Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Language Imprisoned

If you want to write, if you have an idea, let it build up inside you. Put nothing on paper; let it sit and simmer and reshape itself a hundred times in your head. A vague, wispy notion will be only as thin as the paper that holds it, but an idea full-grown, ripe to overripe, will fall into words with a ruddy glow, bursting with restrained energy. When you are ready to explode with the force of the unfulfilled idea, when its rounded corpus is too heavy to remain in immaterial thought, let language come, black type on white, painting a newborn world that emerges fully-formed, oozing with life.

So a writer once told me.

There is no denying the wisdom of this concept. Yet time and again I find I cannot follow this advice. My ideas arrive so fleeting that I feel I must immediately grasp hold and pull down with all my might to keep them from drifting away. A diaphanous thought on paper exists, at least, but a weak thought conceived and never born miscarries, and is as if it never was. So I toil at endless shards, beginning after beginning, piece after piece, little completed, nothing robust.

‘How can it be so difficult?’ you ask. Don’t scribble furiously in the notebook, don’t open the blank document and let your fingers fly. Simply refrain.

But are words so easy to muzzle? The secret you had resolved to keep utterly private, the unkind thing you were determined never to say aloud—these things fly from our tongues like bats disturbed in caves. Keeping silent when you want to speak, not expressing the things you wish so much to share—it is a supremely grueling task. The suppression of language is no mean feat. It is not merely a choice to remain passive—it is an active decision, one that often requires superhuman strength. Words tumble about in your head, rearranging themselves endlessly, beating against the sides of their cage, begging, crying to be freed. Only with intensity of purpose, with undiluted focus, can the words be kept inside.

Words of every medium yearn to be liberated, to live unfettered and dance in the space they exist to fill. But sometimes they must be quashed. It is a task often performed with a tear—but always with a greater goal in mind.

Friday, December 12, 2008

On Disappointment and Destiny

This shabbos, I was looking forward to going somewhere, but had to cancel my plans Friday morning due to inclement weather.

A friend who was supposed to join me this weekend said to me, “I'm not sure if it’s right for me to be upset, since there is nothing else that I could have done, and apparently I wasn’t meant to go—but I was really looking forward to going.”

This comment made me think. My disappointment was unmitigated by such sensibilities. It never occurred to me that I oughtn’t feel upset about the necessitated cancellation because I clearly “wasn’t meant to go.” Of course, I quickly acclimated myself to the adjustment, and did not manifest my disappointment in outward action, but internally I felt justified in a certain sense of loss (not in any significant way, mind you, but in a perfectly normal, proportional sense). It wouldn’t cross my mind to say, “Clearly, God did not will me to be there this shabbos, so I should feel just as satisfied with the change of plans as I felt beforehand.” My friend, however, apparently believed that in some way feeling upset was not right, because this turn of events was Divinely ordained.

What do our respective reactions say about the way that we view God’s hand in our lives? The person who responds with, “Clearly, this is God’s plan,” assumes a certain amount of hashgacha over every event in our lives. My reaction of, “Aw, shucks. Bad weather is so annoying,” removes God’s specific intentions from the equation and blames teva (natural law).

Obviously, within Jewish sources there are differing views on hashgacha, and each reaction reflects a legitimate position. Mine would reflect a more rationalistic, Maimonidean approach—which makes sense, considering that my high school heavily pushed Rambam’s approach to most everything. However, I do have difficulty with a wholly Maimonidean position (to sum up inadequately: God does not intervene on behalf of individuals unless they are tzadikim). I have many issues with this view, but they are outside the scope of this post.

If I had to express my own opinion, I would say that I believe that Hashem does have hashgacha over certain aspects of our lives, but not others. I cannot determine where I draw the line—in fact, my whole perspective is extremely muddled—but I suppose it’s fair to assume that I blame ice storms on teva rather than Divine intervention. Yet I can’t help but hope that Hashem has some sort of ultimate plan in mind for me, as I struggle over grad schools and career plans and my uncertain future.

Who knows? Perhaps staying in school this shabbos will somehow shape my destiny. I’ll keep you posted.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Where Am I?

At first it seems silence reigns, but standing still and patient I soon realize I am not alone. Creaks and rustles betray this place, seductive whispers spill trickling sadness, blending and swirling into echoes of hope.

I am surrounded by roads on every side, as different as they are plentiful.

Directly before me, short, lush grass, screaming green with the endless promise of spring, lapped with newly born sunshine, lies waiting to be tread upon—gently—by black flats accented aqua. My name is engraved on this path, cut into the dirt beneath the living sheaves, and it calls to me. I remind myself that I carved my name there, it did not appear of its own accord; soft earth does not generate its own letters. It took time to write myself into this path; the pen dragged slightly against the ground, which soon yielded to my determined pressure. Surely there is work to be done along this road; heavy stones to lift with mental acuity. The ones nearer to me are smaller, but I see that down the road they grow larger; as my muscles gain in strength so will my burdens. And along this path I see ghosts, transparent, looking at me expectantly. Some have slight lines of concern etched into their foreheads, some look confused but not disapproving—but most of them smile at me, encouraging. A few reach out with hands that, even in their milky whiteness, bespeak courage and wisdom. This path appeals to me. I am tempted not to turn my head, to walk straight onto this well-balanced road and never look back. It urges me on, telling me that therein lies happiness.

I am ready to move, I look down to go forward—and catch myself.

My feet are bare. I feel no cold, no discomfort, but my revealed skin reminds me that I cannot choose a path prepared before its time. I am no manufactured specimen. I do not yet wear the aqua-accented flats of my dreams. And so I turn my head.

To the right I see a road paved with small pebbles. Pansies grow at intervals along the sides of the path, and sometimes crop up between the stones. There are few obstacles along this path, and few rewards. The flowers look small and drab compared to the road’s expanse. Yet at the distant point where my eyes strain and give out, I see something that shimmers, elusive. I cannot make it out; I cannot even be sure it is there. This path waits for delicate ballet flats.

To my left is a flat road paved with paint. Red, blue, orange, green splashed along its length. My eyes dance with the colors. I laugh in delight. The sky reflects these bright hues, full of bold, fearless possibility. My eyes sparkle. But then I notice, creeping along the path, creatures of black with red tongues that pant. They are not malignant, these things, but they have desire—strong, hot, relentless. They have ambition, they have needs, and they haven’t time to think of who or what they will harm to fulfill them. One of the creatures smiles at me, and the smile is friendly, welcoming. It asks merely to be petted—nothing more—if only I will walk toward it in my crimson heels.

I shake my head to clear it of the gleaming grin, and with that movement the roads before me multiply. Suddenly I see that each one has offshoots, and offshoots of offshoots, variations into the infinite. I can take the grassy path toward a boulder too large to lift, before which a ghost of myself sits crying glassy tears. I can take it toward a tall specter who reaches out to me with longing but retreats ever farther as I come closer. I can take it to a place that turns in bright circles until I am dizzy. And then there is a point on the pebbled path that intersects with the grass, a clearing full of small ghosts who laugh at a butterfly. On one offshoot of the paint-splashed road a raised platform waits, beamed with clear light. Another piece of that brightest way ends in a ladder stretching upward without terminus.

I cannot process all the options, each unique, each demanding my full attention. My head is spinning, and so are my bare feet, and then, without warning, I am facing the road that lay behind me.

Yet it hardly should be called a road, it is so overgrown—tall bushes covered with brown leaves blocking the way, vines that twine around lampposts and stopsigns, small and large stones hefted to the side or sitting stolidly in the center, blue paint covered in red to make purple, and a lost patch of pink gerbera daises in the distance. A feeling of longing overcomes me. I want to plunge headlong into this messy path, returning to each point of familiarity, caressing the things I find there. But I discover that I cannot move. I am rooted to the spot, as before my eyes my bare feet are suddenly shod—by crocs and boots and sneakers and pumps and sandals and spike heels and platform heels and black flats and brown flats and flat shoes with bright stripes and a buckle. Each shoe flashes a moment and then is replaced by another, and the shoes on each of my feet never match. I almost topple over as my left foot abruptly bears a moccasin and my right a stiletto. In my head loud voices ring, I begin to crumple to the ground, I close my eyes and—


With eyes still shut I turn carefully 180 degrees, facing again the sunny, grassy path. I open my eyes slowly, with trepidation, and breathe. I look down at my feet, and smile a shy smile.

