Saturday, August 13, 2011

houses full of all good things that you did not fill... ( some thoughts on Va -ethannan)

Today I meditated and then read the 7th aliyah of Va-ethannan. I read
When the Lord Your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you -- great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant -- and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the Lord who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. Revere only the Lord your God and worship Him alone, and swear only by His name. Do not follow other gods, any gods of the people around you -- for the Lord your God in your midst is an impassioned God -- lest the anger of the Lord your God blaze forth against you and He wipe you off the face of the earth. ( Deut. 6:10 - 6:15)
I imagine coming into a world already full of good and beautiful things. And then I remember that this was, in fact, the world I came into, the world that we all come into -- even the poorest of us. As for me, a white woman, a professional, the daughter of professionals, living in a first-world country in a great and flourishing city that I did not build -- well, I came into a land full of good and beautiful things that I did not make.

That's reality. Anyone claiming otherwise, peddling their self-made tales, is following other gods. Most people, maybe, are following other gods. Me, most of the time, I follow other gods. I forget I didn't make this world, that our world is a mystery inside of an enigma inside of a puzzle, or however that goes. I forget that our world is a mysterious and possibly absurd turducken of givenness and gifts and blessings and sheer unalloyed "you didn't make this".

There's something in the laws of this world, though. Call it natural law, call it karma, call it God and God's judgment and God's anger blazing forth, call it nothing at all, but there it is. It doesn't let us forget. Not forever. When we forget that we are in debt to nearly everyone and everyThing in our lives, when we forget that debt is so great and so deep that it can never, never be paid... eventually it will catch up with us. The anger of the Lord will blaze against us, one way or another.

To live in spiritual denial of the gifts we have been given is to court disaster.

I grew up in Reform Judaism. One of the two central prayers of Judaism is the k'riat shema, which is actually just three passages from the Torah. The first passage is actually from va-ethannan, earlier in the parsha than the verses I'm talking about here. The second passage runs like this:
And it will be, if you will diligently obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be sated. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the L-rd's wrath will flare up against you, and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the L-rd gives you. Therefore, place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates - so that your days and the days of your children may be prolonged on the land which the L-rd swore to your fathers to give to them for as long as the heavens are above the earth. (from chabad's translation)
The Reform prayerbooks of my childhood only read the first paragraph of the shema, and they skipped all the God's wrath bit in the second paragraph. ( The second paragraph also, admittedly, repeats a lot of the first paragraph's ideas, if not the exact words.) I think that was a terrible mistake. I think the stakes are high here, and so actually the warning is now my favorite part of the prayer. I like to be reminded to remember all that I've been given. I like to be reminded that if I turn toward idols ( money, power, self, security, career, stuff...) I will most likely experience the consequences of that turning. I like to be reminded that I can turn again, too, back toward Reality, back toward God, back toward a recognition of the blessings of my life.

It's like Praise. We don't always praise God because we truly feel grateful. Sometimes we praise because it's in the prayerbook to praise, and because in praising we remember that it was not us who built this great and flourishing world....

A new experiment: contemplative Torah study

I've been reading Alan Lew. He recommends a torah study practice that I've decided to start trying, and I'm hoping that it will make it easier for me to write blog posts each week.  Lew practiced contemplative torah study. First you meditate, then you read the aliyah for the day. ( Each week's parsha is divided into 7 aliyot.) :

In Torah study both the passages that catch our attention and the passages that set us off on a long rumination are significant. They are God speaking to us through the text of the Torah. The practice of Torah study is the practice of hearing that voice.
Or we may simply notice that certain words or phrases or sentences in the text are charged as though lit from within. And we may notice moments in our life like that as well. When we put the charged words or phrases or sentences together with the charged moments, we  may find a significant rhyme, we find that one instructs us about the other, and that both taken together are extremely significant for us, telling us something we really needed to know.  -- Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life

So that's what I will try to do. Perhaps dealing with smaller chunks of text in a more contemplative way will make it easier for me to grab hold of ideas for blog posts. We shall see.

Perhaps nothing will make it easier.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What I Learned From Dandruff

Wow. I’ve been waiting to write this blog post for years, yet it’s just now occurred to me. Sometimes things fall not apart but together. Sometimes there is dark matter in the universe and you catch a glimpse of it.

I’m running late on parshas. No matter. This is my life. If all I’m running late on are parshas, I’m doing pretty fine. So we’re at parsha Tazria, now. Birth, circumcision, and leprosy. Lots of leprosy.

My shul had its annual retreat this weekend, by a pond in the woods an hour west of Boston. I took a walk with the four-year-olds and assorted parents, down to the pond and back by way of a septic field. There was a power plant in the distance. The camp itself had a great white windmill, and it filled the air with a gentle, alien whooshing sound, until you got up close and heard also the sound of metal scraping metal which signaled something not quite right up there, in the mechanism. Walking back up toward the windmill someone said they couldn’t get excited about the parsha this week. “Next year they should pick the parsha and then pick the date.”

For me, the parsha doesn’t matter so much, because I have to say something about it whatever it is. I like that spiritual discipline, but it’s also a kind of freedom. I have the freedom not to care that the parsha be good or juicy or easy to get a grip on. The parsha is what the parsha is.

I hardly ever get to torah study on weekends in Boston, but I went to torah study at the retreat. The Rabbi who was teaching had a copy of Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger on the table, so of course I heartily approved. He told us that doctors haven’t identified any skin diseases that resemble the disease/s translated as leprosy in Leviticus, but they are certain that whatever it was, it was not leprosy, because by the time leprosy came to Israel, the laws in Leviticus were old, old news.

Our Torah is very old. I know that, but sometimes it is shocking all over again.

Here is what I want to say about skin:

There is always something wrong with your skin. Somewhere on your body, your skin is not intact. You have a cut from the kitchen knife because your mother called exactly as you were cutting that tomato and you were startled by the phone and your hand slipped. Or you were nervous before that big meeting and you bit a hangnail and now there’s a ragged edge on your left thumb. Or the cat was sick and you had to give her a pill and she didn’t like it and she bit your arm, not hard, but it broke the skin. Or you smashed your face into the doorknob while struggling with a three-year-old who did not want to put her rain boots on, and you split your lip. Sometimes when you’re stressed out you get eczema on your arms. Or you have psoriasis and sometimes it’s nothing and sometimes your elbows bleed. Or you didn’t always wear flipflops at the gym and you got athlete’s foot and it is stubborn. Or you have a wart, or a funny-looking mole you should see the dermatologist about. You have three chicken pox scars on your face. And dandruff. Sometimes the skin behind your ears weeps and crusts over, who knows why. You have razor burn. Or you cut yourself shaving with a brand new razor. There’s a patch of dry skin on your foot that just won’t go away. One of your toenails is half-fallen off from when you stubbed your toe that time. You got sunburnt on vacation and the skin is peeling off. You stepped in poison ivy, or nettles, or blundered into a hornet’s nest out near the compost bin or sat down in a red ant hill or stepped barefoot on a bumblebee or you got bedbugs or mosquitoes or lice or crabs or cold sores or chiggers or those horrible biting flies they have at Crane’s beach in July. Or you take a drug to stabilize your mood and it causes your skin to slough off.

There is always something wrong with your skin.

The sages of yore liked to explain all those skin-rules in Leviticus by saying they were really about how the state of your skin was supposed to reflect, somehow, the state of your soul. The disease called leprosy that was not leprosy befell those who did evil, especially those who spoke loshan hara. So the priest was called to witness the disease, the outward sign of internal impurity, and to call the sufferer to repent. Upon repentance the skin disease would heal and the sufferer could re-enter the realm of the holy.

It’s an attractive reading because it’s a hook to let us hang more meaning on skin diseases than they would otherwise seem to warrant in a holy book. We say “well, they couldn’t just have been talking about skin, right?”

As though we don’t obsess about skin ourselves.

What I learned from dandruff (and oh, my dandruff!) is that every day there are a million little things wrong with our bodies. Everything we see on the outside, all the bits that are weird or wrong or funny-colored -- that’s just the tip of the iceberg of all the stuff that is ever-so-slightly wrong with us. The prayer we say in the bathroom says that if just one of the bits of living machinery in our bodies were closed up when it should be open, or open when it should be closed, we would die, but the amazing thing about our existence is that in fact exactly the opposite is true, on the micro level. Many, many pieces can stop working before “we” stop working. There’s change and flux and stoppages and drippages all over the place; there are cells gone wild with proliferation when they should kill themselves and cells that commit suicide when they should reproduce instead. Our bodies are constantly going wrong in all kinds of tiny, imperceptible ways.

We can see our skin, and other people can see it too, so the state of our skin is a kind of palimpset for how much has gone wrong with our bodies in general. That is why we obsess about our skin, and that is probably why the Israelites obsessed about skin too.

Of course I rebel against the whole idea of making someone suffering from a skin disease walk around on the outskirts of camp, on the margins of society, calling out “impure” as they go. But at least the Israelites seem to have had some mechanism for deciding that a skin disease was not of the type that conferred impurity, or was but had healed, and for letting people back in to the community, under the protection of the priest. Ask someone suffering from full-body psoriasis if they’d like a priest to be able to pronounce them pure and make people let them in to holy places and public swimming pools. We’re superstitious and superficial jerks, we humans, and we read things into the skin that are not there, and we trick each other with plastic surgery and makeup and airbrushing , and we cover up and scrape off and lighten and tan and buy prescription medications to make our eyelashes grow. We are superficial jerks now and I’m sure we were superficial jerks then. So then we get to the perennial question: is it better to be a straightforward jerk or a sublimated jerk?

