Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Respect

Respect is like
The way flowers grow up
Towards the rain
And rain trickles up
Through the roots,
The way cliffs of the ravine
Reflect each other's majesty
In their clear mirror faces
So that each mountain seems
A hundred miles deeper,
The way birds sing to the clouds
In their mellifluous warbles
And clouds blanket the birds
In their pillow-like cottons,
The way the Earth circles the Sun
Declaring all its brazen splendor
And the Sun warms the Earth
Lifting it upon golden smiles.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Intuition

- An Exercise In Expression From Once Upon A Time -

I sit here and try to write a poem, and I wonder, as I am forced to begin - with only five minutes left to class - if I shouldn't have used "compose" instead of "write" because "compose" sounds stronger, more poetic, more like music, and yet more serious, and so less in the business of trampoline-ing me off to nonsensical heights. So I leave it as "write" because that feels right, though don't know where to go from there, and I stare at each word as it blurs and runs into the next, as the rules muddle to a puddle of rainbow while over it I splash towards that fantastical composition played on the Olympic-sized bandstand growing in the blue-green grass, the musicians like a rolling sea of sunflowers. Their magic-wand instruments spray glitters of red and green and yellow and blue, sparking the heavens into morning as I run through the air, my legs cartwheeling on the wind. I don't even have to touch the ground to move - how freeing that is! It no longer matters whether I use "write" or "compose" or "construct" or "create" or any word at all because I fly through a place called Intuition, where everyone sees me as my entire self, that unique paradox that is me, that kind of knowing that one knows except when one is asked what they know - and where it doesn't matter that "they" is the wrong kind of grammar there - because such knowing transcends words. In this place that is truly mine, I pass by The Phantom Tollbooth's orchestra which plays the sun's journey - its rising, its setting, its middle-of-the-sky sojourn - only now it's still morning and the twitters of the flute make me want to spin and twirl and dance. I give a schoolgirl's skip to a cowboy seated on the concrete steps of a paint-peeled house with a worn wooden porch. He wears a wide white hat that - if you squint - could be made out of hardened snow - and chews on a toothpick that - if you tilt your head - could perhaps be a broken piece of hay. He strums his dirt-stained banjo and calls me Suzannah - with a Z, not an S, and that's part of Intuition too, knowing these things - and then I am Suzannah, with my hair in two braids tied with red ribbon and my dress earthy-green, my shoes too dusty to be black anymore. I step softly aground and give him a curtsy. He gives me a candied apple. It looks like a sticky balloon on a stick and I trot away licking it, the finale of noontime's march lifting me back in the air. And now it is after noon - when the band from the field plays the sun's intermission, a soft hum of nap time for the toddlers and the old. I slow to a walk as I come to the village square patched with yellow-green grass worn thin with wear. An aging woman is crying there. I instinctively know (don’t forget where I am) that she lives in a show, and by lives I mean lives. Every day she must act as a weather-worn granny or provocative maid or a cold-hearted nanny – or drunken schoolteacher (that is today’s) – the poor woman’s life is polluted with plays. She knows her parts better than she knows herself, for she’d never been asked to perform as herself. But the Love Interest – that’s who she’d love to be cast – but her prime, as all primes end up – past. A curious thing – she can’t think of my name. And, come to think of it, I feel the same. My name – what’s my name? Alice, she decides, and it’s true. No more braids, my dark hair hangs neatly-brushed down my back and I’m holding a tea-cup and blue-flowered saucer. How confusing! I place it upon the stage and take my leave of the old woman who lives in a show, for she makes me tremble. When – tiptoeing in is the orchestra again! Have you ever seen an orchestra tiptoe? All in blue and silver uniforms and their march slightly stooped in a hushed sort of way, the warm gwee gwee of their violins yawning violet rays as the sun circles westward and the cello hums a father’s slow lullaby, stretching orange ‘cross the sky. The clouds blush at the nighttime wooing of the French Horn and I wear purple pajamas, illuminated in the waking moon. In struts the cowboy, plucking his banjo to the plunks of pink hiding behind the reddening sun. There are dancers waving sashes and dinner-time picnickers with blankets and baskets. The conductor, brandishing his silver baton, waves it and makes everything freeze – the people, the music, the sunset, and me. Then he points that baton at my purple nightclothes and declares, “Maggie, compose.” Compose. Compose? Does he mean write? Write what? Music? A poem? Who knows? Intuition? What is my name again? I blink and I’m back and – have I written prose?

