Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Take me Chai-er

'Laizer at Wilderness City has a piece weighing in on the endless discussion of homosexuality and Judaism that I found engaging, but a certain spiritual inclination seemed to rear its head in his post that is perhaps best expressed by this short passage:

"The law aims to contain a volatile force - allow its positive expression, but keep it from finding its full, and damaging, expression."

Here's the comment I posted on his blog:

You write as though the channelling of sexual expression within a certain framework is basically a concession. Damage controll, containing a volitile substance. That sounds pretty familiar, but not essentially Jewish. "Better to marry than to burn with desire", Paul is supposed to have said somewhere in Christian scriptures.

But a classic of OUR tradition, Iggeret Hakodesh, sees the various guide-lines (hyphen intentional) as bringing sexuality UP to the realization of its true, ultimate potentiality in His service. In general, do we say that halachah CONTAINS our animal instincts, or ELEVATES them?

Mashal l'mah hadavar domeh? In the month of Elul, we do teshuva. There are (at least) two conflicting statements in the gemara regarding teshuva:

1) Great is teshuva, for it converts intentional transgressions to (merely) inadvertant ones.

2) Great is teshuva, for it converts intentional transgressions into MERITS!

Isn't this a contradiction asks the Gemara?

Not at all, it answers: in the former case, the teshuva is motivated by Yir'ah (meaning primarily FEAR of punishment, though it of course resonates with the higher harmonics of Awe and Divine vertigo); in the latter case, the teshuva is motivated by Ahavah (love - of Hashem, of course).

Likewise here, sexual expression channelled through halachah out of fear of the damage it can inflict when allowed to run out of control will at best achieve the containment it seeks, at the price of confining the Jew who constrains him/herself to a life of limited spiritual horizons. Sexual expression channelled through halachah because this is a vehicle to express love of Hashem in an unparalleled fashion, has the potential of transforming those two souls so astonishingly united such that, when the tide of holy presencing ebbs, the precious divine gifts deposited on the shore of one's soul become an integral and indispensible part of a newly discovered dimension of one's being, more finely orienting one toward Hashem.

Moshcheini - Acharecha Narutza! Draw me, WE shall run after You!

Monday, August 28, 2006


Yesterday was Rav Kook's yahrzeit, and I found myself carrying around a special book of his teachings - "Chadarav", this title taking from Shir Hashirim 1:4 - "hevi'ani hamelech chadarav" - the King brought me to His (innermost) chambers. In this precious book are collected some of the most reflective, insighful and intimately revealing teachings of Rav Kook - it is truly a gem. The editors chose the following midrash to open with:

"Just as the Holy One - praised be He! - has a room of rooms of rooms in His Torah, likewise do the Sages, each one of them, have a room of room of rooms in their Torah".

Last night we were invited to a sheva berachot meal for Shaya, the son of our neighbors, and his kallah, Dina. As I was eating the delicious meal and enjoying the company of our small neighborhood, I felt moved to share with the newlyweds the following thoughts, inspired by Rav Kook:

It is not only the Sages who have chambers within chambers in their minds and hearts filled with the teachings of the Divine. Every single person has within him/her a dazzling array of chambers, leading one to the next, connected in unexpected ways, each filled with glistening treasure never beheld before. But, sadly, it is the case that not only do we not discern such complexities, depths and riches when we behold our fellow human being, but the individual him/herself is often unaware of any but the level and a half closest to the surface. And when we do get a glimpse of something beckoning, something beyond, we also immediately sense the difficulties and the dangers in store for those who would try to explore their own depths: confusion, self-delusion, and wishf-fulfillment might lead us in endless circles.

