31 December 2005

The Burden of a Blessing

An odd sort of problem.

Having negotiated with my office to work half time,
(originally thinking to follow a certain path that now doesn't feel right)
I find myself with quite a bit of flexible time,
even after the daily seder that I have been keeping,
there are hours, hours, left open.

What should I do?

I have too often touched and tasted the passion that I am capable of to settle for something that is merely good. I have the rare opportunity to do something that I want to do, and I have to admit, I don't know what I want.

Should I fill it up with Torah learning, beyond the seder I already keep? Learn to play an instrument? Focus on writing? Focus on reading? Hike? Bike? Walk? Dance? Drive around the country looking for experience? Volunteer at a hospital? Gemach? Kibbutz? Vineyard? Build up my programming skills? Build a business? Take photographs? Draw in pencil? Settle in to a corner and watch the world go by? Meditate? Ruminate? Learn to lein Torah?

I'd love to do any and all of the above - amazing.
I'm a bit overawed with the potential of this time, of time in general, and don't want to waste it...

25 December 2005

A Grab Bag of Light

A good Hanukkah to all!

For the first time in five years, I'm planning to be in the holy city for the whole of Hanukkah. Since I've come here, I have never left Israel for a full-fledged holiday (save for last Rosh Hashannah in Uman), but Channukah was always a touch easier to compromise on. I've found myself in strange places the past four years, always on assignment from work. NYC, Greenville, Phoenix (I think). One year dropped in unannounced at a friend's Philadelphia wedding on Hanukkah. I caught a ride with a friend out of Manhattan and we flew down to Philadelphia while I prayed musaf in the passenger seat. When I saw the groom he hit me and hugged me and laughed and cried all at the same time. I don't think I've ever come closer to bringing a groom joy.

It's a simple joy to be is Israel for Channukah - yes because there are lights in all the windows and the air is on fire and there are donuts in the shops and everybody cuts out early from whatever they were doing to go and light candles - but also, and I hate to say it, because there's no Christmas flurgh. No jingly naugahyde music, no tinsely chintz, no 7 shopping days 'till nothin', no plastic inflatable fat man, no elves and canes and stockings and whatever other random accretions have marketed themselves into this most American of holidays. The difference is so striking. So striking. Just candles. So simple.

I wasn't completely saved this year. Thank God (and my long suffering sister) I became an uncle, and I went to welcome the little guy into the world. Being just a week before, the Christmas machine was in high gear. Fox News had decided that "Happy Holidays" was an attack on Christmas. I hear the argument. I've already ranted on this in other places. I would just as soon the Christmas machine ignore Chanukkah completely. Who needs it? I just hope the 2 hours I spent forced to choose between below freezing temperatures and listening to "The greatest variety of...Christmas music" goes on my record as cleaning up some grievous wrongdoing.

For MCAryeh, who's troubled by the lack of good Hanukkah music, here's one with a whole lot of soul. It came to me just as the sun was finishing to set into the first night here in Jerusalem.

There's a story that stay's with me. It's not entirely a Chanukkah story, but it always comes to mind this time of year...

The Rebbe Rashab - the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch - was at a spa with a few of his Chassidim.

On Shabbos, the Chassidim finished davening long before he did. This wasn't unusual. They went and made kiddush, and made a few l'chaims before the Rebbe got there.

When the Rebbe arrived, one of the Chassidim, Yosef Yitchak Horowitz, was already a little tipsy. He leaned in and asked the Rebbe a question. "Rebbe", he asked, "What's a Chassid?"

The Rebbe thought for a moment, then responded, "A Chassid is a lamp lighter. He goes around this world, carrying a light at the end of his pole, and he knows the light isn't his, and he goes around lighting the lamps of the world."

"And what if the lamp is in the desert?", the Chassid asked.

"Then you have to go to the desert, and light the lamp. The barrenness of the desert will flee from before the light."

"And what if the lamp is under the ocean?"

"Then you have to take off you clothes, jump in the water, and light the lamp."

"And this is a Chassid?"

The Rebbe thought for a time, then responded, "Yes, this is a Chassid."

(Open your heart)

The Chassid cried, "Rebbe, what if I don't see the lamps?"

The Rebbe responded, "If you don't see the lamps, you have to start with yourself. If you are coarse, all you will see is coarseness in others. If you refine yourself, you will see the refinement in others."

Energized, the Chassid asked, "Do I grab the other by the throat?"
('The other' here, I think, is the internal force that opposes us when we try to do the work we have to do in this world.)

The Rebbe responded, "By the throat, no. By the lapels, yes."

A Good Channukah!

12 December 2005

What's that celery doing in my dream!?

MCAryeh and I were discussing the latest Haveil Havalim (which is a marvel), and the conversation quickly took a turn for the bizarre.

Anyone who can interpret the dream therein to my benefit and amusement...

'laizer: I like the Tel Aviv bar names.
'laizer: :sigh:
MCAryeh: I like the "that guy in the picture from Uman" one...
'laizer: Naw, that was just a picture of someone nobody knew and some links to some regurgitated prose.
'laizer: I didn't realize there was a Dry Bones blog!
MCAryeh: some beautiful regurgitated prose. Can I nominate you for the Jewish Blog Awards?
'laizer: I don't even know what they are, but I just had a strange afternoon dream.
MCAryeh: I love strange afternoon dreams!!! so much better than mid-morning ones!
'laizer: I was sitting in my place, but it wasn't my place, and lots of people where there, doing things that lots of people do. They were all friends, but none of them close friends. It was a pretty chill atmosphere.
MCAryeh: why was that a dream? are you sure that wasn't you just being hospitable as you are wont to?
'laizer: Someone mentioned (as we were exploring the fridge. I remember some celery, I think) that everything that exists in this world exists in three states (they were talking about solid, liquid, and gas.)
MCAryeh: I would have guessed Wyoming, Idaho and Utah...
'laizer: I was about to tell them about an experiment that a friend did, where he showed that the oil in a candle goes through a gaseous state right before it gets burned up. ;)
MCAryeh: all sounds very plausible...
'laizer: When someone comes out of the bathroom and starts talking right in the middle of my sentence. I yell at him that I was in the middle of my sentence, and he yells at me that I just cut him off in the middle of his sentence.
'laizer: I start telling him to let it out, yell at me, don't keep it contained...
MCAryeh: did you smack his face with a white glove and challenge him to a duel? that's what I would have done...
'laizer: I start listing the reasons he might be pissed at me...
'laizer: Tell him to just lay it out.
MCAryeh: was it the celery or the whole gaseous candle thing?
'laizer: He sits down and finally starts laying it out - "you made me wait 45 minutes, and ..., and ... (I don't remember exactly what.) At some point he starts playing guitar. Then amidst all the goings on...
MCAryeh: what song is he playing?
'laizer: He says - "And I just read in Wired magazine that this place is supposed to be like the Hippies or something!" And I get all tied up in a ball, thinking "great, we're on Wired's radar. Some of these folks must have made up all kinds of stories."
'laizer: I don't know what song he was playing, but I liked the guy, it was good tunes.
'laizer: I have a great embarrassment to be revealed publicly and inaccurately, but counter that with a resurging urge to be real. As I'm breaking through this (and picking ignorantly at the wires on a guitar) the guy mutters under his breath "Mushrooms and stuff..." and I wake up.
MCAryeh: were you literally tied up in a ball? how did that happen? were you able to escape?
'laizer: I meant emotionally man, emotionally.
MCAryeh: mushrooms AND stuff? together?
'laizer: Not sure what was intended by 'stuff'. Best left unexplored, methinks.
'laizer: Anyway, that's what I think about the Jewish Blog Awards.
MCAryeh: I think you should blog that dream and encourage interpretations....
'laizer: I think I should blog this conversation.

10 December 2005

Did you see me?

It's Erev Shabbos, and I'm standing in the local deli/grocery store/currency exchange/meeting place (Halak in Sha'arei Hesed, a fine establishment), and a fellow leans over to me asks if I was in Uman. I figure the truth is the best path, and let him know that I was. "I have a picture of you davening at the Ba'al Shem Tov's grave", he tells me...

Thank God for these holy meetings.

07 December 2005

Today's Top 15

MCAryeh laid an infectious meme on me. The idea's like this: Fire up your MP3 player or media player, hit shuffle, and blog the first 15 songs that get played, without leaving out any of the embarassing boy bands.

I somehow found it hard to resist...

