Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rebbe Nachman Melts my Heart

Hey guys,

I have a bed now, and I'm living in my apartment, and it's good to have a home. It's good to be settled. I don't like having to carry all of me around everywhere.

Friday night, I went to the Breslav Shul (Synagogue) in Tsfat for the service celebrating Shabbos (Shabbat (Sabbath)). I was in Tsfat with a few friends, all staying at my mother's house, and my sister had recommended we go there. She said it would be gevaltic (profound/awesome) davvening (prayer).

We got stoned first, naturally, (you have to do it before the sun sets. Afterward it's shabbat, and you mustn't light fires) and I already had a great God-lovey moment back at the house, thinking about the divine quality of Malchut. I was in a good, tender, fun space, and I knew that davvening at Breslav would be interesting. I thought it would be more anthropologically interesting, and it turned out to be more spiritually transformative interesting, but that's okay.

It's really hard for me to be concise on this blog in general, and I'm not really even gonna try this time. I want to tell you about being stoned at this shul, and it was a long, rambly experience, and you're gonna read a long, rambly blog post about it. Feel free to think of this more like a short story, if you like, and I'll feel free to take my time on the details.

I haven't been to a Breslav shul in a long time, but my brother and sister are both Breslavers. It's a really loving community, with a lot of rich spiritual teachings. They're about having a personal relationship with God, being genuinely accepting of others, enjoying your Judaism. It's lived-n and juicy, and I like that. It appeals to me much more than must Ultra-Orthodox (i.e. they don't look like us, they don't sound like us) communities.

I got there late and came in through the wrong door at the front of the room. I felt this blast of attention blowing past me, and I cowered and hid behind everyone as quickly as possible. I felt a red, warm bubble of shame around me, the heat of a sore thumb, and I did not belong. I found Lev (Heart), my buddy, standing right smack dab in the center of the room, and I went in to join him. I noticed on Yom Kippur, praying in a couple new spaces, that I felt like an outsider when I stood at the edge of the group, and a participant when I stood in the middle. Okay, I thought, I can handle this.

In a milling-about moment between prayers, my 11-year-old nephew came by to say Hello and I gave him a big, uncle-y hug. He froze, and I gathered that big uncle-y people don't hug anyone in this shul, and I looked different from everyone else, and I had just marked him as different, and everyone saw it, and now he would have to explain to his friends about his weird, secular hippie uncle, and no one would like him anymore, and it was all my fault.

At this synagogue, the men wear the big fur hats and the long black coats, or white coats, or black and white striped coats, and the long forelocks and bigger beards than mine. The women don't show their elbows and sit on the second floor behind a glass wall and a frilly curtain. I was the only one wearing blue. I'd known I stuck out, already, but I put my finger on it after the disastrous hug. There was a great variety of fabrics and styles in the wardrobe around me, but all of it was in blacks and whites. I didn't want to look around too very carefully, but I didn't see anyone in color besides myself. Standing in the middle, I still didn't feel like a participant. I have a lot of reason to believe, now, that nobody was actually staring at me, and no one actually minded my being there, but I felt different in a sea of same. Embarrassment.

Nephew left me there in the middle, and the praying resumed. I looked for my place in the siddur (prayer book) to follow along. Lev helped me, and told me I got there at just the right moment, L'Cha Dodi was about to begin. We had been told that the room would "explode" for L'Cha Dodi, and it pretty much did.

Up until that moment, everyone was mumbling. In unison, and with great passion, but in a definite mumble. That's pretty standard in orthodox synagogues, 'cause it lets people get through a whole lot of text quickly and in a way that's personal (God can make out what you're saying, even if your neighbor can't) but still collective.

For L'Cha Dodi, they still mumbled, but only for the verses. This is something I haven't seen before. L'Cha Dodi is sung on Friday nights in every synagogue around the world, more or less, and with literally hundreds of different melodies, but it's always sung. Here, they mumbled through each verse, then all got together to really sing passionately for the chorus. L'Cha Dodi welcomes in the Shabbat as a mystical loving presence and a beloved queen. It deserves passion.

A lot of my prayer time, lately, has been spent on just figuring out the noises. I don't understand most of the words, but I can sound them out in Hebrew, and I'm trying to get more comfortable just getting the text through my lips. Comprehension builds in parallel, and in a few more months I suspect I'll be actually be able to pray my prayers. I got to really sing along for the choruses of L'Cha Dodi, though. I know the words to that one, and I was still wearing a blue shirt, moron, but I could participate in that.

