Sunday, December 6, 2015

Chanukah 5776: Being the Light

Wishing a light-filled Chanukah to all.

Follow the link below to my recent Chanukah offering. In a world were bad things will continue to happen, and many good things too, what is our role? If the world is not "fixable", what is Tikkun Olam?

Maybe our job is simply to be a light.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The View from the Ladder

Sometimes you just need a ladder, because the view from the ground is not good. You need to climb out of the fray, out of the noise, out of all that weighs you down...

[The Itzik's Well has moved. To read this post, click here.]

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Itzik's Well Has Moved!

Thank you for visiting this blogspot!

Feel free to browse around here for past posts. But from here forward, you'll find my thoughts residing at To skip right to the Itzik's Well blog part of that site, click here.

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Meanwhile, if you'd like to see today's post, about the power of blessing to re-think and re-shape our world, and what that might mean on the day after Paris, click here.

Be in touch!


Friday, October 2, 2015

Road Trip Harvest

Sukkot Drash 5776

הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ
Hazor'im b'dim'ah b'rinah yiktzoru. 
Who sows in tears reaps in joy. (Psalm 126:5)

Tonight is a night of hallel. A night of praise, of gratitude. We sit here, in the waning days of Sukkot. It is the time of our harvest, when we gather in all that we've cultivated, all that the weather has allowed, and feel grateful.

And I am feeling singularly grateful tonight and all this week. I just returned from a particularly magical journey. I flew to Chicago the morning after Yom Kippur. There I picked up my mother's car, which has been a subject of speculation since she died. Because everyone wants a car that was only driven by a little old lady going to church on Sundays. In her case it was the diner for breakfast, but the principle holds true. But I have the same blind attachment to that car as I have had to everything in my mother's house, and so, unable to part with it, I decided to bring it back here to California.

So I collected the car in Chicago, and my husband and I set out on a cross-country trek. I've never done this drive before. The northern route, through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, ending up in a Nevada town rather optimistically named Jackpot, and from there home on Wednesday. This trip included two states I'd never set foot in and my first-ever visits to Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands and Yellowstone.

So I am keenly aware of the joy and wealth of new experience that I harvested in this week's yield. New vistas. Discoveries. Good time together. We crossed the Great Plains, reading aloud a cautious and conscious combination of Lakota stories and Willa Cather. We binged on Krista Tippett's "On Being" podcast, getting dewy-eyed at the words of poets and thinkers, finding inspiration at 75 mph.

We were overwhelmed by the sheer force of nature. Big skies. Sudden storms. A night of driving under the chupah of the Milky Way, hundreds of miles from the nearest electric light, with the lunar eclipse unfolding over our left shoulder.

We spent two days in Yellowstone, which I kept calling Yosemite, perhaps because Yosemite has the word Semite in it, although truthfully, Yellowstone sounds much more like a Jewish name, changed from Gelbstein at Ellis Island. Yosemite, sorry, Yellowstone was tremendous. I'd never been around so much geothermal activity, with Old Faithful as the most humdrum of the lot. Pools, geysers, cauldrons, bubbling mud bowls. The sulfur breath of sleeping dragons, snoring under toasted meringue earth. And even in those most forbidding pools of searing, bitter water, there was life. Algae in gold and green and pink, turning the white volcanic ground into delicate Helen Frankenthaler paintings.

I found myself noticing the ways in which culture and nature have interacted. On one extreme was Mt. Rushmore. After a brief moment of excitement at seeing this famous thing that has been on postcards and highway rest stop placemats my whole life, it quickly came to look like a wound, a gouge, on the landscape. Whenever I tried to look at the sweep of the beautiful Black Hills, my eye kept getting drawn inexorably back to the white spot that was Mt. Rushmore, humanity declaring that its ephemeral governments outweigh the enduring hills.

In contrast, Yellowstone seemed to be much more about leaving nature to its own devices while giving us some access to witness it close up. I found myself grateful to the anonymous people who designed and built the network of wheelchair-accessible boardwalks that enable you to wander through this geothermal Eden without damaging it, or without damaging it so much. I appreciated how the designer would have had to be part architect, part educator and part aesthete. I was grateful for the tremendous beauty of this place, and for the opportunity to have, for a few minutes, front row seats.

But enough geology. The wildlife! We saw prairie dog towns. Pronghorns and elk. A single mama bear with her cub. In South Dakota we met feral burros that would crowd around cars and poke their muzzles into the windows in hopes of a junk food fix. We saw thousands of bison, huge and ungainly, their enormous heads the size of a 12-year old, and so much mass resting on their front haunches that their smaller rear limbs started looking to me like training wheels.

My appreciation of nature did not end there, but extended to things I learned about my husband's nature. For instance, that no matter how many herds of bison we had already seen, he will invariably elect to pull over to see the next herd, meeting each wave with equal scrutiny and delight. Similarly, if there is one more geothermal pool, and we have only seen 30 of them, why would we not opt for 31?

It was a wonderful trip. Short and packed. And Sukkot is a great time to be outdoors, and I loved bringing in this experience as the last of my harvest for the year.

Because my harvest contained other stuff as well, not all of it this much fun. It contained important if difficult learnings. For instance, a realization, after 8 years of leading High Holy Days, that the 10 Days of Awe will always, for me, be preceded by the 20 Days of Doubt and the 10 Days of Despair. And this, I finally learned, is my creative landscape, not a deviation from it. A hard learning but, I hope, a good one.

I harvested other important learnings this year, things about parenting, about loss, about second chances and new beginnings. I learned new things about learning itself. My harvest this year included many kinds of fruit. Some tasty and ripe. Some not so much.

But it could have been otherwise. So many others harvested bitter produce this year: loss of loved ones, loss of homes, loss of work, loss of health. We all experienced powerlessness over things happening in our families or communities or elsewhere in the world. And all of those can be bitter things to find growing in our fields.

But here's the thing about harvest: it doesn't all have to taste good, and it doesn't need to be processed all at once. No one reaps a field of grain and turns it into challah the same day. Some things might take years to figure out where they came from and what role they might play. No, the harvests of our lives don't require immediate action; they don't require instant insight. They just demand our consideration, our notice.

That is why this holiday of Sukkot has us move out of our homes and into the fields to live in the flimsiest of structures. So that we can get close to our harvest. Not the labor of it, but the wonder of it. Because good or bad, the harvest is wondrous.

There are very few requirements for how a sukkah may be built. But one requirement is that through the roof we must be able to see stars. And once we know that we are supposed to be able to see stars, how can we resist looking? How can we resist raising our gaze and seeing the vastness?

Seeing stars through the roof is an invitation to what the Kabbalists call mochin d'gadlut,  expanded consciousness. We spend our year caught up in all the particulars of our lives. Because our lives require so much attention and action. We describe ourselves as swamped, as trying to keep our heads above water, as buried under a pile of work, as overwhelmed. We constantly describe our vantage point as being smaller than and underneath the facts of our own lives.

