Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cranky Old Man

When did I become a cranky old man?

I suppose, given sufficient length of days, it’s the inevitable state of a cranky baby. I can already hear a few friendly voices of disbelieving supporters protesting that I am being much too hard on myself. I thank them. I know I can be mirthful, charming, silly, childlike, funny, loving, and joyous. Those are all great qualities. However, that’s not the whole story and it’s not what spoke to me as I awoke from a dream yesterday.

It’s Elul, the month of preparation before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the time to reflect on what one can do to become a better person in the year ahead. It sadly reminds me of coming home after receiving a lousy report card in high school and swearing that I would turn over a new leaf in the quarter ahead, and then compounding that lie by swearing I would turnover a whole new forest. In that context a leaf would have constituted significant improvement, but even that was often beyond my reach. It is so easy to give lip service to change. Real change seems so hard to do.

I mentioned my dream. In it I stood in the backyard of the house in which I was raised. In West Hempstead of the 1950s and 60s, unlike my neighborhood in Palo Alto, there was much more openness between adjoining properties, not the cloistered yards that we have here. Our next door neighbors, the Santis had a short open-wired fence that one could easily see through and over. The Santis were a mostly friendly, sometimes cranky, retired couple. Mrs. Santi in particular seemed prone to complainand I can hardly blame her—such as when she was trying to take an afternoon nap as I tossed my Spalding Hi-Bounce ball repeatedly against the brick exterior wall of her bedroom. The Santis were not in this dream. Instead, I saw and heard a small group of people engaged in animated conversation in what would have been the Santis backyard. This time I was the old person lodging the complaint. I walked over, placed my hands on the steel pipe serving as the top rail of the metal fence, leaned over and respectfully asked them to keep the noise level down. I calmly told them I had called the cops before, and I would do it again if necessary. Next I turned my head and saw my brother, of blessed memory, sitting among the party goers with a big grin on his face. “Jeff, what are you doing here?” I asked with astonishment. (Just a side note, this may be the first, at most the second time I have dreamed of my brother since his death a year and a half ago, so I ask myself, “Why now?” We’ll have to come back to that.) Then for some reason I felt obliged to comment on his weight, even though I had certainly seen him heavier throughout the years. He just smiled, and offered no response. 

I awoke. The entire scene was that brief, but very deeply felt. I extricated myself from the warmth of my bed, pulled on my slippers in the dark, walked down the hall to the bathroom, flipped on the light, gazed in the mirror, and that’s when I had to ask the question I posed at the top of this page, “When did I become a cranky old man?”

I know that a cranky old man is not all that I am, but I am afraid that it is a part of me that could gain the upper hand if I allow it to. It’s a piece of me that I would love to extricate. I add quickly that only a couple of days ago I posted a blog in which I accepted the premise that light and dark must co-exist. So the boyish, delightful side of me needs to make peace with the cranky decrepit side of me. How do I do this? How do I do this in a way that allows what I admire in myself to reveal itself more, and leads that part of me that I find troublesome to at least play a less active role, bearing in mind that it cannot be extinguished, and it will only rise in protest if I try to snuff it out all together.

In Judaism we work to improve our performance in life, without expecting to be perfect. Perfection is unattainable for us mortals. The High Holy Day prayer book uses the word “sin” to describe our failings, but even the use of that word fails to be perfect. The Hebrew word that is typically translated as “sin” is the word chet. Every year we are reminded that a chet is not literally a sin. It is a term that comes from archery meaning “missing the mark.” When one has missed the mark, it is possible to improve one’s aim and get a bit closer to the bull's eye the next timewith awareness, with concern, a little practice, and perhaps some coaching. It is not a sin to fall short of perfection. The only sin may be a failure to recognize these misses, a failure to acknowledge them, to make amends for them, and a failure to look for ways to improve upon them.

With the introspection that Elul prompts, a number of questions arise to which I have only embarrassingly poor answers. What gets me angry and why? Why am I so keen to react to the trivial trespasses of others—whether it be noisy neighbors, as in my dream and occasionally in reality, lousy drivers who always seem to be on the road around me while I glide innocently (and perfectly) along, waiters who don’t keep my water glass filled, or inanimate telephone recorded voices offering me a menu of irrelevant dialing options. What about these annoyances captures my passion? More importantly, why do I often raise my voice at insignificant issues and more often sit mutely in the face of genuine offenses?  There are things in life that truly demand anger. There are social injustices toward which I sadly turn a blind eye. If I can find answers to these questions perhaps I can live more as a discerning wise elder and less as a cranky old man.

Getting back to the dream for a bit, I still wonder why my brother was sitting there serenely among the noisy neighbors? My best guess is that the change I seek is something that he, at least in part, achieved in his waning months. No, he did not altogether eradicate a lifetime of his shadow crankiness, but he did shine in a new light, an or chadash in Hebrew, in which he saw love everywhere and conferred blessings on everyone. Perhaps seeing the end of his days gave him that insight. Yom Kippur is said to be a dress rehearsal for the end of our days—we abstain from food, water, sex, and wearing leather as ways to separate ourselves from our normal physical world. I am among the few in our congregation who wears a kittel, the shroud-like white gown in which one day I will be buried. Such an encounter with mortality gives me the opportunity to see what is truly important just as my brother did—to love and to bless.