1 - "Baby it's cold outside" Louis Armstrong & Velma Middleton
2 - "Musical Transplant (Adapted)" Lee Perry @ The Upsetters
3 - "Mr. Charlie" Grateful Dead
4 - "Omar Shirah" ? (Hebrew U's collection of Hassidic Niggunim disc 1 track 19)
5 - "Satisfaction (Bass Trilogy: Part 2)" Rob Wasserman
6 - "Blue in Green" Miles Davis
7 - "Dance niggun of Lubavitch Hasidim" ? (Hebrew U - disc 2, track 13)
8 - "White Wheeled Limousine" Rob Wasserman w/ Bruce Hornsby & Branford Marsalis
9 - "That's My Desire" Louis Armstrong
10 - "One" U2
11 - "A Moment So Close" Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
12 - "Jack-A-Roe" Grateful Dead
13 - "Ana HaShem" Eliyon Shemesh
14 - "Outbound" Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
15 - "Brown-Eyed Woman" Grateful Dead

(Just to add spice, number 16 was Vivaldi's 'La Primavera - Largo' performed by Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante.)

27 November 2005

24 November 2005

The Emergent Character of my (Left) Knee

What is it about being in a competitive sports situation that causes one to do things that they would never think of doing in other situations? Why would a person run full speed and not turn away from another person running full speed, just to catch a frisbee?

Honestly, these are not the main thoughts going through my head as I sit with a massive swelled up multicolored bump on the side of my knee. I'm instead meditating on the cosmic significance of injuring my left leg (as opposed to my right) and what that means about my ability to follow through on my decisions and relate to others. That last comment is for the other amateur kabbalists in the audience.

I'm sitting in the emergency room of Haddasah hospital. This thing (technically a hematoma) is big and ugly enough that my GP thinks it's time to get it reeeemoooved. I've been sitting here for hours.

How do you find meaning in these events? These things that feel like nothing but a setback, a bother, a distraction, wasted time?

There's the amateur kabbalist approach. As I'm stewing in the cosmic left leg, a nurse runs over my left foot with a wheelchair to help reinforce my musings.

There's another approach, though, that is making big waves in my head and in my heart.

I hurt my leg and have to walk on crutches. I notice people with canes now. I notice ambulances. I hear the pain in people's voices more. I have to hang out in the emergency room and it's drab and sad and draining. I notice the other people there, some of them seem to be long term residents. Now I have a little more space for sympathy. Now I have an inkling of what it would be like to bounce from doctor to doctor to hospital to doctor and no one knows what to say. I find myself in a deep way alone, and I can hear the voice of a friend, make space for him. When he tells me, "Everything's All Right", I can hear him crying out, "I'm Alone!"

I can't say that it's the ultimate cosmic solution to the problem of suffering. But who knows? It might not be so strange to think that we suffer to help us hollow out a space in our ego for another. It helps me turn what can be a destructive energy into something worthwhile.

I really don't know what I'm talking about, but it could be that this making space is a left leg activity.

In the end the doctor argues that it's not a good idea to cut me open. Nothing's broken, everything seems to be roughly in working order, we'll just let the body do it's thing. Works fine for me...

20 November 2005

The Question of the Gates

A man’s senses filter out for him anything that does not jive with his worldview.

To what can this be compared?

To a king…

The king maintains a policy of openness. Anyone who presents themselves at court is accepted for audience. The king listens and responds. In this way, he hopes to protect himself against the blindness he saw destroy the one he replaced.

He hopes to be encountered by passionate advocates and troubled souls, and he is willing to weather the advice of fools as a price. But those who approach him are flatterers or criminals who praise his policies, and are later found wandering around the palace, stealing silver and troubling the servants.

Every palace has walls. These walls have gates, and these gates have guards. These guards serve the king by keeping out undesirables. Anyone who looks strange finds no access to the palace. Anyone asking to see the king is immediately suspect. “The King,” the guards reason, “is far too busy to be bothered by people such as this, surely he employs us to keep them out of his palace.”

Slowly, the king becomes aware of the behavior of his guards, and he feels himself to be a prisoner in his own palace – cut off from the world. From the high windows of the palace, he can see the streams of people that approach the gate, and the meager few who enter. He is too far away to make out the character of those who are turned away.

Something needs to be done, surely, but what can he do?

If he opens up the gates completely, he is open to attack.

Perhaps he can retrain the guards? Years of habit have seasoned them to their role.

Perhaps he can take off his crown, make himself small, and leave the city – to see for himself what is happening in the world? He worries that he may never find his way back.

What is a king to do?

14 November 2005

Two Gates - Variations

Further explorations into the gates of the palace. See the notes at the end of the previous post for context. If I recall, these were written on a plane from Israel to New York. The flight touched down in the clear, sharp, blue calm after a snow storm, in a field of white, surrounded by dancing snow spirals.

There are at least two doors into the palace. One of them is watched at all times by guards who mechanically plunder everyone who passes. What is stolen is thrown away. In this way, the palace is deprived of much of the riches of the kingdom. The other gate is watched closely by the highest ranks of the kingĂ‚’s ministers, sometimes by the king himself. They watch not to censor, but to experience. Much passes through this gate. In this way, the kingdom is enriched, and corrupted. I passed through this second gate as a storyteller.

There are two doors into the palace. The one is constantly guarded, and even the kingĂ‚’s family can not always pass with ease. The second is open to musicians, jugglers, comedians and fools.

There are three gates into the palace. I can not speak of the first, but the second is a maze. Half of the people who enter it never leave, and a third of the rest go crazy. Those who pass through its corridors are in the end turned either into madmen or fools. The third gate is wide open to anyone who enters, but no one dares, knowing well of the second gate. Only jesters and musicians make the journey, and that is why the life of the city is in its music.

No one has ever entered the palace unchanged. The experience of entry itself is an ordeal. Even when it is quick, it is transforming. Entering through the main gate, a person will be lucky to find himself with his eyes and ears. Oftentimes, when a person tries to enter the main gate, only his name makes it through. This is announced in the palace, but the person is no more. Through another gate, all who enter are enriched. A simple musician will be loaded with silks. A storyteller will be painted in shades to match the taste of the court. The king has often ordered that a simple gate be created, where a person can pass unaccosted and unadorned, but there has always been some lesser minister who can not help but exercise his influence on the passers by. Still, the king holds out hope.

There are no gates to the palace. Though it deigns to have commerce with the entire realm, nothing has ever really made it in or out.

The palace is riddled with gates. Everywhere a person turns there is someone coming or leaving. It is difficult to say where the palace begins and where it ends. Fools believe that the palace is defined with clear borders, but those who have undertaken even the simplest of investigations know that it is far from clear. It is a fractal problem. Just like every poet is a thief, so too is everything both inside and outside of the palace. The Talmud says it best - Each person has to say "The world was created for me," and simultaneously, "I am dust and ashes."

The front gate is well guarded, but most who are turned away dress themselves in disguise and sneak through any of a thousand other gates. The may be discovered and welcomed in the palace, or they may operate for years as insurgents in the kingdom.

08 November 2005

Two Gates - The Beginning

There are hundreds of ways into the palace. The king is involved in all manner of business. I’ve heard that there are certain doors open only to those who are closest to the king. I know nothing of those doors. I can only tell you about two of them.

The first is the door that everyone knows. It has been called Western Gate, Trader’s Gate, and Middle Gate. All manner of commerce passes in and out. This door is the eyes and ears of the king. By those who pass his gate, the king gauges the health of the kingdom. Guards stand watch at several points of the gate, selecting, with what has become a mechanical efficiency, who and what will be allowed to pass. In this way the king is robbed by his servants.

The other door is Fool’s Gate. It leads directly into the king’s innermost chamber. It has no guards. By this gate the king regains what has been robbed of him.

I have passed through Fool’s Gate, as a storyteller. I can not tell you what I saw along the way, I took care not to leave with anything that was not mine. I told the king a story about a man who was slowly and systematically robbed of his world by the trickery of his senses, but it’s hard to tell the king anything that he doesn’t already know.

This is the first of a series of short pieces I wrote about a year ago, mostly on airplanes, inspired in content by the idea of the mental censor [Koah haMevakair] found in the Piasetzer Rebbe's book "Conscious Community" [Bnei Mahshava Tovah, Seder Emtza'yai vYesodei haHevrah, Section 6], and in style by Jorge Luis Borges.

I intend that the king here is not God, but the core, the soul, of each man - God in Man. I am a bit uncomfortable that it may be misinterpreted, wildly, by those who suspect that the king is God.