I looked around the room a little bit, and got a great kick out of seeing all these bobbing heads and singing faces. It's a beautiful space, with marble walls and wood and gold and stuff, and perfect acoustics and a whole bunch of people there who really mostly seemed like they were there to have fun with their deity, and I respect that. Some people had their eyes closed, some people were looking up to the heavens, some people sang loudly, some people sang soft.  They all knew the words and the melody, they all had done this before, and they were comfortable inviting Shabbos into their lives for a day or so.

I can't always be so great with God, lately, and I'm less interested in all of the rules than I used to be and hope to be again, but we're told that God, Torah, and Israel are the three pillars of Jewish life. I've been rocking the third pillar, lately, and really enjoying the People Israel. Some do it this way, some do it that way, some don't bother doing much, but Jews are really cool, altogether, and I've been developing an appreciation lately for the many great varieties of engagement and disengagement that Jews have with their Judaism. With a room full of Breslaver Chassidim all singing along together, I like watching 'em go. Not the song so much, but the singing, gave me something to love God about.


So I got a moment for holy passion, to really feel the joy of the incoming sabbath, but self-consciousness struck again. I realized that I was quite stoned still, and I was probably acting weird, and people would probably see I was acting weird, and it would reflect badly on my nephew and sister and father, and I would be embarrassed for the rest of my life, and not just this moment. This discovery left me a little bit self-conscious and disconcerted. I said No, the cure for embarrassment is authenticity, and got really into the music, but then I thought about this guy, and tried not to resemble him, and went back to trying to be invisible. But when you're embarrassed, there's always someone looking at you, so I tried to suggest with my body language something like Hey. Sorry for interrupting. I know I don't belong here. I'll try not to ruin your evening.

Yom Kippur was about a week and a half ago, and I went to services, and I atoned for my sins, and I didn't have the kind of blissed out "God loves me, the world makes sense" moment that I'd kind of hoped to, but I had a really good cry and I felt pretty forgiven. I'm not the Jew that I want to be, and there's all kinds of stuff I don't know and rules I don't follow. I don't treat everyone the way I'd like to, I don't listen enough, I waste water and plastic and electricity. I'm clearly in the bottom 3% or so of human beings, ethically speaking, because I've had every opportunity to be better and I haven't done it, but on Yom Kippur, wrapped in a prayer shawl, I got to feel what a useless slab of meat I am, and feel how much God loves my sorry ass anyway, and promise to do a little bit better if I'm not struck down by holy lightning before I get a chance.

In Friday prayers, we read the words "And you shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might," and it brought me back a bit to that sense of forgiveness. I haven't fulfilled that commandment, exactly. I think it would be awesome to love God with my heart, soul, and whatever, and I totally want to, and I know that I should, but... I normally push myself, when I'm reading that passage, to try to squeeze out a little more love, kind of to puff up my stats while the issue has my attention. But I know I love other things, like laziness and being awesome, in ways don't really jive with my relationship with the Big Man. This time I saw the difference, the gap, the space of not loving God, and instead of pushing it down I felt it just be there, and I felt God value the love and forgive me the other stuff. "You tried hard," Coach God tells me. "You put in a good game, and I'm proud of you. Shower up."

After L'Cha Dodi, before the love thing, we all joined up hands and danced in a labyrinthine pattern around the chairs and benches there. I held Lev's hand in front of me, and I thought I heard someone telling the kid behind me that, yes, he really did have to hold my hand, too. He held it stiffly and uncertainly, and I felt shame for his shame. Nevertheless, I was blissed out by the faces and clothes of the people around me. A few times I realized I was staring, and again obviously stoned, obviously a tourist, and shut myself down again.


I found out after the service that my roommate, Sarah Brucha, a womanly person, was really frustrated tucked away in the women's section, above and behind where the action was, discouraged from singing lest she distract someone who matters more. It's an awful thing to be told that your prayers don't count, that something about you is an obstacle to others' prayer, that you're better off Elsewhere. SB had the whole Orthodox Patriarchy telling her this, on that evening, but I was more or less telling myself the same thing. You don't belong here. You're a distraction. This is a holier moment without you. I wanted to be myself, get into the moment, pray and dance and sing and whatever, but the moment seemed it was meant for other people; no Yotams allowed. 

