with them better than in the isolation of our socially gated communities.

We begin by telling the stories. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem.

rabbi james stone goodman, st. louis

She wrote me a note before we did a community session on suicide. She was not in a place, she said, to come to the session but she wanted to make a contribution.

She gave me permission to use her words as a prompt for the participants to write about their experiences. The following is from the original piece she wrote to me, her words:

I am a survivor I suppose. I have attempted suicide several times in serious ways and I believe I am alive to share a few things I’ve learned. I feel some sort of purpose, I am always looking for that but here goes — I hope this helps someone.

People could listen more with their eyes as well as their ears. When you are contemplating suicide, you don’t conceptualize it. You may not express it.

Be observant. Don’t ignore anything. Take everything seriously. I wanted someone to hold my hand – I’m not going to leave you, God will not leave you, I’m with you, I will never leave you, that’s what I wanted to hear.

And most importantly: This feeling is going to pass. You don’t think it’s going to pass. You think it’s never going away. It feels permanent.

I wanted someone to say to me: I wish I could be there with you. Call me. Don’t be alone.

Addendum

Some time later I met with her at a coffee shop.

I’m starting to feel like I want to get out more, she said, to be of service to others. I often feel a terrible negative energy running through my being, but I think I can offer something. If I could help someone else, it would mean so much. Use my words, use them any way you can.

Commentary: I love this piece for the wisdom it contains and because it came from such a difficult place in this person’s life. This was not an easy piece to write.

She was at a low enough place in her struggle that she couldn’t make the session, still she felt the necessity to give away some of what she knew. She wanted to help someone else. Where does this kind of compassion come from? All she wanted was to give a little away what she had learned from her experience.

What she wanted most: to be of service to others. And she knew that because of her life she had some secret wisdom to give away: What it’s like to live with what she lives with, what it feels like from the inside, what she would have liked to hear from others, what someone else could have given her when she needed it most.

It think this is a remarkable document because it has a giving sensibility and because it has real wisdom about what it feels like when a person is struggling to stay alive, to find a way in the world when the inner world goes dark. To come back from the edge and describe what it felt like there.

It has strategies for living that come from the crucible of a person’s life. I think it’s a remarkable piece for all these reasons and every time I see the writer I remind her how much her piece has helped others because as she wrote: if I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

jsg

Extreme Gratitude, part 3

alcatraz-solitary

That year he picked gratitude as the midah* to write about. Because in his walk he felt heavy in his feet, a slog through the mud. Because sometimes he got stuck in Sad.

Extreme Gratitude*
Part 3

Last summer 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 through a metal door as we entered the complex referred to as the hole, 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. His work was displayed leaning against the bed in his room.

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

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

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

jsg.usa
*Midah means virtue or value
Turning 5777