Actually, that’s not the question. I’m riffing about skin, and how it’s always broken. ( We are always broken, like this world, shattered vessels all). I think this quality of our skin is miraculous -- its marvelous and ever-renewing ability to be both broken in places and yet, as a whole, fundamentally intact in its ability to perform its jobs. I’m fascinated by all the ways it can fail us and all the ways that look like failure but are actually success. ( I burnt the skin of my arm, but I did not burn the muscle. My skin protected my muscle from the burn. The skin is broken, but it was broken in the line of duty...)

Still. Most things about the skin part of the parsha are alien to me. The laws, the disease/s described, the rituals, the rules. They don’t add up. And why should I expect them to? Old laws from before the army of Alexander the Great brought leprosy back from India. I can’t quite imagine living in that world. It is long gone. Why should I expect all its records to make sense? These laws don’t have enough texture to them. They tell no story. You had to be there, as they say, to understand the sense they made.

That the Torah is sometimes utterly alien, even, sometimes, repulsive -- I like that, even though I used to hate it. It’s broadening. It takes effort and it induces vertigo.

I like God because God is the cure for existential vertigo but at the same time God induces existential vertigo. This is the tricky stereoscopic vision of Ahavat Hashem, the Love of God, and Yirat Hashem, the fear of God. Relationship with God is both/and.

Relationship with Torah is like that too. Perfectly familiar ( I think of Us Weekly: “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us”, I think of Head And Shoulders ads, and Creme de la Mer) and at the same time alien ( Purity and impurity, animal sacrifice, polygamy, miracles and wonders and smiting and slavery and deserts).

A rambling blog post, after all. Full of breakages and imperfections, like skin. I shall send it to the edge of the settlement until it has healed and is whole.

Ah. But it will never be whole, will it? We don’t get wholeness in this world. We just get to move in that direction. Wholeness belongs to the World-To-Come, Olam Ha-Ba, and who here knows what that even means? We say that God keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust (that’s the center holding), but we should not expect to understand how that works or what it looks like (and that’s the vertigo). This sounds very mystical, and it is. So I’ll wind up with G.K. Chesterton on mysticism:

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.

Strangeness and familiarity. Our skin, and our souls. Botox and lepers. Can you see both at once? It gives you a bit of a headache, I’ll admit. I find that Reality always gives me a headache, but it is a balm for the aching in my soul.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Purity, Danger, Holiness, Order: A Tzav - Sh'mini Double Header

There are way too many big ideas floating around in my head right now. I was mulling over Tzav for a long time, and when I decided what I wanted to say about that I got food poisoning or stomach flu and I didn’t write any of it down, and then I read Sh’mini and so even though strictly speaking I should have one post for each parsha, I’m combining them. And I don’t even think this is a d’var so much as it is the beginnings of my own personal Zohar. ( Flight of ideas? Check. Grandiosity? Check. )

Tzav is Leviticus Chapters 6 - 8. There are more instructions for sacrifice. I don’t really care about those. This is what interests me:

1) About the grain offering, Leviticus 6:11 “Anything that touches these shall become holy.”
2) Again, about the purification offering, Leviticus 6:20: “Anything that touches its flesh shall become holy...”
3) 7:19-20: “Flesh that touches anything impure shall not be eaten; it shall be consumed in fire. As for other flesh, only he who is pure shall eat such flesh. But the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the LORD’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin.”

Then we get Sh’mini, Leviticus Chapters 9-11. In Sh’mini the Tabernacle is consecrated for what seems like, seriously, the 18th time. We also get the curious incident of the sons with the alien fire pans, Chapter 10:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said:

‘Through those near to me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’”

And Aaron was silent.

And then for much of the rest of the parsha we get kashrut.

So what do I want to say about all this?

First, something strange. My chumash, Etz Hayim, has a note attached to Leviticus 6:11: “The condition of holiness, unlike that of impurity, was not regarded as contagious. Thus it would be better to translate: ‘Anyone who is to touch these must be in a holy state.’ Only consecrated persons may have contact with sacrificial materials.”

Well, okay, but that’s not what it says. It says ‘anything that touches these shall become holy.’ And then, point 2 above, at 6:20: “Anything that touches its flesh shall become holy...” Now, I am aware of the ridiculousness of my arguing with the editors of my chumash about what words that are written in Hebrew I can’t read might mean. But I presume if they could have translated faithfully those words as ‘Anyone who is to touch these must be in a holy state’ that they would have, and since they did not I can only assume that the words in Hebrew are closer to what I read in English than to their explanation of what those words really mean.

So there is impurity (tumah), and there is holiness (kadosh). Sometimes it seems as though holiness and purity are contagious, and sometimes it seems like it is impurity that is contagious. And then there’s the strangeness (to 21st-century me) of holiness and purity somehow being, in all of this, two ends of the same axis. Why should they have anything to do with each other at all? And where is goodness and righteousness in all of this? It seems like in this scheme we can be at the same time righteous and impure, i.e. un-holy. And vice-versa. Like there’s an entire other dimension of goodness and badness that is orthogonal to the holiness-impurity dimension. And again, that doesn’t make much sense to me.

In college I read Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo:

As we know it, dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder. If we shun dirt, it is not because of craven fear, still less dread or holy terror. Nor do our ideas about disease account for the range of our behavior in cleaning or avoiding dirt. Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.

[ ...]

In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea. There is nothing fearful or unreasoning in our dirt-avoidance: it is a creative movement, an attempt to relate form to function, to make unity of experience. If this is so with our separating, tidying, and purifying, we should interpret primitive purification and prophylaxis in the same light. (p2)

We can re-concieve the axis of impurity-holiness as disorder-order, and doing so helps it make sense to those of us who have this specialized idea of sanctity in which, frankly, impurity seems beside the point. But this does not mean that holiness then shrinks to being about getting organized or imposing our human ideas of order on the world. (Well, I think a lot of people do worship ‘order’ -- worship an idea that somehow we can get everything under control if we just use the right system or keep our email inboxes empty or have the right kind of calendar or mind hack or whatever.

When we, as humans, turn disorder into order, it’s a small, lower-case kind of order. That’s important, that order. But in itself it is neither truly achievable, nor is it holy. Without a higher-level Order toward which we orient our efforts to make little-0 order, we are just sweeping the outdoors.

So the Torah gives us many rules about little-o order, but it gives them to us as a means to bring big-O order into the world --- in the service of perfecting the material world, in order to bring about Olam Ha-Ba, the world-to-come. The creative movement is toward God, the Source of Order in the universe.

( The prophets were constantly railing against the Israelites for forgetting that the little-o rules set out in the Torah were little-o rules, and behaving abominably but performing perfectly ordered sacrifices in the Temple. God spits on your perfectly-ordered sacrifices, said the prophets, because you are not truly directing your hearts toward the Source of Order in the world. You are worshipping a system for bringing Holiness, that is, God’s Order, to the material world. But to worship the system is misdirected. It is just a system. It does not tell you where it’s meant to lead.

Now we are in a position to understand what happened to Nadab and Abihu. They thought that they could make their own little-o order and elevate it to Big-O Order. Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, they forgot Who the Real Source of Order was. The Real Source of Order did not take kindly to that.

But actually, we’re not in a position to understand this at all, just as Job was not in a position to understand why God afflicted him, and we are none of us able to understand death, or love, or music, or even one person’s brain. Big-O Order does not stay in its little categories, in little boxes or little words or our little minds. Big-O Order bursts out all over in a profusion, in a burning fire, in absolute mind-boggling absurdity and grandeur and mystery. Before Big-O Order, we, like Aaron, must be silent.

God wants our little human orders too, don’t get me wrong. We must serve God with what we are, and we are little and we are human, and God loves our little human orders. I would say we should try not to forget that our human orders are just human, but I think in our heart of hearts we hardly need reminding. We are just as likely to flee in terror and confusion from God’s Order as we are to rush toward it as a beloved Home. It is too big for us, and it is everywhere apparent that it is so. We are just as likely to see a forest as a dark and confusing place, full of lions and tigers and bears, as we are to see it as a beautiful and intricately rendered example of a Higher Order. Sometimes we are able to catch a glimpse of that Higher Order, and even to enter into it, to become part of it. And sometimes even seeing it from the corners of our eyes will burn us right up. That is why ahavat hasham and yirat hashem always go together, they are two sides of the same coin: the love of God and the fear/awe of God.

( Incidentally, this helps explain for Christians why Jesus could claim both to be affirming the Law and yet regularly ‘break’ it. Jesus saw himself as being part of the Higher Order, and thus like his father, could not be subject to little o-order as others were. Rather, little-o order was subject to him. That is the meaning of miracles, after all -- they are an explosion of Divine Order into the Natural Order, which is an order greater than our human order. And really, when you think about it, what sense could it make to complain to Jesus that he broke the Sabbath by healing someone? Wouldn’t you rather complain that Jesus healed someone? To complain that little-o order (even that in the service of the Holy, such as the Mitzvot are) is being broken when the Natural Order is also being broken seems remarkably small-minded. Which was after all the point, right? Small-minded Pharisees, small-minded Sadducees, and then Jesus, bursting out all over the place. No, husband, I am not converting to Christianity. I do have Christian readers, though, and I do read Christians, and understanding what Christians think is so important about Jesus is not the same as believing that Jesus was who he said (or is said to have said) he was. It’s just explaining why, in all the stories, he is so spectacularly unconcerned with keeping the Mitzvot while at the same time insisting that they are still to be kept. Also bringing up Jesus reminded me that actually the axis of order should look like this:

disorder - little-o-order (human order) - Natural Order (often looks like disorder, but see chaos theory or something) - Divine Order/Holiness.

But then there is tragedy. Is tragedy just disorder? Or is it just part of the Natural Order (earthquakes) ? Or is it sometimes, like the tragedy of Aaron’s sons, a Divine Order that we cannot understand? Or does it come about when we worship our human order instead of the Divine Order? ( c.f. Nietzche, who figured any order you wanted and could make happen was just the best sort of order there could be, and Godwin’s Law says there’s your Nazi Superman right there.) Or when we attempt to impose our little human order on the Natural Order in ways that will make the Natural Order uncongenial to humans (global warming, nuclear power)?