I know it sounds silly, that I keep coming back to this. Oh poor Yotam, you were stoned and embarrassed for an hour.  Shut your pie-hole already. Right? I don't know. It might just be poor craftsmanship on my part, writing a story this way. But I think it's uncomfortable reading because embarrassment is uncomfortable. It doesn't change, and it isn't interesting, and it just keeps coming back the same way until you leave or you deal with it. I kinda dealt with it, eventually, but I want you to have a sense for how oppressive and annoying it was, and how weirdly absent it suddenly made itself later. Still, to be fair to Sarah Brucha, I'd rather face down my own demons than thousands of years of entrenched sexual oppression. My problems tend to end faster than that.


This might be a good time for an intermission. The next paragraph doesn't follow, really, and Hey, you've been reading a while. Get up and stretch your legs a bit. It's really good for you. I don't have a dryer here, and sometimes I have to get up from my computer and go get the laundry from the washing machine and go hang it up on the thing on my roof, and I think that's really good for me, and I encourage you to go find a similar task to do. Less healthy would be going down to the lobby to get yourself a snack, but I understand the urge to do that, and I don't want to judge you if you take this moment to feed yourself, but I will anyway, probably, and I apologize. Please keep reading now.

I've been thinking a lot about listening, lately. I'm a big talker, and, frankly, I could stand to shut up and listen a little more often. It's hard for me, though, because I have really cool, important thoughts all the time, and listening to someone else involves not interrupting them with the awesome thing that they made me think of, and might not ever get to think of it again. Thoughts hate that. They hate impermanence, you know. They fear their own demise and unbeing. Listening - or rather, not speaking - feels to me like letting go of a wild bunch of balloons that float away into the darkness, feeling the ribbons slip through my fingers and the balloons climb higher and higher, feeling the river of balloons all around them, floating up to me and past me and around me and by. It's a beautiful feeling, and it's great, and it usually distracts me from whoever I'm trying to listen to, and that's cool.

Sometimes during L'Cha Dodi, and during the dancing, and moments afterward, I tried to really listen to the rest of the room, there, and adjust myself to that flow going around me. Motivated partly by my embarrassment, still, I guess, but also with an intent of appreciating the beauty of it and riding along. Those were good moments, I think. Those were holier moments, when I was listening, and taking in the room around me, and letting my own stuff float off into nothingness.

After my God/Love/Forgiveness/CoachMetaphor moment I tried listen a little again, and found myself still shrinking my body, lest someone be angry with me for my stupid blue shirt. (It's a nice shirt, actually, and totally appropriate for Shabbat anywhere that people wear color.) But I had that sense that God forgave me, and I managed to leverage that into something interesting.

God, I'm really trying to pray, here, and I'm distracted by this embarrassment. Please, please, don't hold against me the gap in my focused intention, and accept my fears as though they were prayer. Please don't let anyone else's prayers be interrupted, or diminished, or detracted from in any way by the shock of my stupid blue shirt. Please don't let anyone's love for you be diminished by any way because I'm distracting them. Instead of other people's attention, let me feel your attention on me. Please let me be judged by your eyes, and not my own and not my neighbors'. Please count me among the number of those praying here, and give me some reflection of the honor they are incurring in you for my presence and what good intention I can muster. Please accept me, despite my fickle heart. Please accept my prayers and ignore my failures. Thank you. -Yotam

This is not the solution I foreshadowed above. I was still distracted and nervous and worried and embarrassed for the whole rest of the service, but a little bit less so. I managed a few times to really put myself into the words of the prayers, and really feel the intentions, and really thank God for Shabbos, and Mitzvahs, and creating the universe and whatnot. I got worried, during the standing up and reading silently part, that I would still be standing and struggling through the Hebrew when everyone else had finished and sat down, and I tried to decide what to do in that situation, and instead they just started up again with the singing while there were still about a dozen of us standing and reading silently, and I didn't have to worry about it, and I went back to thanking God for things, like the fact that Breslav synagogues have a lot of slow davveners in them, and a lot of people who don't want other people to feel embarrassed about praying.

After the services, Lev and I walked back outside to meet Sarah Brucha and Lev's wife. We found my sister, too, and my sister suggested that Lev and I go back inside to shake the hand of Rav Koenig, the spiritual leader of the Breslav community in Tsfat, and let him wish us a Good Shabbat. You did it when you were a kid, she said. People do it all the time. That's okay for you.