But wait - look at the stars! Or the moon in eclipse, hanging brown and bulbous against a wash of galaxy. How can it not bring a kind of hush, a kind of liftoff, an aerial view of our landscape? Looking at our life, even briefly, from above; getting out from under it to breathe the crisp night air above it; to look at it with some distance, some dispassion, some compassion. This is mochin d'gadlut, the spacious mind that Sukkot, that the very architecture of the sukkah, invites us to try out.

From that great height, we can notice how extraordinary our lives are, even in their mundane particulars. We can see the strange bedfellows of joy and sorrow, hardship and jackpot, love and loneliness, sickness and health, challenge and blessing that populate our maps. In mochin d'gadlut we can see how remarkable this life is in all its complexity, and be free, for that moment, from the need to fix a thing.

So while this holiday is still upon us, let us bring in our harvests and see what's there. What will feed us now. What maybe should get canned or milled or pickled and put in the pantry, so that sometime later, at the right moment, we might discover it as the perfect ingredient, the salt or sweet of a future feast.

Chag sameach.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Year of the Good Word

Yom Kippur 5776

I've been grieving over the past few days over some words I said that I can’t take back. I yelled at my teenager in the most unseemly way. It was surprising enough to both of us that the teenager said, “Irwin, what is this really about?” And we were able to have a nice little meta-conversation that we don’t usually get to have. Although my stupid pride – or stupid shame – kept me from adding other pieces of the picture, like: your brother left for college yesterday and I’m really sad; and it’s almost Yom Kippur and I’m full of self-doubt . In any event, the immediate outcome of all of this was by all appearances okay. I apologized. He accepted my apology. But I was left haunted by my own words, wishing, like we all do, that I could take them back, and try the whole moment over again.
Because words are powerful. Torah tells us that this world came into existence through words (Psalms 33:6). God said, “Light!” and there was light. And then onward through a whole week of directives, with heaven, earth, tree, bug and human appearing one after the other, like exclamation points at the end of each of God’s sentences.
Our mystics understood words to be sources of power. Combinations of letters could force God’s hand. Words inscribed in clay could raise a golem to life or consign it back to the dust. In the kabbalistic view, the structure of our whole reality rests not on atoms or waves but on 22 Hebrew letters, like how in the Matrix movies reality is a projection of binary code.
Jews believe in the power of words. That’s why we have a Yom Kippur prayer like Kol Nidre, where we try to undo them. We say, Release us from our vows. Let our oaths be not-oaths and our promises be not-promises. The Kol Nidre prayer arose in times when Jews were sometimes forced to make oaths of fealty to king or cause or god not of our choosing. But I think it’s equally as powerful as a lament over our own, everyday misuse of words. We ask for our words to be nullified, for them to be reeled back in as if they were never uttered. We know that can’t happen. But we pray that at least the damage we’ve unleashed can somehow be stemmed.
Words are powerful and they can hurt in a million ways. As kids we used to say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me,” an adage that is an obvious lie. Because years later, the broken bones of our childhoods are healed. But the wounds from the names we were called, from the taunts of our tormentors or the fault-finding of our loved ones, continue to haunt us and to hobble us. My worst childhood memories do not involve fists, which I was reasonably good at dodging. The memories that haunt me are about words. There are a million examples. But I’ll just share that when the high school band, within a litany of cutesy year-end awards, voted me “biggest fruit” and this was read aloud by the band director to the band, the damage included an end of my musical life until I was coaxed back in my thirties.
Words are powerful.
And words are cheap. Now more than ever. I open my computer and am met by hundreds of emails; mostly ads; aptly called spam – both tasteless and treyf. By the time I get up from my screen, I have wasted hours of my “one wild and precious life”[1] on thousands of words that do no honor to this world and make no effort to.
The truth is that I love words. I studied linguistics for years. Words can tell you history much like fossils or the rings of a tree can. You can guess at migrations and cultural contact and technological developments and the evolution of metaphors that become so commonplace we don’t even notice that they’re metaphors.
Words are brilliant. And I think they deserve better than how we have come to use them. I think they have the right to convey something of substance, whether it’s love or hope or wonderment or consolation or important information (of course) or song or respectful disagreement or even playful nonsense. They obviously can carry other kinds of content, but I don’t think they like it.
In my first, short-lived lawyer job, I learned that my words were for hire. They had a kind of economic value whether or not I actually agreed with them. And as I assembled strings of words to help defend polluters or Savings & Loan looters, I felt both my unhappiness and theirs.  
Compared to that, my career as a singing drag queen was a dream. I could say anything! Fling words into the air in song and in jest, making people laugh. I would know before I said it how each word would land. In the Kinsey Sicks, we would use our words to poke fun at power, to point out injustice, even to make fun of funny things about words themselves. How lovely was this! But there was an occupational hazard too. I became – and still am – a little too quick with the sarcastic quip. See, the culture prizes ironic humor because we live in a cynical time. No one expects much good to happen. We expect to be laughed at if we speak from our hearts. So we speak indirectly, ironically, with a certain roll of the eyes embedded right into the syllables. I do value being funny. But I’m learning that it’s not always good for me to lead with it. Because I have too often let loose an automatic, not fully thought-out sarcastic comment and as the words leave my mouth I’ve seen them look back over their shoulders at me with disapproval.
Now wouldn’t it be nice if our words had veto power? If they could refuse us if they disagree with the purpose we’re putting them to. What if I opened my mouth in anger at my kid or unthinkingly in sarcasm and found that my words weren’t even there, that they had absconded to some margarita bar somewhere on the far side of my cerebral cortex, waiting for me to chill out. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Sadly that’s not the case. Words seem to show up for duty, no matter how dirty the deed. And that always surprises me. When some bub says to a presidential candidate, “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims…when can we get rid of them,” I wonder how words can even contain such ugliness. How is it that they don’t shatter at its touch, like searing tea poured into glass, leaving shards of broken syllables scattered on the floor.
And then in those “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims” moments, we wait with hope for the candidate’s courageous riposte. Words that will put a halt to the hate mongering and redeem the moment and our morality. And the right words are there, in the bullpen, powerful words, real sluggers, saying, “Pick me! Pick me! Send me in.” But instead, the politician responds: “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things.” Using words to say nothing but only to wink back at hate.
Now it’s easy to condemn this particular pair of interlocutors. That particular moment was high profile and is still on our minds. Be aren’t we all guilty – I know I am – of leaving the right words in the bullpen when they’re needed? When someone speaks hatefully about Muslims, or patronizingly about African Americans, or makes a cheap joke at the expense of transgender people or fat people or Jews or some other easy, popular target. All those times that we leave our good words un-deployed – those are moments for which we need to make teshuvah. And to hope that the Kol Nidre prayer can reel back in not only our harsh words but also our complicit silences.
So I’ve decided that for me, 5776 is going to be the year of Right Speech. The year of the Good Word. Since last year, the shmitah year, represented the shabbes of a seven-year cycle, this year must represent the first day of Creation, the one in which God first spoke; the day in which words first had consequence. So here are 3 Jewish principles that I’m going to offer myself, and you by association, to guide my tongue.
(1)  Be like Hillel: kind and humble in your speech.
There’s a famous story in Talmud of a long-raging dispute between the School of Rabbi Hillel and the School of Rabbi Shammai.[2] A heavenly voice suddenly intrudes into the assembly and says eylu v’eylu divrei Elohim chayim. “Both these and those are the words of the living God.” Meaning that your adversary’s words might also come from a holy impulse, even if you don’t agree with them. Seeing that possibility can shift your feelings in any conflict. But there’s more. The heavenly voice continues, announcing that despite the holiness of everyone’s words, the School of Hillel wins. “Why?” asks Talmud, and goes right on to answer. “Because they were kindly and modest and spoke about their opponents’ view before their own,” unlike the School of Shammai, which had been known to go out of their way to scold Jews for the way they kept the law. So, Principle #1: be like Hillel. Let your words be kindly and modest.
(2)  Keep me from Lashon Hara
The idea of lashon hara, of evil speech, is an old one in Judaism. It focuses less on speaking meanly to someone, which mostly we all try to resist, and instead on speaking meanly about someone behind their back. Sometimes it is subtle. It can take the form of a joke. Or even just a tone of voice.
I do this more than I’d like to admit. It’s terrible and cowardly and so inviting because there isn’t a huge risk of being caught. And we can’t really pretend that it doesn’t hurt the person just because they’re not hearing it. It paves the way for other people to judge or mistreat them. And it hurts us too. It makes us more and more practiced at being uncompassionate; and I do not want a neshomeh that is practiced at being uncompassionate. So, Principle #2: keep off the lashon hara. If saying something about someone makes you feel gleefully guilty, maybe you actually don’t need to say it.
(3)  Silence is an Option
Sometimes in all of our struggles figuring out what is the right thing to say and what is the wrong thing to say, we forget that not saying is also available to us. That silence isn’t just absence of sound; it has heft and substance. Psalm 65 says, “God, to you silence is tehilah – praise.”[3] Silence is in itself a psalm. Psalm 46 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”[4]  
So maybe once, instead of delivering the well-timed quip, I might opt instead for silence. Profound things can happen in the silence. We can more readily relocate our Hillel-like compassion and humility. And sometimes, in the silence, if we listen, we can hear the kol d’mamah dakah, the still, small voice. The deep intuition or the angelic encouragement. What we stand to gain in our silence is sometimes far greater than what we stand to gain by opening our mouths, certainly by opening our mouths in anger or annoyance. And the soul-space that your silence opens up in you is now a new vessel to receive the light of the Shechinah. And doesn’t that sound nice? So Principle #3: Consider Silence.
So with these three principles and more as I stumble upon them, I enter this year of Right Speech, this year of the Good Word.
In Torah, in the Book of Numbers, there is a moment when an angel with a sword appears in the path of a prophet on his way to curse the Children of Israel. I want that. I want that app. May I be blessed when I open my mouth with a curse at the ready, that an angel appears before me. No sword necessary. The angel is enough. And may it stop me from my errand.
May I put my words to good use. And may I hold them with the care that I might hold a beloved child. And may I hold the child with the greatest care of all.

