17 February 2010

Schemes v. Discipline

"The Eternal knows human schemes, how futile they are. Blessed the one whom He disciplines and teaches Torah." from Psalm 94, recited on Wednesdays

I don't you but I need coffee to function in the morning. I'm neither proud of that nor ashamed, merely stating a fact of life. I also enjoy it at night, which has its effects, of course, like a more restless sleep. But if it buys an extra hour of study or conversation, then it's worth it. So last night I went to meet a friend at the Starbucks in Westwood and then realized, laying down for the night, that I was in for the old toss and turn. Alas, 6.00 am came around too soon and I barely made it to the 7.30 minyan. But then I popped out of bed at 7.25 realizing that the discipline of being at minyan--short lived as it is on this family trip to LA--was in danger of being broken. So I quickly armed my mind with caffeine, hopped in the car, and headed up to shul. I missed some of the morning blessings but arrived in time for Ashrei, Psalm 145, which actually opens with a quote from Psalm 84.5: "Blessed are they who dwell in your house; they shall praise you forever." Or at least as long as there's coffee.

This is the discipline. Where one gets out of bed against one's tiredness; where one triumphs over one's instincts; where one places oneself in a place where one ought to be--a place of aspiration and effort. We all experience this in varieties of ways--staying up late for exams in college; working late to reach deadline on a project; setting goals in physical fitness to achieve a desired result.

But spiritual discipline? This is a touchy subject for liberal Jews, who want to be able to "choose" what to do themselves, who "believe" as much or more in their own autonomy as they do in a Source of Life greater than themselves. My own faith collides, sometimes violently, with the idea of autonomy. I know I have it; I want to keep it; but I do not believe that our particular historical age affords that autonomy any greater sense of right than varieties of autonomy have in ages past. While it's true that we are continually learning more about the scientific and historical nature of truth and existence (including the scientific nature of faith, what with the ability to map it on the brain) it is nonetheless *faith* and functions accordingly, serving as the Voice of voices to offer direction, correction, and discipline for how one lives one's life. The human has struggled with autonomy since the Garden of Eden. One need not believe that story to have actually taken place in order to grasp the full-force of its metaphoric power. What we want to do versus what we ought to do is a tropal tension in the span of all existence.

So enthusiastically I throw back a coffee and head off to shul just in the nick of time, proud of my spiritual achievement, when I instantly discovered that preceding me there in time and preparedness were several others--the guards minding the garage and sidewalks; the educators readying the day for the arrival of children; and the other prayers, already dressed, be-tallised, and wrapped in their tefilin. I was the last to arrive.

"The Eternal knows human schemes, how futile they are.
Blessed the one whom He disciplines and teaches Torah."

The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo offers a great teaching about Jacob's dream at the ladder. Philo says that the rungs on the ladder are varied in height and length to demonstrate the uneven and unpredictable nature of a person's journey through life in this world. There are steps on the ladder of existence that are steady and effortless; and there are steps on the ladder of existence that are treacherous and filled with danger. Sometimes we feel we could walk our way through life in our sleep; at other times, we are paralyzed in wakeful fright at making one move. And most of the time, we are somewhere in the middle, navigating the generally mundane, mildly unpredictable, and mostly uneven nature of it all.

It's actually not so easy to live life on an even keel if it's not in one's nature. Philo's metaphor is a powerful one because it's rooted in the image of an ancient ladder. Not a perfectly symmetrical aluminum cast perfection that one buys at the hardware store but a hand-crafted tool of perfectly elemental imperfection. Where in reality, one can't predict what the next step is because despite our many perceived powers and our autonomy in this world, we actually cannot control what's next.

So we may as well be prepared as best we can be. Which takes practice. And discipline.

"The Eternal knows human schemes, how futile they are.
Blessed the one whom He disciplines and teaches Torah."

1 comment:

Amanda said...

If only discipline was easy to teach to a teenager....how much easier and "disciplined" a parent's life would be!