But there I go again, hoping that my little brain can tidy all this up with some well-chosen words. Derrida would tell me how deluded that is. This life is a terrifying proposition, especially since it is not a proposition but a fact. God speaks out of the whirlwind and what can I say in response? But the odd thing is that God does not want me to remain silent, at least not all of the time. God wants me to respond. God wants my little brain’s attempts at order. If God did not want what order we humans could make, then why would God have bothered with us humans at all? God has given us each a divine spark and we can use it to bootstrap our little order into Holiness, to elevate our offerings. Neither I nor God need Derrida to point out all the cracks and imperfections in the work. Never mind. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

C.S. Lewis: “Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?” (from Mere Christianity).

And Lewis again: “[T]he real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.” (ibid)

I do not know why Lewis thinks this is only a problem for Christians, although perhaps it is because Christians, unlike Jews, do not have a set prayer meant to be said each morning, just upon waking, to remind them of exactly the thing he says they need to be reminded of. (snark.) It’s a human thing, that prayer, a little-o human technology, just some words in an ancient language. It’s called Modeh Ah’nee, and in English it reads: “I thank You, living and eternal King, for giving me back my soul in mercy. Great is your faithfulness.” I would like to say it every morning when I wake, because I’d like to come in out of the wind. I would like to say it, but I don’t. New habits are hard.

But here’s good news about habits: In 2010 our household gave about 3 times more money that the IRS considers to be charitable donations than we did in 2009. Some of that is because we joined a synagogue and synagogues, like churches, are nonprofits. But most of it is because I decided I wanted to become more generous and I worked at it, and because I worked at it my husband worked at it too, just with tiny little human systems, like every thirteen weeks is my generosity week and when organizations I care about ask me for money that week I generally give it to them, and when people ask me for money on the street I give some to them, and at the end of each day I note down how I’ve been generous (or failed to be) and what I could do better, and all these little human things add up, finally, into transformation: I can feel (and the IRS can see at least some evidence), that I have actually become a more generous person. ( Which is not to say that I am particularly generous. I am not. But at least the direction of movement is good.)

That is not the most amazing thing, though. The most amazing thing is that I see that the direction of movement is good. I have a sense that Generosity is Good. It is Good, it is Important, and when I use little human technologies to become a more generous person, I am doing exactly what God wants me to do.

Note: I am not stupid. I do not quite understand what I mean when I talk about God this way, but I certainly don’t mean that God is some guy up there rooting for me to give more money to Tsunami relief because that is God’s Plan For My Life. And about generosity being a Good Thing, (there’s a dissertation for you: Purity, Danger, and Martha Stewart: Good Things as Secular Religion.) -- I know just as well as you do that the evolutionary psychologists and the game theorists have done altruism every-which-way. It’s just that, like my favorite physicist-cum-anglican-priest, John Polkinghorne, I don’t think they’ve been very convincing about it: “Although atheism might seem simpler conceptually, it treats beauty and morals and worship as some form of cultural or social brute facts, which accords ill with the seriousness with which these experiences touch us as persons.” (Faith of a Physicist, page 70). So with generosity. You can tell me about kin-group-reciprocity. Actually, it’d probably be the other way around -- I’d tell you about kin-group-reciprocity. But in the end it seems a more satisfying answer that I feel glad about becoming more generous because becoming more generous is actually Important, because it is moving me closer to Holiness.

Which brings me back to perhaps the original great mystery, which is how impurity and disorder can possibly be related to holiness when holiness should be all about goodness, right? And the answer for Jews is that all our little human orderings, our rituals and mitzvot, add up to More, as long as we keep feeding the divine spark within ourselves, as long as we keep the connection to God. Order and goodness and holiness are all related, in a Divine feedback loop.

Hypergraphia? Check.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Parsha Vayikira, in which instructions are issued for all manner of sacrifices

 ( Text of the parsha )

Look, sacrifice is hard to swallow. It’s bloody and gruesome and earthy and when you burn up all that animal flesh everything gets covered in sticky, smelly grease.

When I was pregnant with my daughter there was a whole neighborhood that smelled so strongly of rancid fat to me that even driving through it caused me to retch.

Sacrifice is hard to swallow, like God. God is really hard to swallow. The Christians have figured out a really terrific way to swallow God. They just, you know, swallow. That’s awesome for them.

For Jews it’s harder. You can try to slice God up and shrink God down and extract God’s essence or stone-grind or expeller-press or molecularly distill God, but God is still too damn big to swallow.

Well, God could be smaller if God wanted, too. God could dance on the head of a pin.

One way or another, God has to be smaller for humans to have any chance of even dealing with God without going blind and burning up and generally being annihilated by God’s full-on glory. God has to have little thumbnail-sized avatars of God that we can grab onto, see, swallow, taste, feel, love.

Actually, God has a bunch of thumbnail-sized avatars. They’re called people. And sure, there’s been a lot of data loss in the thumbnailing process. Everyone’s just a tiny piece of a big picture, and lossy to boot. Corrupted data and all of that. Anyway, so here we are, thumbnails of God. We have a path back to the original. It’s up to us to follow it.

Maimonides said that God specified animal and other sacrifices to the Israelites because God knew that everyone at that time sacrificed to their gods in those ways. God wanted to give the people something they’d be familiar with. A beaten path. So we cannot blame either God or the ancient Israelites for all that grease. God gave the Israelites what they needed to find their way back to God. God did not expect them to leap into darkness, into a whole new way of understanding the unseen.

Nachmanides, on the other hand, was of the mind that the destruction of the second temple was indeed a disaster, that literal sacrifice in a literal temple was the original, and still preferred, method of relating to God, and that our inability to do that anymore was a great sadness and a great disability for us.

Even today, most Orthodox siddurim still ask for the restoration of the beit ha mikdash and look forward to resuming the sacrifices as outlined in the torah.  And most other siddurim do not.  I personally have never looked forward to the resumption of animal sacrifice or to the rebuilding of the Temple. I think most of us today could not imagine such a thing. Animal sacrifice seems so obviously deficient as a way to connect with God, so obviously barbaric and obviously primitive and obviously lesser than prayer and service and acts of lovingkindness.

But really, on what do I base my opinion of sacrifice? Have i ever done it myself? Have I even ever killed a mammal myself, or seen one killed in person? I held a man I loved when he died, and one thing I can say about that is that death is primitive and intense and gruesome and strange and it is absolutely barbaric that we all must die, and that my uncle, a man I loved who had not lived out his allotted days, as far as I was concerned, died. And also that I have never felt more in the presence of the holy and the sacred as when I sat there with my uncle as he died, except perhaps when giving birth, which is also gruesome and bloody and brutal and intense and absolutely strange.

Why then do I dismiss ritual slaughter as something less likely to connect me with the divine than some nice clean praying in a nice clean synagogue with absolutely no rancid fat smell? Is it because I like to imagine that I am more civilized than that, or because I know that I am not more civilized than that and I would prefer not to understand that about myself, because if I did -- chaos? Is my knee-jerk dismissal of literal sacrifice just another way to hide from the terrifying realities of life as we know it, just as our funeral homes and our nursing homes and our intensive care units and all the beeping machines are a way to pretend that we no longer die? In rejecting sacrifice, am I rejecting the reality of death?

Then there’s the other reality of eating meat. It is messy and greasy and smelly and smoky and bloody and all meat came from something that was killed, on my behalf, by someone somewhere on a real farm, factory or otherwise. Sacrifice sanctifies the eating of meat, and probably that kind of sanctification is something we need more of in our lives. Attending a sacrifice would, at the very least, make it harder to pretend that we are not doing the things we are doing.

Too, when we give the first fruits or the firstborn of a flock to God, we acknowledge in a very concrete way that everything we have is borrowed or given to us. I mean, there's "thanks god for all the awesome you've given us" and there's "thanks god for the awesome and here's our very best sheep." Those are pretty different acts. In my family, we even have trouble at Havdalah pouring out wine to extinguish the candle in. We think "but that's good, drinkable wine! Why waste it?" It's not like we're saying "why waste it, we could give it to starving children in India who don't have anything but Manischevitz to drink." We would just rather drink the wine ourselves. If we have such a reaction to spilling a little bit of wine, I imagine it'd be pretty powerful to give up a whole actual living animal. To see all that good meat go up in smoke, for the sake of something or someone invisible, unknowable, unthinkable...

I don't want to sacrifice animals. I don't think I can hope and pray that the Mosque on the temple mount is torn down and a new Temple is built there and that I will someday go there on Sukkot and buy or bring a sheep or goat and stand there singing psalms while some guy named Cohen kills and butchers and burns up the animal I've brought.

But I can see the appeal. I can see that it might actually be the most intense experience of God I could have in this world. Just ordinary me, not great at meditating, not super at prayer, only able to feel God in fits and starts and only inklings. I can very well imagine that it would be like attending a birth or a death, only there for the taking (or giving) whenever I felt distant from God, whenever I needed to connect.

I don't pray for the restoration of the temple and the sacrifical system. But I'm not sure that I shouldn't.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Some thoughts on costumes, for Pekudei

Today in shul we read Pekudei. Most years we read Pekudei along with the previous parshah, Vayakhel. This year is a leap year, and that means there are several extra weeks to fill up with parshot, and therefore we read Pekudei all by itself.

