Monday, September 30, 2013

On the wings of thought

This morning, as I drove to work along a quiet suburban street, I had to tap on the brakes at an unexpected moment. As I cruised down the road, I saw a bird crossing the street. It was not a chicken and I was uninterested in its motives so I kept driving. I had, what I suspected, was a reasonable thought process going. I figured that he (or she, I don't wish to run a fowl of any gender issues) would choose to fly away as my car approach. If the bird chose to stand there and challenge me, I would be like a tank in Tiananman Square circa 1989 and drive around him, and then embrace capitalism. Maybe I would just smoosh him.

So what did the bird do? And I remind you, this was not a duckling waddling behind a mommy duck, headed on a pilgrimage to the Boston Garden to watch the Bruins. This was a pigeon. Maybe a quail or a grouse. But not a duck. I wouldn't even like to buy a duck. This bird kept walking across the street. He picked up the pace a bit, but he kept walking.

Before you say anything, he, after getting to the curb, flew away.

He knew he had wings. He consciously chose to walk across the street. Now, I know that I often get angry too easily but I think this situation merits my ire. That bird knew he could fly whenever he wanted to and he decided that, at that moment, with a minivan bearing down on him, walking was his best option. I have composed a series of possibilities:

1. He is the ultimate lazy slacker, unappreciative of his natural gifts, letting them fust in him, unused. I see in this the criticism I have of many of the young people -- they can do so much more but they choose not to. Very frustrating. Even some squirrels who can't fly still try to fly. The least this bird could do would be to try.

2. He is not that smart and didn't realize either that he could fly (until he reconsidered the situation at the curb and said "maybe I could have handled that differently...let's see if these wings are of any use") or that flight was his best option at the moment. Maybe he wanted to fly but the message moved too slowly from his bird-brain to his wings and by the time he took off, he actually had no interest in flying. Then we should have a sign that says "Caution, slow birds."

3. He is a spiteful little flying rat who knew this would drive me into a rage.

People ask me why I am not a vegetarian and I tell them that I think that the animals deserve to be eaten.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

I wish I was Donne

I heard recently about a tragedy last week. A young girl and her mother were hit by a car. The mom died. The girl was in surgery -- we hope she will pull through but she still lost her mother. As a community, various schools, synagogues and communal organizations banded together to raise money and pray for her.

Prayer. That's an important part of our response. We have faith. Sure it makes no sense to outsiders (how can prayer change a future if God has already ordained it? how can words have any effect on the divine? why would MY prayers have anything to do with this girl?) but praying on behalf of named parties is a consistent part of our practice. I also heard that a former teacher of mine was diagnosed with leukemia. Her name, along with the name of her mother [needed as part of the formula for invoking God's mercy and healing] was sent out and people were asked to recite psalms and pray for her recovery. Prayer.

So in synagogue, the next day, everyone quieted down and we recited a psalm (130 or 121, I forget which) and the person in charge said a special request for God's help in healing the girl. She was mentioned by name. We gave charity. We spoke in hushed tones. Then we moved on.

The next day, we said nothing.

That bothered me. The girl is still in the hospital. She has not miraculously and completely healed. My teacher is still sick. Why do we feel less today than we did yesterday? Why STOP praying? In fact, I know that when names are passed around to be added to lists recited during prayers, names often stay on for days and weeks and people either take them off after a given amount of time (say, a month) if no one asks to keep them on, or they stay on until someone is notified that the person has healed or died.

But we stopped.

I asked a local Rabbi about it. A smart man, one who leads his own congregation. He was skeptical about the practice on the whole, what with names passed across the internet and this notion that a group's prayer in one state for a stranger elsewhere has any efficacy at all in God's eyes. When I asked about why, if we thought it had value, we would stop, he spoke about how people become inured to it and that cheapens the prayers. We should save them for when we have the passion to infuse in the wishes a true and connected sincerity. In his community, a girl has cancer and they say prayers daily, because she is of the community and there is a constant connection. But here? In New Jersey? For a girl in Florida? People don't have a reason to feel like it matters so the prayers are useless.

I thought about this. It seemed more a concession to a large and communal failure than a reasonable reaction liturgically to the facts of life. Why don't we care? He said "People are sick everyday. Are we supposed to pray for everyone all the time?" I thought (very loudly, verging on speech), "YES!" We are supposed to care so deeply and intensely that we can't do anything BUT pray for others. We should have to be torn away from prayer if we truly think that prayer is effective at petitioning the Almighty and we really believe that we are all responsible for each other as brother in the house of Israel. He said "People can't do that."

So I asked about John Donne. He wasn't so familiar. I have a passing knowledge of a few of Donne's works so I quoted Meditation 17, the famous one.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me..."

Donne's point is that we have to feel that everyone in our extended cultural or religious family is an integral part and the loss of any individual MUST sadden us in a profound way, as much as if a friend or relative suffered. We have to feel the sickness and death all the time. Depressing, but necessary. In the same way that we celebrate communally, we must have concern communally. We cannot simply say that so-and-so wasn't close enough to care about. We throw our hands up and then wash them (no doubt, then, dripping self-pity on our heads) of any moral emotional investment. But Donne says that any man's death diminishes him. He feels the pain all the time. It is part of his being alive and a member of the group called humanity.

The rabbi paused, and finally said "That Donne is a tzaddik (pious sage)."

I don't know if anyone has ever called Donne a tzaddik before but his attitude, to me bears consideration. I'm not saying he was completely right. In fact, to my mind, he ruins the moment in the next line. He says that that bell which tolls (yes, it comes from this. Hemingway didn't invent it) to tell of a tragedy and a death doesn't toll for the victim, but for the hearer. He says that it reminds us of our own mortality and our own sense of loss. It tolls as if we were dying so that we are stirred to sadness. I think that it tolls to stir us to remember our responsibility towards each other. It tolls to remind us that all is not always wonderful. It is the constant stepping on the glass from a Jewish wedding. When we think it tolls for another town, another community or another synagogue's members then we stop caring and that's the danger.

I know that in Judaism, the naming of an individual is important. Trust me, I know. I know that the talmud says that one who quotes something in the name of its source brings salvation to the world. And we learn that praying on behalf of someone else, a specific person, is powerful and merits the requests of the individual praying be answered first (read this for more, or pretty much, the same). But if we wait until we know the name, if we wait until we can make that connection, we have waited too long.

In college, I had a friend who would go to services during finals. It mattered then that he gave charity and prayed. I have met others who say certain prayers with more fervor when they finally make sense. "I have a test today, so the prayer for intelligence and wisdom is relevant, so I will focus on it this morning." That's a fine start but what about on another day. Is that prayer suddenly less important? Shouldn't we recognize that others still need that prayer said (our prayers are in the plural. We as for all, not just for ourselves), and that we have it as a request even if we don't overtly know it?

I believe not that we just, as a matter of religious compulsion, or even compunction, add in the saying of psalms on behalf of everyone, at every prayer. I believe that we should refine ourselves until we realize that we WANT to add in the prayers because we feel it is the most important thing we can do. Our religious fervor has its height when it inspires us to feel driven to do certain things without being commanded to, simply because they make the most sense to us (even, yes, in an illogical, faith based system).

I remember being taught some of the intricacies of the afterlife when I was a younger man. The question was asked, "Rebbi, will there be basketball in heaven?" I didn't ask it. I hate basketball. The Rebbi's answer was "Sure...but no one will want to play it. Given a choice of how to spend your time, you will want to learn in the presence of God."

Maybe our resolution for this year should be to try and bring some heaven to our earth and recognize that some things are worth doing, without being reminded by the bell that they are suddenly necessary. Maybe we should stop passing around names to say while we pray -- maybe their inclusion signals the exclusion of all the unnamed parties. Maybe we should start praying for everyone all the time, but not as a matter of rote or because it is part of the liturgy, but because, the same way we feel that we can make the difference in the life of one girl in Florida, we can make a difference in the lives of all the people, known and not known, who are suffering through their own tragedies daily.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

In the write frame of mind

I was asked recently to speak to a bunch of students about the nexus of literature and spirituality. I thought about it and actually developed a couple of ideas. Then no students signed up for the workshop so I was at once, relieved and burdened. While I avoided the need to speak in front of a group of students, I now had all these thoughts whirling in my head. Notice, I was not at all concerned that my speech inspired absolutely no interest from students. I'm used to that. I'm a teacher.

But I was thinking about the whole question and so I figured, if I want no one to hear it, I might as well blog about it. Privacy is at a premium and it is nice to know that I have a small, very private corner of the internet where I can rant or pontificate.

My first reaction was that by reading we often open ourselves up to other paths to the divine. We look beyond the individual and into the life of the words and we let them touch us in a way that is uniquely personal and internal. We read when we are alone and the author cannot judge us. We read in our heads and fill ourselves up with ideas without appearing any different. Donne's Holy Sonnets and Adams' The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul both force the reader to ask questions and come to terms with perspectives. They explore avenues towards the infinite, captured and frozen and retold form a particular angle. Knowing how to read a text in the secular world informs our interaction with religious text. Rhyme and meter, often the anchors of the secular poem, is present in religious writing. Historical content, allusion, figures of speech etc are all part of good writing and literary analysis and help us see beyond the surface when experiencing liturgy or religious canon.

Then I thought about the activity of writing as well. As much as reading is a solitary and private activity, writing is even more. Writing is about crafting your own path to God, and that, dear reader, is scary. Reading gives you an anchor. You work your way into a text and float from idea to idea. Writing dumps you right into the middle of an ocean and you have to create your own anchor. You even have to make your own ocean. You have to create a universe. You have to be a god on a small scale, and your universe will succeed or fall based on you. And through this responsibility one can begin to have a percentage of an inkling of the divine. This is also scary. The idea that your writing represents you, alone, is scary. Facing the notion that you have to have something to say and you have to say it is daunting. You can't rely on others or else your writing ends up being a review, a rehashing, a recap of stale thoughts. New writing means that you stand up and come to terms with who you are and what you have to add to the body of knowledge and understanding in the word.

Like in prayer, we stand alone. We don't wait for God to write our name in a book of life or death. We have to face the task of writing our own fate for God through our expression of who it is we are on the deepest level. When we pray, we open up our hearts and express. When we write, we have to do the same thing, spilling our soul onto the page and owning up to our own identity. Even as we say the words written by others over the millennia, it is in how we express them, much like how we combine the pre-existing vocabulary to tell our own stories, which draws us nearer to heaven. Writing, like reading, is a lonely and meditative act. When we write in a group, we end up with a text mashed together in committee with no soul of its own. When we abdicate personal responsibility to create, we are letting others pray on our behalf and hope that they can communicate our needs effectively. Donne's sonnets might have been written to inspire me, as a reader, but the religious act came to the fore through the process of Donne's writing.

So take some time, find a corner, close your eyes and write. Admit things you otherwise wouldn't, allow yourself to see what you usually don't. Control and command words to allow you to touch the uncontrollable. Understand what it feels like to bring things into being, starting with the calling into existence of your self.