30 April 2010

Omer 31: Reverently Irreverent

Omer Day Thirty-One

The dream that led me, in part, to the rabbinate had to do with sumersaulting down a mountainside in Israel.

Let me explain.

In this dream, I am walking in the bowels of a football stadium in Madison.  I follow the crowd and emerge into the light, assuming I'm going to see a game, only to realize I'm in the Galilee, atop a rich, fertile hill, and children are rolling in the grass, laughing.  I join them by kneeling down, grabbing handfuls of fertile earth, and stare in wonder at my good fortune.  Rabbis start yelling at the kids for being too rambunctious and from my position I reach up, grab hold of a rabbi's coat and say, "Leave them alone.  They're home."

That was back in 1984 and upon awakening, I became convinced that I needed to get to Israel.  Classes were boring; my dad had just died; seemed like a good plan to me.  I went to see the Dean of Students, Paul Ginsberg.  He was warm, thoughtful, and deeply compassionate.  I  knew from campus legend that he had helped build the state as a young man before coming back to Wisconsin to pursue his doctoral work and serve the university.  "Relax, Andy," he said.  "Israel doesn't need another dreamer, running around looking for meaning.  Prepare yourself better, then go."

It was great advice and has often served as an important buffer to my own perceptions of religious re-awakenings.  A healthy amount of skepticism makes for a more rooted journey.

And while it's true that not heading off to Israel based on a dream was solid advice, I've often gone back to the dream as a touchstone for a healthy amount of reverent irreverence.  The idea that in the ego-less dream space, with inhibitions diminished, my first encounter with Israel was one of play, has always intrigued me.  As a rabbi, it has always been Israel's secular creativity that has drawn me deeper into Jewish history and ideas.  The Jew--liberated from the singular definition of himself as an exclusively religious being--was one of Zionism's many goals and paradoxically, this maneuver has continued to inform my own deepening connection to the faith, piety and textual traditions of Judaism.

I had these thoughts in mind recently while reading the spiritual journal of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of Pistezna, who died during the Shoah but left behind an extraordinary collection of diary entries that reveal a truly unique voice of early-mid 20th century Polish Jewry.
When a Jewish person reveals from within himself his inherent holiness with which to serve his Creator, then every act that he does for God, self-initiated service, becomes for that while actually holy.  And these physical acts, done in divine service, will in turn sanctify his physical body.
How else can you explain why I became so enthused when I decided to somersault in honor of the Sefer Torah?  Why else did my whole body  become so energized when I saw the place where I would dance and my whole body shook with excitement?
Frequently a Jew's yearning is ignited far beyond the normal level of his great service.  His soul then yearns perform some great act for God, but his heart is broken from the reality of his normal service.  And even when his soul is not inflamed to actual self-sacrifice, it yearns for self-transcendence:  if only now I were able to perform some act that would lift me out of myself.  If only now I were able to extract my very being from my normal self, I would soar up straight to the heavens.
"If only now I were able to extract my very being from my normal self, I would soar up straight to the heavens."

The combination here in Shapira's thinking--the melding of the desire for the transcendent with the necessity of play--brought me to laughter and tears earlier today when I read this.  "I know this feeling!" I practically exclaimed, reading it underground on a speeding subway car, beneath the East River, hardly sweet honey from the rock but redemptive waters nonetheless.  I looked at the faces of all those riding the car with me--mostly men, absorbed in phones, digital devices, magazines, books, or simply staring straight ahead.  Transported, it seemed to me, broken-hearted by the reality of normal service.  While their presumed broken hearts are nothing more than a conceit, the metaphoric premise remains that we are often transported often without transporting ourselves through those moments--whether in life or work or faith or love.  It is only smothering inhibition that holds us back, a restraint I've always struggled against in my own life.  That Shapira is writing these words as the noose tightens on Polish Jewry is nothing less than completely remarkable.  What spiritual bravery and resistance!

His journal records a moment of intrusive self-doubt.
Do you really think it matters to God whether or not you do somersaults?  And perhaps you might even hurt yourself or damage your health.  Will you not look like a fool doing somersaults in front of all those people. 
To which he answers his own repression.
Then, from the depths of my heart I screamed at this voice, 'God destroy you, forces of evil!  This is no time for second thoughts--the moment is great, it is unique, and it is passing.  To do some act of self-sacrifice for God is what I want, and you have only helped me to find it.  The very act that you seek to intimidate me from doing because of health or personal reasons, that is the act I choose to do and I now hallow myself in preparation.
To grab a piece of earth.  To roll in the grass.  To allow self-sacrifice to be joyous, playful, reverently irreverent.

1 comment:

Kara said...

this is a beautiful piece, and so inspiring. we need reminders to play and serve God. THis is a perfect message for day 31!!Thank you and sweet shabbat, Andy:)