Pekudei tells a lot about the priestly wardrobe. As usual, I find it tedious on first reading. Also on my second and third readings. Who cares what the priests wore? Jews don’t have priests anymore. I had nothing to say about the priestly clothes, and then last week at work we interviewed a job candidate and at the debrief I noted that the candidate had not dressed as one would expect someone to dress for an interview. He wore jeans and sneakers. He did not bring a notepad or a pen to take notes with. He wrote nothing down. This was not the only thing that bothered me about him; if I had been impressed with him otherwise I might not have cared. But I was otherwise not bowled over, and the clothes bothered me.

My colleagues thought I was petty and weird to bring up the clothes. “We’re engineers,” they said. “We don’t care what people wear.” And yet each of them, when asked, would admit that when they had come to interview they had not worn jeans. Maybe they did not wear a suit, but they did not wear jeans. We’d interviewed someone a couple months ago who was covered in tattoos and pierced in a million places. Still, he wore a suit for the interview. That’s what people do.

I said I thought that someone who wanted the job would have worn something besides jeans. No one wanted to make a hiring decision on the basis of jeans, of course. It annoyed them that I kept mentioning it. But it kept bothering me. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I knew all the things it might mean. It might mean that the candidate didn’t really want the job, and was interviewing with us for the hell of it. It might mean that the candidate didn’t think that he had to make any effort to impress us -- that would signal arrogance. It might be that the candidate wore jeans and sneakers because he had a rebellious streak and was damned if he would conform to anyone’s expectations of what appropriate interview attire was -- that would suggest someone who might not play well with others, and who is still struggling to find himself and assert himself as his own person, i.e. it suggests immaturity. And it might have been that he was one of the few people who are simply sartorial deaf-mutes. Some people do not know how to speak with clothes and they do not know how to read other people’s clothes. But his haircut and his tattoo made me think that was probably not true for him. Even if it had been true, it would have been a red flag for me, because sartorial deaf-mutes are often deaf to other forms of non-verbal communication, and that tends to lead to difficulties for them working with teams.

So those are the options as I saw them: a candidate who didn’t want the job, or didn’t think he needed to follow the rules because he was so good at what he did, or who was still locked in a rebellious immaturity, or who did not understand that humans speak through many channels, including through what they wear. Any way I looked at it, it was not a person I wanted to hire.

But I might be wrong.

I don’t know the guy personally. I don’t know his history. We share a country and a profession but there are bound to be many things we do not share, and any one of those things might lead to my reading the wrong things into what he wore that day. I asked a friend in San Francisco what engineers wear when they come to interview with him. Jeans, sure, he said. Maybe a t-shirt, maybe a collared shirt. Engineers are in high demand right now. Not enough of us to go around. So maybe the dress code slipped downward when I wasn’t looking. ( When the dress code for engineers at job interviews slips down to cutoffs and flipflops, sell your tech stocks, stat. That thar’s a bubble.)

What’s this have to do with the priestly costume? Well, it’s about costumes.

( Purim is coming up. Purim is also about costumes. I’d like to dress as Vashti, too proud to be paraded about for the delectation of her husband’s drunken guests. Vashti, who dressed for herself and the women of her community, who dressed for the harem, and danced when she pleased and not when she was told to. Vashti, who had to be put in her place, because what would the men of Persia do if like Vashti their women decided they had right of refusal? King Ahasuerus wanted a more docile wife, and picked Esther. Esther seemed docile enough and turned out to be quite a ball-busting Jewess who wasn’t going to sit there looking pretty while her people were slaughtered. Some men, it seems, are just attracted to strong women. )

Here’s the thing. We say that what someone looks like doesn’t matter, that it’s what is inside that counts. We know that isn’t true. What we mean is “it seems wrong that what someone looks like should matter, so we would like to pretend that it does not.”

We want clothes to be irrelevant, and yet we cannot help but tell stories by what we wear. We can pretend we aren’t telling stories, or if we are telling them they do not matter. We can say one thing with our eyes and another with our mouths and yet another with the shoes we wear. Today I went to shul in jeans, rolled up to show my black leather boots with the buckles on the side. When we got there I put on my uncle’s bar mitzvah tallit, 50 year old silk with thin blue stripes. I did not wear a kippah. I don’t know why. I always wear a tallit at shul, and I hardly ever wear a kippah. So there I sat and stood and sang and prayed in my edgy boots and my rolled up jeans and my prayer shawl. What was I trying to say, exactly? I’m not sure myself. Sometimes our clothes are like prayers that way, or poems or dreams: they have a sort of incoherence to them. I’m feeling incoherent, the last few days, and insecure, and dreamy. I got a haircut a few days ago: it’s short again, like I kept it when I was younger, before I had children. I keep meaning to buy my own tallit, a nice wool one -- I’ve already got the yarn I’ll need to tie my own tzitzit. But I can never decide what tallit I want, so I never get around to buying one. I don’t even like the silk one so much. It slips off me. It doesn’t have enough heft to it. Of course it reminds me of my uncle, but I didn’t know him when he was thirteen, wearing that tallit. I knew him later, in his grown up tallit, the one he was buried in. We bury our dead in white shrouds, and we wrap the men in their tallitot. Plain wood boxes. In death we are all equal, is the idea. We cannot carry our wealth or poverty with us there. We all go the same, plain shroud, plain box, and yet, like ancient pharoahs, with our own prayer shawls.

I’m ranging rather widely, I apologize. It was important that the priests know precisely what to wear. It was important that all that be prescribed, in detail. That it be beautiful, and that it not be individual. A priest was a representative. A priest did not act on his own behalf. He did not speak on his own behalf. He could not be telling his own stories, more or less coherent, more or less conflicted, with the clothes he wore. All the channels we humans speak on -- he had to speak the same things on them all. A priest should not be a candidate for inclusion in The Sartorialist. He did not serve his own desires, he was not meant to project his own anxieties and his own hopes and dreams. So of course what he wore must be completely prescribed, in all its detail. That is how you ensure coherence.

A priest could not be incoherent. A prophet, a holy man, a faith healer, a rabbi -- they can afford to be incoherent. A priest must speak with assurance and knowledge, in all the ways that humans talk. We want priests we can understand. The enormity of what’s behind the priests, what gives them their power -- surely that is mystery enough for us.


This morning I went for a walk and thought again about the developer we interviewed, about how we judge people. It bothered me that I judged the developer the way I did, on the strength of his jeans. As I said above, I could be wrong about what the jeans meant. I reminded myself that as a Jew I have a duty to judge fairly.

Then I remembered what the first verses of Pekudei were about. They were an exact accounting of the silver and gold that were provided by the people Israel to be used in the making of the tabernacle and the priestly garments and all their accoutrements. My Chumash comments that this detailed accounting was necessary because some of the Israelites, knowing that they themselves would be tempted to embezzle from such funds, were bound to assume that Moses, like them, would do so. Therefore the funds were dispersed and accounted for with absolute transparency. Although it was incumbent upon the people to judge fairly and not to make assumptions, it was equally incumbent upon Moses to ensure that he gave the people the information they needed to judge fairly. Leaders must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Carefully prescribing the priests’ ritual clothing also provided clarity and made it easier for people to judge their priests fairly. There could be no argument about whether a priest was inappropriately self-aggrandizing by wearing garments that were more precious or jeweled than were called for. Because the uniform was the uniform, and that was that, no one had to question the intentions of the person who wore the uniform.

There used to be such a uniform for job interviews. There isn’t one anymore. I have to use my powers of judgment whether I like it or not. I wish that our interviewee had made it easy for me, by doing what I expected. He did not.

So I turn to Joseph Telushkin, who is writing a three-volume Code of Jewish Ethics. In Volume I he offers guidance for judging others fairly. Here is a summary of some of the most important points he makes that are relevant to my own dilemma -- how to judge a candidate for a job who has seemed to do something inappropriate.

He says we must judge others on their intentions, rather than on their actions, if their actions are annoying to us. But if they act well, we should judge them on their actions, and not impute ulterior motives that ‘explain’ their good actions. If someone does something we think is wrong or inappropriate, we should, if we can, politely ask them to clarify why they did that thing. If you cannot ask someone to clarify why they did something, you should try to imagine a reasonable explanation. Choose the most charitable explanation for someone’s behavior of the several options available. Do not condemn others on the basis of hearsay, and of course, do not pass hearsay on to others. See each person as a whole, judge them in light of their background and the context of their actions, do not hold others to higher standards than you hold yourself. Pay more attention to another’s character than to their appearance or accomplishments. Judge strangers as compassionately as we would judge those we love.

Help me, God, to learn to judge others with fairness and compassion. Help me to remember also to make it easy for others to judge me fairly, to make it easy for others to understand what I am telling them in all the ways I speak. Help me orient my life toward You, to strengthen the spark of the divine inside me, so that rather than being scattered and confused and difficult to read -- even for myself -- , I can be clear and obvious and straightforward. I suppose it’s a kind of holy simplicity I am seeking, an Ehyey Asher Ehyey, I am what I am, I shall be what I shall be.

This holy simplicity I am speaking of, it is not a foolish consistency. Rather, it is an order that surpasses human order. I want a constant sense of what is truly important in life, I want to remember to order my life around that, I want to clear away all inner conflict that is driven by my own selfishness and fears and anxieties and confusions. Of course I won’t succeed, entirely. And certainly this does not mean that I should not question myself, or change my mind, because I’m afraid to appear inconsistent. In fact I must always be questioning myself, always questioning whether in my actions and my thoughts I am creating more holiness in the world, or less.

My center may not always hold. But being unable to hold the center is different from having no center to hold. There is a center to this life. As I’ve said before -- grab hold any way you can.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Va Yak Hel : On Vocation

A friend who does me the great honor of reading my d’var torah each week recently did me the greater honor of asking me why I was ‘not a writer’. I told her I had an answer to that, and my answer dovetails with one of the themes of VaYakHel, which is now (heh) last week’s parsha.