I am wearing black flats, accented aqua and orange, magenta and chartreuse. They are comfortable, flexing with my arches, supporting my heels, leaving space for my toes. They feel natural on me—but innately I know they won’t let me relax for long. These shoes are made for walking, for exploring, for movement, for work. They are made to wander; they will never be satisfied.

Inside I feel a conflicted peace. I know now that I must not know. I close my eyes, and begin to spin around in place, faster and faster, so that the wind tugs at my long hair and my skirt billows in a ring.

Twirling still, I stretch out a groping foot—and blindly surge forward.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Call Me Margaret

I went to Central Park today, looking for inspiration. I hoped that the sunshine and the people and the leaves and the sky and the city at its best would help restore to me some of my lost excitement.

Waiting for the subway I scanned the crowd intently, reaching in my mind to describe each person, hoping that in words I would discover the bliss of successful connection to my surroundings. Yet everything I thought was trite, and not a single person sparked the avenue of a story.

Smashed together on the 6 Train, I eavesdropped and eavespeeked over the shoulders of the tall, duck faced women looking at pictures on a digital camera. Mother and daughter visiting the city, trying to capture it all, discussing the revelrous habits of their various friends. And shockingly enough, the pictures contained artistry, telling me that the woman who took them saw things, still life moments hidden in alleys, the kind that most people overlook entirely. There was something there, yet still I remained uninspired. I was listening out of habit, out of a sense of duty perhaps, but my overloaded soul couldn't feel the thrill of the involuntary window I peered through.

Out of the subway and walking toward the park, I stared down the avenues to the haven at their terminus, brightly-colored foliage growing ever closer as I approached it, framed by buildings and slanted in sunlight. Mimicking the women on the train, I took out my digital camera and attempted to capture the sight. With time and proper care I knew I could frame a perfect shot, lines and angles, colors and textures, blending to a harmony that would say something about that moment. But on the street with the people rushing by, with my backpack making me feel weighted down and awkward, with the fear of being condemned as a tourist, I was too much a coward to stop. I took pictures without pausing, and they did not give me what I sought.

In the park I walked down paths and up stairs, looking at the faces of the people for some who would match my own. None did. I looked at the trees. I looked at the ground. The ground was covered in leaves, huge expanses covered with thick carpet, and I walked across them and thought the words of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of my favorite poets.

And after I wandered aimlessly around the meadow feeling alone until I chose a spot at random, and after I lay down on the grass and bent my head over my book, and after I didn't start a conversation with the two British guys who looked down as they walked by and said hello, and after I lost myself in my book for a while, and after I got too cold and decided to leave, I walked again through the worlds of wanwood and thought Gerard Manley Hopkins in my head.

And that is the only inspiration I found today. And it is a cold, backward sort; the kind that leaves me feeling lost. And here I am: but where?

Spring and Fall
to a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The City Drains

In the car to the airport I watch the sky go by—the sky so blue and so big; where I live we’ve let it be that way, we haven’t crowded it with buildings and clamor and people. Wide and unhampered, I feel its joy. Sunlight plays off the leaves, vibrant green, deep red, smoky orange, highlights dancing as we whoosh by, trees and trees and trees. The mountains tell me they’ll wait, and the lake is still and gray. I ache, thinking about leaving it all behind, missing the rest of the season, every change, every sunrise and sunset. But I can’t let myself feel lost already. I find strength in forcing my mind and my soul to recall that, sustained by God, the leaves will turn colors again next year, every subsequent year, and the sun will continue to rise and set over the mountains, morning and evening, for as long as I can foresee. I may miss many moments, each one unique, but there will be more, and all of them fantastic.

I’m back in the city and right away I feel it: the pressure that constricts my lungs, the noise and the rush and the urgency, pulsing, pulsing, pushing toward a goal. Faster! In the cab I try to retain some of my composure, the blissful peace that a month at home bestowed, but already I feel it slipping. The conclusions that I came to, the slow deliberate consideration of options, the necessary realization that I can, must handle whatever comes next is suddenly replaced by COMPARISON, by COMPETITION, by the feeling that I am BEHIND and INFERIOR and about to LOSE all chance of success. The city yells at me in capital letters. I press my hands to my ears, hoping to erase the sounds with memories of long pinebrown walks through a forest to shul, talks with my father, songs sung with my sister—but the city is relentless.

Back in the dorm I try to forget my troubles as I hug my friends and ask them about their chagim. Yet within minutes I realize that I hardly recognize myself. This loud, giddy person—zany, entertaining—she is not me. For a month I was quiet, sweet, reflective, thoughtful, with a frothy, childlike joy. I return and my personality has shifted, I am a different girl. This manifestation annoys me. She is more shallow and less loved. She feels the pressure, the competition, and tries to drown out the voices with frivolity. She strives for attention, even—especially—among her closest friends. The city life is too rushed for the quiet one to survive. She struggles and thrashes and makes more noise than she cares to hear. I turn away.

I sit in class and try to feel. A month at home restored my ability to discover and accept my emotions. It was elation, pure and clear, to know that my capacity for love and fear and wonder still abides. I felt the emotional nuance of each chag, each Godly encounter, each human interaction, and I reveled in the awareness of it. Without emotion, life skids by untouched, there is no way to grasp hold of a moment. Precious sensitivity allowed me to live each day, to experience and grow. And now I am back, and already I feel a callus forming, my skin thickened, becoming impervious to nicks and scratches and soft caresses. I see opportunity sliding away, I feel loss, I want so much to stop this process. But what can I do? This city eats at my heart and diminishes Truth, but I cannot leave now.

So I will close my door and close my eyes and breathe slowly through my nose until I find my pace again. I will do this today and tomorrow if I must, but each time the equanimity I regain is less. And then the time will come that I will leave this city for a few days or weeks and I will find myself once more. And then, with the inevitability of night after morning, I will return to the city, again and again—until the day that life leads me to a new place, and I am liberated at last.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Still Life in Perpetual Motion

Because I wanted to share this with you:

I walk and walk and walk breathing fast and sharp. The world is one crisp cool leaf-clung wonder spangled red and amber. The wet air fills my lungs with a tangible taste and the gray-blue cloud-dappled sky swallows my fears, lending me its grandeur. How could I hide from a world as large as this? As full of promise and the green living ground that springs back at me under my heels. There is only the earth and the sky and the movement and the music and me, and I know that hope will never be dead, not while the world opens its arms to tell me how little I matter, and how much. And there is water, rippled and creased, holding in it the sky and all its expanse, but deeper still. And where the lily pads gather the moss creeps up soft and a thick slimy cover floats on the dusky surface—there!—behind that rock the frogs hide. The golden brown chips crunch under the toes of my boots and I walk, like a queen, beneath a dark enclosed canopy of stark-stripped twigs woven into an impenetrable archway heralding my approach. It’s quieter here; it could have been a century ago or more, and perhaps it is. My steps echo slower until I reenter the open world and there are people again and I’m heading toward some goal. The sun peeks out for a moment to remind me of its presence and its reflection off the water dazzles my eyes. And then I’m moving, recalling that these boots were not made for walking, with the exquisite ache of each solid step as the hard ground refuses to yield to my worn heels. The air still bites cool, but I feel heat, my own heat, because I am alive, alive, alive—and while that fact is true, and while the mountains wait on the horizon in shady blue silence, and while the fallen leaves dust my loosened hair—I will keep moving forward.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hilchos Chol Hamoed

In the interest of practicality, and courtesy of the fantastic services of, my notes on a shiur by R' Baruch Simon on hilchos Chol Hamoed. Hope they can be of use! (Or, if you prefer, you can listen to the shiur here.)

What exactly is Chol Hamoed? What is its status?

The gemara in Chagiga (yud ches amud aleph) discusses various limudim of how we know there is an issur melacha on Chol Hamoed. Then it says: if the Torah doesn’t tell you exactly what to do, the chachamim fill in the details for us. Such is the case with Chol Hamoed.

There’s a machloket whether the issur melacha on Chol Hamoed is derabanan or deoraisa; and the Beis Yosef holds in between: that the klal is deoraisa, and the pratim are derabanan. Of course, the nafka mina is whether we’ll hold l’chomer or l’kula. Regardless, there clearly is an issur melacha on Chol Hamoed.

