Looking for the Nothing in the Middle – 3805 Miles Later

3805 miles later, from upstate NY, reflecting on the last 12 days, journeying from coast to (almost) coast…

1. My Blue Stallion:
When we – my stallion and I – arrived at Rapid City, South Dakota, at 10pm, having left Billings, Montana some 454 miles earlier that morning at 8:00am, and following some white knuckles sections on the 10% grade, climbing from Bighorn Canyon to the observation point at 9430 feet elevation and zigzagging through the Rockies of east Wyoming, I literally kissed the steering wheel. And when I was given a room on the other side of the motel, unable to see “him”, I asked to be switched, even if it meant shlepping stuff to the 2nd floor. Yes, I checked and filled up oil as needed and had him looked at once along the way (ok, that was after the A/C stopped working, and yes, the guy showed me some hose but I know it’s just because my stallion is not used to the intense humidity), and when all else failed, we talked. After me worrying all across Nevada, trying to listen and “check the gauges” (oh, wait, this is water, not oil; so where is the oil gage? Oh, I don’t have one?!…) he told me that he was created in order to do this sort of stuff (i.e. drive),and I can just relax and enjoy the road. All cowboy songs of admiration and partnership to their horses now make sense. It just so happened that mine is blue. Which bring us to #2.

2. Radio
I was plenty warned about the radio during the “nothing in the middle”, because there is only “country and G-d”, so I must say, I like this country and I don’t mind G-d. I also left equipped with 2 books on tape (CD) – both excellent [“Promise Me” and “The Japanese Lover”], totaling some 15 hours of story time, which granted, is a fraction in 12 days driving but nevertheless were great, entertaining and thought provoking – and between finding my way, wowing at the views and listening to songs I grew to like, I didn’t have time for much more. Not to mention, NPR – it’s almost everywhere. Driving through South Dakota’s Black Hills I chance on a program presenting Israeli Author Etgar Keret, and here I am, very present with the curvy drive along the beautiful dark hills, and at the same time, transposed to his IDF experience, and that of becoming a writer.

3. Politics
“Oh, you must be seeing a lot of Trump signs”, said a friend who heard I was traveling through the “nothing in the middle”. Not even one! Also no Hillary signs. Maybe it’s too early; or maybe everybody knows what they are voting; or maybe which John Deer to get and what to do about the litter of hogs and how to prepare for winter, which is going to be much harsher than the amazing weather I encountered, are a lot more pressing issues. I listened to one radio program – on fox – and the interviewer and interviewed sounded seriously concerned and undecided about the elections. No inflammatory slogans, just a real interesting deep conversation. Which made me think that maybe — the people on the edges hear things and assume things about the people of the middle, and vise-versa without really spending too much time talking and getting to know each other.

4. “Not’ig much eve’ happens he’e”
Shabbat morning in Billings Montana: I ask the concierge at the hotel for directions to Riverfront Park on the Yellowstone River and if it’s “safe” to go there, you know, safe, you know, me, by myself. He’s confused. He calls another “gal”. They both look at me unsure what I’m asking. I think of Oakland and Israel. They finally say, “Well, ye know, it’s a country road; speed limit is 45? I think, maybe 55? But there’s a good shoulder”. We stare at each other. Finally he says, “You’ll be fine, not’ig much eve’ happens he’e”, and I think to myself, I’m afraid I’m going to miss that.

5. Alabama / California
At that same point I each the observation point at 9430 feet elevation above the Bighorn Canyon, another car stops to admire the scenery. A woman, maybe in her 60’s, goes out, and we exchange the usual – isn’t this something? Yes, amazing. Then she says, “where you’re from?” in her southern drawl, and I hear myself answer: “California”. I can see a little cloud come over her face, as if she’s thinking, ‘they sure talk funny there’, but then a brighter cloud replaces it, as if the rest of the thought is, ‘well, they think we talk funny too, so maybe it’s all alright’! we wish each other a great day, and farewell, and I realize that for those 2 minutes, life is simple: I come from there and am going there.