 Wishing friends and readers a g'mar chatimah tovah.

[1] “The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver.
[2] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b
[3] Psalm 65:2
[4] Psalm 46:10

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of

Rosh Hashanah 5776

I’d like to start tonight by telling you a dream that I had. Not recent. I’ve been sitting on this one for a year and a half, not knowing quite what to do with it.

The dream came to me while I was performing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It was hot and I went to sleep with the balcony doors open, looking out over the dazzlingly blue Bay of Banderas. It was just a month after my mother’s death; in fact it was my first day out of shloshim, the 30-day mourning period. And in my dream, I walked into some old European sanitarium, and there was a doctor there and my mother too. And the doctor had figured out what was wrong with her and it was an easy fix and he'd just gone ahead and fixed it and she was instantly okay – younger and stronger than I’d ever seen her, and they said there was no longer a reason for her to be there. So I took her and we drove. But not home. We were now driving up a mountain in the middle of a Greek island; climbing, climbing as if up to Olympus itself, with the Mediterranean all around and views to the horizon in every direction.

As we drove, we sat side by side in the car, just as we had at the moment of her stroke. And at this point in the dream my waking memory began to seep in. I realized something was not right. I pulled over and told her that we’d already sat shiva for her and it had been so sad. And I fell on her shoulder and she held me while I cried.

Now that’s pretty much the entirety of the dream. It was beautiful and sad, and not particularly deep. It was clearly venting my grief, helping me let go of the weeks – and actually years – of worry about her health and wellbeing. It was my subconscious giving me a chance to feel some peace.

But it didn’t just feel like my subconscious, whatever that means. It felt messagey, like I know grieving people often experience. It felt like a hello. And a message that she was okay. And its feeling that way was, for me, a problem.

Because first off – and you might not know this – I am a terrible cynic. Despite this work of mine here on this bimah, despite the stories I tell here and the connections I draw between worlds, I feel like I am always holding some amount of it within quotation marks. I soar aloft here and then, thud, I land back in my flightless day-to-day. I’m not sure where I get such cynicism from. My family, on my mother’s side, are all Litvaks. And the Litvak, as you might know, always plays the role of the doubter in all the Chasidic stories, scoffing at the rebbe’s wonders, until he is won over in the end.

In my defense, I’m not alone in that cynicism. It resonates with much of our tradition. Talmud tells us our dreams are 1/60th part prophecy.[1] (Some of you might remember that 60:1 ratio from Selichot – this is the Jewish dissolution level at which something becomes nullified.) “Don’t count on your dreams for guidance,” imply the rabbis of antiquity. “The prophecy in them is negligible.” But, tantalizingly, negligible is not the same as non-existent. One-sixtieth is tiny but quantifiable. It’s one minute of every hour you sleep. That’s 6, 7, 8 minutes of prophecy a night, which really isn’t so bad. But, frustratingly, Talmud gives no guidance as to how to identify which eight minutes.

There’s more to why I don’t just jump to believe all such mystical moments, and I confess that in rallying Talmud to my defense just now, I was being somewhat disingenuous. Because the truth is I want to believe in mystical experience. I want a world where we are in conversation with God and with angels and who knows how many non-corporeal realms. And I always fear that that desire is just escapism or magical thinking, or that others will think that about me. Or I’m afraid of being associated with preachers who exploit faith for profit.

So although I’m drawn to the mystical, I am quick, I fear, to pooh-pooh the woo-woo, as it were. If I experience something transcendent, I soon douse the experience in a bucket of cold water.

But there are times when the mystical is so pressing, that it’s really hard to explain it away. Which brings me back to the dream about my mother 19 months ago.

I woke up from the dream, and looked out to the blue Mexican water, feeling sad and feeling spoken to. I couldn’t shake that feeling. I got up, dressed, and walked to the market for fruit and vegetables. Coming back, I wandered through town wondering how anyone can ever tell if such an experience is anything more than the heart’s wishful thinking; the brain concocting medicine for a spirit in need of it. I posed this “how can you ever know for sure” question in my head as clearly as one might pose an inquiry to a Magic-8 Ball. And just as this request for a sign formed, I looked up and found myself staring at a sign. I was standing in front of Club Mañana, a former dance club and theatre where my group, the Kinsey Sicks, had performed for several seasons. Mañana was now for sale and I was staring at the En Venta – the For Sale sign. My eyes were drawn down to the large-lettered name of the realtor. Marilyn Newman. And that, as a few of you might know, was my mother’s maiden name.

If I’d seen it in a movie I would have snickered. But I stood there, feeling stupid. That because of my insistent grinchiness, this hello from my mother had to come endorsed with a signature before I would believe it.

So, was this a coincidence? Of course it was. Might I have noticed this gringa realtor’s name, this ersatz Marilyn Newman, on some other “For Sale” sign two years earlier? Of course, I might’ve. I might’ve noticed it and called my mother on the phone and said, “You’ll never guess what I saw today!” I might’ve, but I didn’t. I only saw it in the slightly altered consciousness produced by the dream.

Talmud says that the age of the prophets is over.[2] No one talks to God face to face like Moses did.[3] But does that mean that the whole inter-worldly communication grid is down? Some of us still pray in formal ways. We imagine ourselves on these Days of Awe to be standing in front of a gate, not a wall. More of us pray in unofficial ways. We mutter thanks or please to God or to the Universe or to angels as we go about our business, as we feel our longings, as we escape dangers. We tell ourselves these are figures of speech. But still we use language that suggests that on some level, we see ourselves as residing within a field that is perhaps not supernatural, but somehow infranatural.[4] In other words, the divine courses through us and every corner of the world. And so everything that seems a simple matter of circumstance also carries with it a wink of the divine.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav taught that every blade of grass has a song of its own, a melody that comes from the sweetness of the water and the setting of the pasture.[5] And the song of the grass informs the song of the sheep that eat it, and of the shepherd who spends days lying on it, watching the sheep. Every living thing – no, every thing – has a kind of music that we can hear if we open to it.[6] Meanwhile, Talmud teaches us – and many of you have heard this – that no blade of grass grows without an angel standing there, encouraging it, saying, “Grow! Grow!”[7]

If you imagine both these ideas as having a kind of truth, then everything is talking to everything. The Divine talks, and Creation talks back, in a great, gorgeous cacophony not dissimilar to a Jewish dinner table. And if we are in the right state of consciousness, we might hear some of this crosstalk that we otherwise never would tune into; the crosstalk that sometimes seems to respond to a question in our hearts. Or that calls us to action when we need it. Or calls us to attention at just the right moment. And maybe what we need to hear in the crosstalk of the universe comes to us in the language of coincidence, because it is abundant, and we all understand its grammar. Coincidence is the Esperanto of divine communication.

And sometimes we don’t even need coincidence as a mechanism. We just know. We know what we need to know. It comes to us not like the blast of shofar or the bombast of a “For Sale” sign in a foreign country. It comes to us through silence, through a still, small voice.

This phrase, “the still, small voice” comes to us by way of a story of Elijah the prophet, taking refuge in a cave[8]. Elijah is having a crisis of faith, because things have gone terribly and God has not, at that moment, been proving Godself in the great blustery Hollywood ways Elijah desired. And so God causes a great wind to pass by the cave, and then an earthquake, and then a fire. And Elijah perceives that God is not in any of those things. And only after the cataclysms subside is Elijah able to perceive a kol d’mamah dakah, a “still, small voice,” the hush we will reference tomorrow in our Unetaneh Tokef prayer, the quiet reverberation that happens after the blast of the shofar. This is the place where communication happens. This is the quiet where the call lives.[9]

Because a call doesn’t have to be loud to be heard. And because a loud voice can be ignored just as easily – maybe more easily – than a quiet one. And that describes in a nutshell the difficulty of my long-delayed, long-deferred calling to become a rabbi. My desire to be a rabbi was so old, since childhood, that it had become habit. Its constant racket had become white noise. And once relegated to the realm of irrelevance, it stopped being a call altogether, if in fact it had ever been one.

It was only over this last year that I finally began to hear it in the silence. It was the shmitah year, the fallow year. I had shed some of my busy-ness. I’d retired from the Kinsey Sicks. And I no longer had a mother to occupy the sizable psychic space that having – and worrying about – an aging parent thousands of miles away can take up. And so there was a new stillness that I wasn’t used to having. And in that stillness this longing began to murmur again. It came to me in the form of desire, in the form of repeated crazy, uncanny coincidences. It revealed to me that this calling now lived solidly within the realm of possibility. I had the open time that the Kinsey Sicks left in their wake. And I had a family that would make it doable and there was a program that could make it possible. I could study remotely and maintain my commitment to this community. I was so well poised; so lucky, so blessed. And I began to wonder what was left to hold me back? The still, small voice asked me, over and over, “Why not? Really. Why not?”

Until I saw that the impediment was no longer circumstance. It was me. What stopped me from saying hineini, from saying “yes” to being called, was, ultimately, my investment in a particular story. My long-rehearsed, well-polished, coulda-shoulda-woulda life story about wanting to be and not getting to be a rabbi. Of having been too out too early. Of having been distracted by an epidemic. Of having gotten swept into show business and family and a million other compelling things. I realized that this story was precious to me. This story kept me safe; kept me insulated from the risk of failing at actually being a rabbi. Plus it was a compelling story – tragic and quirky. And you know how much I love being a quirky story.

And over months, in the silence, I realized that I could, finally, let that story go. That life was too short to hang onto it. And when the decision finally made itself, I sat and cried – from relief. Because it is hard work refusing a call for so long.

It is hard work refusing a call. I think you know that’s true, because I think we’ve all done it. Many of us are doing it now, laboring to say “no” to something we feel called to do, or to change, or to be: more generous, more engaged, move loving, more learned. Even to repair a long broken relationship. I suspect that if right now I asked you to complete the sentence, “If I could, if there was nothing to hold me back, I would _____,” you would be able to answer instantly. And yet so often we don’t do it. Because of some “can’t” standing in the way. There might be financial barriers or physical barriers of course. But there might be something else too. Some story, some bad experience, some fear, some hurt, someone who told you not to quit your day job, or some deeply conditioned low expectation of yourself, that keeps you from saying hineini, “here I am” when the still small voice calls you. Maybe this year, maybe this season, maybe this day, will be your time to look at that obstacle, at the thing the keeps you from saying yes, and asking yourself why it is so precious to you. Why it is more precious than being who you are called to be. Maybe it is something you can now, finally, let go of.