A famous Yerushalmi quoted by Tosfos in Chagiga: R’ Yochanan said: if it were up to me, I would do away with the issur melacha on Chol Hamoed. Why? Because its purpose is to allow for more Torah study, but I see people taking off from work and engaging in frivolous activities instead. Some rishonim quote this as a proof that the issur is only derabanan—how else could R’ Yochanan even talk about repealing it?

The Sefer Yereim and the Ra’aviah give us a perspective to understand how to apply the issur melacha for halacha l’maaseh.

Sefer Yeraim: the yesod is melacha sheyesh ba torach—in principle, chol hamoed has an issur melacha, and the 39 melachot should really apply. But we don’t hold this: we only hold that melacha that causes tircha is assur. So immediately, a few nafka minas come about. For instance, turning on a light is mutar, and we wouldn’t worry about washing our hands over the grass (as we do on shabbos).

The Ra’avia explains: the whole point is “k’day sh’yismach b’moed,” so anything that isn’t a tircha isn’t going to detract from the simcha of the moed.

Categories of melacha that are exceptions to the issur:

  1. Tzorech hamoed – e.g. if you want to go on an outing and you drive to get there, it’s permitted. However, the qualification for this is that it must be a maseh hedyot, not a maseh uman – a non-professional action, not specialized. For instance, having a mechanic fix your car is assur (assuming you’re at home, before you’ve started the trip). Even amirah l’acum for such a melacha is assur. What about taking a picture? Is it maseh hedyot or uman? It’s a machloket—because even though the action is easy to do, the result is a professional type of product. So it depends whether you base it on the action or the quality of the result. The minhag of most is to be makil on this issue, and most people take pictures.
  2. Ochel nefesh – even a maseh uman is muttar for this purpose. For instance, if you needed to get your oven fixed, you could do so.
  3. Tzorech haguf -- Rif: women can do their cosmetic processes on the moed – tzorech haguf, to beautify the body, also has the same status as ochel nefesh and is permissible even with a maseh uman. So what about doctors’ appointments? R’ Moshe says unless there’s a pressing need, you shouldn’t schedule the appointments for Chol Hamoed, because it isn’t tzorech hamoed or tzorech haguf. But getting your glasses fixed, for example, would be ok, if there’s a need.
  4. Davar ha’avud – if you’re going to lose out a lot if you don’t do the melacha, it’s muttar, even with a maseh uman. What’s considered davar ha’avud? E.g. if you don’t go to work, you’ll lose your job. It only applies to something you already have that you’ll lose—not getting a gain is not davar ha’avud. However, if by not being open a store will not just lose the potential gain of the business from that day, but will permanently lose regular customers (something that the storeowner already had), it’s considered a davar ha’avud. The Yerushalmi says that if you have the chance to buy goods for a cheaper price than usual, you may. It’s a machloket whether this refers to buying goods to resell for a profit later (Rambam), or buying for your own needs (Ramban). So you shouldn’t go shopping unless there’s a sale you’ll otherwise miss.

Writing on Chol Hamoed:

The Bach summarizes the mishna: the ikkur issur of Chol Hamoed is the type of writing in a sefer Torah. Our regular writing is not a maseh uman, so that’s not really the writing that the chachamim were concerned about on Chol Hamoed. So strictly speaking, writing on Chol Hamoed is fine, unless it’s professional writing. (The shinuyim we use with our writing are added chumras.) The gemara says you can write a friendly letter to your friend (this also applies to an email).

Laundry and Shaving:

At first glance, laundry should be muttar, because it’s maseh hedyot and it’s l’tzorech hamoed. However, there was a gezeirah that you shouldn’t do laundry, lest the thought that you’ll do laundry on Chol Hamoed prevent you from doing laundry before yom tov, causing you to wear dirty clothes on yom tov. And they prohibited haircuts and shaving for the same reason. Rabbeinu Tam, quoted in the Tur, has an important kulah: if this is the reason for not shaving/having haircuts, if you did shave beforehand but now need to shave again, you should be permitted to do so. The Tur disagrees, but R’ Moshe held that here in America where everyone shaves daily, the gezeirah shouldn’t apply as long as you also shaved before yom tov. So among people who have to go to work, the minhag is to shave, but most “yeshiva fellahs” who are just hanging around and aren’t around goyim don’t shave. Heteirim regarding laundry: bigdei katanim—for little kids who are always getting dirty, where you constantly have to wash their clothes, you may launder the clothes on Chol Hamoed. R’ Scheinberg holds that once you’re doing laundry for the little kids, you may throw in a few things for the adults as well, but others disagree.

Tzorech Harabim:

If something is for the communal need (paving the street, fixing the water supply, etc.) the mishna says it’s muttar. Question: does the hetter include meleches uman or is it only for meleches hedyot? The Rosh has a chidush in Moed Katan, where he says that there are two types of tzorech rabim: tzorech hamoed, and for after the moed. For example, if the community needs to go somewhere on the moed, you may pave the street even though it’s meleches uman. But if it’s only l’achar moed, only maseh hedyot is allowed.

Hired Workers on Chol Hamoed:

Gemara Moed Katan: issur of amira l’acum. This means that you can’t hire a goy to work for you over chol hamoed and pay him by the day. But there’s a concept called kablanus, paying a worker for doing a job, not paying by the day. So then theoretically he could work whenever he wants, because you’re not hiring him for a specific day, but to get a job done. However, Chazal prohibited kablanus on shabbos inside the tchum, because of maaras ayin, because people might think he was hired for the day. But outside the tchum kablanus is muttar on shabbos, because people won’t see the worker. Yet, on Chol Hamoed, because there is no issur tchum, kablanus is assur anywhere. (This is the answer to the riddle: on what issue is Chol Hamoed stricter than shabbos?) The Nodeh b’Yehudah has an interesting teshuva. What if you’re in a community where a particular job is never done through schir yom? In that case, he says, the whole din of maaras ayin falls away, and you may hire a worker for kablanus. This is, however, provided that there is no specific expectation that the task will be completed by the time the chag is over.

Cutting Fingernails:

May you cut fingernails on Chol Hamoed? Sefardim, yes; Ashkenazim, no. But the Magen Avraham writes that we can rely on the Rabbeinu Tam about shaving in this case: if you cut your fingernails before yom tov, you may also do so on Chol Hamoed.

Tefillin on Chol Hamoed:

It’s a big machlokes rishonim. The Beis Yosef writes that it was always the minhag to put on tefillin on Chol Hamoed, but then they found that R’ Shimon Bar Yochai said that if you put on tefillin you’re chayav misah, so they stopped. Therefore, the minhag in Sefarad was not to put it on. Minhag Eretz Yisrael (who were mostly talmidei HaGra) was also not to.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Asking for Mechilah

It’s that time of year again—the time when your closest friends awkwardly take you aside and say, “If there’s anything I’ve done this year to hurt you, or…I hope you will be mochel—” and then you cut them off and mutter, “No, no, of course…and I hope that you’ll…” and then they cut you off and then you hug.

Or better yet: your inboxes fill with mass text messages and emails that read, “Have a gmar chasima tova, and if there’s anything I’ve done to hurt you this year, I hope you will be mochel me!”

Right. So about that—I’ve been thinking, and I haven’t really reached any solid conclusions--which is bad considering that Yom Kippur is right around the corner. Maybe you can help me out.

The practice of asking everyone for mechilah is based on the idea (brought by the Rambam and others) that you cannot achieve mechilah from Hashem for aveirot bein adam l’chaveiro unless the person you wronged has forgiven you first. This I understand. However…

How much do these blanket requests for forgiveness really achieve? Is an unspecific appeal or an electronic mass message really all that much better than nothing? The assumption is that the person/people you’re asking are going to say, “Of course!” If that’s the case, do you really have to go through the motions of asking? If you know that the person will forgive you, or has probably already forgiven you, or has forgotten all about any potential wrong you might have done to him/her, do you have to ask?

Also, in a case where the person doesn’t even know that she was wronged—say, for example, that you spoke loshon hara about someone behind her back—is it constructive to approach the person and say, “Hi, I spoke loshon hara about you this year, do you forgive me?” Would it be better to just leave the person in blissful ignorance?

Also, how do these things change if the person is just an acquaintance instead of a close friend? With a close friend you can pretty much assume that she will/has already forgiven you for anything unspecified you might have done to her. But an acquaintance probably hasn’t even though about your existence long enough to contemplate the possibility that you wronged him/her, so what is the proper thing to do? Call the person up and say, “Hi, I’m SJ, you know, from English class? I sit in the third row near the back? Right, so, um, I’m pretty sure I spoke loshon hara about you this year—are you mochel me?” Is that constructive? And, um, how are you supposed to get her phone number in the first place?