6. Stam lake
My Blue Stallion and I had an agreement: everyday I’ll stop and take a walk for at least 1 hour so we’re not just driving through endlessly. That day, as already mentioned was a long one, but shortly after Burgess Junction on Route 14 (we’re in Wyoming -), a lake appeared on my right side. “Stam Lake” (just a lake), I called it between me and myself. There is no obvious sign, no national park, no entrance fees, no tourists, just a gorgeous, deep blue water, dark green trees – lake. I park, take my phone as camera (no reception) and walk down. Then I see- a trail. And here the magic: the ability to trust the trail. I have no map, no backpack, nothing. But there is a trail, and I know it’s ok. There are a few people, couples, families, local license plates, fishing, “chilling” – hats down, polls stretched out, kids and friendly dogs wading; evidence for beaver and baby ducks in water. It’s so beautiful and so peaceful, I almost run the whole circumference in joy.

7. Teton and Yellowstone
The night at Grand Teton, after the storm, in a small cabin with the wood stove, so nice! Outside the cabin, there are the bear lockers; and me, with the Yosemite “hype” experience from the summer, ready to pack all I have into the lockers, but the park people here are so much more at ease: “ca’ is fine”, he says, swallowing the ”r”. And the next morning, maximizing my time to check every “attraction” at Yellowstone. No wonder it’s the 1st area to be made a National Park. If the god of Grand Teton seems moody and stormy to me, the god of Yellowstone seems like a relaxed, comfortable grandpa. Even his sneezes are predictable: “Old Faithful” erupts at known times. The platform is ready for viewing.

8. Idaho Falls and Sioux falls
Surprise! Places that are called something “falls” – turn out to have waterfalls! Different, but both beautiful, I take time to walk around in each city. The “middle” has friendly, helpful people, I should add here. For example, Elko, Nevada: how I dreaded driving across Nevada! I used to say that driving through NV is a “dream” – since I much prefer to sleep right through it. But here we are, me and my Blue Stallion, and the CA license plate, and everybody smiles: the people in the gas station; there are clean bathroom, cold water to fill, and fascinating desert views. At the motel in Elko, the credit card machine is not working. “If you don’t mind”, says the lady, “please stop by in the morning and we’ll try to run it again”. “What do you mean, if you don’t mind?? Aren’t you afraid I’ll drive off without paying?” She laughs. Her husband comes in, “it’s not a problem.” When in the morning, the machine still doesn’t work, he writes the number on a piece of paper. I’m clearly not from around here. I clutch my purse, and lock the car. They look at me with this, ‘CA / city people are so uptight!!’

9. PA
“Are you taking highways or country roads?” asks one of my friends, “well…” I stammer. “Because if I drive cross country, it will be all on country roads!” is the answer. I shrug. Going across Wisconsin – on country roads – I think I now see the same farm house again. And again. It’s still beautiful, really very beautiful: the bright green fields, the red barns, the white houses, the tractor parked just so, even the Amish carriage (yes! Saw one!), and the perfect clouds, but then, so was the first hour. Or two. Or three. Now , after I’ve seen the grand Mississippi River, driven around Chicago in the stormy rain, and across almost flat Indiana and Ohio, I admit, I’m slightly resigned. The Midwest makes me think of my kids’ grandparents. And Zoe, our golden lab who would have been so much fun right now. And everyone who isn’t here, which at this point – is everyone. It’s grey. It’s long. It’s humid. Who’s idea was it anyway? I click in my final destination in upstate NY and decide to just pull through. Then, I enter Pennsylvania, and glorious hills – mountains! – appear! My daughter, who – lucky for me – made her state report on Pennsylvania, calls. I’m all “wowed” with the newly discovered scenery, after thinking I said goodbye to anything higher than a mound, as these lovely shapes and colors appear stretched to the horizon all around me . “It’s the Appalachians!”, she reminds me. “Beautiful!” I report, “Not like the Rockies or Sierras”, I’m quick to assure I’m still loyal to the West, “but really, really nice”. Before too long, we roll into NY state.