I lived in Israel for a year when I was 12, and had my bar mitzvah here, and I haven't lived here again since then. I've visited a few times, but it's different. I like the symmetry that I'm gonna turn 26 here, 13 years after my 13th birthday. I'm hoping this year will liberate some of the karma of my last year here. It was a really difficult, really painful experience at that time, and there's plenty of karma to liberate. I was a confused little kid at that time, and I was totally out of context. It took me a long time to feel okay about Judaism or Israel after coming back to America, and I'm still, actually, kinda touchy on both of those.

I met Rav Koenig twice during that year, and they weren't pleasant experiences. My sister took me to meet him so he could fix me or something. I wasn't acting like a normal orthodox boy should ('cause I wasn't a normal orthodox boy, naturally) and maybe he could... straighten me out or something. I don't know what, exactly.

I had long-ish hair, at that point, 'cause I wanted to look like my big brother back in America. I liked to wear sweatpants, and when I visited the rabbi I put on my biggest, nicest, shiniest chenille sweater. Sitting at a plastic table outside somewhere, he asked me why I wanted to look like a girl, and I told him I didn't. "I'm a boy, and I look like myself, so I look like a boy." Defensive 12-year-old logic.

The second time I met him was on a Friday night in Tsfat, a couple months later, when my sister told me to go shake his hand and wish him a Good Shabbos, much like she did last week. I was wearing a nice white shirt and black pants that time, and I went to say "Hello," so he'd be impressed with how normal I looked, and he wasn't. He very dismissively sent me away. He wanted me not near him, it seemed to me. He didn't say anything to acknowledge we'd ever met before, or indicate that I was remotely of interest to him. My sister told me a couple of years ago that Rav Koenig is only mean to the people he likes a lot. He's like a Zen master, that way. I thought of that often when I was with Ma, and the spiritual gift of rejection.

In Maine this summer, I studied an energetic healing practice called Integrated Awareness. IA has its own map of the soul in the body, in which your knees are about abandonment and your left big toe is about responsibility, and your front expresses Personality while your back expresses Karma. When Lev and I walked back into the synagogue, I was afraid of meeting Rav Koenig again, but light and excited for facing my fear. I was buzzed just from surviving that service, and the moments of good prayer I'd gotten to. Lev told me "It seems like your heart, or something, is like exploding right now. It looks fun," and it was. It was my back that was opening up. The top of my back, behind my heart, where my karma lives. It felt awesome.

On the way out of services, the first time, we were stopped by a young man with fragrant leaves in his hand. Myrtle, or something sweet like that. Everyone leaving got to take a big whiff of the plant and say a blessing on it (as one does with sweet-smelling leafy things), and I got to say my blessing with an old, magic-looking man with a long grey beard and beautiful eyes. He seemed to ignore me, but I was glad just to be near him. He looked awesome. We walked by the fragrant leaf kid on the way back in, and I took another deep breath and enjoyed it good.

Rav Koenig is also an old, bearded, wise and weathered man, and he's been ill lately, so he doesn't shake people's hands so much. Lev and I walked in his direction - we thought it was his direction - that looks like its him - and he sorta noticed us at about 20ish feet away. He was talking intently with somebody else, and he gave us a come-no-further-I-acknowledge-you look at about 12 feet. He raised his hand, and mumbled Shabbat Shalom, or something like that, and waved us away a little bit. Lev and I mumbled it back, and I kinda fumbled on whether or not to keep walking forward, then noticed that Lev was turning back and I followed him.


Breslav Judaism was founded by a guy we call Rebbe Nachman. Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, actually. When Ma told me, back in March, that she felt with us the presence of an old mystical Rabbi from a long time ago somewhere near Russia, he's the person I thought of. He kinda gave me a spiritual hug and a thumbs up that evening with Ma, and it really satisfied me somewhere. A lot of other communities like Breslav have a lineage of head rabbis that continues to this day, but Breslav decided that Rebbe Nachman was their guy, and there would never be another. Men like Rav Koenig are not the official commanders of this community, therefore, but he's a great, learned, well- and rightly-respected man.


In the moment of interpreting Rav Koenig's wave, then trying to communicate that I understood it, I kinda waved my hand back at him before turning away. My gesture was a little bit the echo of his gesture, and I worried immediately that it might not have been sufficiently respectful. One doesn't dismiss the great rabbi, he dismisses one.