All of this makes me feel that perhaps the proper course of action would be to forego all of this meshugas. That would allow you to focus on asking mechilah for specific actions that you know have hurt others, and for which the injured party still bears a grudge of some sort. If you could call someone up and say, “Remember the time I embarrassed you in front of our friends? I’m really, really sorry about that. The action was beneath me, and I feel sincerely awful about it. Will you forgive me?”—that sounds a lot more like a significant, productive conversation that the others I’ve mentioned.

The problem is that limiting requests for mechilah to the situation I’ve just described doesn’t really line up with the Rambam’s idea, because you haven’t been officially forgiven for all of your chataim bein adam l’chaveiro.

Do you see my issue? Do you have any thoughts?

P.S. If there’s anything I’ve done to hurt or wrong you in the past, either with your knowledge or without, I am sincerely sorry, and I humbly request your mechilah.

No, I really really do.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Contradictory Emotions On Rosh Hashana

Update 10-12-08: For a slightly different perspective on the same question--yet one that I think can be nicely synthesized with my approach--see here.

I can take very little credit for the content of the following essay. I wrote it last year as part of the midterm of an excellent class entitled "Intellect and Emotion In Jewish Thought," taught by R' J. J. Schachter. All the sources mentioned were taught in class--the only original aspect of the essay is the ending, in which I discuss my personal 'religion in essence'--and even that idea was originated by an amazing friend, though I expanded on it and related it to the sources. Final disclaimer: I apologize for the fact that it isn't all that well-written--given that I wrote it under a time pressure during the midterm, it isn't as lucid as I would otherwise have liked it to be. Nevertheless, I think it presents some interesting and relevant ideas for the chag, so I hope you are able to glean something from it.

Rosh Hashana presents an interesting dilemma. The gemara (Archin 10b) explains why we don’t say hallel on Rosh Hashana: how could we sing shira when the books of life and death are open before Hashem? This indicates an important component of fear on Rosh Hashana. Yet the gemara Yerushalmi explains that we are different than other nations because instead of wearing black at the time of judgment, we wear white and eat and drink and rejoice, confident that Hashem will judge us kindly. These two sentiments seem contradictory.

From the perspective of religion in manifestation (halakhic practice), a choice between the two must be made: may we fast on Rosh Hashanah or not? Do we say ‘vehasianu’ in tefillah or not? Does an avel mourn or not? However, from the perspective of religion in essence (religious thought/emotion), it is not necessary to choose one or the other—rather, we can have a synthesis of both.

The Rambam in Hilchos Chanukah writes that we don’t say hallel because there is no simcha yeteirah on Rosh Hashana. Yet the word “yeteirah” indicates that there is an aspect of simcha in addition to the yirah of Rosh Hashana. The Sefer Hachinuch writes that Rosh Hashana is a gift, a day on which we can achieve forgiveness, and so we should be happy. Yet, it is also appropriate to have extra yirah because of the day’s serious nature.

So the question is: how do we balance these two seemingly contradictory emotions? The Taz offers one solution: our anxiety motivates introspection, which motivates teshuva, which motivates a confidence that we will be judged favorably. However, to me this solution doesn’t seem satisfactory, because according to this opinion the anxiety comes before the confidence, and then as a result of preparation the anxiety is dispelled. So it would seem that by the time Rosh Hashana itself arrives only confidence is present, since the appropriate preparation has occurred.

Instead, I seek a way to merge the two emotions at once. My personal religion in essence relates to the opinions of R’ Neventzal and Rabbeinu Yonah. R’ Neventzal says that on an individual level we are nervous about being judged, but on a communal level we are confident that Hashem will be merciful. Rabbeinu Yonah explains the phrase in Tehillim (2:11) “v’gilu b’ra’ada” (rejoice with trembling). How can you be joyous while trembling? In relation to Hashem, he claims, you can. Though these two emotions cannot coincide toward a single man, toward God their synthesis is natural. When we recognize who God is, His greatness, and how small we are in comparison, we can appreciate the relationship that we have with him and rejoice in the knowledge that we can perform His mitzvot. As we tremble in fear, we are joyful in recognition of God.

My personal religion in essence on Rosh Hashana is similar to this idea. Yes, I am afraid of being judged, in awe of God’s greatness—yet, I am joyful in the mere knowledge that God exists, that there is someone to judge. Imagine life in a world without God, without a Creator who cares enough about His children to judge them. It would be a horrible existence, isolated and purposeless. The fact that I am being judged makes me joyful at the same time that it makes me fearful. Like Rav Neventzal explains, on an individual level I am afraid of the judgment that I may receive, but in a greater sense I am confident in the knowledge that there is a Creator who takes care of the world. Like Rabbeinu Yonah, I tremble in awe and fear of God, yet rejoice in the fact that He exists and desires a relationship with me. The two emotions are not contradictory at all, but rather go hand in hand. I fear because I am being judged, but I also rejoice because I am being judged.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Standing Still

Somehow, the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana are never enough time to prepare, never enough time to learn, to introspect, to create the right mindset for Yom Hadin. And suddenly, it is almost erev Rosh Hashana, and that fear steals over my heart, the fear that is mixed with awe, a sense of my own smallness in relation to the Infinity I will be addressing in just a few short hours.

A few days ago, I was davening shachris alone in my apartment as usual, feeling that familiar sense of subtle guilt because my kevana is nowhere near the level I would hope for, because I am running late for class and that knowledge refuses to evaporate even though I am talking to the Creator of the Universe, because I have a thousand worries and a hundred things to do.

And then suddenly I became aware of something: a swaying motion, my body moving slowly back and forth in a trance-like rhythm. My lips move soundlessly and my body swings slightly and I wonder: what am I doing? So I stop.

A blank space opens up and silence reigns for a moment.

I look into my siddur and pick up my tefillah from where I left off—but I hold my body still. And suddenly there is more space—space for the words to have meaning, space for my brain to breathe and comprehend, space for more emotion to seep through.

I realize: the shuckeling was only impeding my tefillos. The movement allowed me to believe that I was concentrating, that it, in and of itself, proved that I was attentive to my prayers, while in reality it merely provided a distraction, something for my body to do so that my brain could wander where it shouldn’t.

When I hold my body still there is nothing for my mind to do but focus on the words I am saying, nothing for my heart to do but listen.

This Rosh Hashana I will attempt a new feat. While my emotions soar and plummet, while my intellect ascends to the heights of truth, while my spirit grows and my being shrinks—my body will be standing still.

Monday, September 22, 2008

From an Airplane

The pictures cannot even begin to do it justice.

What makes a thing beautiful is the unknown.

A streaked, pastel, candy-floss morning sky intersects and blends into a navy-violet carpet of clouds, lit from below with the deep orange glow of sunrise.

Why is this sight so breathtaking? Because it symbolizes the vast, the mysterious, that which is beyond our measure and our capacity. The grandeur of the natural world, that it is so much beyond us, is its beauty. Even the worldliest scientist feels its wonder.

A beautiful flower, a beautiful person—the principle is the same. Something unreachable, unknowable, serene, apart. A person who is not these things may be “hot” or even “gorgeous,” but she is not beautiful. There is something ultimately internal about beauty, something essential, relating to essence.

No matter how long you stare at the beautiful, it never grows stale or boring. There is much truth in Keats’ oft-quoted line, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” The joy of beholding beauty is renewed each second, just as God renews and sustains the world.

Beauty is bestowed by God—a gift, a testament to His greatness and kindness. As Rambam asserts, we can reach love of God through contemplation of the natural world, because it is such a testament.

How could one not feel love toward the provider of such exquisite, temporal fulfillment?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Does God Love You?

In a recent conversation on the topic of emotional connection to God, a friend raised the idea of focusing on God’s love as a means to achieving reciprocal emotion. In other words, by reminding yourself that God loves you and by focusing on all the good things He has given you as a result of His love, you can internalize the fact that He loves you and, as the theory goes, you will then eventually love Him back.

My friend also mentioned a Rosh Yeshiva whose motto is “Do you know Hashem loves you?” and who will ask children, “Who loves you the most in the world?” If a child answers, “My parents,” he will respond, “No, Hashem loves you even more!”