A few weeks ago we got an entire parsha with tedious instructions about just how to go about constructing the tabernacle in the desert. This parsha is almost entirely a recapitulation of that one, except that where that one was God giving instructions, this one is the Israelites carrying out the instructions God gave.

This is the part I am interested in: “And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Lord has commanded.” (Exodus 35:10) “And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering for the work of the tent of meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments.” (35:21). “Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab, and every skilled person whom the Lord had endowed with skill, everyone who excelled in ability, to undertake the task and carry it out.” (Ex 36:2).

My Chumash notes: “The Hebrew translated as ‘skilled’ (hakham lev) literally means ‘wise-hearted.’ A Hasidic master comments, ‘Wisdom of the mind alone, without wisdom of the heart, is worthless’ (Aaron of Karlin).”

Against this background, I’d like to talk about the idea of vocation, about what I see as my vocation, and about why the fact that I haven’t yet come fully into my vocation does not mean that I don’t intend to someday.

I have always been a terrific writer. When I was a kid I knew I would grow up to be a writer (probably a novelist). When I was in college I knew I would grow up to be a writer (probably an academic, writing also popular books for the New York Review of Books audience, probably Malcolm Gladwell). After college, I knew I would grow up to be a writer, mostly of activist screeds. But somehow, I never did grow up to be a writer. First of all, I never did reach a point where I thought “I’m all grown up now, time to be a writer.” Second, I looked around at people who were writers, at the work they did to be writers, and it looked too damn hard to me. There was a lot of toiling for very little reward. Writers didn’t make very much money. Writers had to spend a lot of time selling themselves and selling their writing, and that wasn’t very attractive to me. If a writer got successful a writer had to go on book tours and there would be gross coffee at gross hotels in gross places. And even most successful writers do not find it a lucrative business. I doubted very much both my discipline and my ability to write best-selling anythings.

My husband thought I’d enjoy programming, so I ended up as a programmer instead.

( Programming is a terrific career. When programmers are in short supply, which is often, we are paid a lot of money and treated very well, because the companies that hire us know that we can leave them at any time. Last September I decided I wanted a different job so I sent out a couple of resumes. My job hunt lasted a week and a half. Now, it won’t always be the case that programmers will be in such short supply -- tech goes through cycles, like everything else. But overall, as skilled labor, I am paid well and I have a lot of flexibility and respect in my work. The combination of the good pay and the flexibility is one reason I became a programmer, because I knew if I wanted to work when I had kids I needed to make enough money and have a flexible enough job to support that. I recommend programming to anyone who is thinking of a career change and has not yet considered it, because you really don’t know if you’ll be good at it and like it unless you try it. If you read this and you are wondering about whether you should try programming please let me know and I would be happy to talk to you about it. )

Despite my career choice, I have never been able to escape from the calling to write. Fortunately the rise of the internet made it possible to indulge my need to write (and to write publicly) in a completely unencumbered and undisciplined way. For several years I had a political blog, mostly focused on changing what had apparently become U.S. policy to engage in torture. Then for a while I kept up a professional blog discussing topics of interest to programmers and the people who work with them. About a year ago I began occasionally guest-blogging on a Christian blog I had fallen in with. Several months ago I started this blog, hoping to write each week about the torah portion. Then last week I started The Mussarista, primarily to capture quotations and my responses for the work I do each week on strengthening particular character traits.

Actually, a couple of years ago I had an actual signed contract to write a book, about computer science. I wrote a proposal for the book one night I had insomnia, sent it off, and three weeks later got a contract in the mail. ( I should note that this is not as insane as it seems, because the publisher, although ‘real’ and highly respected in my field, did not issue advances on its books. So getting a contract turned out to be easy, but if you could not actually deliver on the book, the publisher did not lose anything, and in fact got to keep the idea. ) Ideas are cheap, though -- I’m good at ideas. Follow-through is something else altogether. I started trying to write the book, but I had a one-year-old, and then out of the blue I got a job, and after four absolutely miserable months of making very little progress but feeling a lot of despair, I gave up the book. I spun it well: it’s not the right project for me, and it’s not the right time, I said. Both were true. I was happy to let the idea go -- as I said, they come cheap to me. But I was sorry to let the book go, because after all, writing books is what I was born to do. How could I have a chance to get published like that and let it slip through my fingers? Could I finish nothing? Was I not, after all, meant to be a Writer ? For me, the best part about getting a book contract was getting the book contract. The rest of it was awful.

Still, having gotten one contract, I blithely assume I can get another when the time and topic are right. But I am also unwilling to “Become a Writer” until the time and topic are right, because I’ve seen that I can’t deliver when they are not.

What does this all have to do with this week’s parsha?

This week’s parsha is all about men and women who have been called to do the work of building the tabernacle. They are talented in different ways, and they use their talents in the service of God. “And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came,” we read. Jews don’t talk much about vocation, these days, but Christians do.

Here is Frederick Buechner, a Christian writer I love to read, on Vocation:

Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, “to call,” and means the work a person is called to by God.

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self-interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work god usually calls you to do is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing cigarette ads , the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Does anyone believe these days that they have callings? Or, if they feel they have callings, do they believe that they have actually been called? Am I trying to say that I believe I have been called, by God, to write my little blog entries about my little thoughts? Am I that much of a narcissist, am I that delusional, and do I need to adjust my meds?

Here’s what I do know.

I have always been compelled to write. But I have never felt that what I wrote mattered, in particular. The words that came out of me were of little consequence. They were just words, they came out of me because I seemed to have an excess of them. Sometimes I vomit words or shit them out. I’m good at words. I’ve used them to be cruel, and I’ve used them to get what I wanted, and I’ve used them to get back at people who hurt me. At work I’ve used them to write documentation, and pitch ideas, and get things done. But all those words have been so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. And somewhere in me I knew that was true, I knew that all those words, clever as they were, touched nothing real. I had nothing of consequence to write about, and hence, little interest in ‘being a writer’, either as a profession or as a hobby.

I had nothing to say.

I don’t know how to describe what’s changed. I can say “God has entered my life, and in my relationship with God I have been changed, and changed for the better. And that -- that! -- is something to write about.” But some of the people I most want to understand this will not understand it if I say that. So I’ll try a different way to explain what it’s like, why I feel as though I understand, finally, what this talent of words I have is for.

So think of “the world’s deep hunger.” No, think of your own hunger. Maybe you have none. Maybe you have no longing. Maybe you are not looking for anything. You’re only reading my blog because you know me and you’d read anything I wrote, even a phone book. There is nothing you want so deeply and so profoundly and that sometimes seems just within reach, you see it just from the corner of your eye, but then it’s gone. You are not plagued by fear and uncertainty. You feel centered and strong and you know how to behave and you find yourself able to behave how you know you should behave. So maybe you’re not hungry. That’s cool.

But maybe you are. Maybe you don’t even want to admit it, but you are.

I’m hungry. I’ve always been hungry. It’s in our nature to be hungry in the way I’m talking about. To hunger and thirst for something that we can’t even describe.

I’m hungry, and I have found food. I have found food in the Torah, and I have found food in the spiritual writing of Jews, and Christians, and Buddhists, and others. Most of all, I have found food in a living relationship with God. If you are hungry and you don’t really want to admit it, you read “God” and off you go again, you’re outta here. That woo-woo shit is not for you. You are sensible and grounded in the reality-based community. Just think of it as food, then. Something that keeps the gnawing feeling at bay. Jews like to look at Christians like they are crazy because they eat and drink their god, but really, the feeling of spiritual yearning is precisely a hunger and a thirst, and there’s something very satisfying about the concreteness of the Christian ritual to meet that need with bread and wine. (Still not a Christian, don’t worry, friends and family! Just giving credit where due.)

This food I’ve found, it’s not a chili dog from the 7-11. It was not invented in a laboratory last year, either. Humans have been cultivating the stuff for a long time, this food. The tree of Judaism, in particular, has been cultivated continuously for thousands of years. It’s been burnt to the ground many times, and green shoots come from the stump, again and again. It doesn’t make my life easier, it doesn’t soothe all my doubts or make me unafraid of death or give me a certainty that I am right or a feeling of safety and protection or a nice easy simple story where I always know what to do next and I don’t have to make tough decisions and everything is going to go my way. People who haven’t tasted it think it must do one or the other of those things, that it must have a nice easy point to it. They think it’s not complicated, the food. They think I must be eating cheese-wiz.

The food doesn’t do any of those things -- or at least it doesn’t do any of those things all the time, reliably. It’s not simple like that. It’s not cheese-wiz, it’s camembert. You have to taste it.

I can’t explain it very well, of course. Who could?

But --- and here’s the thing -- I know I have been blessed with a talent for words, and therefore I know that while I can’t explain it very well I can explain it better than most. And when I am explaining it, I find myself full of a “deep gladness”.

So, why am I not a writer? Well, I am. Why have I not made it my profession? Because it never seemed worthwhile for me to devote my life to it. Sure, there was some deep gladness in it, sometimes. But there was no deep hunger in the world for what I wrote. Perhaps there isn’t any deep hunger for what I write now, either. I haven’t given up my day job, and I don’t intend to anytime soon. I have in any case only begun to acquire wisdom of the heart, hakham lev. There has only now seemed to be a point behind my cleverness, something useful I could say.

I do not think it means that my purpose and goal in life is to write a bunch of powerful-sounding stuff that ‘converts’ people to Judaism in particular or to God in general. I just want to talk about the camembert. And to the extent that some people may find that they would like to taste the camembert themselves, I want to point a way. I’m gesturing at something outside the frame, smiling, with my mouth full.

I’m working on joining Bezalel and Oholiab, trying to get wise-hearted enough to help build a dwelling place for God, a tabernacle of words, the words themselves just the tents, the ark, the cherubim, surrounding a cloud and a pillar of fire so powerful and mysterious and strange that words can never tell.

