Saturday, October 22, 2011

Simchat Torah: Back to Zero

Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, October 21, 2011

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy...
I am not a narratologist. Or whatever clinical thing you call people who study stories. I certainly like a good narrative. I like novels better than short stories because they end in ways that tend to be forward looking and more often than not optimistic. Whereas short stories always end too soon for me; I haven't built up enough momentum to smash through the sad dead end of their short word count.

As a Jew, I appreciate our practice of narrative multitasking. We read two books at a time, supplementing our weekly Torah portion with a second text, usually from one of the prophets, in what is referred to as a Haftarah. While the connection between the two texts might at first seem superficial, every time we look at them side by side, we can divine a new way that they speak to one another and to us.

I also appreciate our custom of narrative circularity. We no sooner finish reading the end of the Deuteronomy on Simchat Torah than we dive right back into the beginning of Genesis. This is an old, fixed custom. We could have developed a longer reading cycle, going through all our 39 books of scripture over years or decades. How lovely and juicy it would be to spend a whole year with Song of Songs. Or how intense to spend a year with Ecclesiastes, hearkening back to some moody semester of college spent wearing black turtlenecks and reading Sartre.

But no, by formula we read just the first five books, from God's first word to Moshe's last breath, timed to fit the span of one turn around the sun. And then there we are, back again, at one of history's most memorable opening lines. B'reishit. In the beginning...

Of course there are other opening lines that could have worked. For instance, if Torah opened with Cain and Abel, we could have stolen the opening of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Or if Torah started with Noah, we could have gone with Chaucer: "Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote," you know, about April showers. Or, more dramatically, with the Bulwer-Lytton chestnut, "It was a dark and stormy night."

But to start big, to start in a cosmos-sized way, requires ambition. We might have arrived at his: 

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

That, of course, from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But I think, all things considered, we did pretty well with b'reishit as written:

In the beginning of God's creating the heaven and earth, the earth was void and without form, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God's spirit fluttered on the surface of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.

Face it. It is the opening of all openings.

Of course we don't get much information about what was going on before this moment, if there was a moment before this moment. But the Kabbalists fill in the gaps. Before this there is nothing. Or more precisely, before this, all is God. There is only Oneness, which is more like nothing than it is like something. Existence is both empty and chock-full. Ayin, אין, an infinite, undifferentiated zero which is, in itself, God. Then somewhere is the flicker of God's first thought. A slight stirring, God's spirit fluttering over the deep.

In this mystical paraphrase, God then performs an act of tzimtzum, a contraction, a clearing of space in which the world will be created. But not physical space - God continues to be everywhere. But conceptual space: God makes room for an idea: the idea of not-God. The idea of multiplicity, of separateness, of uniqueness. The idea that I can feel separate from you and from this podium and from these clothes; and that individually and collectively we can buy into what the mystics would consider the illusion that we are not God.

Meanwhile, back in the plain text of the Torah, the Universe begins to divide like a newly fertilized egg. First into two - light and dark. Then another split into sky and sea. Then water and dry land. Earth and other heavenly bodies. The cell division accelerates so that plants are born, and fish and land animals and birds and then human history is launched, and we leave simplicity further and further behind us in the dust. We become estranged from Oneness or from Zero-ness. Individuals to families to tribes to nations. Languages, cultures, customs. Misunderstanding. Suffering. Enslavement. Freedom and migration. So much to hold and balance and try to understand.

Until, in Torah at least, we reach the brink of salvation, with a view into a Promised Land that looked to our ancestors more like Eden than anything they'd ever seen; a peek into a long dreamed-of future that strongly resembled the distant and simpler and greener past. And with that simultaneous glance forward and back, we reach Torah's end.

Moshe dies, heartbreakingly, on this brink, without crossing over. The story of course continues. The people cross into the land, which turns out less Edenic than it looked from across the river, they conquer it anyway, and mythology gives way to the harsh business of history. The story continues - but not our narrative, not the way we read it.

The way we read it, our narrative backflips to its starting point: Moshe dies, and then the world is created.

Poet Esther Schor has gone as far as to suggest that the seven days of creation are nothing less than God's shiva for Moshe.*

And why not? How can we not see the loop as continuous? Our sages of old specifically said eyn lifney v'acharei batorah - there is no before and after in Torah. To them, sequence always played second fiddle to meaning.