And in truth, how CAN we presume to enter such places? If, indeed, there is a divine spark at the very core of our beings, perhaps we must leave it to burn in solitude, allowing its light to cast a safe, gentle illumination, much as we must shield the core of a nuclear reactor in order to derive benefit from the intensity of its power. Indeed, even that ultimate of inner chambers, the Holy of Holies of the Temple, the repose of the Shechina, was entered only once a year, only by the Kohen Gadol, who immediately surrounded himself with a swirling, intoxicating cloud of incense to shield him from the Presence. How deflating, just as one is about to behold the Divine with unparalleled immediacy, one's senses and orientation are clouded over, and one is whisked away.

Yet, there is another Kohen, the Kohen who burns the Red Heifer, which restores life by removing the pollution of death, which atones for the paradigmatic flight from divine immediacy, the sin of the Egel Hazahav. This kohen stands at a seemingly terrible remove from the innermost room of rooms - he stands on the Mount of Olives as he renders the Red Heifer into purifying dust. But the halacha stipulates that he must be standing such that his line of sight gives him an unoccluded view, through all the gates, throught courtyards and chambers and hallways, right up to the Holy of Holies. From here, from this vantage point, all is clear. What the Kohen Gadol cannot see from ground zero, the Kohen who burns the Red Heifer on the other side of the valley can show him.

Shaya and Dina, who could be farther apart that chatan and kallah. Each a separate person, with his/her own biography, history, family, friends, inclinations, idiosycracies. One is male, the other female, a world of difference right there. You met what seems like only a moment ago. How could there presume to be the makings of a union, a greater whole here. Is not each of us our own Kohen Gadol, ceaselessly braving the baffles of our own beings in search of those treasures waiting for us, preserved only for us, in the virgin territory of our own hearts.

The deep teaching of the Torah is that it is precisely that other Kohen, standing on the ridge seemingly so far away, that can show the other the way to his own core, by standing, gazing, yearing, refusing to run away, by being there. At that moment, there is the discovery of/return to the primal room when, forty days before birth, a heavenly voice rang out proclaiming a unity to be realized only years later: The daughter of this one is destined for that one!!

And, just like there is a special room, there is also a special moment - that moment that, unbeknownst to you, you knew. That is the "eit dodim" the moment of love, spoken of in Shir HaShirim. Can it be mere coincidence that, in gematria, Yeshayahu (your full, given name) and Dina add up to 470, the numerical value of "eit" (moment)?

May you both be blessed to guide each other to the ever-more splendid chambers of each others soul, with encouragement, with vision, with love.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Numb Dumb

"O.K., Hillel, you're a gibor, right? So here, we're going to put this inside your cheek, it tastes like bubblegum..." In such a fashion did the dentist attempt to calm my youngest, Hillel, as he approached the definitive moment of most young dental visits - - - the shot. And indeed, Hillel had been a gibor (Hebrew for brave, mighty hero) on the previous visit, when the dentist had install a crown into his almost 8-year-old mouth. The week before we had to rush to a different dentist who did non-quite emergency root canal work on this little boy's tooth. And what a gibor he was then, too.

But it's hard work being a gibor all the time, especially when it really does hurt, and you don't know what is waiting around the bend. So this time, Hillel's gibor batteries were a bit depleted, and the dentist could tell. Hillel wasn't so ready to cooperate and let him swab the injection site with a topica anesthetic to make the shot less painful, bubblegum taste or not. Finally, that accomplished, the dentist informed Hillel, "O.K., just a short poke...". Hillel whimpered, trying to hold it back, then gave a brief scream. "That's it, we're past the worst part", the dentist reassured the boy.

Wait for a moment till the xylocaine or whatever takes effect, and then procede. But, it seems, the sensitivity is still there, Hillel's reactions are obstructing progress. "Just a little bit more, one more poke..."

Hold on there!! Didn't you tell my son "we're past the worst part"? And you said that because you had gained his trust with your genuinely friendly demeanor, your smiles, your joking. So that, despite his apprehensions, he clings to your words hopefully, and a would-be scream is transformed into more of a squeal. And now, you're telling him, just one more poke? How do you expect him to believe you? What is he to make of your assurances in the future. Why did you... lie?

Now that's a harsh word. The dentist presumably really believed he wouldn't need a second injection, despite the fact that, sometimes, it is necessary. He was trying to get hold of the situation for the benefit of my son and, admittedly, for the sake of his own sense of professionalism, and, perhaps, with one eye on his scheduled subsequent patients. And yet, if he had paused to reflect that, perhaps, he might be causing damage to a child's ability to trust the adult into whose reassuring care he has been placed in moments of angst, he might have phrased things differently: "Just a quick poke and that's it, we probably will only need one".

Hmmn. I try to put myself in Hillel's place, and that doesn't sound so reassuring. And Hillel wants, needs that "don't-worry, I'm-here" certainty that eases him past the oncoming wave of anxiety that breaks over his head as the needle touches his cheek.

So I'm taking a different look at the exchange. Truth, factual truth, of course, has its place. But so does that act of speech that goes beyond factual truth to reach toward a truth born in connection. We are constantly telling "little lies" to ease people through a difficult patch, hoping the next one might be avoided even as we know how unlikely that is. Why, I did it tonight, when putting Hillel to bed. He shares a room with his older brother, Yinon, and, of late, Hillel has had trouble falling asleep without someone else in the room, and in the room, and, "are you still in the room?"

He called upstairs, asking, "Is Yinon coming?" "Yes, I answered, in a few minutes".

"Is Yinon coming?", I heard again much sooner than I had expected. "Yes, Hillel, just another few minutes".

"Where is Yinon?" came the call, after those "another few minutes" had passed. "He's in the shower, I'm sure he'll be down as soon as he's through".

And he was - - - but, of course, by then, Hillel was asleep.

He trusted me, as I stretched those "few minutes" time and time again. When he fell asleep, I want to believe that the truth of our interaction carried him into dreamland more faithfully than the dubious accuracy of the words of which it was constituted.

After the cavity was filled, Hillel picked out a little plastic recorder (the musical instrument) as his prize for being a gibor. And later, he agreed heartily with the other kids' assessment that the dentist was a very nice guy. Because, after all, the worst part was over - wasn't it??

Monday, August 21, 2006

Now I See

The phone rang later than it usually does at night. I answered, and it was my ophthalmologist calling. Earlier that week, I had dutifully fulfilled his dictates and had my retina photographed. I'd done it before on several occasions - it doesn't hurt per se, but it isn't very pleasant. Unless, that is, you enjoy staring directly at high-intensity flashlamps as they go off. After it was over, I was handed a CD with the pictures on it for my doctor to examine and compare to the previous set, taken a couple of years ago. So he was calling to tell me the results.

At 11 PM at night, I wondered? Yes, he said, he had come in to the office late to catch up on some work. He told me in medical terms what I already knew experientially: there were changes in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a layer that underlies the retina itself, and that would account for the visual distortions I reporting from my left eye.

I've had high myopia since childhood, about -12 prism diopters for those to whom such numbers are meaningful (by comparison, above - 2 means you can't read the big E on the chart). For years I've dealt with the phenomenon of floaters - floating shapes and spots that are formed as the vitreous humor that filled the eye is stretched by the myopically elongated eyeball. You get used to each new floater as they come. But over a year ago, I started noticing that straight lines seemed a bit bent in the center when view through my left eye. My doc would examine the retina on eacy semi-annual visit and he saw no changes, so life went on. The distortions became a bit more extensive, and a patch of the central field of vision in my left eye became ever so slightly grainy, but the retina looked the same, so life went on.