P.S. I’ve been writing this blog for a few months now and have not made any effort to publicize it. I’m not interested in becoming a ‘blogger’ (which is sort of like becoming a writer only generally involves AdWords rather than book tours). But the discipline of writing is hard, and I need encouragement to maintain it. If you like what you read here, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to my feed, either via a feed-reader, if you have one of those, or via email. ( See the links at the top right.) And if you know someone else who might like it, tell them about it. When I know I have readers I am encouraged to keep writing, even those weeks when I can’t think of anything good to say, like in May, where I believe we’ll get a lot of rules about lepers. Thanks!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Must we talk about The Golden Calf?

There’s some sort of awful stomach plague going around the city; all the preschools are emptied out, and the doctors’ offices are swamped. My daughter has been laid low for five days now. I called the doctor this morning, finally, and asked for intel on how long this thing is going to last, and if I ought to bring her in. “One to two weeks,” said the nurse, “and no, as you suspected, there’s nothing we can do for her here. Just keep her hydrated.”

In our family, I’m the grownup who deals with the pukes, because, much as I hate to puke, I’ve always been a puker myself, and my husband thinks that vomiting is akin to dying. So for five days I’ve been holed up in my apartment, sharing my bed with a pitifully ill child, cleaning up explosive diarrhea and mucous-y vomit and offering up a rotating menu of apple juice, ginger ale, seltzer, ice cream, and childrens’ chewable ibuprofen. Oh, and working. I’m a software developer, and I can work from home, and we have a big deadline, so I sit here in bed with my sick daughter and fix bugs, and I am exhausted.

Illness is strange; it takes you out of time. Like death and birth, only not quite so baldly. My daughter and I have been lost in our own world this week, trapped in a still point, as in a glass bubble. Outside, the world goes on. It is 60 degrees out. Here in the bedroom, it is no time. We’re just waiting for time to start up again, for our routines to resume. It’s tiring and miserable but it’s also very intimate. And I’m proud of how well I’m managing to care for my poor sick little girl. I’m glad of how I’m able to be in this bubble of waiting with her -- sorry I cannot make her well, but grateful for the strength to sit with her in her illness.


My daughter is finally better. She is once again imperious and impish, laughing and telling stories to herself. I’ve had a migraine for a day and a half, my reward for struggling through her illness with her. This morning I drugged it to death and then went to shul with my son. At shul we did not read the golden calf portion of Ki Tissa -- we’re on a triennial cycle and this year we read all about, I think, the census. Under my breath I read the part about the golden calf to my son. We left not long after. I was glad to have gone to shul; it had been a long time since I’d been to shul on a Saturday morning, I don’t know why exactly. I have just fallen out of the habit.

So I was thinking about the golden calf. The story is, Moses goes up onto Mt. Sinai, looking for all the world like he’s climbing up into the crater of an active volcano, and he stays up there for forty days and forty nights. That’s a pretty long time to be up on a mountain, alone. It’s a pretty long time for a recently enslaved rag-tag band of refugees to cool their heels in a tent city down below. People get bored and anxious. They want something to happen. Nothing is happening. They are at a show, and the opening act has been on, and left, and the main act never comes. Occasionally a roadie rushes across the stage, murmuring into their headset. The beer is getting warm, and the people who used to stand around smoking in this kind of venue are thinking longingly of the alley outside. It’s too loud to talk, even, because the club managers have turned up the really awful music to encourage some kind of desultory dancing activity to make up for the failure of the main act to arrive. You start envisioning them, the band, out in their tour bus or ensconced in some gritty yet decadently comfortable green room in the bowels of the club. You bet they’re allowed to smoke in the green room, and on the bus. They are sprawled in their leather pants, snorting coke and making out with groupies. They’re in no hurry. Why should they rush? The fans will wait. Where the hell else are the fans going to go? Back home? And miss the main act? You’re angry out there in the noisy dark, waiting. Who do those people think they are, anyway? What’s so special about them, that they can make us wait like this, for no visible reason?

Well, dammit, someone says finally, let’s make our own fucking music! We don’t need no stinking ‘main act’. The idea spreads, and the general disgruntlement turns to something else -- to revolt. We’ve got people down here in the audience who know how to play that fancy drum set, and look, here’s an electric guitarist, and this fine lady used to sing a cappella. There’s resentment and nastiness, to be sure, in the swelling demands of the audience, but also excitement, and solidarity, and a heady anticipation. The mob of fans could turn violent, but they are not violent, yet. They are unified around this single idea: that out of the ordinary audience members they will form their own band, that they will stop waiting for the main act, which, like Godot, has failed to arrive. They will take matters into their own hands.

The club manager comes out onto the stage, hands raised, conciliatory. He is so very sorry for the delay, he say, but we must trust that the main act will come out soon. He admits he does not understand the hold-up himself. But he’s booked this act dozens of times and they have always come through. He trusts them. If everyone can just calm down --

No one is going to calm down. Some men down at the front, stinking of bud light, make as if to storm the stage. There’s a lot of fancy equipment there, and the club manager does not want it destroyed. Nor, for that matter, does he want his own face smashed in. What can he do but give in, what can he do but attempt to contain the rising energy, to dissipate it safely? Let’s have some love songs, he says. Let all those who can sing come up on the stage, and a drummer, and a guitarist, and a bass player. Can anyone play a fiddle? he asks. What about saxaphone? Let’s hear some music, while we wait, some gentle songs, something light.

It’s not a terrible idea, really. Some light songs, to calm down the crowd, to pass the time, to channel all that energy. Light songs, like a newborn calf, all wet tongue and velvet nose, struggling to its feet for the first time, staggering a bit, drunk on having been born. Some adorable gamboling, under the spring sun, in the grasses. Harmless, innocent, powerless, and benign. What harm could possibly come of such song, of such imagery? What band will be offended at hearing its audience pass the time with such frivolous music? What God could imagine a newborn calf, leggy and still damp, to be any kind of threat? It’s this or a descent into absolute chaos, thinks the manager of the club. A nice innocent calf, thinks Aaron -- surely God won’t get too exercised about that. Not when the alternative is mayhem.

And so the music starts, smooth and calming, like the stuff they play in the dentist’s office. And so the calf, innocent and powerless, is cast. Everything is under control.

But all that energy hasn’t been dissipated. People are still pissed off, underneath the major key and in the face of the sweetest little velvet nosed calf you ever did see. They are still waiting, dammit. It’s not like any decisions have been made, it’s not like the beer has gotten cold again or the people who want to smoke have had their cigarettes yet and the bathrooms are pretty nasty and they’re all sick of standing, and they still can’t decide if they should stick around waiting (50 bucks, complains someone! To wait in the dark, on this sticky floor! ) or just leave. All those people in the desert, they’re still there in the desert, who knows where, this godforsaken place, who knows why we’re even here or whether we’re just going to die out here or where this Moses guy is taking us or if he’s even coming back, the maniac, he’s probably just dead up there, and the vultures picking his bones.

What the hell are we going to do next?

That kind of fear and anxiety is not dissipated with any old Kumbaya my Lord or any cavorting little baby animals. That kind of fear can turn to chaos, or to the Tea Party, or Hezbollah, or to Fascism. A good leader could turn it to good, maybe, to a strong kind of good leading with a rare kind of love. If you can turn that energy inside out, into a high and loving and miraculous sort of courage -- well, that’s something to be seen. That’s “I have a dream” material, is what that is. But if what you are is a middle manager and a functionary then what you do is paper over it with sentimentality, hoping to buy some time, and when that wears off the sentimentality gets ripped away, like old wall paper, and what’s underneath is pretty dark. That calf is going to the slaughter, after all. Those love songs end in despair, as likely as not. Lovers murder one another, the throat of the calf is slit. All that black energy just gets blacker, and someone’s shirt gets ripped off, and someone gets a bloody nose, and the drums get louder and the singers start howling. It’s a wind whipping through the people, whipping up their fear and their anger and their anxiety, ripping all that innocence and love to shreds.

And by the time the main act comes on stage, their instruments have been smashed to bits. There are puddles of beer, and the air is thick with smoke, and a red-headed girl is passed out on an amp.

By the time Moses comes down from the mountain, that golden calf is all bloodied. The severed head of a real calf is hooked on one of its horns. Several dogs are eating up entrails that are stuck in its tail. The Israelites are all naked, streaked in blood, drunk, hollow-eyed. A baby is whimpering for its mother, who is pinned under some men. Mounds of steaming excrement are piled close to the tents.

Whose fault is this, exactly? Who should we blame? The people, who were left without guidance, after years of hard slavery? Left in the desert, to die -- for all they knew. Abandoned by their leader, the man who had the ear of God, or so he said. It had seemed like he did, it was plausible enough, when Moses was there with them, when he did great things, when all those signs and wonders had happened, when they were led out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. But human memory is short. The Israelites were an anxious lot, and the place they were in -- well, it was an anxious place. The energy of mobs is a fearsome thing.

Should we blame Aaron? Aaron the functionary? Aaron knew about the correct ways to sacrifice things, about the forms and rituals of worship. He did not know how to inspire a people. It was not Aaron who had led them out of Egypt. It was just Aaron, left down below, facing an angry mob, without any guidance from either God or his brother. Left to babysit, no phone number to call in case of emergency. For all Aaron knew, his brother had died up there, and he was stuck with somehow leading these people to somewhere they could settle and call home. The waiting was awful. Perhaps he could stall people, maintain some semblance of order in the camp, while waiting a little bit longer. Give them an innocent project to focus their energies on, something he could leverage later, if he needed to, to assert his own authority to lead. If in the end Moses never came back after all. It was a decent enough plan, for an average-ish managerial type.