I've been thinking about respect quite a lot since leaving the Ashram. The last thing Ma told me was "I hope you learn respect. Go with God," and that stuck in me like a burr for a long time. It made me feel like a really bad person, not to be sufficiently respectful to people. I wanted to be respectful to Rav Koenig, and I was worried I hadn't been, but there wasn't really anything left to do about it but keep on walking.

Shaken, I turned to Lev and said "I need to just sit down here and cry for a minute before we go back." We sat down at a table there, and I put my head down for a second, and I totally lost control. I thought I would just have a quite kinda moment there, and then move on quickly, but I put my head down and wept and my tears soaked the tablecloth. I shook and I cried and I drooled a little, and I didn't moan or wail or say anything, but my body was totally given to crying, and my mind was not at all in the way.

I thought about my sister, and my mother, and the difficulties of being 12 and disoriented, and I cried about it. I thought about how hard it is to learn these prayers, and I cried about that, too. I let go of feeling embarrassed, and I thought about how needless it was to ruin a whole hour of prayers by feeling embarrassed about a shirt, and I cried about it. I thought about a lot of stuff, and I knew that I wasn't really crying because of what I was thinking about, I was just crying, and I happened to be thinking, but the crying came first. I felt the back of my heart opening up, and the release of all kinds of everything, and I put my arms up on the table, and I cried, and I cried, and I was so grateful, I was so happy, I was so sorry and accepted, I was so ready to let God do his thing, and I didn't have to do anything, and I let all the big balloons float above me.

I thought about Rav Koenig's smile and nod, and the piercing clarity of his eyes. It seemed like he'd slipped me open just by looking at me. I've been thinking a lot about how Ma does what she does, reaching out and just kinda doing something to people with a word, or a look, or the simple efficacy of her spirit. It might all be the power of suggestion, but then suggestion is much more powerful, and much more subtle, than I used to give it credit for. Whatever she does, however she does it, I think that Rav Koenig does it, too.

Another thing I learned in IA was about being physically sensitive to people. If you let it, your body can be fully aware of the people all around you, in the room and in the neighborhood, and you can shut that out or you can look for it, and there's a time and place for both of those. Weeping on the table, I opened myself up a little bit to the other people in the room, the other people in the city, and for a moment I was weeping for them, too, and not only myself. But that's intense, and it's hard to maintain, and I kind of washed my way back into just me, or just the room, when the bigger self got to be too much.

Tsfat's a really different kinda city than Jerusalem. Jerusalem is holy, but it's very dirty, too. There's a lot of friction in Jerusalem, a lot of boundaries, and a lot of antagonism. Jerusalem gets a lot of attention from the rest of the world, and you can feel it here. Tsfat's on a mountaintop. It's much calmer and cooler and fluid, and it seems like it's the center of a lot of spiritual energy, but it's mostly just sitting there, in Tsfat, instead of running around and inward and outward like it does in Jerusalem. It's intense, really, to feel into, but it's awesome. I could feel the mountain of Tsfat underneath me, with my head on the table, and I could feel the raw available something of the city pushing more of my old karmic crap right on out of me, and I cried harder because of it. Or not harder, but better. More.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav used to teach a practice called Hitbodedut. He said that the written prayers, the standard prayers, are really important, but they aren't really as important as talking to God. He told people to walk off into the woods every day, for an hour every day, and just Talk to God like anyone else. It's an impossible practice. Try it for 20 minutes, once a week, and you'll know what I'm talking about. Kung Fu masters can do it every day for 60 minutes, and if they're lucky they won't burn their eyeballs out in the process. Normal, mortal people have to work up to that. But Rebbe Nachman believed in it, and he taught it, and I don't think he would have seen anything wrong with a kid in a blue shirt leaking his eyes out after prayers in a Breslav synagogue. I thought of this, too, when I was sitting their burbling, and I burbled more.

Before that line about loving God with your whole heart, we recite the central pillar of Jewish faith, the Shema, which goes "Hear O Israel," or (a lot of Jews like to translate Israel as "wrestles with God.") "Listen, God-Wrestler(s). God is our God. God is One." It's an affirmation of God's being and oneness, and it's not just any kind of oneness, but a universal, God is one and there is no Second, there is naught that is not God, God just Is, kind of oneness. It's a powerful prayer, when I can mean it.

