Each night before retiring, the great Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav would make a list. At the end of a long day, he would write down all the wrongs he had committed -- against other people, against God, against himself. Nachman would read the list over and over again, with increasing levels of agitation and remorse, until he welled up with sorrow.
In this week's Torah portion, the Israelites are encouraged -- commanded really -- to write something down.
There is a remarkable place I go to, about once a year. It is a spot on the Oregon coast. And I mean, literally, a spot. When I stand on that spot,
I can see the whole world -- all of it.
Straight ahead, I see the Pacific Ocean, waves rhythmically approaching and departing, humming a calming melody. Far in the distance, the ocean meets the horizon, and they melt together into a line of perfect milky blue beauty. I turn slightly to the left, and take in the dark, 10-story-high jagged rocks, partially eroded by centuries of contact with the water. They are lifeless on their peaks but play host to starfish and sea anemones at their feet.
Directly behind me, a neighborhood of houses. In one of them, many loved ones are collected -- at this moment just waking up together, and discussing the swift recent departure of a flock of sea gulls and the possibility of locating crab shells on the beach. Behind the houses is a forest -- a deep, damp, evergreen Oregon corridor -- perched just above the sea line. And to my right -- really, at my feet -- I observe a small creek, originating from that perched forest, carrying its tiny stream from far away into the great, rushing ocean. Around the creek, and in it, are hundreds of smooth stones, created from years of weathering. The stones await the arrival of my young son, who will spend hours among them, touching them, moving them, tossing them back into the water.
From that spot I can see the whole world. I can see life and abandonment and flight. I see unspeakable beauty and I can see years of confrontation. I can see love, togetherness, petty arguments and laughter. I see things that never change and things that never stay the same. And I can see isolation and community, growth and stagnancy, big picture and tiny details.
And all from standing in one spot.
This week's Torah portion starts with a potent word: re'eh -- see. God says to the Israelites: You have the opportunity to experience the bounty of blessing, or to feel the burn of curse -- it is up to you, dependent on your behavior. And God begins this speech with the word re'eh. God says: See. Open your eyes! Take a look. Israelites, re'eh: For a moment, stop moving. Stop walking, stop running, stop eluding, stop covering, stop blocking. Plant your feet firmly on the ground. Just see. Look around. Stand in place and use your sight. There are visions to behold. Pictures to take in. Details to note.
The Chasidic Reb Nachman of Bratslav tells of a king's son who goes mad: he believes he is a turkey.
The boy removes all his clothes, spends all his time under a table and refuses to eat normal food. Distraught and alarmed, his father summons in all manner of experts, but none can cure the boy.
His tale of disappointment turns into a tale of revisioning and change: After a long time, a wise man arrives at the palace, and asks to see the prince. The wise man joins the boy under the table, and declares himself to be a turkey. Little by little, the two become comfortable with one another, and gradually the man encourages the turkey-prince to put on his clothes, then eat human food and finally to join the rest of the family. In this manner, the Chasidic master says, the wise man cures the prince.
We call it the Festival of Lights, but Chanukah starts in a very dark place. It begins with two stories, each very serious.
In the dark of night, guided only by a slight illumination, we search the house. Carefully, we stride from room to room, investigating corners, checking furniture, examining windowsills. Finally, the search is complete: 'Tis the night before Pesach, and all the chametz (leavened food) has been swept away.
We call it the Festival of Lights, but Chanukah starts in a very dark place.
Jewish legal tradition teaches that we should recite 100 blessings every day. This presents an opportunity and a challenge. How might I fill up my quota today?
I recently visited a hospital patient, an elderly gentleman with a name, a gaze and a life story from the old country. His deterioration had advanced to the stage of inhibiting verbal communication, so he spoke to me instead through gestures, nods and stares. But slowly, we drew closer. We shared sorrow, distress and worry. Eventually, exhausted, he told me he wanted to get some rest. I recited the "Shema" for him, and he closed his eyes in fatigue.
What's the Jewish way to raise children? Simple: just teach them Torah, model your values and encourage them to be like their ancestors. Right?
One eye is to gaze at the world out there, the other to carefully examine the self.
Each night before retiring, the great Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav would make a list. At the end of a long day, he would write down all the wrongs he had committed - against other people, against God, against himself.
On the day of my wedding, my grandfather was on his deathbed. In earlier years, he had been a delight of my childhood, a source of insight and stability, a constant presence. In planning our wedding, we'd asked my grandfather to play some favorite old songs on his violin during the ceremony. But illness came suddenly upon this 90-year-old, and it became impossible for him to attend. That day, despite the intense celebration, my joy was diminished. But when he died seven days later, I knew he'd seen at least a glimpse of the life I was entering and the family I might later create.
Two words work to keep us from deeper, more spiritual lives: if only.
"Ima, how old am I today?"
My oldest son's sixth birthday is coming soon. Recently, he has developed a near obsession with calculating exactly how old he is on a daily basis, practically down to the hour. Of course he is hardly unique. From our earliest years, we humans feel the compulsion to mark the passing of time, to define who we are by counting our years and months and days.
Take a minute and build your dream house. What does it look like? How big is it? What do the doorknobs look like? The staircase? How many bedrooms are there? What kinds of flowers are in the yard?
This week, in a portion filled with dramatic tales -- the escape from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna from heaven and Moses' striking of a rock for water -- we are startled by something much subtler: a brief exchange between human beings and God.
With the simple act of lighting a candle, you can illuminate an entire room. Add a mirror, and you have twice as much light. So, too with people. We all carry internal sparks, rays of light within. But sometimes it takes another person to show us how to release them to ourselves and to the world.
What kind of Jew are you? Reform? Conservative? Orthodox? Secular? Cultural? Reconstructionist? With whom do you identify? With whom do you disagree? What kind of Jew is so different that you would have nothing to share?
In Los Angeles, the hardest part of starting a big trip can be getting from the entrance ramp onto the freeway.
Be careful when you open your mouth to make a promise, the Torah warns. If you say it, you ought to mean it.