Should we blame Moses? Moses went up on the mountain and didn’t come back down for 40 days and 40 nights. Didn’t he worry, any of that time, about what was going on down below? He’d been the only source of stability for those people -- their rock. He was the one who spoke of God to them. He was a wise enough leader -- humble, judicious, and clever. And for over a month, he gave no thought to those down below? Didn’t ask for a furlough to visit his people? Didn’t worry they’d think he was dead? Well, maybe he did think of it, but so what? He was going to ask God, who was dictating to him, and fast, too -- ask God to slow down, to give him a break to go down to his people? Ask God to let him check on his flock, God!? Who surely would know if there were anything wrong down there, at the base of the mountain. Surely God would let him know if he was needed. If God kept him up there, taking dictation, then that must be the right thing to do.

So we’re left with just one party to blame. One character in this story who was in a position to know what was happening, and had the power to stop it. Someone, Someone, who shall remain Nameless.

Are we willing to step forward and blame Hashem for what happened? Are we willing to accuse God? Are we willing, when God gets angry and God’s anger blazes forth, and God says to Moses “I will destroy this stiffnecked people, I will wipe them off the face of the earth and I will give you a new people, a new people who shall be my people, with whom I will make my covenant” -- are we willing to argue with God? Who would be willing to do that?

Moses was, and he did:

Moses pleaded before the Lord, his God, and said: "Why, O Lord, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought up from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand? Why should the Egyptians say: 'He brought them out with evil intent to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from upon the face of the earth'? Retreat from the heat of Your anger and reconsider the evil intended for Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your very Self, and to whom You said: 'I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and all this land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever.' " The Lord then reconsidered the evil He had said He would do to His people. -- Exodus Chapter 32:11 - 14.

The people of the Torah are always arguing with God, and sometimes they win, as Moses did here. “Look,” they say, “you made a promise, you swore an oath, you said you’d guide us, and we screwed up but you’re an honorable God, you should stand by your word.” They remind God of the importance of a good reputation. They ask for more chances and for mercy. Again and again they call God to account. Again and again they turn away God’s wrath, or change God’s mind, or kindle God’s mercy. What sort of God is this, who deigns to argue with humans? Who is swayed not only by sacrifice, but by intellect? Is it any wonder we Jews like to argue, when you look at the models we’re given? Any one of us might be called upon to argue with God!

God did not make the golden calf. But in the end, God had to take responsibility for the world that God made, for the people God saved, for the 40 days and nights they waited down there in the desert, for the calf that they made. There was nothing special about those people, they were no better than anyone else. But God had an idea. God wanted to try an experiment. Could God make an entire people holy? Make a holy society? Not just individuals gifted in holiness, but everyone? Could God make a people to be a light unto the nations, to be a nation of priests? God didn’t know. God figured on giving it a try. God keeps getting mad at the people God’s chosen; they’re not holy at all, they’re just people. Then one or another of the just people will call God to account: You made us, they’ll say, and you bound yourself to us. This is your experiment we’re in, and tell the truth -- it’s not much fun being your lab rats. So give us a break and don’t let us be annihilated. You can’t publish a paper if your data are swallowed up by the earth.

I don’t know, the Golden Calf is supposed to be this big old betrayal. From here it looks sort of inevitable, the way things went down. There’s a Dr. Who episode in which The Doctor, very serious, tells a ragtag bunch of humans that they must be, right now, the very best of the human race. They must be better than they are. Of course they try, and they fail, and The Doctor forgives them. You must do better next time, says The Doctor, for the sake of your children. So throughout our generations forever, we try to do better. And we fail, and God forgives us, and we try, try again.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Breastplate of Decision: some thoughts on Tetzaveh: Exodus 27:20-30:10

I’ve been working a lot the last couple of weeks, and my daughter is sick. Also, I wrote a lot of stuff about pageantry and priests for what is now last week’s parsha, and then I decided that it wasn’t any good and it didn’t hang together very well even with the joke about John Ashcroft and his Crisco anointing. So I kind of ditched it and then I had nothing.

Then I thought I would talk about how I used to read Tarot cards, and about the Breastpiece of Decision.

Tetzaveh, in case you are too lazy to read the wikipedia entry on it, covers the priestly dress code. ( And some other stuff, including that priests are anointed with high-quality olive oil, and why John Ashcroft chose Crisco instead of olive oil when there’s no shortage of olive oil in this country is quite a mystery to me -- did he want to be tacky and gross? There, see, I fit the John Ashcroft joke in after all.) Included in the uniform of the high priest is an item called the “Breastpiece of Decision”. There’s a note about this in my Chumash. ( I use Etz Hayim, the Chumash put out by the Conservative movement. It was bequeathed to me by my uncle, of blessed memory, as we sat together in the hospital on the day it arrived, sent from home by a friend. “You can have this,” he said. “Thank you,” I said. “I don’t think anyone will be fighting me for it.”). Anyway, page 508, note 30, regarding Exodus 28:30 “Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord at all times.”

The editorial note about this enigmatic statement says “It is clear from the association with the ‘breastpiece of decision’ and ‘the instrument of decision’ that these two items [ the Urim and Thummim ] constituted a device for determining the will of God in specific matters that were beyond human ability to decide. Although the function of this device is clear, nowhere in the Torah is there a description of it or of the technique employed in its use... It remained in the exclusive possession of the priest and was used only on behalf of the leader of the people in matters of vital national importance.”

This reminds me of something I read in the autobiography of the 14th Dalai Lama. There was in his court a man whose occupation was to channel a spirit to provide guidance to the Dalai Lama in matters of national importance. The spirit would possess the man in a special ceremony, offer guidance, and then depart. It was in fact at the urging of this spirit that the Dalai Lama went into exile when he did, and the route that he and his entourage took over the mountains to India has also been specified, apparently, by this spirit.

Of course the Torah is against divination. My tarot cards are not sanctioned by Halacha. The sacrifices prescribed in the torah were always careful about entrails, because entrails were associated with divination and sorcery, and sorcery was no good. Sorcery was practiced by people who had not been properly anointed. They were not sanctioned by God, those people, with their predictions. The instruments of decision were all on the up-and-up: tools for use in matters of state, by the specially trained and the specially clothed.

It intrigues me, this difference. Of course like all cultures Jewish culture is chockfull of magic and superstition. Well, not your nice post-everything Jewish culture, very focused on the tikkun olam and the social justice and the yiddishkeit and oh, on radical theologies that basically boil down to different approaches to getting us modern Jews to stomach God. We’re not superstitious, us non-dualist god-in-your-body-ist mindfulness ground-of-being-ist Jews. We’re practical, deep-breathing, focusing-on-the-moment kinds of Jews. We accept our inability to predict the future, it doesn’t occur to us to ask either God or Tarot cards to help us decide anything. We don’t hike over mountains because a spirit said the Chinese were coming. We ask our LinkedIn networks, or perhaps we ask twitter. The lazyweb is our breastpiece of decision, or perhaps the coin flipping app on our phones.

Divination was proscribed because it was dangerous to presume we knew what came next, dangerous to usurp one of God’s powers as our own. Who needs to proscribe such things these days, when clearly the future is an indeterminate mess?

Anyway, I used to read my tarot cards all the time, whenever I had a decision to make, or felt at a loss of some sort, or simply when I wanted to know what would come next. I never thought there was either a spiritual power or a force behind the reading. You draw some cards, they give you themes, and then you have to make a story from the themes. You make the story up as you go. It helps you decide things, or perhaps it just helps you make things happen. The story you make up sinks into you. It becomes a part of you. Your subconscious mind fixes on it, devotes processing cycles to it, grows dendrites for it. You give it reality in your brain, and your brain works to make it reality in life. That’s all very neuropsychiatric: that stuff really does happen. When we make things real in our minds, then our minds devote more effort to making things real. So the cards are powerful for entirely materialist reasons.

A spirit who sends you over mountains, though, that’s something else.

How do we make decisions when we do not have enough information to make decisions? Donald Rumsfeld did have a point, we do live in a world of unknown unknowns. Nevertheless, we must leap. And most of the time, we must not leap with weak knees and doubt on our faces. We must leap strongly, like surefooted goats in the mountains. And yet, how?

It is not easy to leap strongly based on the recommendations of the lazyweb. It is not easy to trust in decisions arrived at via twitter. We can read all the medical literature, and still shoot the moon for that heart/bone marrow transplant. We can look at the data and question ourselves every night when we swallow our meds. Sometimes it wouldn’t be so bad to have a breastpiece of decision, would it? “We shall do this, say the Thummim and Urim. This is God’s will.” We would leap into the unknown, go into exile, swallow our meds, take the new job -- surefooted and confident that whatever came next, we had God at our sides.

Here is G.K. Chesterton, from Orthodoxy:

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt--the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

There is something in that quote that feels real and true to me, and then I think of George W. Bush, deciding with his gut, going full speed ahead straight for the iceberg. But it was worse than that, really, for Bush invented the iceberg and then slammed full speed ahead into 30 million people. Given that, it’s not fair to blame Bush on Mr. Chesterton.

What Mr. Chesterton says, what he means, is that what God provides is a direction to go in, a relationship that guides you there, a confidence that there really is something right and true and good in the world, that we humans can, albeit poorly, access it, that at the very bottom of reality there is sense and goodness and order, and that we, mere mortals, have been offered a chance to participate in that. That whatever we do, wherever we go wrong, the offer stands firm. The center holds. We leap strong, breathe deep, suck the marrow out of life. It’s a beautiful vision. Can you feel it? Can you imagine what that is like, that center actually holding? The confidence and peace in it. That’s God, that center. Grab hold any way you can.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Terumah : Exodus 25:1–27:19

I’m thinking about workmanship.

We hired some painters this fall to finish painting our apartment, 8 years after we moved in. There were still rooms that were painted a yellowish-white flat paint, what I called “developer white”. Our kitchen was one of them, and after 8 years of cooking the walls there were all sticky with grease.

