Nothingness and Sheol

2014 was one of the most challenging years of my life. Several tragedies occurred. A lot of beautiful things happened too. But as it is with many of us, the darkness eclipses the light. My brother-in-law, Dave, died. He was family. He treated me like a sister. He was a wonderful person. Easy to laugh, quick to comfort, and he understood what was important: love and togetherness and laughter. His death stole something from me for a while. I felt a distance from joy and comfort like I had not before. I felt separate from words which is not like me. Even in the most confusing and stressful of times I have something to say. This was different. I had no words to give and the words given to me were dust. Useless. Sometimes painful even when they were well-intended. Many people asked if being a religious person brought me comfort in my grief. I don’t think so. The usual platitude “he’s in a better place” didn’t apply. My thoughts about the afterlife are contorted at best but better place? I suppose, but there is no place like that in Judaism for me to rely on. As with things in the Torah there are many thoughts. Sheol is the place of nothingness one goes to at death. (Thoughts on Sheol.)  But it is not a place where one can praise God so to me that is no life at all. The only thing that bordered on comfort was reciting Kaddish with the congregation on Shabbat. I sobbed each time. And each time a congregant would put his or her arm around me without a word. Just knowing. Comfort came when I told people that he had died and they looked at me with pained expression and lack of words.  This grief was beyond language for many weeks. It was a place of nothingness. I have moved past that place a little bit now. I can talk about it with greater ease and am incorporating it into my life instead of living next to it like I was. Dave was a teacher. He taught about love and joy which I will always need lessons in. So was I comforted by my faith in this dark time? I was because I believe God weeps too. The God in my life is one of creation not destruction. God does not take my loved ones or cause tragedies. God stands beside me when these things are happening and understands without trying to change my feelings. And that is support – an arm around the shoulder without words that pretend to know.

I am Spoiled

L’shana Tova! Happy New Year! I am full of excitement and a sense of renewed energy. I am also completely spoiled. I attended Rosh Hashanah services last night and this morning. I was filled to the brim, overflowing probably, with a sense of love and peace. The new year is a reminder to stop and reset yourself. To come back to your inner self and to God. The Rabbi spoke this morning about our individual relationships with God and being able to see God every day all around yourself. He also encouraged us to say one new blessing each day so that we might “look into the corners” of our lives and recognize every little good thing or opportunity. It can be hard to have a relationship with God. As a Jew I am provided with little specific guidance. There are plenty of theories and metaphors and no direct answers. Well, maybe one direct answer: live your life guided by Torah. But what a challenge that is! The Torah can be cruel and contradictory and just plain perplexing! But what it does give directly is a chance to think and study. To argue ideas with others. God is certainly within the relationships we have with others. If I treat one person well it is as if I treat the whole world well.

This new year brings me opportunities. I am part of a new program at my job to help people with persistent and serious mental illness. It is the kind of job I thought I’d have to wait another 5 years to get. But here I am and that is no mistake. It is an opportunity. I am sure many days it will feel like a challenge but those are the best kind because they make you grow.

I am loved and supported in more ways than I could have known to ask for. I have the opportunity to help others and learn in that process. I am ready for the new year!

What God Wants

I don’t know. I struggle with the idea that God plans anything or sends joys as well as tribulations to us. I am more likely to believe that God is a partner. God feels sad and joyful along with me. I would like to feel very specific about my purpose but I don’t. I know that I am to take care of people with mental illness. And luckily I get to do that. I know that I am to have a large group of friends that are amazing and respond well to being loved by me. But are there other things I should do? I can’t say. I feel like I am waiting to find that out some times. I don’t have family but if I did I imagine I would put a lot of energy into them. Instead that energy is just around. I channel it into a song or a painting some times but it feels a little un-anchored. I am hoping to figure it out. But it may be enough what I am already doing. I can’t be sure today. Perhaps one day I will be. But this is one of the struggles of a spiritual person. What am I doing with my time and is it enough?

Joy

I have come to understand God in many different ways. The first was joy. One of my first memories of reflecting on God was at a Presbyterian church when I was 13. I had no background knowledge of what church meant. I couldn’t imagine it at all. My friend’s family took me to their humble church on the first beautiful day of that spring. I felt worried because I had not brought nice clothing and was just wearing a sweatshirt. But my worries were quickly allayed. The congregants greeted me as if I was one of them. I distinctly remember being surprised by how much love and kindness they all had for each other. I did not grow up in a soft or kind environment and was somewhat unaware that people would care for each other this way. That experience had a profound effect on me. I remember it vividly even 20 years later. If God could bring this out in people, I thought, then I am in. It took many more years to really find my relationship with God but it has always been there. When I look back there are lots of examples like this in my life where I felt the presence of God even though I could not have named it that way at the time.