10. Peace be the Journey
Two passengers did join me. Yes, I know. My friend was worried I’ll pick up someone. “Do you have any stranger in your car?” she asked me. I don’t know about you, but in my life, handsome strangers who you actually can connect with– are hard to come by, and even then, they can’t necessarily drive thousands of miles with you to the end of the world. But Pesky and Shmesky did. Those were the names I gave two flies who settled in my car in Rapid City, South Dakota, and didn’t leave till later in Minnesota (Actually, I think Pesky flew out but Shmesky stayed to reappear in Wisconsin complaining about his loneliness…). Anyway… 3805 miles, and 14 states later, I have discovered, there is no nothing in the middle. I am also still two hours away from New York city, so maybe the best thing about the journey is that it isn’t over.
Shabbat Shalom!

day 7 024

Bighorn National Forest, WY

Mississippi River

   

בית חווה

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Day 9: Crossing the Mississippi River to Chicago

The Mississippi River, from Pike Peak State Park, Iowa, looking at the Wisconsin side.

In the summer of 1977, the synagogue we belonged to (or maybe I should say, it belonged to us, as it was just starting -) embarked on a new project: inviting exchange students from America. For about six months, the students were to be housed with local families and go to local Israeli high schools in a new of its kind immersion program. How exciting!! My own brother was attending a navy boarding high school at the time, and our 2 bedroom apartment (in retrospect, tiny but in my mind then, quite ample -) seemed “empty” and “spacious”.
I don’t know exactly what I said, that I’ll do chores and that I’ll learn English and on and on; and maybe, there were just not enough families who signed up. Before we knew it, a group of shy, slightly awkward, and very American teens arrived. There was no “pre-meeting”, pictures, skype, anything. As Paul reminded me this morning when we were having tea in his spacious home in a suburb of Chicago, the lady in charge from our synagogue, just gave birth and there was no one really in charge. The “ceremony”, if any, went something like an adoption horror story: ‘you, take… what’s your name? Next: you…’ Hey who cares? One way or another, I got my American brother!
Well, there were adjustments, to be sure. We went on family “tiyulim”, showing off the wonderful, amazing, beautiful, one and only – Land of Israel, with its marvelous mountains (the tallest point on the Carmel is 1724’ above sea level-), towering trees (planted by JNF a couple of decades earlier), flowing rivers (at winter, right after the rain), and a lot a lot of rocks and I remember my mom’s dismayed face, when, to her horror, Paul dared napping in the car. How can anyone sleep?? This is our beloved homeland! I think it took me all this time – and this trip – to realize what it must have been like to hear Bible Stories about the Jordan River, and imagine it at least like the Mississippi, and then come to the hot, arid stones that one can cross in a casual jump and us Israelis call “a river”… not to mention that he’s seen many of the sites before, but in that ‘smooth cultural exchange’, we had no idea what exactly was going on.
Then there were efforts to make “American” foods. In her despair, my mom decided to make pizza (American food, right?). It should not be so difficult, just take some dough, pour “sauce”, i.e. ketchup on it, and lay some slices of cheese above. Here! Wait, what’s wrong??
And – worst of worst: Paul refused to speak English. He was very clear that he came to Israel to learn Hebrew, not to be my English tutor. Already then, at 16, he knew exactly what he wanted to be: a rabbi. I also knew what I wanted to be, or do, or maybe… well, let’s see: I want to study – everything. And write. And travel. And dance. And teach. And discuss deep philosophical matters. And talk with my friends. And… interestingly, fast forward and he’s the senior rabbi of a large congregation in the Chicago, and here I am.
To be sure, I was happy with my “brother”. We quickly became best friends and part of a ‘hevre’ at the synagogue’s youth group. Sadat came to Israel. There was peace. Everything was good.
Before my army service, my mom and I went on a trip through the US (anyone remembers “VUSA”? yes -) and got to visit him and his family. I was so sad. He was headed to college; I was going to the army! This was obviously the very last time ever –ever I would see him! I think I spent half the visit in tears.
When I came to the U.S. we spoke a few times, but the distance between CA and Chicago – and between our lives – was much bigger before the internet and we lost touch. Decades passed. Then, an article I wrote through me front and center on the Jewish map and shortly after, I got a message from my long lost American brother. We happened to both be in Jerusalem at the same time: me at Pardes, and him – at Hartman. Once again, we could have coffee and chat. When I decided to drive cross-country, a stop in Chicago to see my brother and meet his wife, was obvious.
Throughout this trip, every day I get on the road I am ecstatic with everything around me. Wow, look at this, wow, look at that, me and myself share excitedly; the rivers and lakes; the blue and green and yellow and brown; the sounds and smells; the expanse around me; the fact that I can trust my phone to take me; that the road doesn’t dead-end somewhere; it never ceases to amaze me that wherever I go there is gas and light and water and a little motel and a bathroom and NPR and grapes and chai-tea-latte… I drive and jot down in my mind all the things I must write about later. Many of them, I forget by the time I get anywhere, but being able to continue a conversation from almost 40 years ago, is a whole different wow.

