Wednesday, June 11, 2003

sad and confused now. confused, well, because i am not sure why i am sad. comedic, no?

Well, I would like to conjure some moments, some lights in my weekend.

Shavuot is a pilgrimage holiday--this year, I too made a pilgrimage. The south end of Providence's East side boasts few Jews or synagogues. I walked north every day several miles, sometimes in the rain, always singing, sometimes dancing, always walking alone. I have some friends in town here on College Hill, but pretty much all of my Jewish friends have split, for New York, Jerusalem, California, Philadelphia, Camp, etc. So I made a pilgrimage North, to discover the East Side's Jewish community.

I arrived at Chabad around 11pm, already feeling adventure in the evening. Muggings occur nightly on the path I walked--but I carried nothing, and sang and danced my way along, (perhaps naively) confident that no one would bother me. Tikkun leil shavuot had not yet begun, but there were two people sitting at the long tables, covered in plastic over white paper tablecloths. They provided me with some texts and eager help when I asked for it, but gave me space and time to begin the evening at my own pace. I started with creation. In the fourth day, I came across a teaching of Rashi: Rashi asks, why does it seem that light of the world is created twice? The producers of light, the sun, the moon and the stars, appear to be created both on the first day, and on the fourth. Why would any thing be created twice? What could this mean?
Rashi proposes that on the first day the luminaries were created, but only on the fourth day did they find their place and begin to define their purpose--distinguishing night from day, days from each other, festivals and holidays, and all the rhythms of life. Just so, Rashi teaches, is it with all of creation. On the first day, the potential of everything was created, only to find its place on a day later to come.
I had skewered this teaching and was beginning to turn it over the fire when Rabbi Mendel came downstairs. He had not expected me to come, and lit up a bit when he saw me--a little bit of the tiredness of his red-tinted eyelids faded.
"Come upstairs and have a bite of challah" he invited. Rabbi Mendel lived above the Chabbad house. When he discovered that I had not yet made kiddush and consecrated a sacred feast of revelations, he became very excited. He started flying around his apartment, diving into his fridge again and again, and before I could say "Rabbi, this is more than I think I can handle at midnight" he had assembled a several course meal, complete with challah and kiddush wine. As unusual as the situation was, I had been thinking about this shavuot feast for hours, and how much I would miss it not being home or around other Jews. I tried to thank him as he continued to brainstorm more things for me to feast on while apologizing to me for not having more to offer and urging me to eat as much as possible--his wife had cooked more than their kitchen could hold for the chag, and it MUST be eaten.

Over dinner:
"I am really glad you came. Do you know, I always leave my door open--just in case."
"Really? Aren't you worried?"
"What for?"
"This is kind of a dangerous area. I was a little concerned, walking over here."
"Well, there are muggings along Hope Street all the time, almost every night."
"Perhaps coming from where you're from, Providence is dangerous. But coming from Brooklyn, I am not concerned."

We talked about rejoicing in holidays, and the importance of infusing a day with intense joy and celebration. After dinner, we toasted lechaim, and we danced together around his living room, singing "vesamachta, bechagecha, vehayeeta, ach sameach!" until we were too out of breath to get another word out or to take another step.
Then we went back downstairs and studied a meimar, a teaching of one of the chasidic rabbis. This meimar asked, Why, on mount sinai, did God introduce himself as the one who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, and not as the creator of everything? The meimar begins by exploring the antithesis in depth. There are so many reasons why God should have introduced himself as the creator of the world, the rabbi declares. For there can be no greater miracle than creation--the emergence of something from nothing. The meimar goes on to teach (my memory failing me here, its brilliance will be bastardized a bit, but perhaps a spark or too remains) that with the giving of the Torah, God gave the children of Israel the strength to appreciate this Torah as given to them new in every moment--as it is written in that same passage, "leimor" all these things in the Torah were given to be said, again and again and continually again, to be maid.
The author of the meimar explains that in understanding that the Torah is created new in every moment, we can appreciate that the world itself (whose creation begins the Torah) is created new in every moment, and it is thus implicitly that God introduces himself as the creator of the world through the way in which he gives the Torah.
Further (insert artful rabinnic transition here) we can learn from this passage that the most important element of the revelation is the relationship that is forged with God--God liberated the Jewish people from slavery, and they became free to serve God through the study of Torah. And it is through the study of Torah, that the miracles of all creation can be experienced. The creation of the world in each moment is revealed in the revelation of the Torah, which is too new in each moment.

I need to review the teaching again. It was graceful, and my memory is waltzing a little bit drunkenly at the moment.

The next day I attended Beth Shalom, hoping to stand at Har Sinai again, to feel the Earth shake and to be awed with my nation. Nobody cried or screamed or shook, but the congregants were aggressively welcoming. A conversation on my way down to kiddush:

Me: "chag sameach!"
Him: "Are you visiting?"
Me: "I am a Brown student--"
Him: "Would you like to come have lunch with my family?"
Me: " name is Ari...."
Him: "Hi. Steve. (a hand outstreched) So, are you coming for lunch?"

Then later, with another man:
Him: "Do you have somewhere to go for lunch?"
Me: "Actually..."
Him: "Ah, Steve got to you first, huh? We'll get you next time."

Shabbat, I learned this from Rabbi Akiva:
Man is beloved, that he is created in the image of God--all the more beloved, that he can know he is created in the image of God.
Israel is beloved, that they are called God's children--all the more beloved, that they can know they are God's children.
Israel is beloved, for they have been given a precious instrument--all the more beloved, that they can know they have been given this precious instrument, with which the world was created.