03 November 2005

Notes on Storytelling

A good friend asked me to write about storytelling. I never put together a well stitched piece, but I did jot down some notes. I went back to look at them today, and thought they were interesting. This is largely unedited - just thoughts and feelings as they came out.

If you tell a story and don't add anything, why tell the story?
There'’s adding and then there's adding.

If it comes from the heart, it goes to the heart.

You can sense who's really listening.

There are stories that are true that never happened, and there are stories that happened that aren't true.

You live a story by telling it. There are stories that I never understood until I told them over-and-over.

I was alone once, feeling strange. I couldn'’t quite put a finger on the malaise. Told myself a story and cried like a child.

It's hard to put a finger on the deepest of life's experiences, but a story somehow manages...

A story brings the listener and the teller there - they live the experience of the story.

Sometimes it's best when you don't understand the story as you're telling it - when you don't try and give people a pointed dose of advice in the story, but create a space where you can live the story, and they can live the story, and they can grow from it, and you can grow from it.

Creating space is key: pauses, spaces.

How do you know what story to tell?
Sometimes the story comes, sometimes it doesn't. There can be a moment when a story comes and the next moment you know it has to be a different story.
Sometimes they ask you to tell a story, and a story you haven't thought of in a year demands to be told. Sometimes they ask you to tell a story, and you want to run out of the room. Is it them? Is it me? Does my sub-conscious perceive something that suggests a story? Does God put a story in my mouth?

24 October 2005

The Karliner Chassid and The Rich Man

I heard this story from Rav Sholom Brodt, and have been telling it over Sukkot, and really connecting to it. A couple people asked that I write it up, so here it is. I just have a hint of the depth of it. If anyone can comment with any insight, it would be appreciated. Hag Sameach!

There was a Karliner chassid. He lived in a small town, in a small, broken down house. He didn't have much of anything, but he was joyous.

Every year, when Sukkot came, he would wait until everyone else had built their sukkot, and he would go around and ask for whatever they had left over - a rotted board, a rusted nail. From these leftovers he would build his sukkah, and all seven days he would sit in his sukkah and sing with great joy.

Across the field from the chassid lived a rich man. He owned the local factory and employed most of the town. His house was large, and he didn't lack for any material thing. The rich man had everything he could imagine, but he wasn't happy. He was more than just not happy, he was really sad - downright miserable.

The sukkah that the rich man had built every year was a wonder - the size of a football field, with an oak table, candelabras, running water - everything he could imagine. But every year he sat in his sukkah, and he heard the Karliner chassid singing from across the field, and it drove him crazy - absolutely crazy.

There's nothing that makes a sad person sadder than to meet a happy person, and there's nothing that makes a sad person happier then to meet another sad person.

As Sukkos approached one year, the rich man had an idea. He went around to everyone in the town and told them, "When the Karliner chassid comes around asking for a rotted board, a rusted nail - don't give it to him." What could anyone do? The rich man owned the town. When the chassid came around to each person, he shrugged his shoulders, turned his palms up, and shook his head. Sorry, not even a rusty nail.

The day before Sukkot arrived, the rich man looked across the field and smiled - there was no sukkah outside the house of the Karliner chassid.

Sukkot came and the rich man sat in his sukkah, at his oak table, with his candelabras and everything he could imagine. He made kiddush in peace and blissful quiet. He began to eat his fish, in peace and blissful quiet. Then, from across the field, singing! He jumped up! How can it be? He looked outside and saw, across the field, a shabby sukkah propped against the Karliner chassid's house.

He ran across the field and burst in on the chassid, "Where did you get the wood for this Sukkah!"
The Karliner chassid received him with a glowing face, "Shalom Alechem! Come in! Sit down!"
Standing, the rich man repeated, "Where did you get this wood?"
"I'll be glad to tell you, just come in and sit down," the chassid told him.

The rich man's eyes darted to the chassid, the sukkah, the door, and back to the chassid. Frowning, he sat in the half broken chair across from the chassid.

The Karliner chassid said, "Let me tell you a story."

"Yesterday, I was looking around town for some way to build a Sukkah, asking for a spare board here, a spare nail there. Strangest thing, I couldn't find anything. Everyone used up just what they had, there was nothing left over.
It got pretty late, maybe 3 am, and I was still walking around town. Now, who do I run into...but the Angel of Death!
I said, 'Angel of Death! Shalom Alechem!'
and he said, 'Alechem Shalom.'
I said, 'So what brings you to town?'
and he said, 'I just have one more pick up before the holiday comes in.'
I said, 'One more pickup, huh? Mind if I ask who it is?'"

"Now you wouldn't believe," the Karliner Chassid continued, leaning forward, staring right at the rich man, "but he said your name!"

"I said, 'That guy? You came to get that guy? You don't have to bother.'
The Angel of Death said, 'Don't have to bother, huh? Why's that?'
I said, 'You don't have to bother, because that guy is so sad, it's like he's already dead.'
'He's that sad huh?'
'Yup, he's that sad.'
'Well, if he's that sad, I guess I don't have to bother. Thanks for saving me the work!'"

"Now as the Angel of Death was about to leave, I asked him for a little favor.
I said, 'Listen, I helped you out, maybe you can help me out?'
And he said, 'Sure, what can I do for you?'
I said, 'I really need a Sukkah for the holiday.'
He paused, and than said, 'You know, I'm not scheduled to be back here until after the festival. In the burial society, they have the wooden stakes they put in a new grave before they put up the headstone, the wooden stakes that say 'Here Lies' at the top. I'm not planning to be back here, so you can use those to build your Sukkah.'"

"And that's exactly what I did," the chassid said. "In fact, if you look up there, you can see that on each board, it says 'Here Lies.'"

And with that, the Karliner chassid burst into a joyous song.

19 October 2005

From Rosh Hashannah to Sukkot

On Rosh Hashannah we stand before God in his unity. He is present, and we are not. As we crown him as King, we realize that our lives, and indeed the entire world, are not necessary, are forfeit. Yet somehow we are allowed to be present to witness the majesty of the King of Kings as it exists prior to creation, and somehow he allows us to exist.

This vision to which we are witness is very real, but it is not yet part of the world that we live in, not part of the world of our daily experience.

Yom Kippur is the experience of our first turning from this vision of divine perfection to again look upon our lives. We are immediately struck by the realization that nothing we have done lives up to this vision. Everything is found lacking.

We turn to our maker and ask him to repair what we have broken, repair our bodies, minds, and souls, so that we can be vehicles for the vision of perfection that he has revealed to us. To our amazement, he accedes.

We come in to Sukkot with new eyes, a fresh soul. God tells us - take this opportunity, while you are still so wide-eyed and childlike, to look at my world. Look at everything I created. Isn't it wonderful?

We spend a week appreciating every expression of life.

In the Sukkah we appreciate space itself. In the intrinsic flimsiness of the Sukkah and the limited time that we spend in it, we appreciate each moment of time, unique and unrecoverable. With the 4 species, we appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of each piece of fruit, each branch of each tree. In the Hashannah prayers we appreciate every expression of Godliness we perceive, every aspect of Jerusalem, every way we understand ourselves, every created thing, its beauty, and its weakness.

During Sukkot, we are given the opportunity to fall in love with every little piece of the entire world. I think this is the joy of Sukkot - the joy of knowing that every place, every moment, and every thing is an incomparable gift from the incomparable One.

17 October 2005

C'mon in!

The Sukkah is up!
I only have room for a couple people at a time, but everybody's welcome!

13 October 2005

Uman, Uman, Rosh Hashannah

(This is a continuation. See "On to Uman" for the big picture, "Visiting the Holy Baal Shem" for the first part of the trip, and "From Mehzbehz to Uman" for the second part of the trip.)

Uman - Two Days to Go

For one week a year, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people descend on this small city. We dump a few million dollars into the hands of the local inhabitants (and the mob) and then we leave. A group of about 15 of us associated with Bat Ayin decided to stay together. The first ones in found a suitable apartment. For the week, we each pay $100. As best we can figure, in the space of this week our landlord makes just a little bit less than his annual salary.

We come in from Bat Ayin, from Jerusalem, from Tzfat, from Sharon, MA. Some people I haven't seen in years. Smiles, handshakes, people keep coming in - via Odessa, via Kiev, weary from the road.

We take over the kitchen. Everybody brought something. Two big pots, coffee, tea, beans, rice, gourmet organic chocolate, dates, tuna, tuna, tuna, salami, salami, candied pecans, dried dates, almonds, peanuts, banana chips, sardines, wine, oil, spices. Locally we find tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, water. The beans go in to soak, the rice gets checked for bugs and stones, and I ask permission to leave, "I have some urgent prayer needs."