Pike Peak State Park, Iowa

אח שלי

Almost 40 years later

on the road…

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Day 7: A Shot of Patriotism Straight to the Vein

When my kids we young(er), we used to read the “Christmas Menorah”, the true story of a 1993 Billings Montana incident, when a brick was thrown through the bedroom window of a 5-year-old Jewish boy, displaying a menorah. Horrified, committed and proud, the town responded. The Billings Gazette printed a full-page menorah, which thousands of citizens pasted in their own windows in a show of solidarity that was trumpeted by the world media as an example of how one small community stood up to hate ( by the way, six years passed and the same, sadly, was true for Sacramento – minus the book when after the synagogue fires of 1999, the Sacbee printed full-page “chai” ads, many still visible for years after).
One way or another, Billings seemed like a fit place for Shabbat, and although I was not able to get a response from the local synagogue – because of summer hours and / or lack of staff – Billings did leave an impression. It seemed that in Montana everything is big: the stores, the parking lots, the trucks, the fields and the people, not only physically big, but at heart. Yes, I know I am generalizing from few examples, but what else can we do. I chose my motel because it was walking distance from the beautiful Riverfront Park and a trail along the Yellowstone River. I started walking and cars slowed down to offer me a ride, and if you think that’s creepy, some were “older ladies” (probably about my age🙂. The attitude repeated everywhere I went; the place was beautiful and friendly and large in all senses of the word. I was so excited, I felt like Rabbi Avram in the Frisco Kid, looking this way and that and exclaiming, “I tink tis is the vest! Oh, vhat a vonderful country”!
So maybe all that somehow had to do with my stop much later that day at Mt. Rushmore. Because initially, I admit, Mt. Rushmore was not on my list: It would add some extra miles to an already long day, driving over the ever so wow Bighorn Canyon (and let us not forget the 10% grade climb from the canyon to 9430 feet elevation!) and the east Wyoming Rockies; and besides, what’s to see? Not like a natural wonder or anything. Four residents carved into a stone?? I’ve seen the picture too!
But, you know, when you’re in love you sometimes make unexplainable decisions, and this whole trip-thing has had the same feeling. So shortly after Gillette, WY, I veered over to Wyoming State highway 16. Let me just say that those 135 miles (from Gillette to MR) while well-paved, beautiful and smooth, are not a quick drive – and the guys, passing me angrily, showing me a middle finger when I slowed down to take a picture of the “south Dakota welcomes you” – did put a damper on my best mood and intentions, so I had plenty of time to doubt my actions.
I arrived at Mt. Rushmore at dusk, wondering if again I am late, but miracle: Mt. Rushmore has a “night show” which was scheduled to start within 15 minutes of my arrival. Not only that, but again, a “coincidences”: I had time to sit in my finally parked car for a few more minutes, listening to Etgar Keret read a story on NPR…
East Wyoming and South Dakota present miles and miles of mostly empty highways, but all of a sudden, as if out of nowhere, I was surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of people, filling the amphitheater. It was getting dark when the evening program began, welcoming the guests from each state and around the world. We were told us about this grand sculpture which took 14 years to complete, and the four presidents carved in it themselves. When it was itch dark, the stones were lit. Then members of the armed forces were invited to lower the flag ceremonially. There were tens of people on stage but each was introduced personally, and some introduced their children who were serving elsewhere. The crowd cheered in appreciation and admiration to each. Yes, I know; but that’s exactly it: my rational mind was working over time, analyzing historical examples, danger of extreme nationalism and fears over upcoming elections (from all sides- it’s fascinating to listen to local radio -) and at the same time, here I was, getting a shot of patriotism straight to the vein. And it was hard not to simply feel inspired.
I drove into leisurely sprawled and well lit Rapid City, South Dakota late, marveling at everything: that there’s good roads and clear signs and this possibility to travel; that everywhere you go, there’s light and water and sometimes even reception; that sooner or later, you’ll find a bathroom – usually clean, and coffee and a shower and a place to put your head, and a smile; that somehow this whole thing works;  there are people – good people – who care and love this country.

