Likely not to deliver but I stand by these words.
Know who you are.
Know what you think.
Know who you believe.
Know what to do.
I imagined the jay singing those words, the confidence-notes trilling above my head as I cut to the right and ran down the wooded path of the lower park traverse, late in the afternoon as one final preparation for Yom Kippur set in. What makes those birds so confident? How do they know? But as my feet hit the pavement and my eyes beheld the uncommon beauty of an early fall view and the uncommon occurrence of the tornado strewn landscape at every angle, the bird's voice, its stature, and the surety of its message lifted my steps. And those were the words I heard, remembering the bird's song, as I moved along the upper traverse, heading back home.
Home--the place where you know who you are, know what you think, know who you believe and know what to do. But in our day, where we are made multiple, in so many places, in so many ways, by so many different influences, it's hard to believe in home, or school, or government, or synagogue. The radical deconstruction of so much of what we previously understood to be whole or sacred or both has been torn limb from digital limb, leaving what at times feels like an unrecognizable mass of individual parts, with no conductor to compose and orchestrate a beautiful piece from all the pieces.
For me, birds are an important part of the creation of my own self. I don't actually know that much about them, but they've always been present. The ur text for birds is my grandmother's backyard, right outside her kitchen window. There were two feeders that hung from an apple tree which proudly shaded the back of her house and standing at the kitchen window, my grandmother regularly commented upon the two creatures that drove her nuts regarding the inherent greed and general piggishness of the animal kingdom: squirrels and grackles, each of whom, she felt, behaved as if seed for any creature inherently belonged to them, an expression of the singularity of their desire which was, to put it plainly, offensive.
Returning from my run this afternoon I noticed 8th Avenue backed up by several blocks, as city workers labored diligently and efficiently to clear trees and branches from the sidewalks and avenue, securing our safety and (whistling in the dark) creating a sense of temporary order out of the Natural Law Chaos that reared its insistent head yesterday evening. Like after 9-11 or a beautiful snowstorm, the neighborhood was quiet yesterday evening, humbled and awestruck, by the immediacy and instability of that winded violent outburst, taking only one life but threatening hundreds, if not thousands, or even tens of thousands. Even into the morning hours as people walked to work and parents dropped children at school, the grand narrative of the Tornado of 2010 was being written, everyone with a story to tell, a picture to post, a witness to bear.
How sad and how terribly predictable that a noble and brave city worker at 3.30 pm this afternoon had to risk his own life for a road raging man in a large pick up truck, blaring his horn in incendiary insistence at having to "get to work" while crews cleared the latest expression of God or Nature's impetuous and more powerful hand. "Let all who dwell on earth acknowledge that unto You every knee must bend." So says the Aleynu prayer, humbling words if there ever were. Difficult as it may be to sublimate our more untamed parts, these are words one might daven regularly to be kept on track. (They even match up theologically with yoga.) I was reminded of how on September 12th, 2001, a mere twenty four hours after 9-11, I rode my bike into NYU to check on students and crossing Flatbush Avenue, and got hit by a car. I wasn't hurt. But the driver, clearly in the wrong, offered no apology but rather an original and unique haiku curse reserved for those who don't deserve to live. Smoke still rose above the horizon further down Flatbush. But other fires also raged in this lost soul.
I'm just not smart enough or deep enough to know God's mind but I'll tell you this. A few years back I walked through torrential rains and lightning falling all around me, just to get to Shul to lead services for Shavuot. I was convinced that if I were to die that night, I would have done so in service of Torah, not unlike the destabilizing but faith-forming terror our ancestors felt at Mount Sinai when the Revelation was first made. Similarly, as I stood at the window yesterday with my children and watched the sky darken, the winds wreak havoc, while thunder and lightning struck out in a coordinated attack unknowable by mere mortals, I knew that some would live and some would die; that some would conclude, yet again, that there is no God and that others would find their faith strengthened.
I, for one, took comfort in the storm arriving so close to our holiest day of the year. To be reminded not only by the constructs of man and woman, who put their ideas down on paper and print it in a book and compose melodies to sing their meaning so that the essence of who we are can be uniquely and communally understood, is a blessing. But so too is it a blessing to behold nature's power to not only create but destroy, and in that destruction, teach us that each breath is holy, each breath is sacred.
There is a blessing for such moments. "Praised are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, whose power and might fill the whole world."
After a day like yesterday, each word is worth pausing to consider.
Know who you are. A man who lives in Brooklyn.
Know what you think. I think life has meaning and blessing.
Know who you believe. I believe in God.
Know what to do. Observe his commandments.