On the street. Pass through the local shuk - cheap toys, Russian hats, shoes, knick-knacks, Coca-Cola, water, what-not. Pass through the holy shuk - books, tzitzit, music, kosher food.

The real center of action is Rebbe Nachman's grave. You can't get next to the grave. Everybody here, tens of thousands of us, wants to get close to the grave. I squeeze in, find a place to stand, take out the pocket pamphlet Tikkun Clali (see "On to Uman") that came with my plane ticket. I have a list of people to pray for, but I figure it's like in an airplane - first you take care our your own Oxygen mask...then the mask of others...each in its time...

The history of Rosh Hashannah in Uman seems to be the history of more people than there is space to daven. Recently a huge building - "The Kloise" was erected. On the top floor, where the Ashkenazi minyan is, there is seating for 1600. Today, for Maariv, it is almost empty. The evening winds down.

Uman - The Day Before

Breslovers are fanatic about the day before Rosh Hashannah. Wake up call is about 3am. Slichot prayers go until just before sunrise. The Kloise in packed to overflowing (but will get even more packed later.) There's a custom to make a confession in front of the Rebbe's grave. The old who-am-I-talking-to question comes up again - am I praying to God in the presence of the Rebbe, or talking to the Rebbe in the presence of God? Either way, I stand in front of the grave and wring out my soul. There's a custom to give a little bit of charity, as a Pidyon Nefesh ("Soul Redemption.") In the holy shuk, some of the stands are dedicated entirely to collecting Pidyon Nefesh charity, and compete with each other over loudspeakers.

Back in the apartment, the cooking has begun. Bean stew and couscous. More friends stumble in. The apartment was only set up for 10 people, but who can turn away a friend? We find space for everyone.

You can't go into Rosh Hashannah without going to the mikva. In fact no one in Uman can go into Rosh Hashannah without going to the mikva. We all go to the mikva, tens of thousands of us. Luckily, the builders of the Kloise anticipated just this occurrence, and the Mikvas are spacious, modern, and packed to overflowing with men in various stages of undress. I've often wondered how this would look from the outside. How is it, the Ukrainian police man guarding the door must ask himself, that I have become a Mikvah attendant?

A touch of a nap, a trim of the nails, on with the Shabbos clothes, out on the street, an hour before sundown.

Uman - Rosh Hashannah

I find a space on the bench outside the Kloise. I can't hear the service, but I have a small space I can call my own. I pray, facing across the river, a river of tears.

Why did Rebbe Nachman come to Uman? He spoke about the thousands of Jews who had been massacred here, how his presence (and his death) would be a fixing for their souls.

The first evening of Rosh Hashannah is somber - by design. Breslovers speak very little. It's the beginning of a court case. The evidence is against you. You've come to be with the best lawyer. It's best if you keep your mouth shut.

We cast our best intentions into the coming year - a pomegranate, some dates, some fish, bean soup. Sleep.

The Kloise is packed. Packed. Every seat is taken. Every spot to stand is taken. The aisles are packed. The stairways are packed. If you leave a spot, it's gone.

It's all a metaphor for life. You stand in a certain spot for a while, then for some reason you move on - maybe you're no longer comfortable in that spot, maybe you need a different situation, maybe you just have a wanderlust. Once you leave, you can't return. It takes faith to pick up and move. You're left in between. Maybe someone leaves their old spot just as you pass, maybe you find a spot nobody noticed, maybe you see a friend and he makes room for you - somehow a spot opens up for you where you need to be.

I spend 9 hours wandering in prayer.

By the time we finish, get home, and eat lunch (more bean soup), it's time for the afternoon prayers...and tashlich. Tens of thousands of people file down to the river along narrow roads and paths. Staggering presence of humanity. Now we are all out here in the open, roaring, rumbling crowds. Breslover's clap and cry out (like a shofar) when they pray. The air of the valley vibrates.

For the evening meal, we make rice and fry salami and put some water into the bean stew to bring it back to life.

Second day Rosh Hashannah I'm at the sunrise Sephardi minyan at the grave. Askenazim put all sorts of additions into the Rosh Hashannah prayers that the Sephardim don't. I figure that the full service by the Sephardim will be about 4 hours. I didn't realize that this minyan is dominated by the newly religious. Hours of unstoppable-runaway-train singing, standing on chairs and desks and banging the wall, hours of excited banter and blessings. In any event we're done a good 3 or 4 hours before the Ashkenazim.

I'm comparing the two services - the old school Askenazi and the young Sephardi. I figure it's like this:

The king tells his servants to make a goblet in a particular way, and gives them wine to put into the goblet.

One group of servants study the king's command, develop a rich tradition of ornamentation that echoes and reflects the command of the king, take hours and hours creating the goblet in just the right shape, in just the right way. When the time comes to pour in the wine, some people are ecstatic, but most have left, fallen asleep, gotten bored, or forgotten that there is such a thing as wine at all.

The other group of servants also study the king's command. Their depth of comprehension is no less, but they set to making the goblet with little or no added ornamentation. Before they finish - someone opens a bottle of wine and starts pouring it into the goblet! Someone drinks it! Another person joins in! Now they're all drinking right from the bottle! When the goblet is finally finished, everyone has wine all over their shirts, but there's no wine left to pour in the goblet.

Interesting thing that most of the people who come out here to the Ukraine are Sephardi.

Second day lunch. I'm aiming for fish and salad, but if you'd like there's still some bean soup...

Breslovers love to talk to God. The Rebbe teaches to pour out your heart to God like you're talking to a friend. It's a conversation, it's a meditation, it's called 'hitboddedut', and it's best done in a private place. Uman is famous for having a world class place for hitboddedut - Sophia Park.

I come to an overlook into the park and it's huge and beautiful and calling my name. I wind my way down to the entrance. Some Jews are sitting on the benches outside, and I walk past them and into the gate, and a woman puts her hand out, 1 dollar, but it's Rosh Hashannah!, I turn out my pockets, and a policeman turns up to stand in front of me, and I turn around.

Luckily there's an undeveloped piece of land nearby, and this is clearly the Jewish park, every few trees there's a Jew pouring out his heart, and I pace and talk and pace and pray and pace and gesticulate and pace and wonder and pace and pour out my pain and pace and sigh and pace and smile and pace and sing.

It's late afternoon. The gates are closing. I go back to the grave for one more Tikkun Clali.

Uman - And Home

Night hits and - Bam! - we're off. Our plane is scheduled to leave Odessa in the middle of the night. Quick! Pack! Where's my passport? You're leaving later, can you take care of the dishes? Thank You, and good too see you, and here's a word to remember each other by. Bus? Taxi? Van. Buy water, on the road, through the night, drifting in an out of dreams, rolling along a Ukrainian highway.

Odessa, police, mob, standing in a parking lot in the chilly evening, Israelis arguing with Ukrainians in no common language. Finally in the airport, no clear order, no computers, bag searches by hand, plane tickets like bus tickets, no particular seats, long wait, now late into the night. On a bus, up a staircase, on the plane, asleep, awake, dreaming awake. They drop food in front of us just as the fast is about to come in...

We return to Israel just after sunrise, pray in the baggage claim. A van takes us back to the hallowed hills of Bat Ayin...

Looking Forward, Looking Back

What am I carrying from Uman? What stays with me?
Somehow, somehow, only with God's help, I'm carrying a vision for the year and a huge reserve of strength. It's different than any other Rosh Hashannah.

People ask if I'm becoming a Breslover. I'm not entirely sure what that means. I tell them I'm becoming myself.

People ask me if I'll go back. I smile and shrug.

I think I'll be back.

09 October 2005

From Mehzbehz to Uman

(This is a continuation. See "On to Uman" for the big picture, and "Visiting the Holy Baal Shem" for the first part of the trip.)


Sunday morning we're looking to make our way back to Uman. Rosh Hashannah starts Monday night, so we're not in a terrible rush, but we've been moving at such an easy pace that most of the others who were here in Mehzbehz for Shabbos have left. After Shabbos we could not tear ourselves quickly away from the Baal Shem Tov, could not tear ourselves quickly away from the group of Israeli Hippy Chassidim who had camped out on the grass with guitars, a flute, a violin...

Now we're standing in the main square of Mehzbehz, negotiating rides by flashes of fingers and movements of the head. We're not having much success. None of us came here with much money. The last potential ride leaves the square and I settle in to learn a little bit.