     day 7 024

day 7 076   day 7 080

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Shabbat Nachamu – The Shabbat of Comfort: “Discovering America”, part I

I’ve been living in this country for more than 30 years. Yes. I know that’s hard to believe, especially with me being 29 and all, and yet. More than 30 years, and so much I have not seen, especially in the middle. I know, “us” on the edges think the middle is kind of empty, “fly over”, 5-6 hours of sleep with nothing underneath, and hop, here we are, but turns out, the middle is amazingly beautiful. On this week of Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, I venture on my journey cross-country; my “discovering America”, my “masa hashalom”, journey of peace with this place that, admittedly initially unintentionally, became my home. There is lots to say, but as usual, it is – almost Shabbat, so here is just one day, and hopefully, more to come.

Thursday, Day 4: Idaho Falls, Idaho to Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
I thought that G-d lives in Yosemite; now it turns out, He takes residence in Grand Teton too.
The G-d of Grand Teton is awesome and majestic and beautiful, and a little scary too. I arrive after driving through great expanses of yellow wheat and other green fields, barns, trucks, and horses in Colter Bay, just in time for an afternoon hike.
I almost make it to Hermitage Point when I hear the first boom. It’s a bit cloudy but, hey, I’m only 0.5 miles away from that point and can’t give up now. I rush out to the edge of the Bay, breath deeply, trying to take in the amazing wow, click as many pictures as possible and rush back. 10 minutes later, it is no longer a far away boom; it is lightening, thundering, raining and – hailing! The lightening is so close – it’s blinding. The thunder is so loud, I instinctively cup my ears and duck down. What were the instructions? Hide under a tree? Stay away from the trees? I am alone in the forest, drenched. My hair is dripping; my shirt clings to my body; my pants stick to my legs; my favorite hiking shoes – soaked. The trail I was on is a muddy creek. I am alone in the forest. Not a soul in sight (this was the “well traveled trail”…). The “village” is 4 miles away. Just me and the trees. It’s immediately 1944. All I have is water, two cliff-bars and a bag of grapes. No reception, and I didn’t buy the bear spray – for $45.99 a can. $45.99!! They told me not to worry, bears dont “frequent this area”, and if you see one, “you can sing”, they suggest at the ranger station, “just make some noise”. Is this not enough noise right now?? My backpack is getting wet; I put my phone in my bra, perhaps the last semi-dry place, then keep going through the woods. Suddenly as it has begun, it eases off. First, big drops instead of the hail; then lighter drops, then a semi-smiling sun fights through the clouds.
In the evening I find a place with a veggie soup and salad. They let me sit indefinitely with my computer while I write. The guy at the tent village hands me a bundle of wood and kindling for my cabin’s stove, which miraculously, I manage to light and enjoy the warmth until I fall asleep.
G-d of the Grand Tetons laughs. Sometimes we laugh together and sometimes, He laughs alone. Grand Teton and I are not yet friends, but I think by tomorrow we will be.

From Billings Montana, home of the “Christmas Menorah”, my blue stallion and I wish you a Shabbat Shalom.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Shabbat Chazon – the Shabbat of vision and looking ahead