Until that night. My doctor told me that his preliminary diagnosis was myopic age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in its dry form. The macula is at the center of the retina, and in high myopia, it can be stretched to a point where the light-sensitive cells are compromised, eventually resulting in blind spots toward the center of vision. There is currently no treatment for this most common form of macular degeneration, although this form tends to progress more slowly than the wet form, which makes up only 10% of the cases, but accounts for 90% of legal blindness due to macular degeneration. The wet form, while potentially more severe, has various treatment options; the dry form has none, although a diet rich in lutein (a pigment found in the RPE) and anti-oxidants (green leafy vegetables) has been observed to arrest or slow the progress of dry AMD in a number of cases.

The doctor agreed that it could be useful to consult a retinal specialist and reassured me that there is no reason why I shouldn't hope to see well for another twenty years.

It wasn't til the next morning that I realize that this week was Parashat Re'eh - the Torah portion which begins with the words, "See, I am setting before you a blessing and a curse".

And I suddenly realized: seeing can be both a blessing and a curse. Now don't get me wrong, I am not engaging in anticipatory sour grapes. I want so much to preserve my visual acuity (after corrective lenses!) for all the reasons you can imagine - I teach texts for a living; I'm loath to give up either reading or computer use, though I could cut down on the latter! I want to see, G-d willing, my grandchildren someday as they grow. etc., etc. But I am also keenly aware that seeing is also an act filtering out, of exclusion, of a subjective projection of the needs of one's person onto reality, onto others. The last paragraph of the Shema warns us, "do not go astray after your hearts/minds and after your eyes" in this order, we are told, because the heart desires and, only then, does the eye see. "You only see what you want to see", we chastise others.

Indeed, with reality such a swirling multitude of ever-changing visual imputs, all needing our brain's image processing to be made sense of, it could hardly be otherwise. To see everything is to see nothing. But, could it be that the reverse is also true: to see nothing is to see everything?

Rabbi Nachman makes this point powerfully in Likkutei Mohoran I:65. There, he explains that to see the ultimate goal, one has to squint. The eye doesn't have the power to go and fetch that most distant point, because of all the images and inputs from the side that enter into the wide-open eye and distract and confuse. Therefore, one must exclude all of that visual "white noise" by reducing the input dramatically. Ultimately, he claims, one must close one's eyes entirely (the context in whichi he is speaking is the squinting in pain when one is in great suffering), so as to see beyond the deceptions of this world and its seductions, to see that, ultimately, all is for the good.

All is for the good. I cannot tell you how long the mantra-like invocation of that achievement of the spirit told of only a few of our greatest sages has bugged me. When someone would mention that regarding a mundane hassle, I would think (not actually wishing it on them, of course), yeah, what if something REALLY heavy hit you over the head?); So often, I've heard it in the following kind of setting: plony was really upset that he had misplaced his watch, so he looked and looked until he lost track of time, only to realize that he was late for his meeting. Grumbling in anger, he raced off to the bus stop just in time to miss the only bus that could get him to the meeting on time - setting off paroxysms of anger that didn't subside until he heard the sound of the bus exploding in the center of town. See, you lose your watch, but all is for the good. I still insist that such a reading of the famous dictum, selfishly oblivious as it is to the suffering of others, is theologically offensive in the extreme.

And yet: there is another way to see things - literally. I've come to realize that, too often, in fact, constantly, I see events, people, developments, interactions, possibiities in a miserly fashion. I look at them through MY eyes. I don't shut out the confusion of MY world, as it drums away from the sideline, insisting on setting the context of every encounter. Rather, I'm constantly capturing, framing, delimiting, identifying. I refuse to let being be. I refuse to really see.

A sea-change has come over me - a new chapter, full of promise, frought with danger. I don't know what will be with my eyes. I do know that, even as I consult with a retinal specialist and eat lots of green vegetables, I don't want to pray to Hashem to preserve my vision because I can't see myself without it. Rather, I want, and do, oh constantly, do pray to Hashem that He help me open my inner I, so tightly shut for so long, so that whatever He in His wisdom wishes me to see of His world and His creatures, and with whatever degree of acuity He grants me, I view them with love and compassion, seeing in them the fullness of His blessing.