What more is there to say? Maybe there is no call from the divine. Maybe there is no prophecy in dreams. Maybe coincidences are simply a question of the mathematics of the universe. Maybe all calls, or at least the good ones, come from deep inside, from a place of knowing that sits in our bones and in our kishkes. As they say in the old urban legends, “The call is coming from inside the house.” And that would be okay too. And its being locally sourced doesn’t prohibit us from holding it with the care and honor that we would if it were divine. In holding it that way, it becomes divine.

And if the call is hard to hear, we might be able to cultivate ways to hear it better. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l said, “There are contemplative tools, such as prayer, meditation and so forth. The more you use those tools, the more attuned you’ll become to intuition.”[10]

So let me bless you, and let me ask you to bless me back.[11] May you be blessed to deepen into your intuitions. May you be blessed to be able to listen deeply. May you be blessed to remove obstacles in your path. May you be blesed to say, when the time is right, “Hineini, yes, here I am.”

Okay, so one final dream about my mother. But I didn’t dream this one. It was dreamt by an acquaintance and Kinsey Sicks fan, who called me urgently one day this spring because my mother had come to him in a dream asking him to warn me about something. I listened and felt the Litvak in me putting up a wall. Really? I thought. I should believe this why? Not to mention my injured vanity: the nerve of someone else to dream about my mother. In lawyerly fashion, I asked him why he thought my mother would’ve come to him with a message when she could’ve come to me directly. He said, “Funny, I asked her that. And she said that you were so busy, she didn’t want to bother you.”

Words my mother had, of course, said to me a million times.

Maybe it’s coincidence.

And maybe, like in the Chasidic stories, the cynical Litvak gets won over.

Thank you to Rabbi Eli Cohen and Reb Eli Herb (my "Go-Two") and Rabbi David Evan Markus for their support on this one. I was also moved by some timely things said by Rabbi Shohama Wiener, Jan Abramovitz and Charles May.

If my deciding to go to rabbinical school is news to you (and it might be) and you'd like to celebrate with me, consider a contribution to Congregation Ner Shalom.

[1] BT Berachot 57b. Five things are a 60th part of something else: namely, fire, honey, Sabbath, sleep and a dream. Fire is one-sixtieth part of Gehinnom. Honey is one-sixtieth part of manna. Sabbath is one-sixtieth part of the world to come. Sleep is one-sixtieth part of death. A dream is one-sixtieth part of prophecy.
[2] BT Baba Batra 12a
[3] Deuteronomy 34:10
[4] Rabbi David Evan Markus coined this word in response to my request for one meaning just this.
[5] Likutei Moharan, Teaching 63.
[6] You can try this out by glancing outside the window right now, looking at a tree and imagining its song.
[7] Bereishit Rabba 10:6.
[8] Kings I 19:9-13
[9] Leviticus, the third book of Torah, is called in Hebrew Vayikra, meaning, “He called,” because that is the opening word of the book. Vayikra el-Moshe, “He – or it – called to Moses.” The sentence, fascinatingly, doesn’t actually make God the caller. But this word, vayikra, has a very special orthographic feature. Its final letter, aleph, is written half-size. In every Torah scroll in existence. And the reason is not clear. But some say that it is a way of communicating that when one receives a call, it is not necessarily through speech, through a great booming voice. But rather in silence. Aleph is our silent letter. And, at half size in this word, it is taken to represent the kol d’mamah dakah, the “still, small voice” that Elijah perceived. 
[10] The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery, by Sara Davidson (2014 HarperOne).
[11] I’m so grateful to Eli Herb for offering me this formulation, which he learned from Maggid Yitzchak Buxbaum, who learned it from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Mikveh of Elul

This is a piece of a much more involved Chasidic teaching by the B'nai Yissachar, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841), that I learned from Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg through his Moadim L'Simcha class at Aleph and that I shared at the Selichot Service at Congregation Ner Shalom on September 5, 2015. Thank you to Cynthia Calmenson for insisting I post it.

If we think of all of the ways in which we've missed the mark; the longings that have gone astray; the hurts we've inflicted and the hurts we've absorbed; we see that it all comes from the fact of our lives in this physical world. We were once, the mystics would say, part of a great infinity that is God, the Eyn Sof. We mostly can't remember it. Because when we are born, we become subject to the needs of our bodies - the hungers, the longings, the frailties that drive us. We fall under the illusion that we are all separate from each other. And that we are separate from God. And cut loose like that, we wander through our lives, trying to do the best we can, but getting bruised and bruising others and ourselves all along the way.

This is the time of year when we do teshuvah, when we try to return. So, is there any way to return to the Oneness that we once experienced, the endlessness of God that we were part of? Can we let go, even briefly, of the separateness that is often the source of adventure and delight, but that also can cause us so much loneliness and pain?

There is recipe for dissolving. It is, as any cook can tell you: mix with water. When we immerse ourselves in the mikveh, we dissolve back into a greater Oneness.

But how much water do you need? Too little, and you end up with something lumpy, and that's not what we're looking for. Talmud tells us that a mikveh must have 960 lugin of living water in it. We no longer know exactly how much a log is. But the B'nai Yissachar, a student of the great Seer of Lublin, gives us some mathematics to explain why 960. So now we're going to do some math.

The first piece of the math is this. Talmud tells us that one part in 60 is the proper proportion for something to become nullified. If a drop of milk falls in the meat soup, it lets go of its nature and becomes one with the soup - and kosher! - as long as the soup is at least 60 times the volume of the drop of milk. Sixty-to-one is the ratio of bitul. Of nullification. Of dissolving. Of transforming.

Meanwhile our bodies, our physical human natures, that tug at us and pull us away from our Divine source are made up of 4 elements: fire, water, air and earth. But it's more subtle than that. If that were the full recipe for humanity, we'd be rather simple and rather similar. But we are all different from each other because in each of us the chemistry of elements is different. My fire-element is in itself made up of four elements: mostly of fire, but also some air and water and earth, in a combination that is unique to me. So each of us is made up of four elements, and those are each made up of four elements. And so, the B'nai Yissachar teaches, our earthly selves are composed of 16 elements of This-Worldliness. Those 16 elements are where we live our lives, and what keep us feeling separate.

So if we want, even for a moment, to dissolve back into Divinity, back to our Source, we need to dissolve each of those 16 elements. And by what ratio? Sixty-to-one, like the milk in the soup.

60 x 16 = 960

It takes 960 measures of living water in the mikveh to make our 16 earthy elements dissolve back into the infinite of God, to lose ourselves in the Divine soup.

But wait, there's more. The number 960 now becomes the number forever associated with the mikveh and our shot at re-absorption into God.