You might have seen some of the online back and forth: to fast or not to fast, that is the question. Why fast, they those who’d rather not. After all, we have our land and Jerusalem is our capital. Fasting might be like an unappreciative slap in the face of all the good we have. Fast, advocates those who do; it’s our tradition. And besides, the Temple has not been built yet, so no reason to be that joyful.
I love it when I discover that this is actually a very old conversation. The Book of Zachariah 7:3 we find the question, as the people want to know: ‘Should I weep in the fifth month (Av), separating myself, as I have done these so many years?’
To get some background, Zachariah lived during the time of Darius the Great, who some say might have been the son of Achashverosh and Queen Esther, and under whose reign, Jews were to return to their Land and begin rebuilding the Temple. Zechariah prophecies date to 520-518 BCEand center on the rebuilding of the Temple, which was now encouraged by the leaders of the empire in hopes that it would strengthen the authorities in local contexts. This policy was good politics on the part of the Persians, and the Jews viewed it as a blessing from God.
Clearly, questions now emerge about observances as things have changed, and same as today, the prophet is being asked about the fast for that old, first Temple, which many of those living in that present, didn’t experience and felt remote from. The difficulty with ‘out of the blue’ fast and mourning was always there, which is one of the reasons why the rabbis instituted a “backwards process” into mourning (in contradiction with personal mourning, where one goes from extreme sadness slowly back out to the world, the “three weeks” create a system to go “in”, ending with the worst day).
The answer the prophet delivers is fascinating. G-d says something like, ‘wait a minute, are you fasting for me??’
Fasting is not something we do in order to make G-d better. We’re supposed to fast in order to make the world better – in order to feel others pain, remember that there is suffering, brokenness, disconnectedness. We’re supposed to fast in order to step aside to think about what we can do to fox the disconnectedness around us; to be motivated to do better.
Ah, you might say, how can my fasting possibly help with anything??
And the answer – in question, of course – would be: ‘ok, fine; fasting might not help. But, if our fasting doesn’t help, does our eating, or doing anything else, help’??
In other words, let us be careful with the ‘nothing I do matters’. We should not let ourselves get off easy and think that our actions don’t manner’. Tish’a Be’Av is an opportunity to do some soul searching reexamine what it is that we can do that does make a positive difference. The sages emphasize “ahavat chinam”, love unconditionally, which is a grand goal, but even just small acts of kindness can make a big difference. Then, says the prophet, all these fasts will eventually become days of joys, gladness and cheerful seasons (there 8:16-19).
** * * * * *
I have always liked the image of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, giving his last loving words of wisdom, some rebuke, some warnings, lots of advice, family memories, poetry and blessings, like a parent talking to his child as the latter takes off to a new adventure. I have identified with it in the past here, as my kids went off to summer camp, college and Israel. I almost got used to that role, except today, on the eve of my last Shabbat in Oakland, (at least for a while ), I am noticing that it flipped: I am the one with the journey ahead and my family and friends are the ones with the advise and the good byes (and the warnings, and the advice and the poems and the blessings…).
I have lived in California so long now – longer than anywhere else, including Israel – that at a recent conversation, someone told me I am “such a California girl”. I came for a short visit more than 30 years ago, and that turned into a long love affair. The views f the Golden State became my home. The beaches, mountains, country roads, oaks and redwoods, flowers and animals, from the mother and babies skunk who lived under our house to the deer at the window and on. I now can fluently babble about which highway to take where, and talk about other “stuff” that Californians think everybody in world cares about like avocados and wine, different kinds of yoga, skiing in a t-shirt at 68F, “the surf”, slack-lining, volcanoes, rain, water, drought and so much more. Most of all, I have been blessed by the people I met here. I think of so many dear friends I made, not excluding my kids who were all born here. On this last Shabbat, I’m in my friends’ kitchen, cutting onions with goggles (great invention!) but my eyes are teary anyway. I already miss you.
Shabbat Shalom and tbc…