Today one of my favorite ways to think about God is as the creator. And specifically that means to me that every ounce of creative energy or force has God in it. When I write a new song or paint a picture – those things came from the God-force. Joy is one of the most creative feelings I know. When I am joyful I feel at peace and I feel ready and open to see the world the way it is. I feel ready to drop my biases and ideas. I have been fortunate to feel profound joy lately. In meeting with friends-new and old; when I see live music; and rowing a boat along the Schuylkill River during a perfect summer evening. I always know that God is with me but it is in these joyful moments that I feel God’s presence in the deepest sense. It feels like I am in on a great secret that isn’t really a secret because it is available to all of us if we take a pause. But I feel grateful and special to have God whispering these secrets to me.

Doing Without Knowing

Today in Torah study we talked about the 4 Jewish laws that have no explanation: Levirate marriage, not mixing wool and linen, the ritual of the scapegoat, and the red cow.  It is certainly odd that out of 613 laws there are 4 that do not have clear origin.  

I like this.  

I like that it is arbitrary and mysterious.  I like that we are given permission to not know.  And isn’t that what faith is?  Believing and doing without really knowing?  There are so many things to think about and ponder.  And with these 4 laws we can do that but we will just be spinning our wheels.  So it is a rest.   A chance to say, I don’t know and I don’t need to.  This made me think about intuition.  Sometimes we have intuition that is not coupled to any sort of logic.  And we follow it anyway because it feels true.  There have been many times I have followed my intuition and it helped me or someone else.  Yes, a lot of Judaism is prescribed.  We must light the Shabbat candles, say a blessing when we install a parapet, and hang a mezuzah.  But hopefully there is also a piece of Judaism in your heart that is just there because it is.  As a convert I’m always being asked why I became Jewish.  And, as I have discussed in earlier posts, I don’t have one distinct reason.  It just fits.  It’s just a part of who I am and it was before I knew what Judaism even was.  That fact is remarkable to me.  I attend services and I read the Torah and, though, so much of it is beyond my understanding, it makes sense.  It gives me that inner calm feeling of being home.  It is a doing without a knowing.            

18

April 18th is my Jewish birthday.  Last year that was the day I went to the mikveh and immersed in the living water to officially become Jewish.  It was the most beautiful day of my life and is so far only mildly rivaled by the birth of the daughter of 2 very good friends of mine – an experience more wonderful than I could have prepared for.  I have to admit, during the process of conversion I wondered if it would continue to be important to me.  Participation in my faith means, for me, showing up regularly.  Praying.  Thinking about Jewish ideas and customs.  And building a community.  I have not always been good at things that require regular and consistent effort.  It is very easy as a single, independent person to pick up and move – to the next apartment, relationship, job.  And I worried that I had an inner gypsy that would not be compatible with choosing a faith and a specific place of worship.  But this year has taught me that my faith only grows and that it does not require constant tending.  Not that I take it for granted, but that it is just very solidly under me and I don’t have to worry about it.  Like gravity.  It is there but how often do you think about it?  It just does what it’s there to do.

It only recently occurred to me how wonderful it is that I chose the 18th to convert.  One of the things I love about Judaism is it’s funny little superstitions.  In Hebrew, each number has a numerical representation.  This is called Gematria.  This numerical symbolism is still a bit beyond my comprehension but I know that 18 represents the word ‘life.’  The number 10 is the letter Yud. The number 8 is the letter Ches (Chet). Ches-Yud spells the word Chai, which means “Living” or “Life.”   The website www.inner.org describes Gematria this way:

Since the world was created through God’s “speech,” each letter represents a different creative force. Thus, the numerical equivalence of two words reveals an internal connection between the creative potentials of each one.

Like I said, this is a bit beyond my understanding but I love the mystical nature of it.  And the idea that God’s speech, which created everything, is so married to the physical word in a way that connects everything.  A very dear friend of mine who is an engineer in all senses of his being told me that math helped him have belief in God.  He has studied many advanced maths and remarked that the same numbers keep appearing like pi or the golden rectangle.  He believed that was intentional and could in no way be seen as mere coincidence.  I suppose that is partly how I view my faith as well.  There is an order to the world if I look for it.  And that is very comforting.

www.myjewishlearning.com has this terrific example (full article here):

“…the Hebrew word for “wine,” yayyin, has the same numerical value as the word sod, “secret,” yielding the thought that when a man is in his cups there is a risk that his secret thoughts will be revealed.”

This numerology can maybe feel like a stretch sometimes but it is playful and provides an additional way to get buried into Jewish texts.  And what is more Jewish than going over and over the same text to find meaning?

Let Go the Door

Last week, I was walking down the street and I saw a sign on a door that read, “Close the door behind you.” It felt like good advice. It took me several minutes to realize that it was a sign purely meant for perfunctory instruction and not, as I had read it, for philosophical reflection.

As I have recently written, there have been some changes in my life. Changes for the better but changes that involve large feelings of grief. I have had a sense of wandering in myself and in my life, not entirely sure what the new landscape will look like and living in a bit of limbo. But what better time of year, during the holiday of Pesach. It is a holiday about moving forward, closing doors behind you and distancing yourself from slavery. This past Friday, one of our rabbis referenced the poem ‘Maggid’ by Marge Percy (read Maggid here).  The first line reads, “The courage to let go of the door, the handle.” This poem speaks of the difficulty of moving forward and of letting go. Even when we know the thing we need to let go of has lost its purpose for us. In this excerpt Percy recognizes that we inherit customs that can be dangerous or demeaning that bind us.  

The courage to leave the place whose language you learned

as early as your own, whose customs however


dangerous or demeaning, bind you like a halter


you have learned to pull inside, to move your load;


the land fertile with the blood spilled on it;


the roads mapped and annotated for survival.

 I am hearing the message loud and clear: close the door behind you! Thankfully, courage is meeting me and carrying me. I have experienced grief before in drips and drabs, never letting it out fully because I had been too afraid to be engulfed by it. But now I am letting the grief cascade out in the way it is asking to. In this experience I feel better able to witness the world. I am not busy trying to anxiously fix anything or change how I feel. I am observing and riding the waves of it. This is helping me to be open to the experience of life. I am not worried about putting the future together because I know it will do that without my help or interference. I am able to appreciate the view from my temporary window of families walking to and from the grocery store. I am watching, in awe, as the sunlight changes with the blossoming of spring. And I am taking many naps. There is something vacation-like about this for me and that tells me that I am not working too hard. It tells me that I am letting go of the door, the handle and trusting that the ground will still be under me.

Darkness Will Always Yield to Light

Grief is a funny thing.  It has its own course and the best thing I can do for it is take care of myself.  They say that when you go through a loss it brings up all of your previous losses.  Like there is a well all your grief gathers in and if you have to take the cover off to add one they all get stirred up and bubble to the surface.  I had not dealt with much of my previous grief.  Just threw it in the well.  So it has been taking the opportunity to come up to the surface.  My recent grief experience has made the world smaller and more immediate.  I  have felt easily overstimulated by the day.  That forced me to focus on the most important things.  On taking care of myself.  In this I have been held up by some of the best friends a person could ever hope for.  Several have been by me for years and some are new.  But each of them has made an effort to reach out to me in a way they knew would be comfortable for me.  Each of them expressed their love and concern genuinely.  It’s an old idea that family and connection to others is what’s most important.  This time in my life has really underlined that.  Often when I am going through things I don’t tell anyone.  I just pretend that nothing has changed.  But I have not been physically able to do that this time around.  I have just told the truth.  I went to Shabbat services 2 weeks ago for the first time in about 6 weeks.  As soon as I got inside the door, tears hit me.  During the greeting time one of the congregants asked how I had been, he hadn’t seen me in a while.  I told the truth: things have been stressful and I’m not sure when they’re going to turn around.  

It’s hard for me to let people care about me.  Actually, it was.  But now it’s easier.  I chose to tell the truth about my recent stressors because I need human compassion and kindness.  Because I need to live in the truth so that I can work through what’s going on and not put it back in the well untouched.     

Having not been to synagogue for awhile I was starting to feel guilty.  Like I was neglecting God.  Certainly I was neglecting my congregation.  But the time away has not been spent lounging.  I have been doing some hard work with myself.  I know my relationship with God is strong.  It always has been even when it’s been in the background.  I needed to spend some time with myself to work out some kinks and I am sure God understands that.  This recent process of understanding myself and experiencing my grief has only made my faith stronger.

I recently began reading Harold S. Kushner’s book ‘Overcoming Life’s Disappointments.’  In it he writes, “God is the One who is with us when we have to do something we don’t think we are capable of doing.  God is the light shining in the midst of darkness, not to deny that there is darkness in the world but to reassure us that we do not have to be afraid of the darkness because darkness will always yield to light.”  

God is a beacon.  Shining a light to show the way back.  

God Falls in Love With the World

The past few months have presented me with some unexpected stressors.  It has been difficult and tiresome.  One thing I’ve learned from external stress is that it teaches me about my resilience and my faith.  I have faced a number of challenging situations in my life that taught me many things, but more than anything, how to keep moving.  I don’t like to give up.  I will try and try at something until I feel I have enough evidence that I need to move on.  As I continue to grow older, I am discovering which things are worth putting energy into and which are not.  I previously had been very concerned with being productive all the time.  I really couldn’t relax unless it was something I scheduled that had a specific end point.  I have learned that it is important to relax and just be in the world.  The advice I give to stressed out friends or friends also concerned with their productivity is to remember that we are here to enjoy.  I really do feel at the center of my being that one of our purposes on the earth is to deeply enjoy as many little things as we can.  There is a great film called ‘The Answer Man.’  Jeff Daniels’ character gives this wonderful piece of wisdom to Lauren Graham’s character who is feeling overwhelmed:

“He knows.  And he wants you to know that you are enough and so much more.  You are here so God can experience the world through your eyes, see what you see, feel what you feel.  Every day he can’t wait to see what you’ll do, what makes you laugh, what moves you…He can’t wait.  Every day through you He falls in love with the world all over again.”

When I prod myself to remember this simple idea, I feel better.  The world slows down and problems stop feeling insurmountable.

I recently read an article encouraging parents of teenagers to let them explore their sadness.  To allow them to listen to sad music and wallow.  This allows them to experience the feeling and learn that they can tolerate it.  No need to immediately start cheering them up.  Feelings are not all easy.  There are many we try to avoid.  But sometimes they cannot be avoided.  One of my stressors is a sense of grief.  Not from a death but grief that comes when you examine your life and have to change it.  It is a positive thing to do but it does not always feel positive.  In this stress and grief I have had to learn how to be with myself and give myself what I need.  It has been to slow down, get enough sleep, and decrease how much I am doing.  It is the same as when doctors tell you to get enough rest when you are ill.  It is really the best healer because you are letting your body repair itself.  And it will do a lot of work if you let it.

All of this comfort with my own stress and grief would not be possible without faith.  My belief in God holds me together when I otherwise feel I might come apart.  I understand that God also grieves with me.  That God is sending me pure peace and joy that is not always stronger than stress and grief but always makes a difference.  When I remember to stop and experience the world that peace flows in and I am comforted for at least a little while.  And I know that if I just keep moving I will leave the hurt behind.

 

Throw Some Light on It

Happy Hanukkah!  
 
One thing that always catches my eye in the world is light.  How the light changes with the seasons…if lighting in a film is beautiful…  It’s just something I notice the beauty in.  I love the chance to reflect on the metaphors of light during Hanukkah.   Last night I lit the candles and read the blessings.  There is a traditional song, “Hanerot Halalu” that you say at the end.  It really got to me.  
 
We kindle these lights because of the wondrous deliverance You performed for our ancestors. During these eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are sacred; we are not to use them but only to behold them, so that their glow may rouse us to give thanks for Your wondrous acts of deliverance.
 
The line “we are not to use them but only to behold them” is so striking.  What does it mean not to use but to behold?  There are a number of customs in Judaism that are about celebrating beauty with awe.  I don’t know why we are here.  What the point of our lives is.  And, honestly, I try not to think too much about it to avoid spiraling into that existential rabbit hole.  But what I feel like I can say with some certainty is that we are here to enjoy, to look, to behold.  The feeling I get when I am in awe, in love, in deep connection is like no other.  It is it’s own world where nothing else matters.  I feel this way most often when things are created.  That is a very broad term and what I mean by it is when a shift of some kind occurs.  That could be the creation of a beautiful sunset or the birth of a child.  Kindling the Hanukkah lights (and also Shabbat lights) is for me a moment of creation that is its own beautiful being but also it is part of the vast creative force in the universe.  And that is where I find God.  God is in all things created and creative.  
 
I am grateful for this holiday and the reminder to just look.  I have gotten away from myself a bit.  In part due to some heavy feelings and thoughts I had during Yom Kippur.  It was very spiritual but kind of dark.  I need to throw some light on it.  I need to add some creative energy there and transform the darkness into something beautiful.  
 
I hope you have some time to reflect on the truly amazing thing that is creation.