There's a group here who wants to go to Uman via Berditchev and Breslov, there are a handful of Sephardi men with their sons, there are a few of the midnight-jam-on-the-grass bunch left, and there's us, an unshorn bunch of American born Chassidic Hippies who hail out of Bat Ayin.

A van pulls up. Will this be the one? Where's it headed? We check it out. We secure some seats. We're headed to Uman - via Breslov.

Breslov (and Echoes)

More Ukrainian country side. Somehow my heart is pulled after it. It reminds me so much of Upstate New York, so much of New England. Leaves are turning. We stop by the side of the road to buy apples and pears. We pass through a town that still has a statue of Lenin, still has a wrought iron hammer and sickle.

Our traveling companions are Israeli, Sephardi, fathers and their young sons. We sing as we travel - each trying our best to get into the groove of the other's songs. We pass around some food - fruit, almonds, water.

Breslov is where Rebbe Nachman spent the last major portion of his life. He went to Uman half a year before he died. Breslov is where Reb Nosson is buried. Reb Nosson was Rebbe Nachman's main student. When Reb Nosson first went to see Rebbe Nachman, Rebbe Nachman told him, "We've known each other a long time, but we haven't seen each other in a while." Almost all of what we know of Rebbe Nachman's teaching come to us through Reb Nosson. He wrote some teachings in the life of Rebbe Nachman, but most after Rebbe Nachman's passing.

When we want to communicate with our driver, we speak to him in Hebrew. He doesn't understand, and responds to us in Ukrainian? Russian? We don't understand, so we repeat what we had just said in Hebrew. Sometimes hand signals get the message across; sometimes we just give up. Somehow, after a couple hours of such interchanges, we make it to Breslov.

One of my traveling companions recalls the way to Reb Nosson'’s grave, and we bump along a back road of Breslov until we come to the end. We're in the Ukraine, but somehow I'm in Upstate New York. We're by a river. There's an old mill and the sound of a waterfall. I realize how much I miss water.

Reb Nosson is buried on the side of the hill overlooking the river, about a hundred feet up. A planked path and series of steps makes it's way up to the grave from the parking lot at the side of the river. Today, two days before Rosh Hashannah, it is well traveled.

I'm standing in the building that houses Reb Nosson's grave. What do I pray for here? It strikes me that Reb Nosson changed the world through the power of his listening, through the power of his ability to put his own business aside, and receive - in a terrifically deep way - the words of his Rebbe. I pray that the Master of the World helps me to listen, to receive, to put myself aside to make room for the life of another, the world of another, the song of another. To listen in such a way that a person can discover themselves in the depth of my listening.

I leave Reb Nosson and wander back down the hill to the river's edge, where chassidim are stripping down and jumping into the river while Ukrainian taxi drivers watch. I explore an abandoned part of the mill, catch a glimpse of the waterfall, catch echoes of my adolescence.

Rolling back up to Uman. Are you sure you know the way? Incomprehensible response. Maybe you should ask for directions? Incomprehensible response. He does know the way; the streets begin to look familiar.

We stop at an intersection. Our driver doesn't want to continue. Why? What's wrong? He points to the police on the other side of the intersection. We urge our driver on, and he's stopped. He gets out, greases the appropriate palms, climbs back in, and we continue. The mob here gets a cut of everything, and the police are just an arm of the mob. There's no shame. It's all in the open.

The streets are filled with Jews of all colors - old, young, Sephardi, Askenazi, Poland in the 1800's, Israel in the Ukraine, SanFranciscoo in the 60's, Israeli, American, European. It's a festival, full on, no stops. Everyone's here for one reason - to have the most amazing Rosh Hashannah that they have every had. Here we are, in Uman, a short 30 hours before the day...

06 October 2005

Visiting the Holy Baal Shem

Night Flight

Stowing beans and pots and gefilte fish and sardines and salt and rice and tomato paste and dates and dried pineapple and tehina and wine and bread and song and longing and prayers and hope.
Airport rolling with Chassidim heading to Uman.
Run into a familiar face - to Uman? No - to LA. Can you mention my name in Uman?

Carrying a list of names to mention, a handful of coins to give, a letter to deliver.

Odessa and on

At the foot of the stairway out of the plane, they set up a tent. Everyone passes through. In the pre-dawn, two men in very Russian looking military attire examine our passports with grim expressions. :STAMP: They pack us on to a circa 1970 Soviet Bus and drop us into a parking lot.

Too many people to bother with procedure, they back up trucks full of luggage and just unload them into the parking lot. Thousands of people are coming in for Rosh Hashannah, and we are pushing the Ukrainian infrastructure to its limits. A good few hundred of those thousands are milling around this parking lot, searching for luggage, praying the morning prayers, digging warm clothing out of their bags, scratching together breakfast, waiting for the buses that will take us 4 hours north to Uman.

When the buses come, people chase them around the parking lot, desperate to get a guaranteed seat. When a bus stops it's a mad rush - I'll load the luggage! Grab some seats! No these are taken! Yes, all of them are taken! Don't sit there! Is this your luggage in the aisle? Can you turn off the music? Here comes a policeman, get out of the aisle, sit on my lap!

The bus starts moving and we are sleeping our way up the highway for hours.

When we pull into the unloading point in Uman, the Ukrainian police, who look every bit like what you would expect Ukrainian police to look like, even down to the dogs, are at the bus doors checking our passports again. But we're about to leave their world, and when we see them again, they look to us like cartoons, bewildered.

Up the hill we go - hundreds dragging luggage up dirt paths. The locals comes out with carts and trolleys. Up a hill around the corner and the air is charged. It's a festival - loudspeakers, music, a crossroads of craziness, familiarish faces I never expected to find in this place.

We'll come back to Uman - but it's on to Mehzbehz for Shabbos. How can we get to Mehzbehz? Where can be drop our bags? A friend pops out of the crowd and points us to the place we're staying. A friend of a friend pops out of the crowd and asks if we're interested in going to Mehzbehz. Drop off, repack, out the door, on the mini-bus, on the road.

On the mini-bus, I see a friend I never thought to see. "We've been waiting here for hours to fill this bus," he tells me, "now I know that we were waiting for you!"


Three hundred years ago, Judaism was on the rocks. It had gone cold. Erudition was the coin of the realm, but the vast majority of the populace was simple, disenfranchised. What would God want with the service of a simple person like me?

Reb Yisrael Ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, came into this cold world like a flaming coal. He taught that every person has a way to connect to God that no other person has. He taught that the prayer of the person who swept the streets was as precious, maybe more precious, than the prayer of the scholar. He reopened the gates of prayer, of song, of stories, of joy, of dancing.

We're going to Mehzbehz, were the Baal Shem Tov lived and is buried.

The Ukraine looks like Vermont - farmland and farm stands, leaves turning. Big ugly metal communist era signs at the entrance to every town in Cyrillic, Cyrillic, Cyrillic. A Mercedes passes a horse drawn wagon. Cows and chickens roam the side of the road. There are no strip malls, no conspicuous capitalism.

We stop at a restaurant to buy some water and use the bathroom. Dollars do us no good here. The local currency is the Unpronounceable, trading at roughly 5 to a dollar. The bathroom is the smelliest of outhouses - a hole in a concrete floor. We wash our hands with the water we bought.

Before coming to the Ukraine, I got a debriefing about the water.
"We'll need to buy water."
"We can't drink the tap water?"
"No, we can't drink the tap water."
"I'll just bring a filter."
"A filter won't help. We'll buy water."
"Filter won't help? I have a good filter, takes care of all sort of stuff."
"A filter won't help you with this water."
"What's wrong with it?"
"It's radioactive."
"We'll buy water."

We're not very far from Chernobyl.


Just outside of Mehzbehz, we stop at a fish market - a full quarter kilometer of fish - dried, fresh, in the open, chasing flies, hanging, laid out, faces of natives from behind the fish, unblinking, in the shell, never had a shell, live, dead with mouth agape, fins, scales. A few fish find their purpose in honoring the holy Shabbos.

Mehzbehz is a tiny little town, a hamlet, a village.

Houses are small, roads are sometimes paved, dogs roam the streets, horses pull wagons. How out of place! A square, a two story building - Jerusalem stone? Jews falling out of all manner of car. A Russian flea market - hats and dolls and trinkets. A shul, a soup kitchen, a small place for guests to stay, the graveyard where the Baal Shem Tov is buried...

A woman makes her living here translating between Hebrew and Russian. She finds a place for the lot of us. We follow our new landlady down a dusty road and up another. Our accommodations are luxurious - covered in oriental rugs and antiques - and primitive - no running water. The well and outhouse are out back with the chickens, newborn kittens, and dog.

I go to the Mikvah and then to visit the grave site of the holy Baal Shem. Immediately I'm wrestling - who do I address my prayers to? To God, of course. But how do I acknowledge the presence of the Baal Shem Tov? I'm not used to their being two presences. These questions become a constant refrain over the course of these days. I pray to God that I not make mistakes in his honor.

The Baal Shem Tov is buried among a host of his students and descendents, including Reb Wolf Kitzes, Reb Baruch of Mehzbehz, The Degel Machanei Ephraim, and The Ohev Yisrael - Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt. I ask those buried here for permission to tell their holy stories...

Shabbos morning we walk out of the main square, down a road, and to the left, and another left, and right, and around and into the Shul where the Baal Shem Tov prayed.

Strong. Rich. An upwelling. A soaring.

I don't want to leave the place. I stay for a long time after davening, after most people have left, just walking around the place, warm, talking to God, praying, learning.

I leave slowly, wanting to savor it, wanting to let the presence of this place settle in my soul. I walk out while facing in, paying attention to the wood, the windows, the books, the beams, the light, and to the Mezuzah that testifies to the presence of God in this place...

The Deepest Laughter

I've seen it written that one who doesn't cry during Rosh Hashannah isn't really plugged in to what's going on - that every person is passing one-by-one in front of God, who sees into the deepest, most hidden places of their life, heart, and soul.

There's truth to this, but there's also another face.

If I really know that God is King, really know that he created and creates the world from nothing, what am I? God is the only necessary existence, I have no place to make demands, no rights to stand on. By rights, the world itself shouldn't exist - why would God bother to create?

I'm as nothing before him - really nothing.

But he does create the world, he does create me every second, he does provide me with every breath, he does shower me with uncountable blessings.

I and the world have no right to exist, but he creates us anyway! What reaction can I have but to laugh?

The Deepest Laughter.

29 September 2005

On to Uman

Rebbe Nachman made it clear that he wanted people to come to his grave in Uman for Rosh Hashannah. During his life, he once expressed great surprise that any one of his students could fail to be with him for Rosh Hashannah, "Rosh Hashannah is what I'm all about!"

Rebbe Nachman said that anyone who comes to him and says the tikkun clali (literally, "The Comprehensive Fixing", a set of 10 particular Psalms) and gives a little money to charity, has his promise that he will do anything within his power to help him. Rebbe Nachman continued - "I'll pull him out of Gehenum by his payos!" (A holy friend in the neighborhood, remarked - "Is that all you're living for? To get out of Gehenum?")

There is no room to doubt that our holy sages work from beyond the curtain that separates this world from the next. Some people are considered dead even when they are alive (we've all been that person once or twice), and our holy sages are considered alive even when they are dead.

My rational side has little to cling to as I plan and pack and make my way to the Ukraine. I can't give a good explanation of why I am going. Am I such a Breslover Chassid? I can't claim that I am. Do I have some great love for north-eastern Europe in early winter? I can't claim that I do. Perhaps part of the reason I'm going (a good friend suggested this) is that I don't know why I'm going.

There is one thing that I've noticed. I poke my nose into a lot of holy books. It's always a beautiful thing in learning when the topic you open to speaks directly to your life, directly to the situation you are in right now. I have not seen a book that does this so often - almost predictably - as Rebbe Nachman's Likutei Moharan. Maybe I am a Breslover Chassid after all?

I'm expecting there to be blocks on the way - maybe external, maybe internal, likely both. We know that when you try and do something of great worth, like going to see a holy master, there are blocks along the way. Daven for me. I'll daven for you. If you want me to put a word in for you, or say a tikkun clali in your name, let me know before I leave tonight.

I'm expecting to be out of radio contact for about a week.

A beautiful year!

May we all have the vision and strength to become ourselves, to tends the gardens of our souls and feed ourselves, our families, our friends, and the world with the bounty that only we can produce.

My God answer all the prayers of your heart for the good!

26 September 2005

So much motion.

Someone here has a book of poems from Hafiz, the holy Sufi poet. Where are all the Hebrew poets who were drunk on love with God?

Waking up at 5:30am to say Slichot, the pre-Rosh Hashannah what-a-mess-am-I prayers. All I want to do is know, know, that I'm standing in front of God and the rest will all pour forth, but I'm stuck saying a bunch of words at 5:30 in the morning. Tough Stuff.

Maybe I should be a Hebrew poet drunk on Love for God.

Just to be in the
presence of the beloved -
to feel his gaze,
and I am overcome.
But he hides himself,
and I am left,

I think I'll have to have a little bit more experience of Love in this world before I can really fill the position.

King Solomon was drunk on love for God.

Maybe my mistake is that I'm searching - that I still haven't really figured out that he's right here.

16 September 2005

The word from the field

Each one of these could be, and may be, an in depth exploration, but Shabbos is coming, and you can't keep the Queen waiting.

Breakthrough in learning - Thursday night, went back to look over a piece about saying 'malchiot' (verses about God's Kingship) on Rosh Hashannah. I was struck by something strange - for some reason it comes from a seamingly loosely related passage - the trumpets in the desert.
In this place you have the space (culturally) to pace the floor muttering (or yelling) "I don't get it! Why?", so that's what I did. It took a faith that God doesn't do anything randomly, that our sages didn't write anything randomly, more, that they wrote to show us deep patterns in reality, and they wrote in such a way that we have to work to draw them out. The faith (and the pacing and muttering and the help of friends) is beginning to pay off...

Midnight went into the woods to talk to God, flail around, jump up and down, dance, sing, scream, cry, beg, question, thank, wonder... It's a practice know as 'hitbodedut', one of the many forms of Jewish Meditation. Felt great.

Busy working on another meditative practice. Mezuzah. The Ramabam writes down at the end of his discussion of mezuzah what the mezezah means, on a simple level. This simple level amounts to an encounter with God at every doorway, a wake up call from the empty flow of time. A group of us have taken on the discipline of engaging in this awareness, this encounter, at every doorway.
There are a lot of doors here.

The question of when, how, and if I'm going to leave this place after the holidays is cooking away on the back burner. I'm stirring it, tasting it, letting it keep cooking.

Thank God, I'm deeply lonely for my holy wife, wheresoever she may be.

Heading to Uman for Rosh Hashannah. Why am I spending a week in the middle of the Ukraine with thousands of other Jews? I'm not sure.

Let no one say that I have failed to provide an update.

13 September 2005

To the Chief Musician - a Song

"Everything was created according to its own will"
(Rashi on Genesis 1:25, Hulin 60a, etc.)

The rocks, the trees, the grasses, even the cows, the lions, and the people were asked how they wanted to be created. Each thing we see is singing its song - not a song it was told to sing, but the song it asked to sing, the song it asks to sing. Each person we see is singing the song they ask to sing. Everything and every person is in a constant conversation with God, telling him how they want to be created, singing their song - a great symphony.

10 September 2005


If it was a play, it would be off, off, off, off Broadway, but it's nice anyway.
My piece on heading out to Bat Ayin was published in the Bat Ayin Daff.

Coming in...

I walked past the blue fence at the entrance to Bat Ayin Yeshiva this past Friday and realized that it was the first time I had left the yeshiva since I had arrived on Sunday morning. I want to give you a taste of what it's like out here, just a small sweet taste.

The yeshiva is a beautiful place. It's situated on the western edge of the range of hills that Jerusalem sits on, and commands a view over the foothills and plain of Israel. At night, you can see the lights of Tel Aviv. When the sun sets, it sets into the blue band of the Mediterranean, providing one of the only ways to tell sea from sky.

The yeshiva consists of a collection of prefab housing units that we on this side of the world call 'caravans.' In between the caravans are dirt paths, stone steps, grape vines, and fruit trees offering figs, pomegranates, and apples. I commented about the environs of the yeshiva that, 'It doesn't hurt that it's beautiful out here.' Barya responded, 'you can eat breakfast off of the trees.' And we do.

I wasn't expecting a whole lot from my living quarters, and I didn't get a whole lot. I'm not complaining at all; I just want to paint the picture. When I walked in to the caravan where my room was supposed to be, I mistook the door to my room for a couple pieces of broken wood leaning against the wall. I think my room used to be a bathroom or a kitchen, because there are pipes coming out of the floor. There are a small handful of holes in the ceiling, and the walls are makeshift leanings of boards at strange angles. I love it. Avi commented that my room is something that Reb Zusia would be happy to live in.

What happens in this place doesn't depend on luxurious surroundings at all. It could be that the lack of luxury filters out those who haven't quite figured out the correct priorities in such matters.

Every yeshiva has classes in Talmud, some have classes in Bible, Jewish Thought, Prayer. Bat Ayin doesn't differ dramatically in this regard, but it is different. I'm trying to put my finger on what the difference is. Is it the passion that the students have? Is it the way prayer here can jump and spark like a flame? Is it the way that some of the Rabbis faces are always on fire with joy? Is it that the yeshiva gets together for a Thursday night shmooze, and someone mentions that they have some wood, and 10 minutes later we're all around a camp fire? Is it the way the honest search for meaning, for joy, for God, is respected and encouraged?

What it comes down to is a feeling of life - real, honest, painful, searching, joyous, life. I'm diggin' it.

It's been one week, and I only have a few weeks left.

Stay tuned.

Grand Entrance

28 August 2005

Free as in speech, free as in beer

Ok, great.
I hear you asking - so I can get loads of images from Wikimedia Commons, along with a strange collection of audio and video, and I can get thousands of books from Project Gutenburg, and I can see what new books are available from The Online Books Page, and I can mix and mash music from CC Mixter and I can see crazy new vistas of free content at ibiblio, but where can I get thousands upon thousands of pin-drop soundboard recordings of complete live shows of the best bands and still stay on the right side of the law?

Brother - it's time to go Furthur.

25 August 2005

Free Llama!

These days it seems like anything goes. I've found that even those people who would spend fifty dollars and two hours to return a lost book think nothing of downloading movies from the shadow world of online exchange. Somehow it has become a moral non-question. I've even heard it said that 'stealing' in this way is not prohibited (though some add - 'but you will never see a blessing from it.')

The question you're likely asking is - what does this have to do with the fuzzy guy to the right? Well, he's a shining example of a no-strings-attached image, placed by it's rightful owner firmly into the public domain. He's not alone. There are over 200,000 public domain files available at Wikimedia Commons alone, all of them either completely free (as in no-strings-attached) or under some sort of fair-use license like those of the Creative Commons.

Now that's something you might see a blessing from...

10 August 2005

Going out to Country

Photo by Fir0002

Four years ago I was faced with the hard question. I had been studying in yeshiva for two years, and I had run out of money. The question was whether to find a source of income, which meant pulling myself out of the four walls of the yeshiva, or hit up my family for the money to keep learning. I set my sites on the middle path: split my day in half, play the roles of business man and yeshiva man at the same time.

Other factors compounded the question. I had lost the yearning to learn, at least the way I had been learning. Other friends bounced from yeshiva to yeshiva looking for the spark, and I was tempted to follow, but the wanderer’s life, as attractive as it was, didn’t solve my money problem. Moreover, I had managed to keep my head nestled in holy books while the economy outside went haywire and any monkey that could type was paid outrageous sums, but the economy ate itself alive just as I was beginning to look for a job.

I ended up, after months of searching, with a full time job, and that’s where I’ve remained. They suffer my strange schedule, as I aim to pack my learning into the mornings and wander in to work in time for a late brunch.

In the meantime, I’ve been blessed to gain some insight into what that missing spark is. My yeshiva had focused, quite rightly, on the skills to learn text - grammar, vocabulary, who is speaking, why is he speaking, where’s the burden of proof… They did an excellent job, but in the end the big question remained – why is this relevant to me? How does it help the world?

Rav Kook writes about connecting the details of Torah to the whole of Torah. We understand (to some extent) the big picture – God is One, he wrote us a holy letter and through that we understand his will. The question is - when Abaye and Rava are discussing the details of a person throwing a ball on Shabbos, how does that connect to the big picture? How does it affect my understanding of reality? How does it change how I act? How I pray? That’s what was missing.

There are a few precious teachers I’ve found who really focus on the whole range – not the big picture, not the small picture, but the whole picture. There are a precious few who help you answer the honest and real question of ‘what does this mean to me.’

I’ve spent four years rolling around the world with a computer. I’ve tried to make Torah the first priority even though it occupied a small fraction of the day. The intensity of the learning in those short times was sometimes amazing. The level of focus sometimes far surpassed what I was capable of in Yeshiva. But there is something to be said for immersion. When I went to Yeshiva, I jumped into the experience and didn’t know how I was going to come out. There was a trust in God, in the experience, in myself, that acted to birth the person that I am today.

So I’m going back.

I haven’t quit my job, but I’ve asked them to do without me for a good seven weeks. I’m heading out to Bat Ayin, a place I’ve flirted with for about seven years. This time it’s not about the skills, it’s about the soul. It’s about the prayer, about connecting the details of the Torah back up to God, and finding that ear in my chest and teaching it to listen in the deepest way. It’s about trusting God and giving birth to myself again.

03 August 2005

Samson's Echo

There's a line of Milton that begins:

Eyeless in Gaza...

Milton was referring to Samson, blinded and chained.

Before I went out to visit Gaza a few weeks ago, I thought that I would write about what I saw, and I suspected that I would use that phrase as the title. Nothing that I saw in Gaza struck me as particularly related to blindness, and neither did I write anything about what I saw.

Today I made the connection. We really are blind. The reports I read in one paper, the reports I read in another, the blogs, and what I hear from people can be so wildly different the I don't know what is actually happening in Ofakim, in the Prime Minister's office, or in Gaza.

Still, this is little more than a loose reference. A blind observer bears little in common with a blind Samson. But maybe our brothers in Gaza, who had been placed purposefully to fufill a strategic role, now find themselves eyeless, chained, a Samson captured.

...Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver!
Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill, with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke.
Yet stay; let me not rashly call in doubt
Divine prediction...

30 July 2005

Of Joy and Blindness

Chasidim are sitting together, passing around vodka, saying l’chaim. Today there is no joy. We each are sure that there is joy, but we can’t find it, we can’t find our way to it. Even in this time of year - when we are more in touch with breaking, more in touch with death, more in touch with exile – even in this time of year, Shabbos is usually an exception. On Shabbos, we don’t have permission to mourn. But this Shabbos is different.

On this Shabbos, somehow, it hit me. I had been holding out hope, thinking that it couldn’t really happen. Today it hit me. True, there are still scenarios: this week’s demonstrations may be a success; Vendyl Jones may find the Holy Ark; the men of the army may en masse find themselves unable to uproot their brothers. But somehow today it really hit me. Today it hit me, when the chasidim could barely even sing.

I slept in the afternoon. For two and a half hours I lay sweating on my bed, dreaming of being robbed of my home, dreaming of deceit, dreaming of empty drawers that had been full and the convoluted and nebulous treachery that had emptied them. I woke up feeling like I hadn’t slept, like I had been robbed of sleep, robbed of rest.

In the morning, one of the Chassidim had said that the main thing – the main thing – is not to despair, never to despair. In the afternoon we are talking. We know – we know – that everything is for the good. We know that God is holding us in his hand.

Everything is for the good, God is holding us in his hand, and I know that I am blind to his plan.

28 July 2005

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero

This Shabbos is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero.

Deep appreciation to anyone who can tell me a story about him.

Most of the info I have is from an antiseptic Artscroll half-page biography (which reminds us that he is called the "RaMaK" after his initials, that he wrote tens of books - including "Or Yakar" on the Zohar, "Pardes Rimonim", and "Tomer Devorah" - and that he was the leading kabbalist in Safed when the Arizal arrived.)

One interesting thing - he passed away soon after the Arizal arrived in Safed. The Arizal called him "My Master and Teacher" and testified that he saw a pillar of fire preceding his coffin.

Quote of the Day

There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.
- Marshall McLuhan

18 July 2005

Impressions of Amsterdam

Casual people. Not studied casual, but straight ahead 'I think I'll go without shoes today' casual.

Language sounds like German being spoken underwater, woman at the ticket counter doesn't really want to help me with language lessons.

'Netherlands' sounds like something out of a fantasy novel.

Crafted - everything - staircases, water glasses, window shade pulleys, laptop stands - crafted, and crafted well.

Central Station crowded and hot and looking out for thieves and was-this-the-station-where? and out on the streets with water everywhere but everywhere and two streets away and you-call-this-a-red-light-district? nothing wrong with a little run down but a little further and dildos in the windows and this-is-what-I-call-a-red-light-district and a little further and look-right dirty-trick! she was in her underwear! can't look right! can't look left! look ahead! safe to look ahead - but can sense women on every side. Another block and naked-in-the-streets! help! too-much-for-me! get-me-out-of-this-place!