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Torah Portion: Journeys

Martin Buber said, “all journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware”. I first heard it on a job, but maybe that whole job’s purpose was to learn that saying… it took hearing it more than once to remember, look it up, write it down… We think we’re going from point A to B in order to do X, yet on route, “coincidentally”, we come across something – or someone – different we had no idea of before, and end up elsewhere, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
Why is it so?
This week’s Torah reading is called “journeys”. It’s actually a double portion here and a single one in Israel, so we’re finally “catching up”. Our “meeting place” is at the end of the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers), at the end of our journeys.
Wait, journeys?? Why is this word in the plural form? Wasn’t it one journey, just going from Egypt through the same desert? And while we’re on it, actually why did the Children of Israel have to wander around in the desert? What was the merit of going from one place to another, if they were given the same manna and same water anyway? Once the decree was made to stay in the desert for 40 years (38 and a half), why not just sit somewhere and wait for time to go by, play cards, watch TV, whatever, till the new generation is ready?
The early Chasidic master, the Ba’al Shem Tov, said, “All these 42 journeys are with each one of us, from the day we are born till the day we pass to the other world… just like the Exodus from Egypt”: In the beginning, we are part of the Eternal, but then we’re placed in a narrow place (Egypt’s Hebrew name is Mitzrayim which comes from “narrow”, “trouble”). Our whole existence becomes tight – all we can focused on is ‘me myself and I’. Then slowly, we emerge into the world. At first, we are well cared for, fed and sheltered, but that’s not enough. Our goal is to get to the “Promised Land”. In some way, this is one journey, but in others, each stop along the way is critical, because on it hinges the next stop. Therefore, the text describing the journey is very explicit. It could have said something like; ‘they traveled from Haifa to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat’, but instead it’s more like: they traveled from Haifa to Tel Aviv and camped there; then they traveled from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and camped there’.
Kabalistically, each stop is an opportunity to repair something, to “fix the sparks”. This is true for the individual as well as for the people. Another ‘proof’ here is that then as now, individually and communally, we stay a different length of time in different places, supposedly, since in each we need to do different “work” on ourselves before we’re ready to move on. No doubt, there are moments of great frustration, but often when we look back, ‘it all makes sense’, or almost all… this is also the reason why “camping” in each location was important. It tells us we need to pay attention to where we are and the “lessons” we’re handed, and send real time in each stop. Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur said, “In every generation there is a new understanding of the Exodus from Egypt; and not just in each generation, but in each person, there is a point of freedom / redemption which is an explanation to the Exodus from Egypt. That point a person must find out between him and himself”.

*******
As I was writing these “lofty” words, I took a break, browsing through facebook. Sadly, strangely and other adjectives, this is where now new is. To my horror, I learned through posts, of the sudden, heartbreaking death of David Moglen, my Bar Mitzvah student and family friend some 25 years ago.
Tragedy is no time for theories. Theories are good, and can be helpful, but as a dear teacher and friend of mine used to say, “life is an emotional experience, not a cognitive one”. We know things in our mind, and still must have time to process and grieve. In such times, there is no way to explain.
*******
The school I’m going to for the Maharat program is in “hot water” with the “OU” (Orthodox Union) over the issue of “women rabbis”. And what do I think? I think it’s time for the conversation to enter the ‘grey’; it’s no longer a black and white. Women within Orthodoxy are coming forward, like the daughters of Tzlofchad, and some Moses needs to thoughtfully answer in some form of affirmative. They / we are not asking to be men; they / we are not asking to replace the men; But to have recognition and respect for acquiring knowledge, and a way to serve the community with that.
Shabbat Shalom.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Making Connections – Then & Now

I was honored to deliver the “Shabbat U” (short for “Shabbat University” – main learning) at Beth Jacob Oakland this past Saturday. Here’s a summary and sources:

Back from my 3rd summer of tour guiding through almost 5000 miles in the pacific north and south west, there are so many good things about travel, and one of them is definitely people watching; just to step aside from our own story and look at another. I notice the family next to me, arguing in fluent Japanese, maybe, with their teen daughter about being in the family portrait; the Indian, maybe, grandparents with their grandchildren trying to match their pace on the walk; the Dutch, maybe, father, with his daughter at the checkout stand the American dad with his sons, roasting marshmallows on our campfire with an amazing “marshmallow fishing pole” for perfect flavor and consistency. And somehow, they all look extremely familiar: They are parts of me and I could have been each and every one of them.
In those moments, the Kabalistic way of seeing the world needs no further proof, and is all right there. It’s obvious that we are part of a One; that “soul matter” spilled into different, separate “vessels”, and that those are artificial boundaries we strive to overcome. Hence, we yearn to go “back”, we yearn to “connect”.
In that sense, the Torah can be viewed as a very binary manual: it tells us about ways to connect – with G-d and other humans, whether individuals or community; and ways by which this connections is severed. In this week’s Torah reading, Matot, we see Moshe struggling with a new disconnect he’s never seen or imagined can happen when two tribes decide to “disconnect” and stay in the eastern side of the Jordan, rather than go into The Land. Throughout the Torah, there is a lot of talk about “knowing”, “not knowing”. “Knowing” – lada’at – is a form of connecting – and we see that in the first use of “knowing”, when Adam “knew” Hava, in Genesis 4:1, having the deepest connection with his wife, and she bore him a son.
But connecting is often obstructed. At times, interactions between humans are like a meeting between two porcupines, trying to find a soft spot… In the Jewish calendar, the three weeks we’re in, are a special time to look at our communal interactions, judgments, per-conceived notions and so on, and the negative ways they have impacted us in the past and present. In conjunction, we have learned the following Talmudic story, where we come across two famous rabbis, each a leader in his won right, who nevertheless, need to learn the lesson of what helps and what harms – making real connections.
The story can be found in Baba Kamma 117a-b: Rav Kahana, who lives in Babylonia, gets in trouble with the law. His teacher, Rav, who is the head of the academy and also happens to be his step father, advises him to go to the Land of Israel, to Rabbi Yochanan’s yeshiva. Rav makes one condition: that Kahana should not get into arguments with Rabbi Yochanan. Interestingly, and not so different from our modern era, we see that already then, Eretz Yisrael was considered a refuge and haven for someone in trouble, and that those outside assume themselves a little greater in learning.
Rav Kahana goes. He gets into some arguments with Rabbi Yochanan’s students so the latter “warn” their master with the words: “A lion has come up from Babylon; you should prepare your lesson well”. When Rav Kahana comes to class the next day, he is seated in the honorable front row, but as he keeps his promise and silence, he is moved all the way to the back, where the “bad students” sit. Yochanan now smirks, saying: “That lion turned out to be a fox!”, and so Rav Kahana starts asking his questions, moving up front row by row, and then eventually, Rav Yochanan has to get off his pillows, until they sit at the same height (yes, physically and symbolically).
Rabbi Yochanan asks to see this man who is asking such poignant questions, and as he is old, his students prop his eyes open with silver pincers. He see Rav Kahana’s lips parted in a sort of smile, and assumes he (Yochanan) is being mocked by the Babylonian. His (Yochanan’s) mind weakens and he causes Kahana to die. The next day, he realizes his mistake when his students tell him that this is the way Kahana’s face is, with his lips slightly parted, so Rabbi Yochanan goes back to Kahana’s grave-cave to bring him back to life.
But at the cave, a snake (yes, more symbolism) is coiled on the door. Rabbi Yochanan says: ‘let the master come (see) the student!’ but the snake doesn’t move. He tries again: ‘let the colleague come (see) his colleague’ – and again, nothing. Last, he says: ‘let the student come (see) the master’, where upon the snake moves, and allows Rabbi Yochanan to enter and revive Rav Kahana. Rabbi Yochanan’s beautiful, humble, statement then is – ‘had I only known (that this is how his face is)’…

*******
I’ll add two more to this mix – each a very different, yet in some ways similar reminder to focus on what brings us together, rather than that that tears us apart:
The first is Yehuda Amichai’s poem – Tourists:

פעם ישבתי על מדרגות ליד שער במצודת דוד. את שני הסלים הכבדים שמתי לידי. עמדה שם קבוצת תיירים סביב המדריך ושמשתי להם נקודת ציון. “אתם רואים את האיש הזה עם הסלים? קצת ימינה מראשו, נמצאת קשת מן התקופה הרומית. קצת ימינה מראשו”. אבל הוא זז, הוא זז! אמרתי בלבי: הגאולה תבוא רק אם יגידו להם: אתם רואים שם את הקשת מן התקופה הרומית? לא חשוב: אבל לידה, קצת שמאלה ולמטה ממנה, יושב אדם שקנה פֵּרות וירקות לביתו.

Once I sat on the steps by the gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their reference point: “See
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period, just right of his head.” But he’s moving, he’s moving!
I said to myself: Redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
to the left and a bit down, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

And then, there’s the Chasidic teachings of Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl, a student of the 17th century Ba’al Shem Tov which I find in a brand new book, “Me, Myself and God” by Rabbi Jeff Roth that miraculously came into my life along the way:
“What is the world? The is G-d, wrapped in robes of G-d so as to appear to be material. And who are we? We are G-d wrapped in robes of G-d and our task is to unwrap the robes and thus dis-cover that we and the entire world are G-d”.

And with that, shavua tov /a good week to you and yours.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment