18 October 2011


rabbi andy bachman and babak bryan (photo by will yakowicz)
I came out to Wisconsin for a few days to check in on my mother and grab a breath before returning home to Brooklyn for Simchat Torah Thursday night at 7 pm, the turning back of our collective narrative to the beginning, a wedding Saturday night, and as ever, the work, the work, the work.

The security lines at JFK were quite large on Monday morning and as I slowly approached my turn at the gauntlet, I was running over in my mind any particular event or spontaneous national holiday that had erupted, causing such a back-log of humanity.  But when I got closer, I saw that the culprit was the installation of body scanning machines at Terminal 5, there for our staff, no doubt, but the cause of considerable aggravation.  The early morning hour; the general state of disorientation among travelers in the bright glare of an airline terminal; the giddy, gadget-head goofiness of a new toy to play with; and the insanely weird humiliation of being forced to remove one's shoes (I'll still never fully grasp this supposed safety "procedure" and maintain that it's an odd manifestation of some kind of castration impulse in security protocol) before heading into the machine, feet placed on designated locations and hands raised high in the air (Ecce Homo!).  After the indignity of this matter, I still had to surrender my wallet, which was fondled mindlessly by some hapless guard before I was on my way.  At least they didn't confiscate my Alterra Coffee card.

Having been subjected to the security equivalent of a gas-powered leaf blower (when a simple broom and some effort would do just fine), it was only fitting that the flight was delayed by two hours because the plane's "computer system" had broken down and it required several experts, tech support, and then invoices to be signed before we could lift off.

While sitting in my seat, reading Philip Levine ("and those his life was then a prison he had come to live for these suspended moments") I watched the pilot's face as he walked through his own flight protocols, talking the techies, rebooting his plane, and then, finally back in his skin, grabbing the plane's PA and announcing that we were ready to fly.  He looked dazed but determinedly resigned to a new system.  He checked his iPhone and then grabbed the flight phone to address the passengers.  His communication seemed a welcome relief from the faceless motherboard that held his gaze the prior two hours.  He was ready to get back to work.

What objects of the machinery we've become.

My sister was waiting at the terminal in Chicago and as we drove up to Milwaukee, I watched the prairie come into view; and was reminded, happily, soothingly, of what a meditation on work is the midwestern landscape of my upbringing.  We talked about family and health; the protests on Wall Street; the upcoming release of Gilad Shalit; and the Brewers' pennant implosion.  We sat for lunch in a coffee shop along one of the more northern ends of the Milwaukee River.  Admiring the construction of the cafe, I thought back to the week that was, the building of our spectacular Sukkah designed by Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan and all the work that went into it.  The pleasure of sawing two x fours, drilling holes, bending rebar, and expending human energy against the force and grain of wood and steel in order to fulfill a mitzvah, the raising of an historic and spiritual shelter for our growing community, which, in the final analysis, amounts to work.

Like the small gardens of New Guinea impatiens and boxwood that we planted in our Garfield Place tree pits before Rosh Hashanah, these impulses, in their definitive humanity, are the appropriate balance to the ephemeral nature of our prayer and Torah study.  The עבודה of Shimon HaTzadik's teaching (the world stands on Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim) is here rooted in the more mundane but equally blessed meaning of Divine Service as Work.

Driving past the familiar Milwaukee landscape, past lawns I cut as a kid, basketball courts and ball fields I aspired to one day transcend, the value and dignity of work came into view for the new year ahead.  The work of feeding the hungry in our neighborhood and training tutors to help students at John Jay High School; the work of painting playrooms for family visits at Rikers Island and accompanying kids to see incarcerated parents in Albion; the work to save energy and green our sacred spaces; the work of teaching the Hebrew language to children and adults; the work to support Israel in the ways we see fit; the work to give blood; and the work of all work--to repair, restore and revitalize our campus of Jewish life--a Main Sanctuary more than one hundred years old and a Temple House more than eighty years old:  the places where our people continue to dream for life's better aspirations, as Jacob did on a desert floor more than 3000 years ago.

The protests in Lower Manhattan are yet another reminder, found in so many places for the past several years, of how much work there is to do to repair the world and leave it better for those who will follow us in life.  And moving well into our fifth year of chronically high unemployment, we'd do well to focus with a religious intent on the value of work.

Describing a factory job he once held in Detroit as a young man, Philip Levine writes, "Then to arise and dress again in the costume of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened by the knowledge that to descend and rise up from the other world merely once in eight hours is half what it takes to be known among women and men."

The more-than-once ascent.  The rising again and again and again.  Like getting up for work.  Anyone who knows the satisfaction of this achievement should feel deeply the pain of those without the blessing of work; and we ought to rededicate ourselves, again in the new year, to the repair of our city and nation, so that all who seek work may do so.

1 comment:

Jack Kaufman said...

Andy, thanks for this beautiful meditation. I guess that stuff about OWS was written by your evil twin. Really glad you're back.
Also, reading Philip Levine gives me shivers. Check out "Animals are passing from our lives."
Jack K