Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hebrew, Habits, and Humility

Hi Friends,

A quick update on the events I wrote about last time. After posting that story, I found out that Rebbe Nachman wrote somewhere about the dangers of the evil eye, and how it can cause embarrassment, and also that by looking at the face of a holy man, like Rav Koenig, you can release trapped emotions. I happened across this info in a book of Rebbe Nachman teachings, and I was totally like "Whoah! That's exactly what happened to me!" So that's cool.

Since that story happened I've started up at school again, and it's a busy, busy life. If I made it to morning prayers every day (Shacharit, 7:30 AM) and went to all my classes, and stayed for evening prayers every night, I'd be at school for a nice, round 60 hours a week. I haven't made it to morning prayers every day, exactly, but I'd like to. I also meet up with my brother and sister after school for more studying once a week, and cook lunches for my roommates most evenings, buy groceries and schoolbooks and whatnot... it all adds up, you know? I had a lot of time to myself back in America, and I just don't, here.

I'm pretty overwhelmed, really. School is hard, and I'm in this new country... Whatever. It's not even culture shock. Everyone here speaks English, and school is a total America-bubble. But I'm surrounded be new people, and I feel totally removed from my former life and self... When I think about taking to friends in the States, I haven't the foggiest idea where to begin. Life here just is, you know. There's no explaining it to anyone.

I'm learning a lot, and that's the reason I came here. I felt, back in LA and in Florida, that I couldn't really grow as a Jew without learning Hebrew, and the prayer services specifically, and I'm picking those up at a good clip. I've got 14 hours of Talmud a week - ancient Aramaic arguments about everything under the sun - and 7 hours of bible study and prayers and studying prayers... I've got a biblical grammar class for two hours a week that scratches my math itch, but I really should study that more in my off time. I'm surrounded by passionate, interesting, knowledgeable Jews with thoughts to share, and I'm taking all of it as fast as I can.

Stopping to write like this, to actually take the measure of my life instead of chasing my next obligation, is weirdly difficult. Day by day I'm just going for it. I'm just going for the ride.

I feel like I'm jogging, or something, and I'm just starting to get into that zone. I can keep up my schedule, learn what I need to and get where I'm going, but I can't stop to think about it. Thinking about it, judging whether it's right or its wrong, if this whole Jewish system I'm studying is brilliance or nonsense, if I'm in the right place, if I'm doing the right thing... Don't bother me with questions, buddy. I'm busy right now. If I tried to know where I am, I'd lose my way and never get where I'm going.

Another of my classes is called Practical Halakha, and we're studying a book of contemporary Orthodox rules. For instance, the first thing you should do in the morning is thank God for restoring your soul to you, and immediately afterward purify your hands with ritual washing. Some Jews often keep a bottle of water and empty bowl by their bed at night so they don't have to touch anything before washing in the morning. Rules like this, many of them reasonable, or at least understandable, and others totally inscrutable even to the experts on the subject, govern basically everything that you do from waking 'til sleeping. (We haven't gotten there yet, but I'm looking forward to learning the correct order in which to clip my fingernails. I'll let you know.) The rabbi teaching the course suggested we try out some of the commandments we read for a week at a time, just to see how they feel on us, but not try to commit ourselves to following all of them right away.

His interpretation of Halakha (lit. The Way, refers to the complete corpus of  Jewish law) is that it's a constant, low-intensity mindfulness meditation. Every little action, a hundred times a day, reminds you that your choices matter, but your ego doesn't. Don't worry over deciding for yourself what order to clip your fingernails in - God or Tradition had worked that out for you, thank you. It's humbling, ideally, to follow an arbitrary, inscrutable ruling over your own personal will.

I feel kind of similarly about my overwhelm here lately. I've always got somewhere to be, something to do, probably something I'm not very good at, no time for laziness, no time for willfulness. I'm taking in more new knowledge every day than I can keep up with, hoping enough of it will stick, not knowing how much is enough, not knowing how much is sticking. I feel like the dumbest guy in my Talmud class sometimes, the least prepared pray-er at prayers, and it's awesomely hard.

This whole year, I'm starting to reckon, is about absorbing a system that might be smarter than I am, aligning myself to something better than me. It's not about God, exactly, in some abstract and wonderful sense. It's about Judaism, a living breathing beast of its own, one that I'm part of and hungry for, and too busy encountering to try to understand. If I do what I'm told, and learn what I can, and just get through the day every day, I'll be right where I aimed at about 8 or 9 months from now. Trusting the process, and letting go of willfulness, is what gets me into that zone.

I'm just going for it. I'm just going, friend. I can't think about where.


  1. This is Max Graf
    I read your post

  2. In your opinion, what does it mean for god to restore your soul to you when you awake? where did it go while you slept?

    "I've got a biblical grammar class for two hours a week that scratches my math itch." When you have time one day when you are not busy, explain to me how grammar and your math itch are related. I have some theories, having a fondness myself for linguistics, but I won't jump to conclusions.

  3. You're not used to not being the best at what you do, and having to struggle to keep the pace. It requires a ceratin emotional tenacity, but you've got it. After all these years I'm still not sure where it is eactly that I'm headed with this process. It's not where I thought I was going. I'm not sure it's even in the same solar system. But either way, I'm still enjoying sharing the journey with you whenever I am lucky enough that the paths overlap. By the way I took up crocheting when in michlala everything was so far over my head, that I needed something to anchor me as the waves crashed over my head.

  4. Hi Surya! I should be asleep right now, but...

    I don't know that my soul is the kind of thing that can go places, etc etc. But thanking God for restoring it mean that, right at the moment you wake up you come into awareness of your soul, awareness of God, gratitude, servitude, and recognition that each day is a gift. That's not bad, really. When I remember to do it, and do it right, I get a buzz that can last for most of the morning.

    Biblical Grammar, so far, has been about following the rules. There are right and wrong answers, and you get to the right answer by framing the question correctly and applying the relevant rule-set. It all just fits nicely in the definitions and theorems mindset I'm used to from Math classes.

  5. this is nice.
    you seem interesting.
    i think i'd like to meet you.