So we cycle around. God inhales Moshe's soul with a kiss, and the next thing we know, there is God's exhale blowing ripples on the surface of the deep. But there is a moment in between. A moment of returning to zero, like a movie actor between takes, like a cross-fade through black. Moshe returns to that Oneness, that same emptiness, that preceded everything. And we go with him.

And then bang - Big Bang - we're off and running again. B'reishit...

What if we could do this in our lives? In all our personal ebb and flow? When our complexity starts to feels like chaos. What if we could have that moment of zero back. Where we empty ourselves of all the distinctions: this and that, before and after, you and me, desire and obligation, love and loneliness. A moment just to be - so purely to be that it's almost like not being at all. Let's all just take a moment to close our eyes and breathe it all out. Let yourself feel empty. Let worries and complexities drain from you. Go to a place inside you that no one else even knows. Embody that space. And then let yourself sink even a little deeper. Back to where you were before language. Before birth. Sit and breathe. Then when you're ready, open your eyes, and enjoy the treat of seeing this world again.

That is a tiny taste. A read practice of going back to zero might feel something like that. There are plenty of Buddhist practices and Jewish ones too aiming at just that.

And the availability of the return to zero is modeled by our Torah reading. From nothing we move into so much and then we circle back to nothing. Every year. Circle after circle after circle.

But there is one more dimension to this incessant spin. Moving through zero might renew us. It might offer us a fresh eye and startling new awareness. But it doesn't actually start us over again. So I don't experience this cycling of Torah as a simple circle. Because even if the words of Torah that I read are the same this year as last, I am not. I see things differently than I did a year ago. I notice different things in the story. Different characters draw me; different problems trouble me.

Our looping Torah is only a circle when looked at flatly, two-dimensionally. But add the third dimension - me - and the circle reveals itself as a spiral, a helix corkscrewing forward. The story circles but moves onward with me. My changing life brings new information and new insight to the story as it and I move forward together. My life becomes the Haftarah.

So every Simchat Torah we go back to the beginning at the same time that we continue to forge ahead. We point in both directions, with the wonder of the newborn and the wisdom of the elder. So given that, what would a suitable closing for Torah be?

We could coopt famous forward-looking closings, like "Tomorrow is another day." Moses could accept his imminent death and intone, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known." Or he could address God using the same petname that Berrine here uses, and say, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Or with equal validity, we might foreshadow our imminent return to the beginning, using the closing of The Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

In point of fact, Torah ends this way:

No other prophet like Moshe has arisen in Israel, who knew God face to face. No one else to produce the signs and miracles that God let him display in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his land, or to do any of the acts mighty or terrible that Moshe did before the eyes of all Israel.

That's it. There was never and will never be another like Moshe, who saw God face to face.

Never, that is, until the next read-through.

And there he will be again. Poised, looking toward God and God looking back, their eyes locked, their gaze pointing in both directions. And we will be back there too, having passed through zero in order to see this scene anew. We will be back there, because our tradition insists on it. We will have beaten on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. But as we look, we will inevitably be moving forward as well. And why not? After all, tomorrow is another day.

* If you have limited time, stop reading this drash this instant, and click here to read Esther's brilliant and inspired piece instead.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

For Tomorrow You May Live

Kol Nidre Sermon for Congregation Ner Shalom
October 7, 2011

A morning flight over Manhattan this spring triggered these memories.

If you were here for Selichot a couple weeks ago, you might remember my telling about the Seer of Lublin, who instructed his Chasidim to pray that their teshuvah might come from a place of abundance and expansiveness and joy. But we typically think of teshuvah, this process of repentance and forgiveness and repairing of relationships, as being instead a kind of contraction, a constriction. Teshuvah is inherently interior and humbling.

Plus the teshuvah we do this time of year has a special flavor of sadness to it. Yom Kippur serves, explicitly, as a memento mori. A reminder that we will all die. Death hangs over us in the Yom Kippur liturgy like the sword of Damocles. It is strategically placed to impel our teshuvah, to shortcut our resistance and give us quicker access to whatever regrets, old business or other shmutz we're hanging onto. Face it: compared to death, our feeble excuses for not doing the healing work we need to do are, well, feeble.

Awareness of death is so intrinsically part of the Yom Kippur toolbox that when I mentioned to a rabbi friend that I was still deciding on a Yom Kippur sermon topic, he replied, "Mortality always works." Which was meant to be both sarcastic and completely true.