Reciting it Friday night, I stumbled over which God I was affirming. There's a God for me here in Israel who's all about doing it right, following the rules, learning the Talmud and the Grammar and the right number of times to shake a palm frond in the Festival of Booths. I'm trying to get familiar with this God, 'cause I think he's important, and that's a lot of what I find myself doing here. I've been keeping stricter rules about Shabbat, and stricter rules about Kashrut, and I'm trying to pray the right words in the right language at all the right moments, of which there are many, and I want to affirm the existence and rightness of the God who pays attention to all of that when I'm saying the Shema.

There's also a God here in Israel, and everywhere, that's a little more loving and organic than that. It might easier to call that side Goddess, if you're okay with that, and she's huggy and forgiving and more interested in your goodness than your righteousness, and I believe in her, too. When I'm trying to do what Mr. God-Boss a-tells me to, she kindly reminds me, sometimes, that I don't need to feel bad that I'm just a beginner and I always will be. I don't want to call Good Cop / Bad Cop, 'cause there's a lot of value in the righteousness deity, but if I were gonna call GC/BC, she'd be the Good Cop.

I really got into the words of the Shema, and everyone there was singing them loudly, and I kinda took my time going through just the first couple. But I noticed, in my affirmation, that by the middle of the sentence everyone else was being quieter than I was, and I retreated back into embarrassment and finished it out as more of a whimper than a prayer. Then that nice moment of being forgiven for not loving God quite so perfectly, yet.

If I were quicker on the uptake, or less distracted, I might have noticed when I got to the word for that Oneness that, maybe, I could affirm both of these God images together, and marvel at their mysterious unity, instead of trying to pick one over the other. I think I did notice this while I was weeping over the table, and if I didn't, I could have, and it would have been totally appropriate. Good Cop and Bad Cop were holding me together at that point. I'd confessed already, and they could give up the routine.

I thought about all the different ways people pray. Some people read loudly, some people read softly. Some people sing, and some mumble. Some communities let one person read for the whole team, and others don't really subject themselves to organization or pattern. I can't go around telling people which ways are right and which aren't. I've got ways that I like, and ways that I don't like, but praying is praying, and I'm not the audience for that. It makes me feel better, thinking about all this, that I'm praying by sounding the words out, and not by telling God, with perfect eloquence and honesty, exactly what God wants to hear. I thought about all the ways of praying, and that maybe my ways aren't any worse than anyone else's ways, and I cried on that for a moment, and kept on crying still.

Karma takes space in your body, you know that? I got to see it a little at Ma's place, but it really got obvious in Maine. It's not nothing, karma. You've got to carry it around with you. You've got to put it somewhere. You can't just leave it at home when you're going out and interacting with people if it's people karma and not home karma. You can't just leave it at home, so you squeeze a little under your eyelids, and tuck a little into your spine, and hide a little bit more in every bone, organ, muscle and nerve, and you carry it around in case you need it for whatever you're running into, wherever you go. A good cry like that, when someone or something or nothing or no one just interrupts your regular rhythm and lets you actually drop something, it gives you space in your body where you can start putting new things. Happy things, if you're lucky, or just new things, if you're less lucky, or maybe nothing at all, if you're really lucky and you like travelling light.

I really don't know what I shed, crying like a warm popsicle for ten minutes, but I could feel it in my body when I stood up again. It's the taste of the open, karma-free space that I was crying about, really. It tastes like water, and it gives you tears. I think the actually shedding happened as soon as Rav Koenig looked up at me. I've got some theories about the mysterious disappearing karma itself, and you'll read them in a minute, but whatever it was lived in my kidneys and the small of my back, and a lot was behind my heart around C7-T1, and a lot of it was in my face, which has felt a lot lighter since this whole thing happened, although I'm sure I'll stuff all kindsa things back into that primo real-estate sooner or later.

My brother-in-law was there when I looked up again. The father of my nephew, this is. He didn't really say anything, but I could see in his eyes that he was cool with it, too. That he had been there, and he didn't need an explanation of anything, and he was totally on my team, and of course he was. He gave me a hug - not a big one - and wished me well, and went out to my sister.

At lunch the next day, somebody shared the idea that on Yom Kippur, we apologize to God for all the things we've done wrong, and we don't get to think about anything we ever did right to make up for it. On Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, we get to celebrate not only that we have been forgiven, but that we're actually not such terrible people after all, and maybe we do get something right once in a while, and maybe this year we'll even get more right than last year.