Do I know anything anymore?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Changes

Change is difficult. It's like I have to reorient the different things and people in my life in order to both keep the old and make room for the new. This is both because of what is happening in my life and what is happening in the lives of others. Some of that reorienting can really be kind of wrenching. But I guess no matter what, certain things of the past will always remain with you (with me), even if they do not seem as present anymore.

I wanted to write a whole post about change, but I find that I can't. In any case, I'll leave you with this scene from The Lion King that I have always liked:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Writing As It Was

A long time ago, speech was the main mode of communication. Few people knew how to read, let alone write. Those who were literate were held in high esteem, and only works of great significance were actually written down. Everything else was oral.

Even once most laypeople knew how to read and write, they wrote with care. Letters were often well thought-out chronicles of a person's life and thoughts. They were things which were treasured. Writing was not cheap, either. Ink cost money, paper cost money - a person used these things prudently and conscientiously.

Today, we approach writing differently. Everyone writes. Everyone sends text messages and IMs, people write status messages and emails in shorthand. Whole words are a thing of the past, grammar is ancient history, and how much thought actually goes into most texts and emails? How personally can we actually take a thing of writing addressed to us? How much care goes into those words?

Everyone these days seems to have a blog. The entire world has turned into one big party of journalism. Some aspects of blogging are an imperative part of what brings society together: open communication. The more we are able to communicate with one another and - even more important - the more we are able to actually listen to one another, the greater our understanding will be of those different from ourselves.

Hirhurim linked to an article that has some fair critiques of the blogging world, but that also makes an excellent reminder about what good writing ought to be:

"Writers who expect sustained public inspection tend to think long and hard before publishing. Readers who assume writers have thought long and hard tend to read with intense attention. This leads, in general, to good writing, good reading, and good thinking. Such an environment is a precondition for vigilant citizenship and a civil society vibrant with critical intelligence. What is more, this environment disciplines speedy, prolific, lively writers, ultimately to their own advantage.

Of course I have no idea what policies, programs, or movements could plausibly revive what Postman calls the Typographic Mind. The only solution I know is a slow, personal one: It is the painful discipline of changing my own detestable habits of inattention, sloppiness, and waggish opportunism in daily conversation, whether written or oral, and of writing with the assumption that my reader's attention is generous and his time valuable.

[...]

Certainly, indolence, cowardice, or vanity can hide behind pretended reverence for words, but irreverence seems quite obviously the more pressing danger. A little care and humility is in order, for words are the main vehicle of culture and science, and the vital medium of a free republic. They bind the living and the dead, God and man into a communion of love and knowledge. Words are not lifeblood, except in the sense that they are."


We clearly approach the written word differently today than we did centuries - or even merely decades - ago. But perhaps it's good to remember that writing is a thing which used to be shown respect, that reverence was given to those who were good at it, and that thought and care used to go into every stroke of ink on the page. Maybe we can still treat the written word that way now.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Self

Sometimes a person might behave in ways he or she regrets - ways that are not representative of who he or she is. Sometimes a person portrays an image of him or herself to the world that is not who that person truly is. This can be frustrating. What's even more frustrating is letting such a thing bother you when really you ought to just go on behaving the way you feel you should. Eventually, people will either get it or not get it, but you'll know you're still you. Even if the whole world is blind to who you are, you know who you are. If you are true to yourself, you have the right to stand tall and look people in the eye because you are not hiding anything. You are presenting to the world your true, majestic self.

Hirhurim linked a dvar Torah by R' Twerski that I think is worthwhile for everyone to read. Excerpt:

Today, we vote in blocs and think in blocs. We are influenced by the mass media, major corporations and by the leaders of educational institutions. Indeed, the educational system has been criticized as forcing all students into the belly of the bell curve, resulting in mediocrity as well as uniformity. We yield to whatever fad prevails. Our minds are made up by everyone except ourselves.