On Yom Kippur we are reminded of being dust and ashes. Our lives are compared to a tzel over - a passing shadow. We ask, "Who by fire, who by water, who by sword, who by beast," and on and on, our possible bad ends spelled out with a kind of masochistic glee worthy of Edward Gorey:

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs
B is for Basil assulted by bears...

So death provides perspective. But it also provides impetus. It is a final Closing of the Gates, an ultimate deadline for getting our houses in order. In Pirkei Avot (2:15), we read the ancient words of Rabbi Eliezer, who says:

ושוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך

"You should repent the day before you die."

"But," Rabbi Eliezer's disciples objected, "one can't know the day of one's death!" Rabbi Eliezer replied, "Then do teshuvah today, lest you die tomorrow."

This instruction becomes the source of our custom of the bedtime shema, recited upon going to sleep, which features an actual vidui, an actual confession, like we do here on Yom Kippur, naming sins, asking for forgiveness and forgiving those who have harmed us.

But here's the irony of the bedtime shema or deathbed wills or impulse marriages or any kind of behavior undertaken in anticipation of imminent death. As Dorothy Parker once wrote:

Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die.
(But, alas, we never do.)

We might prepare for imminent death. But then mostly, far more times than not, in fact all times except once really, we live. We just simply live. We are all in this room together today because we have lived. At every juncture when it might have been otherwise, we have lived. So what then is the role of an awareness of the imminence of death in a world in which, mostly, we live? I will tell you a story. 

In September of 2001, someone I know was living temporarily in New York to be part of an Off-Broadway show. September 11 was his birthday, and he was eager to fly home to California and celebrate with his family. He'd intended to take an early morning flight out of Newark, but the show's producer had a scheduling problem, so she had to call a production meeting first thing in the morning on the 11th, despite his birthday and travel plans. So instead he booked a flight home for afternoon.

As you understand from the dates, the towers came down that day. The flight he would have preferred was hijacked and, like three other jets, used as a weapon of destruction. None of the passengers survived, of course.

This story is my story and I don't tell it very much. Because I lived. It is a near-miss story, and no one so much wants to hear a near-miss story, and after a while, no one wants to tell it either. I lived. It was that simple. I was not on that plane. And I might not have been anyway. The seats could have all been booked or I might have chosen a departure an hour later. I lived. I opened my show in New York, I closed my show in New York, I moved back, I began touring, I moved to Sonoma County. The rest you know. The thing I didn't really do was talk or think about this experience. Until a friend challenged me not long ago on the fact that I don't, and she found that suspicious.

But haven't we all had our near misses? Hasn't the Angel of Death passed over all of our houses once, or many times? The problem is that it feels wrong to dwell on our close shaves when there were others whom the Angel actually took.

We have all lost friends in untimely ways to disaster or danger or disease. Sometimes many people. In the 1980s and early 90s I lost so many friends and acquaintances to AIDS that I used to keep a list because I was so afraid I'd forget their names. Isn't this also the experience of survivors of the Shoah? The sea of loss and the inexplicability of survival.

Or the near misses that don't happen in dramatic times of plague or war or genocide, but instead happen on no particular day, in some random week, on a streetcorner. We carry our near misses with us. Whether we think about them or talk about them or not, they are under our skin, in our bones. We were in danger. We survived. Others didn't. This means something.

We have all had near misses, whether we're fully aware of them or not. Each of us has defeated odds to be here. Are we more deserving than those who didn't make it? I look back at some of my ACTUP friends of the early 1990s who were so brave and brilliant and beautiful and who died such miserable deaths and I know that the answer is obviously no. I am not more deserving. None of us is more deserving of life than the ones we lost were.

We are all deserving. They were. And we are. But sometimes we don't quite feel our own worthiness. It is so easy to think of them, think of the people we've lost, and wish that they were here. And think how wonderful the world would be, what a blessing it would be, if they were still here now.

But do we bother to notice how we are also the answer to the same prayer? What if we weren't here, and people were thinking how wonderful it would be if we were still alive. The answer is: it would be this wonderful, exactly this wonderful. This is how it would be. Because here we are. We are here when we might not have been.

The poet Billy Collins has a poem in which he pulls out of the driveway but pulls back in to go into the house and get a book. And he imagines a self that didn't bother, heading out without the book, running ten minutes ahead, living a slightly different life, and at times he feels like he can catch sight of him somewhere just ahead. We all imagine and sometimes wish for the lives we might have had, if we'd made a different decision at some important or unimportant juncture. What if. What if. But we also need to appreciate that right now we are living lives we might not have had at all, if we'd made a different decision at some important or unimportant juncture.