Why is that important? We are now in this special, tender period of teshuvah, of reflection and returning. It runs from the beginning of Elul through not just the end of the month, but onward 10 more days through Yom Kippur. A 40-day period of teshuvah. And of course every one of those days has 24 hours. Now wait for it:

40 days x 24 hours = 960

Bingo. The exact number that represents a mikveh.

And that, by the B'nai Issachar's reasoning, makes this period of time, the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Awe, a mikveh in time. We have 960 hours in which to immerse ourselves, in which to dissolve, in which to remember what it was like before we were born, when we were each other, when we were God.

We are 22 days in. We are in the center of the mikveh.

May we immerse; may we dissolve; and may we emerge renewed.

Friday, August 21, 2015

At the Rebbe's Gay Tish

If this were a Chassidic tale, it might begin with a journey. Maybe a great rabbi in disguise as a pauper, visiting poor households and offering miraculous blessings. Or perhaps someone traveling to a great city to arrange a marriage or find a cure or sell an old wagon. And on the journey there might be an unexpected obstacle – a horse goes lame, a river floods, or Shabbes falls early.

My story begins with a journey in early August, from Manhattan to Albany, on my way to the foothills of the Berkshires for Nehirim Camp, a sorta-real, sorta-mock summer camp experience for gay Jewish men. My accidental seatmate on the train was an Orthodox Jewish guy, with a tractate of Talmud on his tray table. I asked what he was studying. “Talmud,” he answered.

“I know, but which volume?”

His eyes darted around nervously. “Niddah,” he whispered. This is the tractate about women’s purity and menstruation. His face reddened. “I never had the chance to study this when I was young,” he added, looking like he’d been caught with his hands in his mother’s dresser drawers.

If this were a Chassidic tale, the unexpected traveling companion would maybe be a supernatural figure, posing as flesh and blood. Maybe an angel, maybe a demon. And when I get caught up in conversation with someone who is Orthodox, I confess that I’m open to the angel, but tend to expect the demon. I expect that as he gets to know me, I will be judged and condemned, the naked-headed gay guy who talks Torah but drives on Shabbes. I would be his demon.

But I was feeling happy that morning, maybe more expansive than usual. So I took the risk of conversation, and soon we were, to my surprise, studying together, not Niddah, which stayed resolutely shut, but a project of mine. An hour in, he asked me where I was heading. “To a gay Jewish retreat,” I answered.

Ba-bum. Ba-bum. Ba-bum. Our hearts marked time while our eyes remained riveted to the back of the seats in front of us, the Hudson Valley flying past the window.

“So you’re gay?” he asked.


And I braced myself for an as-yet unformulated unpleasantness. Instead, he dropped his head, sighed and said, “It’s terrible what happened in Jerusalem last week.” Meaning the murder of a 16-year old girl by a crazed Orthodox man at the Jerusalem pride parade. I was caught off guard by his compassion and his sad tone, as if he were apologizing for both the incident and his own helplessness. My surprise was not unlike the surprise of so many Chasidim in so many stories, when the rebbe reveals unexpected magical knowledge of a joy or a tragedy that his disciples had not perceived.

“Yes. Terrible,” I replied. We sat in silence for some minutes, and then resumed our study.

Eventually I arrived at the Easton Mountain retreat center in Greenwich (“Green-Witch”) – not Greenwich (“Grennitch”) – New York. And green Greenwich certainly was. Coming from our thirsty state, the expanses of soft grass and the array of ponds and lakes seemed immodest almost to the point of vulgarity.

Once there I met the week’s other faculty members, including a rabbi, a cantor, a yoga guy, a nature-and-creativity guy, and a porn actor. We reviewed the schedule and got to work. My docket included teaching a class every day of the retreat, leading the Friday night service, and holding a late night tish, modeled on the Rebbe’s Tish of old, where I would tell stories and lead niggunim.

And then the participants began to roll in. Like Chasidim would pour into Bratzlav or Berditchev or Lublin, to spend the Jewish holiday at the shtibl and table of their favorite rebbe. Instead of Yisroels and Motls and Shmuels, we instead had Davids and Steves and Marks and Sams – several of each, in fact. Instead of gabardines and shtreimls we had shorts and tank tops and, by the pool, nothing at all.

These were guys who had all experienced struggle and exclusion in the world broadly and in the Jewish world specifically, because they were gay, and mostly of a certain generation, and they were here to do some reclaiming of Jewish turf together. Some of them live very active Jewish lives; some were returning to Judaism after long absences. Many had been instrumental in forming gay synagogues on the east coast, where they defiantly re-created the more conservative observance of their childhoods. And so I was struck at how in a group of 50 Jewish gay men, I still felt at the fringe in terms of Jewish ritual and Jewish thinking. Although I am pleased to note that I was not the only one who spent Shabbes in a skirt.

I co-led Kabbalat Shabbat with an old friend who is now a cantor and composer. As soon as I began speaking I became aware that how I do it, commonplace for us here at Ner Shalom, was completely new for most of them. I could see their surprise at the visualizations, and the punch lines, and the sexy talk, and the use of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” as our Ma’ariv Aravim prayer. I was afraid my methods might provoke resistance. Instead, hearts seemed to open up and the night got higher and higher.

And it kept getting higher and higher. After Shabbes dinner we settled in for the tish. For an hour or more, in a small room of dinner tables and folding chairs, we sang niggunim and I told stories, two from the Chassidic world and one from the trusty Chelm repertoire. One of the two Chassidic stories was about women. There are not as many of those stories, but they do exist. They are usually about rebbetzins, the wives of well-known rebbes. They typically have to do with either her generosity or her cooking, both of which are taken in this literature as expressions of piety and closeness to God, and are set out as an example for women and men alike. Beautiful, sweet, non-revolutionary stories.

I brought a rebbetzin story in because in this male-only space, in this somewhat but not completely tongue-in-cheek reenactment of a Chassidic court, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable in my chair and in my body.

I confess that I love the ecstatic singing and storytelling of the Chasidim. And as a man (well, as a man who can pass as straight) (well, as a man who can pass as straight with some considerable effort), loving that stuff is a privilege I have access too. But in my non-nostalgic waking life, it’s not so easy. I am not able or willing to pray or celebrate somewhere in which women are kept out of leadership and out of the room; in which women’s voices are considered treyf, and in which my life and my family would be considered treyf also if anyone bothered to ask about it. So I no longer pray with Chabad, for instance, no matter how good a party they throw, and no matter how much I need to say kaddish. And while it’s fine for the men and women who opt for that life to do what works for them, my participation in it would be, for me, hypocritical.

And caught between these two truths, that sometimes men-only space might be healing and sometimes it might be a danger sign, there we were, a room full of men, just men, singing.

And the singing was celestial. Because these were not just random Jewish men. These were four dozen gay Jewish men. “Artsy” men, as so many of us had been referred to euphemistically by our great aunts. Some of them were fine professional musicians; some were vocally trained. I’d guess 80% of them had been in all their high school musicals, and a good number of those have kept their chops up at piano bars up and down the eastern seaboard. These guys could sing. And they could harmonize. And the walls of the room trembled with the splendor of it. They were a heavenly choir of first and second tenors, baritones and basses. Melodies poured out; tables were pounded. And I couldn’t help but have the overwhelming sense that we were some European yeshivah, or some lively rabbinic court, the way they are described in the stories.

Now if this were a Chassidic story, there would now be a twist. The triumph of some underdog. God accepting the prayer of an outcast over the objection of the rebbe’s disciples. Or maybe the Prophet Elijah would be revealed at a key moment, in the form of a beggar at the door, and the behavior of the characters would be evaluated in a different light. I awaited the twist, the tikkun.

We sat and sang and the room rocked, and it felt impossible that fewer than 50 men could make music this big. And I suddenly had a vision of other souls fluttering into the room. Yeshivah bokhers of centuries past. The ones who spent their youths in love with their study partners. For whom the subtext of love was supplanted by the text of Talmud. For whom desire was requited only by debate. The ones for whom there was no path of fulfillment that included both spirit and body, and who did the best they could to play the roles expected of them, riddled though they might have been by despair. Or for whom, perhaps, it was enough, but for whom today, it would not be.

I felt these souls fluttering into the room to join us, a trace of worn leather and musty books in the air. I felt them taking their places on the few empty folding chairs; or perching on tables or shoulders or the very rafters. I imagined I heard their voices singing out as loudly as we were singing. And we, who had struggled to reclaim a piece of Judaism, had managed to create, for a moment, a safe place for them.

I’m not sure anyone saw this other than me, although it might be that everyone did. But in that moment, the voices of the yoga guy and the porn guy and the nature guy, the voices of men in pastel polos and men in white Shabbes shirts and men in skirts too, rose up, with the counterpoint of skilled musicians and a cry of deep longing, eventually causing the roof to crack right open, and, carrying an unspoken prayer for a more loving world, the music of all these men flew up, like a pillar of flame, straight to heaven.  

Sending much gratitude to Nehirim, Rabbi David Dunn Bauer and all the wonderful men who staffed and attended Nehirim Camp this year.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Journeys, Symbolism and Stomach Distress

Parashat Mas'ei, 5775

Temple at Delphi
Tonight I promised to reflect on my recent trip to Greece and Israel. I advertised this in the blurb for tonight's service in order to force myself to deliver something. But while I anticipated that I would return full of insight from the journey, my biggest insight is that insight is hard to find. Certainly in the moment, in the day-to-day of travel. Things happen. You notice things that invite symbolic interpretation. But then it's immediately subsumed in the dust and grit of the travel itself.

So where could I look for guidance? Why, to this week's Torah portion, of course. It is called Mas'ei and it contains the first piece of travel writing in Jewish history. It is a recap of the 42 marches of the Israelites through the wilderness, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt and ending on the brink of Deuteronomy, at the edge of the Promised Land. And the author of this recap? Well, it turns out that Moshe is not only a prince, a prophet and a shepherd, but a travel writer also. Torah says Moshe wrote this, and this is in fact the first mention of writing that appears in Torah.

But Moshe is no writer of fluff. He does not do it up like a Hemispheres Magazine feature, "Forty Perfect Years in the Desert," complete with romantic spots and clever recipes for manna. Instead, he sticks to the facts, and refrains from romanticizing them:
The Israelites set out from R'amses and encamped at Sukot. They set out from Sukot and encamped at Etam. They set out from Etam and turned toward Pi-Hachirot, and encamped at Migdol.
Moshe's account is so dry, so matter-of-fact that some wonder why he bothered at all. The commentator Rashi deduces that it is for the sole purpose of demonstrating that it wasn't as bad for the Children of Israel as we might think. It wasn't 40 years of constant wandering, but rather 42 distinct journeys, many clustered together in the first year, so that there were often long years settled in one spot.

But Moshe himself offers no evaluation, no symbolism, even though we all know that journeys have a symbolic quality.

And similarly, I know that my journeys over the last six weeks are ripe for meaning-making. I even knew it at the time. But reflection is a luxury, and the journeys of our lives rarely afford us the time to indulge in it.

Still, you're here, and I can't cop out on my promise. So I'll tell you what I can, and offer as much meaning as I was able to develop in the moment.

We were first in Greece. At this point there were 8 of us - the four adults of my household, the two kids, and each of their best friends. In Athens, Elefsina, Delphi we looked at antiquities. Sites dedicated to Athena, to Poseidon, to Demeter, to Apollo, gods whose stories remain alive in our culture, even while their temples stand in ruins. Gods who could bring abundance or chaos at their whim. And while we toured these dusty portals to the past, Athenians were withdrawing their Euros from bank machines, shoring up what they could before disaster strikes. I began to wonder about the paroxysms of good and bad fortune that constitute individual lives and the life of a nation, and how every moment is a piece of history being lived, and how hard we work to create a world view that makes some sense of the senselessness of one's fortune. I was about to draw a conclusion from this, that maybe I could share with you tonight, but it was a hot day, and as we walked from the Acropolis to the Temple of Dionysus, we realized we'd taken a wrong turn, and had to retrace our steps, and our legs were tired already, and my thoughts flattened under the weight of backpack and jet lag.

Only half of our group went on to Israel: Oren and I, our 14-year old and his best friend. We four arrived in Tel Aviv and almost immediately it was Shabbat. We strolled. We took the kids to a park where they climbed a rock wall and played on bungies and trampolines. It wasn't a day of traditional shabbos. No prayers, no study, no songs around a table. Still, we rested. Tel Aviv rested. It was a day different from other days, filled with friends and fresh air and recreation. And I appreciated how Shabbat managed to disguise herself in this secular way. Shabbat, our ingenious bride, was not in her usual wedding dress but in sweats and a headband, jogging through Yarkon Park, rejoicing to be with us nonetheless. I was about to register a thought about this, but right then we saw this hilarious sign telling people to clean up after their dogs. It offered doggy cleanup bags, which it memorably called in Hebrew, sakei kaka. We laughed our heads off and whatever fancy idea I'd had about Shabbat dissolved in our Saturday afternoon mirth.

The next day we drove from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea. We spontaneously decided to stop off in Jerusalem to visit Yad Vashem, the museum that is the mothership of Holocaust memory. An awareness of the Shoah's shadow is important for understanding Israeli history and character, so Oren and I decided that the kids' seeing it early in the trip made sense. While there, I walked into a chilling room they call the Hall of Names. It is multi-storied and cylindrical, containing not only projected pictures and names, but also floor-to-ceiling shelves holding binders filled with Witness Sheets, which are forms filled out by survivors naming everyone they knew who perished. I entered and there was a group already there being given a tour. A teenager looked up and met my eyes. We stared for an uncomfortable moment before I realized this was someone I knew, someone from the Chicago suburbs, whose mother had been my camper and whose grandmother was my mother's best friend. We hugged in this bizarre moment of uncanniness, and I asked what kind of group he was here with. A BJBE group, he answered. That is, my childhood synagogue. And with that, the rabbi walked up to greet me and there, in this place of loss and memory, she told me how affected she'd been by my mother's death. My mind spun. How all three of us, tied to each other by memory and by our shared Old Country ended up in the same moment in this shrine to memory and to a lost Old Country. I drifted to the supernatural - what intuition brought me here today, of all days, only to stumble upon my own roots? I became lost in this thought, but suddenly we were in the Yad Vashem cafeteria, and I had to figure out if vegetarian food was available on the fleishik side so that I could sit and eat with my voraciously carnivorous 14-year old, and I got caught up in a conversation with the chef about his meatless shnitzel, and by then thoughts of kismet and divine intervention were crumbs swept away.
Ancient Synagogue, Kfar Nachum

The following week, we spent a day in the Galilee, a place with water and green fields and a history of Jewish study and mysticism. We visited the grave of Maimonides and also that of Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the Roman-era sage who got smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin in order to try to appease the Roman general who was besieging the city. He failed to prevent the destruction of the Temple. But Vespasian allowed him to set up an academy in Yavneh. And there, Ben Zakkai dreamed up portable Judaism - substituting prayers for animal sacrifice as our path to God. It was a time of national calamity, yet he invented the means for keeping Jewish belief and Jewish people alive in exile.

We went on to an ancient synagogue in Kfar Nachum, where Jesus is reported to have preached. And we finished by washing off the dust of antiquity in the Kineret, the harp-shaped, freshwater Sea of Galilee.

As we began our drive back to my in-laws' home in Haifa we took a wrong turn. We ended up in a cul-de-sac in the town of Yavne'el. This place is a Bratslaver Chasidic enclave, 400 families, all followers of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, who was famous for many things including comparing the world to a narrow bridge and also his beautiful if hard-to-follow watchwords: It is a great mitzvah to be happy always. And his followers do seem ecstatic much of the time, in ways that sometimes feel aggravating to the rest of us shleppers. As we circled the cul-de-sac an older man in a Bratzlaver white shirt and kippah stepped in front of the car and motioned for us to stop. I opened my window not knowing if I'd be scolded or proselytized. Instead he asked what we were looking for. The road to Afula, I answered. And he gave us directions, plain and simple, and his round, bearded face was simply radiant. I was suddenly reminded of Joseph, sent by Jacob to his brothers in the field, and getting lost. There he meets a man, in Hebrew an ish, who directs him to his brothers and to his fate, because his brothers that very day sell him into slavery whence he ultimately becomes an Egyptian vizier and the savior of his family. The sages say the ish, the man who appears for no reason but to point someone on a path, is inevitably an angel. I looked at this man outside the car window and wanted to call him tzaddik, O saint, but instead I thanked him simply and drove away, wondering what destiny this angel was pointing us toward. I was nearly certain that if I spun around the circle one more time, he'd be gone. I was filled with expectation, with a sense of fate, and magic, and a bit of contact high of Bratzlaver joy. I would have made something of this; I would have written about it for you. But then outside Afula I saw Kibbutz Mizra, famous for making pork products, and I started telling the kids about my childhood friend Ken who traveled all the way to Israel to live for six months on kibbutz and ended up assigned here, making hamburger on a Hollymatic industrial meatgrinder, ironically manufactured in his home town on the south side of Chicago. And by the time I was done with this story, the Bratslaver had, in fact, disappeared from my head.

Scrabble Shark (r.)
We had many adventures, many travels. I learned many things. I learned that 14-year olds can make dust angels on the floors of ancient chalk caves, and still have to be told to wear different clothes the next day. I learned that my role when playing Scrabble with my champion-level mother-in-law is not to try to win, which would be futile, but to provide good cheer as she reduces the rest of the players to rubble. I had many dreams, and I learned how easily the prosaic sits beside the magical within them; how in an anxiety dream about being on stage with the Kinsey Sicks, and the audience misconstruing a pause as the end of the show and beginning to file toward the exits, I still, in the dream, had the lucidity to say, "Don't forget to tip your server." Dreams come alive in Israel, and I would've made something of that fact, something beautiful, but each day, my morning cup of coffee would drive the dream from my memory.

Now here's something you might find interesting. On our final day, heading to Tel Aviv for the evening, I noticed an empty, overgrown field along the freeway with a sign on it saying, Anachnu shomrei shmitah, "we are observing the shmitah." That is, the sabbatical year, the fallow year. The owners of this field were advertising that they had not temporarily sold their field to an Arab family as a loophole around the ancient law. Instead, they were letting the field be - not tilling, not pruning, not harvesting - and trusting that it would be okay. And I wondered about this year that I've had, that I began on this bimah, suggesting that we all consider doing less, trying less hard to control everything in our environments, that in the spirit of shmitah, we let things be, just a little bit. And I noticed that I did not in fact do that this year. That my fingers remained busily engaged in every corner of my life, and the respite I'd promised myself I had failed to deliver. I wondered if it was too late to commit to letting go, at least between now and Rosh Hashanah. I began to feel that yes, this would be possible and I would have made some resolutions around it. But just then we reached Tel Aviv, and if you've ever tried to park around Dizengoff Square on a summer night, you know how fully occupying that is. The resolutions remained unresolved.

At last we were on the plane coming home. I was alone with the two boys. I looked at them next to me and I knew in that instant just how fortunate I was. To be able to have this experience. To have enough money to travel and to be able-bodied enough to do so. To be able to show my kid the Israel that I know and love. To have seen him pretend not to learn any Hebrew at all until the last night when I overheard him calling a waiter by saying, selichah. I felt myself steeped deep in blessing. I might have written a poem on the flight. I might have written a prayer. But at some point the special meal I had ordered proved more special than anticipated, and as I threw up for the fourth time in the airplane bathroom, my sense of gratitude became harder to connect to. And yet, as they rolled me off the plane in a wheelchair, through the barely open slits of my eyes I saw the two 14-year olds heroically handling our passports and customs forms and getting us through immigration and out of the airport. And I felt proud and heartened that the sullenness of teenagers turns out to be camouflage masking generous and capable people who will one day emerge like sun through a break in the clouds.

This trip was hard work. All the journeys in our lives are hard work. There are sore feet and blisters. Blazing sun and cold rain. Useless maps and cranky negotiations and food poisoning and good companions and kind strangers. Our journeys are filled with metaphor. But in the course of them, and in their immediate aftermath, our feet and sometimes our stomachs are too sore for symbolism. And in those instances, maybe reciting the map of our travels is all we can reasonably do. And so I will reel back to Moshe's very real level of detail when I tell you this: We went to Greece. From there to Israel. And now, at journey's end, I'm glad to be home.

Okay, I did reflect a little while there. For my reflections on Jerusalem, click here: City of Stone and Flowers.