18 July 2011

The Absent Offering

Leaning against the wall of the Beirav, the Carlbach Shul in Old Sfat, I had positioned myself outside in order to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the Fellows, some of whom chose to wander the streets of this old town on Shabbat, looking for spiritual highs, new insights, strange melodies, something different.  Other tourists wandered about as well, caught in the eddies, the odd mystical streams that drown this landscape in a non-materialist otherness.

The majority of the Fellows were inside the Beirav, embroiled in the mosh-pit of Jewish spiritual manliness.  "Awesome" was a word used alot to describe its bonding fabric of activity.  The girls, behind the mehitza, seemed to present a more mixed review--some enjoying quite a bit the gendered separation, the unique feminine joy of praying without all that masculine meshugas.  Others, a bit more put off, felt shushed on more than one occasion by the men--especially when the second-sexed half of the room "fell behind" the Public Messenger who was delivering the community's prayers to God.

Kabbalat Shabbat drew to a close and Maariv, the more somber and internally oriented offerings were being teed up.  Instantly, a young Hasid was standing beside me, leaning into me, and gesturing toward the small Rinat Yisrael prayerbook in my hands.  Intuitively, I moved the book in his direction and held it for both us.  He immediately began shuckling, off on a kind of run beside me, and I had the sensation of being passed in the park by a fellow runner, outrun by a neighbor on the treadmill, lapped by a guy in the pool.  In short, I didn't measure up.  His offering seemed more, well, organically ambitious; mine, a kind of over-intellectualized theological treatise combined with "deep reflection."  He of the very stones from which the buildings rose, timeless and true; I, voyeur on this odd kabbalistic scene, stood inside myself and outside the situation, analyzing it all:  the girls behind the mehitza; the boys in a dervish; tourists drifting about, dazed; the Hasid, a venerable dybbuk of Roger Bannister, smoothly and swiftly outlasting me:  the Lion of Alacrity.

There I stood, turning pages--our pages--and our prayers to God were intertwined.  I felt radically responsible for his and admittedly, since he didn't stick around long enough for me to find out, I'd hoped he felt mildly responsible for mine.  But I didn't think so.  Rather, I had the distinct impression--and I liked this impression--that each of us were exclusively responsible for ourselves and no other.  At least as those offerings were made.

It's funny.  A week ago I reflected on the experience of prayer at an Egalitarian/Feminist Orthodox shul and contrasted it to my own service leading in a Reform shul, where I am often leading while others pray; and here I was in Sfat, atop a mountain, holding a siddur so another could pray.

I understand the Torah's command that the woodchopper and the water-drawer also share in God's covenant and concluded, with a measure of satisfaction, that sometimes it's enough to keep watch, draw water for another, make room for their prayers to precede your own.

The Kabbalist Isaac Luria developed the idea of tzimtzum--of the necessity of God's withdrawal from the Existence in order to make way for the universe and all its inhabitants to live.  This night, on an infinitely smaller scale, I was cognizant of the benefit of removing oneself in order to make room for another and that this very absenting of oneself is, paradoxically, an offering.

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