Each one of us is a blessing. Each one of us is unlikely. Every day you are here is a day you in fact might not have been. Every day is worthy of that great a joy. Even a day that is mundane. A day of shopping or bill paying or working or worrying or just hanging in and muddling through. This is a day you might not have had, a day the world might not have had you, a day this community might not have had you. This is a day worthy of celebration and gratitude.

I'll tell you, the thought that I might not have had these ten years; that I might not have had this life in this place with this family and this community; that I might not have had the chance to do this thing that I do here, that I am doing right now: that thought is unbearable. Even with life's typical moments of tediousness and mistakes and annoyances and hurt feelings and car trouble. Not to have had it is unthinkably heartbreaking.

This day is a bonus. Yesterday was a bonus. These 10 years. Or these 30 years. Or the whole thing. Because really what were the odds of any of us being born to begin with? This is all bonus.

So what a waste to spend it hobbled by fear of what could have happened, or numbed by the idea that our lives aren't important or interesting or fill-in-the-adjective enough. We are miracles. Each and every one of us in the room. And you should treat yourself as such. And everyone else in the room.

"Choose life," says Torah. "I have set before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Therefore choose life that you may live." Torah wants us to do more than merely exist, to do more than opt against death. Torah says we have to choose life if we want to live. That is the blessing. Not just living. But choosing to live. To really live.

The memory of those who died is a great blessing to us. And so are the lives of those who survived. Everyone who survived disease or disaster or who dove back onto the curb as a car sped by. Everyone who survived and who went on to do any one of a million mundane and unglamorous things. Our lives are a blessing.

The Angel has passed by our doorsteps for now. And none of those who have gone before us would begrudge us this life that, for whatever reason, we're still living, or our joy at living it. So why should we begrudge or shortchange it? Instead, it is our job to make this a life that is full and awake and holy.

And so when Rabbi Eliezer says, "Do teshuvah now for tomorrow you may die," I am forced to think he was meaning something a little different. "Do teshuvah now," I think he might really have meant, "for tomorrow you may live."

And so I will do my teshuvah today, for tomorrow I may live. Dying with a clean conscience? Dying with my relationships whole and intact? Yeah, that'd be so nice. But more important: I want to live with a clean conscience. Live with my relationships whole and intact.

So, thank you Rabbi Eliezer, I will do my teshuvah today, I will do my teshuvah everyday, for who knows, tomorrow I may live, and I need to be prepared. I will do my teshuvah with gratitude and joy for this life that I have been inexplicably and undeservedly given, and with gratitude and joy for the blessing of the people around me, any one of whose lives is as unlikely and precious as mine. I will do my teshuvah ambitiously, to make this life as good as it can get, and to leave the world better than I found it. Might I have more chances? More lives after this one? The Buddhists and the Chasidim seem to think so. But this is the only one I can bank on. And so I will choose life. Really choose life. May we all really choose life.

Avinu Malkenu kotvenu b'sefer chayim tovim, our Source, our Guide, inscribe us this year in that book of yours not merely for life, but for a good life. A life that is treasured as the wonder that it is. A life which, even while having a fleeting shadow's brevity, boasts a fleeting shadow's beauty.

Let us do our teshuvah this holiday as the Seer of Lublin imagined it: with abundance and expansiveness and joy. And why not? For tomorrow we may live.

I am grateful to Michele Bonnarens for the insight, the love and the push, and to Eli Cohen for a very helpful dinner at the hot springs.

Friday, October 7, 2011

At the Closing of the Gates

This is a chant that came through for me the other day in ancticipation of the Ne'ilah Service - the metaphorical closing of the gates at the end of Yom Kippur. Some friends have commented that they are uncomfortable with the fourth line, "and you won't turn away," and proposed substitutions of "we won't turn away" and "please don't turn away." For me, the lyrics as written work - as a statement of hope and belief. But a leader could choose a different lyric or vary the words in different iterations, creating a more complex statement of relationship: hope, commitment, anxiety, petition. 

I also think this could be read inwardly - not words to God, or only to God, but to the self one wants to invite in.

The melody seemed to move my cousin Alden Solovy, who composed two prayer poems in response:
Meditation Before Neilah and At the Gates.