When I'm trying to get everything right, and I think about the rules, even the small, limited subset of the rules that I'm willing to consider might apply to me, doing it because it's the rule almost never, if ever, feels good. Thinking "You really oughtta, it's the rule," is also rarely an effective way to get myself to do it. It's really hard to serve God 'cause you're supposed to. Or something. But sometimes I can find some other motivation - not exactly like wanting to, more like willing to - that gets me to do the things that the rules say I ought and feel good about it while it's happening. It's like there's a flow heading towards keeping kosher or going to services, and I can ride it or not, and there's really no reason not to. I'm learning that the value of discipline is in nurturing that willingness, and creating opportunities for it to arise. Or something like that, maybe.

The thing ended as gently and easily as it came on. I was crying, and I was crying, and then I was still crying, but I didn't have to be anymore if I didn't want to. I was more and more aware of the people around me, and ready to start acting like a person again myself, and eventually I just looked up and smiled at Lev and said "So how are you doing?" or something to that effect. He handed me a handkerchief, and he gave me a hug, and then my Brother-in-Law, and then we walked out of there again. I think my nephew was there again, too, and I didn't hug him this time. I shook his hand like a real man, and gave him a random salute. I think he was still pretty confused about what to do with me, exactly, but a little bit less so, which speaks well of him.

I'm kind of crying again now, trying to write about all of this, but I can't find the words, still, for what I'm not feeling anymore. I'm sure there are all kinds of other wonderful things that occurred to me, hunched over that table, but I don't know. It's the balloon thing again. Those dudes are gone, man. Maybe they'll come back when they have to.

It's really hard for me, not having a home. I got here month ago, and I moved in a couple weeks ago, almost, and I'm still catching up to myself. I don't know who I am in this country. I'm with new people, in a new place, with this random smattering of deep familiarity and a bunch of people who knew me once, but not so much lately. It was really a gift from Rav Koenig to just let all of that go for a while, and not be anybody necessarily, and just cry about how hard it is to try to love God, and how sweet it is, and how hard it is, and how sweet is is. And and that maybe the reason I'm trying so hard to love is that I already do, and I still don't, and I want to, and I never will. 

I don't really know what he did to me, or subtly suggested, or had nothing to do with, but I'm really, really grateful, still. I think my heart was in a cage, and then it wasn't, and now it is again, but it's a bigger cage, with cleaner windows, and a fresh batch of newspapers lining the floor to poop on.

I went outside and I got some hugs, and I went right on back into crying, and I'm normally really quite talkative, and I had nothing, not anything, to say about what was happening to me. I assured folks I was fine, I was happy, this was good crying, and eventually we all just went over to our dinner hosts. I wanted to save it for writing down later, after Shabbat, because it was loose and disorganized and perfectly beautiful, and I wanted to let it just be what it was instead of knowing what it was, so I could sit at my dining room table and picture Rav Koenig's face and just cry a little more and write out all the little pieces, all the broken flaps of rubber and ribbon, and think about the party that was, and live it over again differently now, and cry again, and cry again, and thank God that God is easy-going enough to really love me, Really Love Me, and hold and sustain my every moment, and never need me to be anything that I amn't, and let me go, let me float away, let me ride off up into whatever, instead of holding me down.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Adventures in Progress

Hi friends,

I'm in Israel now. It's quite warm here.

I'm busy as a barnowl, settling into my class schedule and whatnot.

Yesterday I went to the Department of Faces* to get an appointment to extend my visa. The appointment will be almost a month after my current visa expires, of course, but everyone assures me that's not really a problem.

I'm in a Talmud class. Two days ago I was one with the text. Its secrets were mine to behold. Yesterday I couldn't make heads or tails of what we read. Today we had Torah instead of Talmud, and I learned that the serpent in the garden might have been naked instead of clever (or maybe A+E were clever instead of naked).

I have a lovely apartment with three roommates, one of whom we have yet to identify, and a beautiful, beautiful roof, with this view of Jerusalem, and the wind, and the oy gevalt! It's nice. But I don't have a bed yet, so I've been sleeping at my sister's.

I don't know who I am or anything at the moment, and I've had very little time to bum around on the internet, and I do miss you, and I feel that I owe you  more information than this, but, you know, barnowls. I'll be back when things settle down a little, and we can shmooze.

Shalom l'koolam!

Yotam

* Misrad Ha'Pnim (The Department of Innards) sounds a whole lot like Misrad HaPanim, which would be Faces. I'm not the first to get confused, apparently.