This idea does not sit well with me. To my ears it sounds far more like the Christian mantra “Jesus loves you” than like an authentically Jewish approach.

My question is: does God really ‘love’ us?

Obviously, we believe that God created the world and the Torah for our benefit—clearly it could not be for His own, since He has no needs. However, is this concept of a personal, emotional love a part of our weltanschauung? Certainly we are obligated to love God, but does He love us?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Feeling Thankful?

Rosh Chodesh Elul not only ushers in a period of intense introspection, but also offers two chances to say Hallel, a tefillah of thanksgiving and praise. In conjunction with these themes I’ve been thinking about the emotion of thankfulness.

I know that I am as blessed as any human being could hope to be. I have a wonderful family and amazing friends. All of my material needs are consistently met and exceeded. I am in good health. I have been given gifts and talents to utilize in this world, as well as the opportunity to foster them. Very few people can count themselves more fortunate than I.

Yet, as I think about these blessings, I became conscious of how rarely I actually feel the emotion of thankfulness. Intellectually, I am constantly reminded of the fact that I should be thankful. I know that God has given me far more than I deserve, and I make sure to tell myself so at regular intervals. However, this is not the same as feeling thankful to God.

I realized that the only times that I am able to feel an overwhelming thankfulness to God are when I either acquire a new gift or nearly lose one that I have.

In the past, when I have been blessed with something that I had heretofore lacked, I have felt—combined with the happiness of the new blessing—a consuming thankfulness. It is hard to describe what it feels like; the emotion is euphoric and transcendent, and humbling to an extreme. Yet, almost inevitably, over time the emotion dulls and fades, as the new gift is assimilated into my frame of being.

Confronting the possibility of losing something also engenders in me an emotion of thankfulness. When a gift teeters in the balance, or seems to for a time, fear and prayer are my immediate reactions. If the gift is spared, my relief mingles with thankfulness to God, creating an emotional state that is generally even more intense than my thankfulness for a new blessing.

However, I have been unable to manufacture any passable facsimile of this emotion in my day-to-day life. I can remind myself that I should, and must, be thankful, but this is an intellectual knowledge, not an emotional one.

When a person does something for me it is easier to feel thankful. I am able to relate to a fellow human being, to visualize myself as the other and recognize the effort that the person has put in, with the knowledge that what the person has done for me was not required. I can imagine what it would be like to be the giver; I know that the gift I was given was inconvenient, or time-consuming, or difficult to give.

With God, it is not so. I cannot put myself in His position. I cannot imagine any “effort” on His part. There is a total disconnect between the state of the giver and the state of the receiver, making it far more difficult to create an emotion of thankfulness.

It is also easier to express gratitude to human beings. When a person goes out of his/her way to do something for you, even just a verbal expression of thanks can have a profound effect on both the giver and the receiver. Often, some sort of reciprocal act also communicates one’s appreciation. The very process of acting allows the receiver to internalize his gratitude.

With God, however, it is different. Yes, in the time of the BHMK there were (and will be, according to many opinions) korbanot, particularly the korban Todah, an active manifestation of thanks. And nowadays there are the hoda’ah sections of tefillah, verbal declarations of thanks for our blessings and the miracles that God performs for us daily. But although saying these prayers can sometimes have a minimal positive effect on my emotional state, it rarely creates the powerful emotion that I seek.

When dealing with God, my thanks can receive no tangible reception; I can see no effect of my words, and I know that my expression of gratitude cannot benefit the subject of it. In this case, the only entity who truly benefits is myself. This makes the thanks I utter echo endlessly in my own ears, yet still it rings hollow.

I do not know the solution to my problem. I do not know how to inspire or create an emotion of thankfulness to permeate my everyday life. I know only that I should feel thankful, that I want to feel thankful, and that, in the core of my being, I am thankful. I only hope that I can find a way to tap into some hidden reserve of emotion that will allow me to experience thankfulness in a way that is conscious and true.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Confronting the Questions

Over shabbos, a close family friend raised an interesting issue. A discussion of the parsha somehow led into speculation about some of the modern historical, scientific, and anthropological challenges to certain accounts in the Torah.

For instance, let’s say you believe that it has been 5,768 years since Adam HaRishon spoke. This assumes that you adopt the more scientifically compatible position that a “day” of creation really means a stage, and that each day could have lasted thousands of years, so that 5768 is not the age of the universe, but rather the age of humanity. Okay, so let’s say you accept that. Still, modern anthropology tells us that human beings have existed for much much longer than that. How do we resolve this contradiction?

The point our friend was making is that within the religious Jewish world very little attention is paid to such questions. They are generally ignored, or dismissed as unimportant or uninteresting. This disturbs him, because he feels that, especially within the Modern Orthodox community which professes to unite the world of secular knowledge with that of religious scholarship, these issues should not be swept under the rug.

And my thoughts, on a personal level, are as follows: as many of you know, I am interested primarily in the humanities and the arts. I love literature, writing, philosophy, music, drama. I do not like math. I do not like science. I often find history somewhat dry. This may be a failing. This may just be my personality.

Regardless, I tend to spend my time studying and pursuing the areas that I find compelling. This means that I know very little about science, very little about anthropology. Most of the questions and challenges to religion that exist in those areas are foreign to me simply because I do not know enough to even realize that they exist. Our friend argued that this approach is intellectually dishonest. And I wonder: is it?

Even if I studied those areas and began to comprehend some of the problems and seeming contradictions that exist, even if I encountered a question with no apparent answer, would I give up my faith?

I honestly think not. I know that there are questions that are not easily resolved. I know that I certainly do not have all the answers. But I don’t feel that I have to. The things that form the basis of my faith are unrelated to the Torah’s apparent scientific accuracy, or lack thereof.

So I feel justified in not pursuing these issues. I’m, frankly, not all that interested in these areas, and don’t feel compelled to research and discover the questions I know are out there.

Is this a mistake? Is it intellectually dishonest? Any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Tisha B'Av Story

My cousin M and his wife L, who normally live in Jerusalem, arrived in my city to visit my family yesterday—and told me the following story.

M and L flew straight to my house from Toronto, where they stayed with L’s family for the nine days. Like the rest of klal Yisrael, they went to hear Eicha on motzai shabbos. When they came home, they got into an intense discussion with L’s father about the horrifically tragic occurrences described in the megillah. M asserted that these atrocities are not as distant as we generally assume. Many similarly terrifying things happened at the time of the Holocaust, and since we are still in galus, no one should ever feel overly secure.

With these thoughts in their minds, they went to bed.

At four in the morning L was awakened by a thunderous boom, as she felt the house shaking beneath her. Shocked, she shook M awake and declared: “Canada is under attack!” More explosions followed, and soon the entire family had gathered, awake and in a panic, trying to determine what was happening. From the window they could see a gigantic column of orange flame licking the sky, and a mushroom cloud of billowing smoke—and it wasn’t so far away.

No one had any idea what was going on. Petrified, they only knew that giant fireballs were illuminating the night sky nearby—and that it was Tisha B’Av. L’s parents made a rapid decision. They gathered up their family, their pets, and their passports, packed into the car, and started driving north, toward L’s father’s office.

They took refuge in his office, waiting to hear an accurate report of what had happened. As daylight broke, they heard: a propane plant had exploded. The area was being evacuated.

Relieved that the truth was far more benign than they had originally assumed, they staked out spaces for themselves on various pieces of furniture and tried to sleep. At 2 pm they were finally allowed to go back to their undamaged house.

Though they ended up sleeping almost until mincha once they finally got to real beds, their experience this Tisha B’Av was in way far more profound than a day, like mine, spent listening to Tisha B'Av appropriate shiurim.

They experienced, firsthand, the fear that characterizes this day in Jewish history. Their eyes witnessed images of destruction that the rest of us only conjured in imagination. They realized that in exile, tragedy is tangible, security nonexistent. Their Tisha B’Av was manifested in action, not just thought.

Thank God, it was a false alarm, and for the most part there were only minor injuries as a result of the explosion--though, tragically, one firefighter perished. May this be the last Tisha B’Av spent in exile; the final year of mourning for the Beis Hamikdash. May our tears next year be tears of joy, as we gather together in Jerusalem.

And let’s hope Toronto stays safe, too.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Wall

I stood there at the kotel in Yerushalayim, the holiest site we have, and tried to pray.

I searched for the words to express myself, but even more, I searched for the emotion I knew I should feel.