The painters were a team led by a friendly Brazilian guy, and they had painted our second-floor neighbor’s apartment. She is an exacting woman, bless her heart, and we figured if it was good enough for her, it was probably way too good for us. But we had no other painters in mind, and we were feeling more flush with money -- and less flush with time -- than usual. Also, some people we knew were just winding up a gazillion dollar renovation on their house, and we had just seen a perfect house ourselves, around the corner from us, that was far too expensive to actually buy. So compared to a giant renovation or a new house, getting a few rooms painted seemed very sane and modest. Well, because it is.

Most of the other rooms we’d painted ourselves. (“We?” asks the husband in my head. ) They were perfectly acceptably painted rooms. Maybe not all the trim got done, or the ceiling, and maybe the walls were not perfectly smooth, and maybe the edges were wonky in a few places. No biggie. We didn’t care. It was not like in my husband’s parents’ dining room where, once upon a time, when painting, he’d painted the word ‘party’ in giant letters, before immediately painting over it, except that in certain light, 25 years later, you could still see it there.

Anyway, so the Brazilian guy and his team were in our apartment for a week and a half. They sanded and painted. They cleaned up at the end of each day, they left everything spotless, and they did extra work just to meet their own standards. It’s a beautiful, beautiful paint job.

There’s a book I keep meaning to read and not getting around to, written by someone who might have been a banker or a professor (I really can’t remember) and became a motorcycle repairman instead, Shop Class as Soul Craft.Only of course now he’s a writer, not a banker or a professor or a motorcycle repairman. It’s about craftsmanship, and about what we lose when the work we do is not a craft, when it is all in our heads, when it’s pushing papers and sitting at computers and clackety clacking on our clackety keyboards.

Me, I love my clackety keyboard. Clackety clack, it goes, and keeps the silence at bay. I am reminded of A Wrinkle in Time, of the shriek of anguish as evil destroyed a little piece of creation. And I am reminded of The NeverEnding Story, of the Nothing that came to devour the universe of the imagination. There’s the power of mind, and the power of body. We’re all up in the clouds with our heads, or we have our feet solid on the ground. Oh, the manichean divide between the material world and that other one, the one in our heads. But it’s not a real divide, because in truth our heads are full of squishy brain stuff and the material world is built with abstractions, like money. There are our neurons, and at the same time, money, art, music. God.

I haven’t even talked about the parsha, have I? Typical. The parsha is all about how to build the tent of meeting, the mishkan, within which God, or the Shekhinah, the emanation of God, the Spirit of God, will dwell. It’s a long and tedious parsha, especially coming as it does without illustrative pictures. I’ve read the fundamentalists are fond of their recreations of the tent of meeting, recreations of the ark of the convenant, with the cloud above it by day and the glowing pillar of fire by night. A mobile home for God -- who ever heard of such a thing? The gods lived in high places; they did not traipse around with ragged bands of worshippers. Gods were for going on pilgrimage to, they were not a traveling hit Broadway musical, advertised on taxicabs. What sort of God consents to be schlepped all over the desert, in what, however nicely made, was a box inside a tent?

Anyhow the instructions for the tent take a very long time to get through. God is quite exacting. And strictly speaking it’s not just one tent, but four, with lots of fancy curtains and gold clasps and threads dyed with rare shellfish and all kinds of special things. It’s a whole tent city, magnificent and gaudy, a traveling gypsy circus. Come one, come all, come see the God within. Well, pay for a sacrifice at least; don’t get too close, the unholy may be incinerated.

So that’s the parsha.

Back to human craftsmanship. Why all the fuss about the stuff, exactly? We’re all about stuff, aren’t we, these days, and at the same time, we want desperately not to be about the stuff. We are drowning in stuff. Cheap stuff, nice stuff, pretty stuff, ugly stuff. Sometimes you look around and the human race just seems a blight upon the world, spreading our shitty stuff everywhere you look. Building ugly buildings, and leaving ugly vacant lots. Paving over everything in sight and shopping all the time and buying our new mobile phones each year and donating our old ones to women suffering from domestic violence, as if that makes it okay, as though there could possibly these days be not enough mobile phones to go around. Like the clothes donation bins in parking lots, always too full, full of our lightly worn and badly made clothes, as though somewhere someone does not have enough old navy t-shirts.

So there it is: disgust at all our stuff. Disgust at what we humans make, what we have wrought upon the face of the earth and upon the sky and upon the waters and everywhere on this great and gorgeous, magnificent world. It’s miserable, really. If you’re so inclined to believe there’s something more out there, something else beyond this world, it’s awfully tempting to think what happens here, what we do to this place, is quite irrelevant. If our world is just a testing ground, a waystation, an illusion, what’s it matter, what happens here? Given, say, the toxic electronics dumps of Lagos, and, say, the Mall of America, that would be a relief, really.

Well, most of my readers, I bet, are not inclined that way in any case. There’s nothing here but here. It’s awful what we’ve done to it, we’re hardly likely to recover. The global warming and the pollution; the overpopulation, the slums, the strip malls. All those ugly houses in the suburbs. We’re stuck with it, until it kills us, pick your version of materialist apocalypse: the weather goes all wrong, or the soybean blight, or the new and awful plague, the collapse of society driven by the end of cheap oil. What a miserable future we have to look forward to. This, we say, looking at each other, this right here is as ridiculously good and insanely profligate as it is ever going to get. When we are old, if we are lucky enough to grow old, we’ll tell stories about the glowing screens in our pockets, about the heavy metal tubes that somehow flew, very fast, all over the world, about listening to a radio station broadcasting in Paris via a tiny computer the size of my hand, in Boston. That’s the very best we have to hope for. The very worst involves guns, and starvation, and fiefdoms, and death. We’ve fucked this world up, and we’re not likely to fix it, humans being what we are. Our heads are not in the clouds, but there’s not really any ground there either, is there? Just a choice of terrifying materialist apocalypses, none of them less awful than the traditional kind with the hellfires and the horsemen.

So this is us, right? These are our choices: we can take the shiny things and the mountains of junk, or we can leave it all, the beautiful and the damned of it all, the gorgeous paint job and the faux leaded-glass. Either the stuff is important, or else it is irrelevant or worse, a hindrance (spiritual or psychological, as you wish). Augustine of Hippo vs. the Stoics. What else is there?

Oh, but.

Step right up, come one and all, let’s see what’s behind these curtains here. What’s this shining tent in the desert, glittering in the sandstorm? An extravagant confection, this tent, a Turducken of a tent, tents inside tents inside tents, a beautiful fairyland of a tent. Like Tivoli, this tent. Traveling in the desert with a whole people, the rich and the poor, the craftsmen and the weaverwomen and the moneychangers too. All the people having made this tent, with the very best work they could do, some with their hands and some with the mushy stuff inside their skulls. The people have made the tent and they honor their God who dwells in it, and their God honors them right back, by dwelling in their midst, in the place that they have made. Not a high mountain, not a sacred spring, not a grove of trees or a volcano or a valley or a sea -- not for this God. This God will take up residence in a hand-made tent, with all its hand-made imperfections, an entirely human place.

This God has truck with humans, pitiful as we are. This God consents -- no, commands -- to be dragged all over the desert in a circus tent, like a dancing bear. But why? What can this possibly mean?

It means this world is not a terrible mistake. It is not a hardship to be struggled through, and it is not an illusion, and it is not a sort of school to get through on our way to some other, better, less-cluttered-up Reality. This world is not purgatory, and it is not hell, and it is not nothing, either This world is real, and what we do here matters. The future looks like eight different kinds of disaster to me, most of them all our fault. If not for that ridiculous tent I’d be despairing. That tent means that God trusts our work. The tent means that God doesn’t plan to burn up this world and start all over again, and that even given all the crap we make and the shit we throw out and the awful way we treat this world, sometimes we can make things so beautiful and special that God Godself will dwell in them. Whether there are other worlds after or beyond or interleaved with this one, I don’t know. But I do know that God does not consider this world to be disposable, that God has faith in us, that God hopes and trusts and yearns for us to be up to this task of making this world (and that is what we are doing, for better or for worse -- we are covering the face of the world and we are making it over, a new creation, of a sort, not always to my taste, but still -- you can’t deny the enormity of it all).

God hopes in us as much as we must hope in God. And how could I have hope if God did not have hope in us? Who can believe we humans will muddle it all okay in the end, without something else than us? We cannot get away from things. Can you imagine us not building, making, doing, painting, singing, sculpting? We build our cities and our gardens and our violins and bookstores. We build our world financial markets and our currencies and our philosophies and our websites. Let us hope there is some way to turn all our doing toward the good. It seems impossible to me. I cannot imagine how we can make all this come out all right. What a nasty broken mess we’ve made.

Fix it, says God, from the ridiculous tent in the desert. Follow me and fix this world, brick by brick, nail by nail, day by day. I’m right here with you. Many hands make light work, remember? You don’t have to complete it, but neither can you refuse to do it.

Somewhere in the distance I hear the blast of the shofar, calling us to the tent of meeting. A Terumah is a gift, an offering. But who is offering what to whom? There are so many layers to this tent, rooms within rooms, like a dream, like a mystery inside an enigma inside a secret, like diving into a deep pool, like a funhouse, only very serious and very strange at the same time as it is very glad. A cold high kind of glad mixed up with a warm furry kind of glad, smoke and incense and animal skins and everything utterly strange and yet familiar... I feel as though I’m falling through a mirror, I try to focus on the clickety clacking of my fingers on the keys, a siren outside, the rain in the trees, my own burning skin. Everything is hyperreal. I feel quite strange. (I wonder if I’m losing my mind again?) Sometimes life is like this -- numinous. The world itself is a tent of meeting. Let us sanctify it.