There are indeed rules and principles by which we must all abide, but there is ample room within these parameters to be oneself. What is my goal in life? What do I think happiness is? What are my unique abilities that I should develop? What kind of lifestyle do I want?

Rebbe Shalom Shachna, the father of the Rebbe of Rhizin, married the granddaughter of Rebbe Nachum of Chernoble. The latter’s chassidim did not approve of Rebbe Shalom Shachna’s ways, which did not conform to the Chernoble practices, and complained to Rebbe Nachum. When Rebbe Nachum asked his grandson why he was not conforming, the latter answered with a parable.

The egg of a duck got mixed up with the eggs of a hen. When the chicks hatched, the mother hen took them for a walk. When they passed by a stream, the duckling jumped in. The mother hen panicked, shouting, “Come out of there! You’ll drown!” The duckling responded, “Have no fear, mother. I know how to swim.”

Rebbe Nachum told his chassidim, “Leave him alone. He knows what he is doing.” Thence came the dynasty of Rhizin, famed for its uniqueness.

Listen to the words of Rav Shlomo Wolbe. “Every individual, like Adam, is an entire world. The existence of billions of people does not detract from each person’s uniqueness. Every individual is a one-time phenomenon.

Every person should know, “I, with my strengths and talents, facial features and personality traits, am unique in the world. Among all those living today and in all past generations, there was no one like me, nor will there ever be anyone like me to the end of time. Hashem has sent me into the world with a unique mission that no one else can fulfill, only I in my one-time existence” (Alei Shur vol.2 p.71),

And again, “How distant from reverence for Hashem is the person who seeks only the approval of others, and is ready to imitate whatever he sees others do.” (Alei Shur vol.1 p.132).

God created us all with sechel, intelligence. With that intelligence, we have the ability to make decisions and form opinions. If I cannot be certain of myself and my own decisions and opinions, how can I be certain of anything? We have to take the time to strip away the voices and opinions of everyone around us and really figure out who we are, what we want, where we are, and where we wish to go.

I recently read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. One of the characters in the book, Howard Roark, discusses the concept of Second-Handers. Second-Handers are people who live not motivated by what they truly want but by how they wish to be seen by others:

They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask: “Is this true?” They ask: “Is this what others think is true?” Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull. What would happen to the world without those who do, think, work, produce? Those are the egoists. You don’t think through another’s brain and you don’t work through another’s hands. When you suspend your faculty of independent judgment, you suspend consciousness. To stop consciousness is to stop life. Second-handers have no sense of reality. Their reality is not within them, but somewhere in that space which divides one human body from another. Not an entity, but a relation—anchored to nothing.

[...]

After centuries of being pounded with the doctrine that altruism is the ultimate ideal, men have accepted it in the only way it could be accepted. By seeking self-esteem through others. By living second-hand. And it has opened the way for every kind of horror. It has become the dreadful form of selfishness which a truly selfish man couldn’t have conceived. [...] Look at everyone around us. You’ve wondered why they suffer, why they seek happiness and never find it. If any man stopped and asked himself whether he’s ever held a truly personal desire, he’d find the answer. He’d see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men. He’s not really struggling even for material wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion—prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded. He can’t say about a single thing: “This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me.”

If one spends her life overly concerned with what others think, she will never get to learn what she thinks. In essence, she will never really exist as a unique individual - only as the member of a throng, of a collective opinion. Then one day, she will wake up and wonder, "Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? What have I done in this life and why have I done it?" And there will be no answers. Until that point, she has not existed without others informing her how to exist. She has not lived as an individual.

We have to value our own worth and feel confident in the competence of our own minds. And if you make a mistake, even a big one, absorb it, make it part of you so you can learn from it and understand how to behave in the future. Recognizing something as a mistake means you understand proper ways to behave. Take confidence in that. You cannot erase, but you can build. Mistakes are precious - they show us the paths we should be careful around next time, they help us understand others who are as imperfect as we are, and they help guide us towards more correct behaviors and decisions in the future.

You are a being created by God. By putting yourself down, you are putting down one of God's creations. If God created you, there must be worth to you. A good friend once said, "Only you determine YOUR self worth. That's why it's called self."

We're all unique and we all have something substantial to offer. Remember that. :)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hilltops

There was this moment of transition the minute I entered the airport. Only a few moments earlier, I was in a cab shooting along the Israeli highway; the grainy hills flashed by, swirled in brown, green, and white like a strange sort of souffle. Haven't you ever noticed that Israel has the same green, brown, and white colors everywhere? Except in the Old City where it's all stone, that is.

What I love about Israeli scenery is that you can see for miles upon miles; little towns - or big ones - nestle in the hills and you can stand by the side of the road and say, pointing, "That's Efrat, that's Neve Daniel, that's Elazar." As the sky darkens for night, you can see little lights popping on, like fireflies, until the hills are glittering with this community and that, and you can watch it all from your little spot on the side of the road.

There's something liberating about standing on an Israeli hilltop and feeling like you can see the world. There are no tall, smoggy buildings to impede your vision. If you wanted to, you could just jump off your hilltop and land on the next one, and the next, and the next, as if you were playing hopscotch. Hopscotch across the land of Israel. Wouldn't that be funny?

Everyone in Israel could get up on their hilltops and wave to each other. That's what I like. And when everyone else is indoors, you could sit on your hilltop and just think. You could look out at your country and feel that it's yours, that it's ours. The whole world is yours, then: the azure sky, the brown, green, and white swirled hills, the trees that cleanse the air so directly you can smell it.

As soon as I stepped into the airport, I was no longer in that Israel. That Israel exists outside the windows, but not in here. Now I am sitting in Ben Gurion airport, about to leave to my gate. I think boarding just started. I have no idea when I'll be in Israel next, but I'll sure miss it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Holiday Season

Although, sadly, Sukkos is over here in Israel, I am currently sitting in our Sukkah. Why? Because I'm super frum.

Just kidding.

It's because Mavis discovered that we can actually get internet in our Sukkah. It's not amazing internet, but it's enough that I can write the past few blog posts!

Israel has been incredible - I love coming here. In the distance, I can still hear the music and singing from hakafot shniot in Baka and in Gan Hapa'amon (although what I'm hearing is probably the ones in Baka). For those who don't know, in Israel they have hakafot shniot with music and dancing after Simchas Torah is over. It's like a community-wide chagiga. On Yissachar street, they're having hakafos now for Baka and in Gan Hapa'amon, it's for all of Yerushalaim.

After coming to Israel two years in a row for Sukkos (not to mention my year in Israel when I was here for all Shalosh Regalim), I cannot help but point out the distinct difference between chag in Israel and chag in America. In Israel, the entire country is saturated with festivity. Chol hamoed feels like a moed. On Hoshana Raba night, there are shiurim and people learning. All throughout the chag, there are shiurim, activities, chagigot... The holiday is in the air. You breathe in the experience of Sukkos just by walking down the street. On every street corner, teenage boys are calling, "Aravot! Aravot!" by their little aravos stands. Everywhere, everyone is wishing each other a chag sameach. Signs are telling you to have a shana tova. Ads and commercials are about sukkos, lulavim, and etrogim. The stores that are actually open have Sukkos specials. Concerts are everywhere. Sukkos are everywhere. It is impossible to be in Yerushalaim and not feel the chag around you. The smell of the Etrog is the country's perfume.

Isn't it so nice when holiday season is about our holidays?


(Picture: An Etrog tree we saw in Ne'ot Kedumim)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Ultimate Relationship

There is a specific pasuk in Ashrei that I have always liked: Karov Hashem l'chol kor'av, l'chol asher yikreuhu b'emet. God is close to those who call Him, to all who call Him...in truth? Sincerely? Translations are always messy. But I always felt that this pasuk was saying, if you strive to be close to God, then God will be close to you. But how can you strive to be close to God?

Tonight I went with my mom and my sister to a shiur in the Great Synagogue that, happily for me, addressed this question. The shiur was given by a Rabbi Gottlieb who once attended Shaalavim and is now on sabbatical in Israel with his family. He first spoke about Sukkos and the discussion in the Gemara about what the sukkos were that B'nei Yisrael sat in in the midbar. Rabbi Eliezer said the sukkos were really the Ananei Hakavod while Rabbi Akiva said they were actual, regular sukkos. But why, asked Rabbi Gottlieb, would we have a chag to celebrate living in regular, ordinary sukkos? How can we understand Rabbi Akiva's opinion in the context of having a chag?

Rabbi Gottlieb then focused on the Shemonah Esrei that we say every day. At the end of Shemonah Esrei, we say the paragraph of Elokai Nitzor. In that paragraph, there is a pasuk (also one I have always liked) that goes, "Petach libi b'toratecha, u'vimitzvotecha tirdof nafshi." Rabbi Gottlieb pointed out that this pasuk is originally written somewhere - I think in the Gemara but I don't remember exactly - as "acharei mitzvotecha tirdof nafshi." That would be translated as, "after Your mitzvos my soul should pursue." As in, we should chase after Hashem's mitzvos. However, in Shemonah Esrei, we don't say "acharei mitzvotecha, " we say "u'vimitzvotecha." With Your mitzvos my soul shall pursue. But pursue what? Rabbi Gottlieb suggested then that what we are pursuing is God.

In the first translation, our pursuit is after mitzvos. Mitzvos, then, are the object, the goal. But the way we say it when we daven, we turn mitzvos into the method. We use mitzvos in order to chase. They become the means to pursue something higher, something greater - God.

Rabbi Gottlieb quoted from a hesped of Rav Soloveitchik where he talks about what his mother taught him (emphasis mine):

"Most of all I learned from [my mother] that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to the mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life - to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders." - A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne

Torah, Halacha, Mitzvos - they are all important. But partnered with them needs to be a quest to become close to God. One should not go around performing mitzvos in order to have a collection of them, but one should do mitzvos because through Torah and mitzvos one can enrich his relationship with God.

This, said Rabbi Gottlieb, is how one can understand Rabbi Akiva's opinion. The sukkos can be regular, ordinary sukkos and still be worthy of having a chag about them. Grand miracles are great - we celebrate them on Pesach. But Sukkos is the holiday of our every day relationship with God. It is not about extraordinary gifts. It's about the ordinary gifts we receive from God every day. It's about our simple closeness to God.

I remember learning when I was younger that we have Shemini Atzeres because God wanted us to stay a day longer with Him on this chag. This idea fits in beautifully with everything I just wrote about. If we work on becoming close to God, if we use Torah and mitzvos in order to enhance our relationship with God, then God will also be close to us, we will merit to feel "the gentle pressure of His hand" resting upon our shoulders, and God will want us to stay with Him.

We can't forget that everything we do in Judaism is for this ultimate goal - becoming closer to God. If we keep this in mind, hopefully all the other nonsense everyone worries about (you know what I mean) will dissipate. Don't you see how that stuff doesn't matter? We're not in this religion to impress anyone or to be holier-than-thou. We're not in it to collect chumras or to show off our mitzvos - as wonderful as they are - to anyone else. We're in it because we are God's people and, as God's chosen nation, the one relationship we ought to worry about most is our relationship with God. Every time we make a choice, we should remember that we are part of God's nation. How should one with a relationship with God behave?

And another thing. The simple nature of our relationship with God that we celebrate on Sukkos is such a beautiful thing to celebrate. It is on this chag specifically that we have an added day, a Shemini Atzeres, because God did not want us to leave Him. Not on Pesach when we celebrate the great miracles God performed for us. Not on Shavuos when we celebrate receiving the Torah. No. Only on Sukkos, when we celebrate our simple, every day relationship with God. The simplicity, the ordinariness is what enriches the relationship. Not the majestic nissim and niflaos. To me, this is a model of all relationships we have. Family, friends - the best moments are the most simple ones, aren't they? Not the big parties. I'm talking about the times when you go for a walk or stay up late talking or read together in the same room and don't even talk. The times when you drink hot chocolate together or get ice cream in the middle of the night or get really silly for no reason at all except for the fact that you're with someone you feel comfortable enough to be really silly around.

We have to work at these relationships - karov Hashem l'chol kor'av. God is close to those who call Him. Relationships take work, they take initiative, they take thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and sincerity. But the kind of work they require is not anything elaborate. It's the simple every day stuff. It's the ordinary times people spend together that are the strongest treasures.