My lips moved soundlessly as I began a one-sided dialogue with God. I told Him that this year has been hard for me, that I have learned a lot, but that I have lost a lot as well. I told Him that, as much as I have gained, I am concerned that the past few months have brought me to a place I’m not happy with, a place where much of my passion is merely surface-level. I am worried, I told Him, that some of the things I’ve learned have had negative effects as well as positive ones. For example, increased understanding of the other side of an issue can weaken one’s own convictions. If I can see every side of any coin, my own view becomes more blurry, my determination to follow through less intense.

You know that I still have my beliefs, I said. They’ve shifted this year, of course, as I’ve grown, and that’s a good thing. And I can still argue my perspective as eloquently as ever, and it sounds right to me, and True. But that’s just it. It’s all sounds. I like the sounds, I like the thoughts behind them, and when I articulate it, I am happy to believe it. But what is belief if it isn’t manifested in every aspect of life, if you don’t feel it there pulsing, behind everything you do? Judaism isn’t, it can’t be, purely intellectual. Intellectual it must be, I believe that, but it must be emotional as well. And more than emotional—it must be all encompassing. I used to have that, at least, much of the time. But now…?

And I told Him that I know the old me is gone. A certain purity of faith, a certain innocence, has vanished. I feel blasé now, in a way, jaded almost. I feel flat. It comes with the loss of emotion, which itself stems from a few factors I can (but won’t) name. I’ll regain the emotion, I am determined to do it, and so I will, but I will never have the old me back. I’ll reach a new level, somewhere more nuanced, more complex; yet I will miss the way I was. I’m a lot older now—not in days, but in spirit. I will be refreshed one day, I pray—but there is no going back. I resolve to go forward.

So I stood there, talking to Him, spilling out my soul, yet all along I realized: it wasn’t real.

I wanted it, so badly, to be real. I was trying so hard. Yet I still couldn’t feel anything. I said to myself, this is the kotel, the holiest place, I must feel the connection. But then I answered back: this is only the outer wall. Inside, behind this wall, the Beit Hamikdash should lie. Behind this wall is where the Shechina really dwelt. But here—I was on the outside.

I stood, gazing up, at the stones of a wall, too solid to break through. And inside myself stood another structure of stone, separating me from my emotion, from reaching God and holiness. And I felt—how I hated to admit it!—that I was only talking to myself.

As I backed away from the kotel and into the plaza, my heart was heavy—because that was the only thought that could wet my eyes with tears.

Friday, July 18, 2008

In The Time of Our Lives...

Lately, it seems that God has been conspiring to remind me that every moment I am permitted on this earth is precious, not to be taken for granted. Yesterday, this post made me cry. This morning, an email informed me of the sudden death of a girl I shared a class with in college, and who attended my seminary only a year before I did.

If those factors weren’t enough, this afternoon I was placed only seconds away from horrible injury, if not death. My sister, who just got her driver’s license, was at the wheel, and though my mother yelled, “Stop! Stop!” she continued to make a slow left-hand turn, right in front of a rapidly approaching oncoming car. I closed my eyes, braced for an impact. The earsplitting screech of the other car’s brakes alerted me to the fact that, miraculously, we had escaped unscathed. It took several moments for my breathing to return to normal, and longer for my mind to attempt to grasp the concept: instead of laughing shakily as my sister repeatedly crept forward and reversed in an attempt to park the car—I could have been dead.

It has been said a thousand times, but it’s infinitely true: life is fragile. We have little control over what happens in our lives, and any day could be our last. Yet, we must not, we cannot, live our lives conscious of this fact at every second. To do so would be to live a life of fear. And so, blessedly, we are often able to forget. Yet, an occasional reminder of mortality is necessary. It is sobering, but uplifting, providing an insistent call to make the most of each opportunity we have to find beauty and meaning in this life.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Of Violets and Light

I have just finished E.M. Forster's "A Room With a View." If you have not read it lately, I recommend that you do. It contains all that a book should: Truth, beauty, hope.

Sometimes, a book affects me this way. Making my breath come fast, my cheeks flush, my heart beat, merely from the truth and beauty of it. When I read a book that is truly successful, it touches me, in a physical way—with tears, with a tangible joy; a feeling of soaring, of extending somehow beyond myself, a strange and marvelous connection. It is not the plot that affects me thus—I never cry at the death of a character, rarely rejoice in a long-awaited reunion of lovers. It is the Truths behind the words—it is always the ideas—that affect me in this way. And this is the power of writing: the power of speaking to the soul, a power that is unique.

I dare not hope to harness such a power—this ability is bestowed on infinitely fewer mortals than live to see their names in print—but if I can channel even a small fraction of this gift, even just once in my life, I will have achieved something wonderful; I will have experienced a euphoria unintelligible to those who have never sought it.

In the meantime, I can only bask in the accomplishments of others, awestruck, benefiting immeasurably from their ability to somehow compress Truth and fit it between the slim and physical covers of a magically transcendent tool that I can hold in my hand.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Seeing More Clearly

This morning, as I was washing my face, one of my contacts fell out.

I have contacts that are meant to be worn a month at a time, without being taken out, even to sleep. This means that I close my eyes at night with the ability to see, and I open them in the morning with the same capacity. It also means that I sometimes forget that I am extremely myopic, in the most literal sense. Without contacts or glasses, anything that is further than four inches away from my eyes appears blurry; things that are mere feet away look like nothing but colorful blobs.

I am supposed to change my contacts every month, and to give my eyes a break by wearing my glasses for a day in between. I hate my glasses. Not only because I think they look awful on me, but because they fall down my nose at the slightest provocation and allow me no peripheral vision. When my contact fell out this morning, I figured it had been about a month since I changed them, so I removed the other one and dutifully put on my glasses, intending to put in a new pair of contacts before shabbos started. I soon found that the glasses were almost more trouble than they were worth—getting caught on my hair and making themselves generally obnoxious. So I took them off, and tried to function.

It was then that it hit me: I have a serious handicap. I can’t do anything, really, without visual correction.

I realized that if I lived in another era, I would be practically incapacitated. Not only that, but I would miss out on so much of what brings me joy in life: a breathtaking mountain view or sunset, a thoughtful and entertaining dramatic production, watching the interesting people on the subway—even my friends’ faces would be lost to me unless inches from my own. Learning would be a lot more difficult too, and seeing the board in class—forget it.

Yet here I am, with the luxury of forgetting that I even have this disability, thanks to the wonders of modern science and technology. In a societal climate of complaint and general dissatisfaction, I can only feel incredibly grateful to God for the opportunities afforded me, not the least of which is the chance to live a normal life, independent and fully-sighted.

And in case you haven’t guessed, I put my glasses back on.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A Solitary Summer

WARNING: The following post lies somewhere on the border between philosophical and just depressing.

I am home for the summer, which means three months of relative social isolation and a significantly decreased level of structured activity. To many, a three month vacation sounds like bliss. But let me tell you, it is easier said than done. At risk of incurring the annoyed frustration of those not fortunate enough to have a summer break, I will attempt to explain why I have often found the past (it hasn’t even been a) week so difficult.

One obvious reason is that empty time gives ample opportunity to think about things that one would rather forget. Left without distractions, all the worries, anxieties, and hurt that you try so diligently to ignore are suddenly very present—and there is nowhere to hide.

The second reason is loneliness. Many of my friends in similar situations have complained of feeling lonely. Personally, I have suffered acutely from the same malady. Yet it seems somewhat unreasonable. Ok, so I’m not seeing people nearly as often as I did during the year when we all lived in a dorm on top of each other, but I still have friends, right? There’s always email and g-chat and the telephone—and one or two people in town who I can drive over to see every once in not-too-long-a-while. Yet alone in my room in the evening, the feeling of loneliness grows oppressive. An equivalent solitary night in the dorm would not have me feeling this way—why?

I think the answer lies in the fact that an extended absence allows me to realize how little I am needed.

I am blessed with many wonderful friends, yet how many of them do I really talk to over the summer? Which of my friends feels the need to call me, specifically me, on a consistent basis? Honestly, very few, if any. We’re in touch, but mostly because they, too, are lonely and crave human contact. It isn’t me they need. No one truly cares enough to feel that a day would be lacking without me, without my unique input and perspective.