Pot everywhere some of it smelling better than any Grateful Dead show pot and some of it the nastiest dirt weed smell and some people on the streets staring at a car like it was the mother-connection-dynamo and passing a mushroom shop looked in and someone caught me by the psychic mane and gave me a calling-out like I haven't felt since the family at the Dead show gave me the old back-of-the-head cerebralellum once over.

Flower market full of bulbs and bulbs and grow-your-own-dope kits.

Street sellers selling art and - one women - beautiful - but beautiful - etchings. So precise - and deep. Each movement of each root - the texture on every leaf - a forest.

And water and water and more pot smells and water and kosher food.
How can you be a Jew in a place like this?

But! The most beautiful synagogue. Dark wood. Stone columns like redwood trees. Fifty feet straight up. The deepest holiest echo. A thousand candles.

The story is told that when they would pray
Friday night in the Spanish-Portuguese Shul,
the non-Jewish caretaker would begin to light
the candles at the beginning of the service,
as the sun was just beginning to set.
As the sun continued to set and the Jews
continued to pray, he would continue to
light the candles.
The light from outside would slowly wane,
and the light from inside would slowly rise,
until when the congregation finished the service
- and the heaven and the earth were finished -
he would finish lighting the candles,
and the world would be filled with light.

And back on the street, back to kosher food - a decent pita, and onward. More canals and more dope smells quit smelling like that! and an amstel beer by a canal as people on bicycles ride by, and more bicycles and bicycles built for two and hitching a ride on a bicycle, and a man playing accordion while people ride through the canals on little sputtering motor boats carrying bicycles.

Ann Frank's statue half a block form the Homo monument. Both outside a church, but no different from the naked women in windows who stand and deliver right across from an old stone church and a bazaar filled with the bizarre and shops providing the ways to get away from your unaltered consciousness.

Is spirituality a motion that runs against reality, or is it an intense experience of reality?

Outside of Amsterdam by train and it's suburban Europe - housing blocks, office buildings stained a dull grey, and train tracks. Farther out it's cows and sheep and more water and somehow there are no prostitutes on the streets of suburbia and it's quiet and nowhere is there that smell that smell that smell, and no one looks like they have subscribed to a reality that's entirely different. It's just suburban Europe - with carefully designed everything and fountains like football fields and trains that run on time.

17 July 2005

Ha'aretz Sympathetic to Gush Katif?

A rarity - a beautiful article in Ha'aretz sympathetic to the farmers of Gush Katif (in the Gaza Strip.)

06 July 2005

Digging Bat Ayin Music

Incredible jewels are being given away at the Bat Ayin Music Page. Holy music of all shapes and sizes, from the arabesque to the frightening with some great stops in between.

04 July 2005

Must be something in the water

The new world record for memorization of PI, amazingly, is 83,431 decimal places.

To put this in perspective, it's said that someone once asked Einstein for his phone number. He had to look it up in a phone book.

03 July 2005

Into the Woods

When the Seer of Lublin was a child - 4 or 5 - his teacher had trouble with him in school. He was always running off into the woods. His teacher would try and discipline him - but it didn't do any good.
One time his teacher followed him deep into the woods, and saw him sit down on the forest floor and, trembling, scream out "Shma Yisrael...!"
His teacher didn't give him a hard time after that.

His father once asked him, though, "Why are you going out into the woods all the time?"
"To find God," he responded.
"Don't you know that God is the same everywhere?", his father pressed.
"God's the same everywhere," he said, "but I'm not."

26 June 2005

For the love of...

The third Rebbe of Vorke - Reb Simcha Bunem of Vorke - made the journey up to the Holy Land and settled in Jerusalem.

Some people think it's hard to live here these days. It was a lot harder then.

One resident found it difficult to adjust to the new life in the Holy Land. He decided to leave, but before he left he went to take his leave of the Rebbe.

The Vorker Rebbe told him, "I'm truly sorry that you didn't find favor in the eyes of Jerusalem. If you had, she would have found favor in your eyes!"

22 June 2005


Some nights the king thought he heard crying - a child crying.

"Strange," he thought, "that there should be a child crying. There are no children in my castle."

When he would wake in the morning, the demands of the day served to distract him, and he would seldom think of the sounds that he had heard in the night.

One evening, in the silence of the well-run castle, the king thought he heard the crying. He put an ear toward the sound and listened. Echoing, he heard the cry. He put down his evening business, and padded off through the dim hallways to locate the sound.

You must understand that a castle is a tremendous thing. Even its king is not familiar with all of its turns and tunnels. Half finished constructions from generations of Kings have turned nearly every castle into a maze.

The king followed the cry until he feared to lose himself entirely in the unexplored depths. By now the cry was distinct - clearly the cry of a young child.

The king begin to see dancing shadows cast by candlelight, and he quickened his pace. He turned the corner and saw a hallway with a door of iron bars at its end. The flame of the candle shown between the bars.

The king nearly ran the length of the hallway and put his hands on the bars. Sitting in the cell was a child of not more than six. The king spoke reasurring words to the child until he stopped crying, and looked up at him with piercing, honest eyes.

The king listened, and the child spoke.

"I myself was king once - the child king. My rule was cut short, you could say overthrown. My family may even have turned against me, for reasons I don't understand. I was supressed, thrown in this dungeon."

"How long have you been here?"

"Nearly as long as you've been alive."

"But how can that be? You're just a child!"

The child looked at the king, silent tears beginning to form. The king looked into the child's eyes, somehow deeply familiar.

Finally, the king began to understand.

17 June 2005

Missive from Atlantis?

I don't spend a lot of time watching movies, but I saw a trailer for What the #$*! do we Know and picked up the DVD on my last pass through the States. Ever since I took a course in the philosophy of physics I've had an interest in the greater implications of quantum mechanics. Unfortunelty, the movie turned out to be scientifically wishy-washy and the thinly vieled mouthpiece of a cult.

People are thirsty, that's much is clear.

Why else would they be drinking such dirty water?

14 June 2005

Sometimes a mystery...

Sometimes it's enough just to believe that there is a secret. You don't have to know what the secret is.

It's told about Reb Yisrael ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, that his soul was a certain piece of the Messiah (Nefesh David d'Atzilut, whatever that means).

Rav Chaim ibn Attar, the Ohr haChaim haKodesh, lived at the same time. It's told that his soul was another piece of the Messiah (Ruach David d'Atzilut) and that if the two ever met, they would bring the Messiah himself (Neshamah and Hiat David d'Atzilut) to the world.

Whereas the Baal Shem Tov lived in Poland, the Ohr haChaim lived in the holy land. The Baal Shem Tov's brother-in-law, Reb Gershon Kitover, was learning in the Yeshiva of the Ohr haChaim in Jerusalem. He expressed to the Ohr haChaim that the Baal Shem Tov was very anxious to meet him. The Ohr haChaim told him to pass along the following message to the Baal Shem Tov:

When you see yourself in heaven, see if your whole body is in heaven.

The Baal Shem Tov recieved the message, and the next time he ascended to the celestial spheres, he examined himself. Sure enough, he saw that his feet were not in Heaven (some say it was just his heel.) He advised the Ohr haChaim of this.

When the Ohr haChaim heard, he immediately told him not to attempt the journey to the Holy Land, that it surely would not be succesful. It seems that the Baal Shem Tov was driven by deeper forces to attempt the journey anyway. As we all know, his attempts to come up to the Holy Land were not succesful.

Yesterday (Shavuot) was the Yahrtzeit of King David and the Baal Shem Tov.

28 May 2005

Menachem Mendel of Riminov

This Shabbos was the yahrzeit of Menachem Mendel of Riminov -
who was a Chassid of R. Elimelech of Lizensk,
who was a friend to The Chozeh of Lublin and The Kotznitcher Maggid,
who appreciated a meditative approach to God, and seeing the wild celebrations of joy in the court of the Chozen uttered a single syllable, 'Na', and all of the Chassidim froze in awe and fear of Heaven, to which the Chozeh said 'Ho!', launching the Chassidim back to their dancing,
who for 22 years spoke about the same thing every single Shabbos, never once delivering a discourse on anything but manna,
who was Rebbe to the R. Naftali of Ropshitz, R. Zvi Meshares, and The Bnei Yissaschar...

27 May 2005

They're selling whatever you want...

Seen on an AdWords Ad:

You Like Quantum physics?
Gain Extreme Wealth and Success By Manifesting Your Own Reality!

How Public, like a blog...

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring blog!

-Emily Dickinson (slightly updated)