Of course, this is perfectly normal. Very few people are that reliant on their friends. But we don’t like to remember that—and on an ordinary basis, we don’t have to. We can feel important; involved in each other’s lives every day because we see each other every day—and that is reassuring. But here, over the summer, in my dimly-lit room at night on my own, I remember that I am just one insignificant person. And that can be scary; and it can make me feel alone, in a way that irrationally whispers to my soul, "No escape."

Perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing—an occasional reminder of one’s relative unimportance is probably quite healthy. But then again, three months of the brutal truth is likely more than I need—though hopefully not more than I can handle.

Clarification: The comments on this post indicated that I wasn't totally clear about my intention and meaning; therefore, my expanded response is as follows (as copied from the comments on this post):

I never meant to intimate that close friends don’t truly care about each other—of course we do—but that is not the same as needing each other. Certainly, our lives are enhanced by our interactions, and we miss each other when we’re apart for extended periods of time. And naturally, when things happen in our lives, we want to discuss them with our friends—but in a more general sense. In other words, because I need to vent or want an outsider’s perspective, I will select one of my friends to talk to. Often, though, that choice will be dependent on who’s logged in to g-chat when I want to talk, or who is around and will be open to listening. Except in occasional specific situations, we don’t usually single out one individual as the person whose unique opinion we seek. Generally, it isn’t, “Wow, this issue just occurred to me—I’ve got to call SJ to hear what she has to say,” or “I won’t feel that I have a complete perspective on this until I’ve heard Erachet’s opinion.”

Nor do I think that it would necessarily be better in any way if this was the case. In my experience, such intense investment in a specific person primarily occurs only in romantic relationships or in a situation where one person is viewed as mentor to the other (in which case, the mentee needs the mentor, but not vice versa). However, being confronted by the reality that there is no one who relies on you to such a degree, who would find his/her life significantly less comprehensible without you, isn’t so much fun. We don’t like to remember the fact that when our friends—even close friends—are no longer in close proximity to us, we often drift apart.

Also, I did not intend to imply that I do not know how to be alone. I think it is extremely important for people to be comfortable enough with themselves to spend time alone; such time is vital for introspection and self-discovery. During the school year, I enjoy spending time on my own—reading, writing, walking, watching, and thinking—which is why I wondered what makes the summer different: why does being alone suddenly become oppressive?

This post was not about having a negative attitude. I didn’t write it merely to express my loneliness or to receive assurances from friends (though those are, of course, additional perks). I wrote it because in contemplating my distress I came to a realization about why I was feeling that way, and I thought that realization was interesting for what it reveals about human nature.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Like Today Never Happened Before...

What can I say about this year?

It is amazing how much can happen, how much can change, in such a short amount of time. This year I have experienced more, have learned more, than I ever dreamed I would. I remember the girl I was at this time last year, and though we’re still on good terms, I’m not that girl. I’m older, hopefully wiser, definitely more mature. I’ve gone through major upheaval, in both the emotional and intellectual realms. I’ve made important decisions on my own: good decisions, stupid decisions, decisions that have taken me down paths I didn’t know I would choose.

Of all that I’ve learned this year—and, as I said, it has been much—one of the most important practical lessons I’ve gained is this: you can’t allow the things that bother you to take ownership of your life.

Everyone has problems, each of us on our own level, and whatever our issues, they seem most important to us. And though much may be said about putting your problems in perspective and realizing how good you have it in comparison to others, ultimately we are self-centered creatures—God made us that way—and we will always be concerned about our own issues, however trivial they may be in the grand scheme of things. And the truth is, that’s natural.

But it is vital not to allow these problems to stand in the way of life. Focusing on and constantly rehashing issues will lead only to a life of negativity and despair, resulting in uselessness. No matter how bleak things feel, we must push ourselves to be productive, to strive for our ideals, to fight the fight, no matter how small our army may seem.

It isn’t easy. I sometimes fail. But I keep trying, and I will keep trying—and somehow I will find my way.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Limits of Empathy

When tragedy hits another, someone you’ve never met and never will meet, what is your response?

Very few people will brush off the news without even a second thought. Even fewer (probably none) will feel the pain like someone who was directly affected. But between these two extremes, what is your reaction, and what do you believe the proper reaction should be? Is it correct to feel pain, and if so, to what extent? Should one encourage feelings of pain and sadness, or try to dispel them?

There are, as I see it, pros and cons to each side. One might argue that you should encourage and experience sensations of grief: this is empathy, feeling for someone else, a compassionate human quality. When you suffer, I suffer, because we are all intrinsically connected.

However, on the other side, if I allow myself to grieve, if I dwell on the tragedy, cry, and feel pain, where do I draw the line? At what point do I distract myself from these thoughts, or allow myself to be distracted? At what point does my grief for people unknown become excessive, detracting from my ability to do other things, to be productive, to live my own life? Is it really right for me to be sad and depressed, even for just a number of hours, because of something that didn’t happen to me, and that only hurts me because I allow it to?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Which Way Is Up?" Revisited

About a year and a half ago I began this blog. Before logging on to create an account, I knew I needed a name—but I drew a complete blank. I had a hard time coming up with a title that I felt would somehow epitomize me and what I intended to do with my little piece of cyberspace. Eventually, after much deliberation, I settled on “Which Way Is Up?” with the subhead “Perpetually searching for the answer.”

I’ve always been a thoughtful person, someone who thinks about what she does and why she does it. I’ve come to where I am in life through much reflection and by drawing my own conclusions. And I acknowledge that, young as I am, my process of development is nowhere near its end. In fact, I hope and expect to be thinking and growing for as long as I am allowed the privilege of living in this world.

I am also a strong believer in the multiplicity of perspectives that exist within Torah Judaism. As one of my Rebbeim in seminary put it: “Gray is my hashkafa.” The right choice is not always clear; every decision comes with sacrifices, every chumra with a kulah. Because of the existence of endless nuance, every choice must be evaluated on its own; the answer perpetually sought, rarely crystal clear.

For all of these reasons, I chose “Which Way” to represent myself and my blog—symbolic of my constant search for the truest path, a search I know will never be concluded.

However, for most of my blog’s lifespan, its title has not necessarily reflected the content of its posts. Though it was an accurate depiction of a crucial aspect of its author’s philosophy, the blog itself was not (primarily) utilized as a medium to further that mission. Though I’ve touched on philosophical topics, most of those posts did not generate much further discussion—and I’ve also spent lots of blogspace regaling readers with tales of procrastination and adventures (in NYC, London, Israel, and elsewhere), as well as musings on writing, chagim, and lots of other randomness.

Over the past number of months, I’ve found myself thinking even more than usual. I’ve come back to philosophical questions I might have considered “settled” before, and have pondered many more that had never occurred to me. More than ever, I feel myself seeking discussion and debate. Not just about the ‘big’ questions of life and religion, but also about more specific topics that occur to me at random.

At the beginning of The Lonely Man of Faith, the Rav writes, “Knowledge in general and self-knowledge in particular are gained not only from discovering logical answers but also from formulating logical, even though unanswerable, questions.” Asking questions is a crucial exercise, even when no one conclusive answer is reached.

So when questions occur to me, I want discussion, above all. I thank God that I am blessed with several circles of wonderful and intelligent friends, but often I want more than a single perspective can offer. I want a discussion that extends beyond one, two, three, people, into a larger circle of diverging viewpoints.

And so I’ve found myself turning to my blog as a place to ask questions, and hopefully generate discussion. Within the past months, the comments on these posts are the closest my blog has come to providing what I’m looking for, but I have about six or seven posts—philosophical issues or questions—running through my head that I’d like to write up and discuss. I cannot promise that I will do so, and I’m not planning to start writing every day (far from it!), but I would love to create a place for meaningful thought and discussion—and none of that can happen without you, the readers and commenters.

So welcome all—I encourage you to add your unique perspectives to every post, to make this blog a place for questions, for Truth-seeking, and for knowledge in general and self-knowledge in particular.

Monday, April 07, 2008

God's Plan and Free Will

We like to say Hashem has a plan, He doesn’t give us more than we can handle, it’s in His hands and it’s all for the best. But how often are these sentiments repeated merely to make ourselves feel better? How much hashgacha does God really have over each event in our individual lives? At best, it is a major philosophical debate. Is He really choosing each occurrence, leading up to a final culmination of the fate He has in store for each of us? Rambam would say no. And we have no way to know for sure.

And even assuming that He is guiding each step of our lives, how much room is there for us to mess it up? We have free will, don’t we? Doesn’t that mean that despite Hashem’s best laid plans, we have the ability to make mistakes and ruin it all? What if, presented with that golden opportunity, we turn it down? We are human, we are flawed, we cannot always see what the correct choice is, so we stumble along, doing out best. But what if we are wrong? What if that chance is lost?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Why I Cried

As I sat in the back seat of my parents' rented car, departing three hours early for a wedding that was 1.5 hours' drive away (my father is ridiculously paranoid about traffic), my emotions were mixed. I was grateful to be well enough to be out of bed, happy to see my parents, glad to be going to a simcha; but also weak and drained from my illness, nervous about the week and a half of school I'd missed, and stressed by the rush from class to meet my parents. My feelings sloshed around messily inside me. And then my phone buzzed, a text message from my friend.

"Terrorists infiltrated yeshivat merkaz harav and have killed at least 7 yeshiva boys. Please say tehillim and please pass the message around….."

My heart stopped. It didn't sink in. "Um, bad news," I stuttered aloud to my parents. "There's been a terrorist attack at a yeshiva in Yerushalayim."

For once my news-conscious father had not been listening to the radio. He turned it on.

"…at least seven killed and dozens wounded in a terrorist attack on a religious seminary in Jerusalem. Sources say the attacker infiltrated the school by dressing up as a student…"

When I heard the anonymous American news anchor say these words in his flat, emotionless American voice, the tears began to spill out of my eyes faster than I could catch them. Even I was surprised by the violence of my reaction. I didn't want to make a scene or alarm my parents, so I tried to cry noiselessly, unobtrusively, in the back seat. My father noticed, and tactfully said nothing.

I cried.


I love my land, my people; I feel connected; but I am not usually the type who cries so easily for tragedies that I haven't experienced firsthand. So why today?

Lately, I think, I have been far away. While my ideals of unity and connectedness were still intact, the emotions that accompany them had been gradually diminishing. My mind had been full of other ideas, other emotions. Important ideas, important emotions, yes, but my head and my heart can only focus on a certain amount at a time. It is part of the limit of being human; every choice requires a sacrifice, whether conscious or not.

And suddenly, I found myself confronted with a tragedy. A reminder.

In my head, I saw Yeshivat Merkaz Harav as I most vividly remember it: the night of Yom Ha'atzmaut after maariv, hundreds of young men, dancing with pure joy, full of gratitude to Hashem, celebrating our ability to live in our homeland. And then I imagined the same place, filled with emergency vehicles, stained with blood.

I cried.

I felt it, I felt the hurt. How could they do such a thing to us?

And then, to hear the bored anchor continue tonelessly on to other news, treated as equally, if not more, important—trivial news, most of it—ripped me apart. I yelled silently at the radio: "What do you mean!? That's all?! That's all you have to say? Do you understand what you just said? How can you just move on from that? How can you talk about the stupid tiny details of the primary vote tallies, or the four-year-old girl who showed up to school drunk? They just killed at least seven members of my family!"

But, of course, the news anchor really didn't care much. Why should he, in truth? Israel is a tiny country, far away; for him, the people there exist only in the same way that all theoretical people exist, the ones we've never met and never will meet.

Realizing this, I felt, anew, that connection, that pull, that reminds me why I care, why this feels so different to me than it does to Mr. News Anchor. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh: we are one family; we are connected.

It is not a question of politics. It is not about the right solution, the wrong solution, whether there is a solution. And for me, it doesn't feel like a time to ask God why, either. It feels like a time to feel. A time to experience the emotion of connectedness; to hurt because of my brothers' and sisters' hurt, to stand together as one people, united against those who wish to exterminate us.

Am Yisrael chai.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Thank You

Over the past three days I have been reminded how much I take for granted on a daily basis. I have bronchitis, but thank God, I am now on the mend. I’m still in bed, but the fact that I even have the strength to type this, that I have the mental clarity to write semi-coherently, proves that I am doing better. I have been pretty much totally bedridden since Monday morning, too weak to move, think, or do anything at all. And the hallucinations were fun, too. I can’t remember the last time I was this sick, if ever. Being sick in a dorm, thousands of miles away from home, is not pleasant, let me tell you. Three days may not sound long, but stuck in bed in a tiny room alone, it feels quite a bit longer.

But of course, I have learned some valuable lessons in appreciation.

I appreciate so much my ability to think, to go to class, to learn, to absorb, and to come to logical conclusions.

I appreciate my ability to create, to write essays, stories, blog posts, and even emails.

I appreciate my ability to be active, to go places and see things and get things done.

With all these abilities taken away from me temporarily, I am reminded how infinitely blessed I am.

And finally, I appreciate my friends. I appreciate every single person who has helped me through this—from wishing me a refuah sheleimah to giving me a hug and not fearing the germs; from getting my prescription for me to bringing me food (you know I wouldn’t have eaten at all if it wasn’t for you guys). Thank you all so much; you are truly wonderful and I love you.

And b’ezrat Hashem, I’ll be up again tomorrow!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

After The Show

It’s amazing how a performance lifts you out of real life. The past two days have been nothing but a blur of rehearsal, preparation, and brief intervals of classes that I barely even remember. There’s always a sort of wistful feeling when a performance is over—even a minor performance, like the one I just completed.

Getting ready, right before the show, is incredibly nerve-wracking but simultaneously exhilarating. I prep, I practice, I primp, until everything is as right as I can make it in the short time I have left. Costume is essential: whisked out of my typical denim skirt/solid top ensemble, my new outfit defines me, transmitting vibes of a different persona, the person I will become on stage.

Performing itself is, for me, like an out of body experience. I hardly know I’m there as it’s going on; it isn’t me in control; I’m only half-conscious; and then BAM, it’s all over—all the hard work, the hours, the energy: gone.

Then there are the regrets: I was so much better during the rehearsals—I didn’t come off as well as I should have—if only I could do it again!

Then the rush of watching the rest of the show, my amazing fellow performers; then, after the show, enjoying (and evading) congratulations from friends, and trying to discourage well-intentioned audience members offering overenthusiastic praise that I don’t really deserve.

I always hang around until the very end, lingering at the performance venue until everyone is gone and the disassembling and clean-up is nearly complete. I hate that part, the ending: going back to my dorm room, on a high with nowhere to go, no way to channel the remaining energy.

So here I am. There’s no way I’m getting any schoolwork done tonight. Tomorrow I’ll confront real life again, but tonight, I’ll admire my leftover makeup and dream about glamour now past.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Another Post About Driving

Guess what? I’m hosting a blog party, and you’re all invited!

Since I am currently home for winter break, which makes the gathering of my friends for a spontaneous celebration considerably more difficult, I decided that the blogosphere would be a universally convenient place for us all to congregate.

What is the special occasion, you ask? “It can’t be her birthday,” you wonder, “she turned 21 just over a month ago. Perhaps it is an unbirthday party?” No no no. It is, in fact, a celebration of my braverism (ten points to anyone who gets the reference).

As follows: faithful readers will recall my freeway driving experience of a few months ago, and the elation I felt upon achieving that milestone. Those of you clamoring for an update are in luck: another milestone has been reached. Several, in fact.

Today I drove: (a) without a thorough (or even cursory) knowledge of how to get where I was going, (b) on seriously long expanses of freeway, and (c) through feet of snow and ice. No I am not joking; those of you who know me can pick your jaws up off the floor now.

Right, I deserve a party?

Admittedly, I did have Erachet in the passenger’s seat navigating and providing moral support, but since she is no driver herself, and had even less of a clue about where we were headed than I did, I still consider it quite a feat.

No matter that we skidded a little; that the steering wheel took on a mind of its own a few times; that I made a sudden swerve across three lanes; that I had to focus all my energy merely on clearing the windshield of foggyice for much of the trip; that I drove most of the way home as night fell without my headlights on—I made it, all in one piece, and so did Erachet, and so did the car—and that is what really matters, right?

Oh, and speaking of braverism, we also successfully faced a demon squirrel, and came away none the worse for wear, and with our lunches intact. Stop laughing, it was seriously scary—ask Erachet!

Now that you know why we’re having this party, come in, relax, put on some music, help yourself to some virtual ice cream, and start a deep philosophical conversation in the comment thread (what better party activity, after all?). Or write me something very creative or amusing. Or just say hello. Let me know you’ve come, in any case. It would be a shame to have a party without any guests.

Oh, and since I’m legal, let’s drink a toast: to conquering all our fears!