Ken y'hi ratzon--may it be so!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Fate & Destiny

Greg asked, “Yesh, what about you? How has fate influenced your destiny?” (When our men’s group meets we eschew the truly imponderable questions like, “Who do you think will be in the Super Bowl?”)

I had spoken earlier in the evening about how my pushing against my father and Judaism as an adolescent seemed to have set the stage for my passions for both in my middle age. I could have added something about the fate of being born the son of a Yankee rabbi and a Southern rebel.  Rather than speak to fate, I thought out loud about destiny. How does one ever know one’s destiny? Where does one find the clues?

When Debbie and I arrived in California in 1977 one of our early adventures was to visit a much ballyhooed psychic, Reverend Michelina Russo. Really. A friend swore by her ability to provide answers to questions that one offered to her in sealed envelopes. Really. We went to see her several times and though we retained a certain skepticism, we were nonetheless repeatedly amazed. The first time we went to her we had a private chat in which she calmly foresaw that I would one day speak before large groups of people, but that it would be a very long road before I got there. This is not a prediction that I consciously carry around with me all the time. Years may go by without it coming to mind. Then again, decades have gone by and I haven’t forgotten it.

Not too many years after that I saw another intuitive counselor whose specialty was reading auras. Really. She told me that Debbie and I had been together in past lifetimes, and that I had been a very severe, a very harsh rabbi in one of those lifetimes. Really. She said that my job in this lifetime was to demonstrate to others the joy of Judaism—quite a pleasant task to contemplate! Like the other prognostication, I don’t often think of this, nor have I forgotten it either.

I related these two stories to the group in partial answer to a question John had posed to me, inquiring as to the role food (meaning my healthy weight campaign) plays in the realization of my destiny. The way I put the pieces together is simply that given the current state of my Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), as well as my intellectual, spiritual, and emotional development—it seems that for me to fulfill these prophecies would still require much personal growth, indeed a very long time, just as Reverend Russo suggested. Too often, despite any wisdom I may have accrued over the years, I find myself without the knowledge, but more importantly without the patience and vocabulary to gently influence others, as I would hope to do—regrettably it is that harsh rabbi who occasionally makes his presence felt. Therefore, given the physical shape I was in, up until very recently, the odds that I would live long enough to fulfill that destiny were not great unless I ceased to be obese. It seemed prudent to drop some pounds to enhance the chances that my body will survive as a place in which my spirit can dwell on this planet.

Lest some of that sound too self-deprecating, I also reflected on my selection of a middah in my recent Kol Zimra chanting workshop—the quality of lightness (viz., Accomplishing lightness of body has been relatively easy. Attaining and maintaining lightness of being seems to be more of a challenge. Sometimes I castigate myself for lapses into darkness when that harsh rabbi speaks for me. Yet, as we have so often noted in the men’s group and in other places of inquiry, there is no light without dark. Our teacher at Kol Zimra, Rabbi Shefa Gold, warned us that each middah we chose would be accompanied by its shadow as well. If, indeed dark and light are inseparable companions, then it seems foolish to curse the night. And while it seems uncomfortable, to say the least, to embrace it, that is what I must do in myself and others. The path to lightness includes making peace with its polar counterpart.  

I also reminded John and the others of how I had asked the rabbi for advice on how to connect a spiritual quest with the physical one on which I had embarked. One outcome of that conversation is that I now, more times than not, pause to bless the food I am about to eat, reflect on the blessing of the nourishment it provides as it begins to circulate throughout my body, and express my gratitude in prayer upon completion of the meal. Making eating a spiritual act serves as a model for making any and all activities spiritual acts. Bringing consciousness to one of life’s functions spreads awareness to other functions as well. Increasing such consciousness is a long journey. Again, attaining and maintaining a normal body mass index has the potential of giving me a greater opportunity to be on that journey.

There have probably been countless fateful occurrences that have influenced my movement along my path. Perhaps none clearer than my almost accidental decision to attend the rabbi’s adult b’nai mitzvah class that began in late 2005. When the class ended early in 2007 I decided to participate in the formal b’nai mitzvah exercise even though I had already celebrated a bar mitzvah at age thirteen. In my remarks to the congregation I noted that when I was a lad I had no idea what it meant to be entering the portal of adulthood. I also surmised that if there were a portal I was entering at this point in my life it must be that of becoming an elder, about which I knew as little at age fifty-nine as I did about becoming an adult at thirteen. That did not deter me from declaring in so many words, “Today I am an elder!” which later led a few knowledgeable friends in the congregation to tell me about the brilliant book by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing. I followed their suggestion. Reading that book brought me to what has already become an ecstatic journey of study within the Jewish Renewal community—brought on by a simple twist of fate!

I often quote a classmate from my first Jewish Renewal workshop—one based on Reb Zalman’s vision of spiritual eldership. This classmate happened to be a rabbi from New Jersey. Months later we ran into each other at another Jewish Renewal event and he introduced me to a congregant of his with the words, “This is Yeshaya. He still thinks his path is his choice!” One day I will ask him exactly what he meant by that since I am still somewhat mystified by the comment. We do make choices, or so we are given to believe. Are those merely incidental influences on a predetermined path? Of my choosing or not, what fateful occurrences lie around the corner? Will they affect my destiny, and what is my destiny anyway? Will I, one day speak to large gatherings of people and infuse them with the joy of Judaism? I suppose only time will answer these questions, and won’t it be fun to look back on them when, God willing, more of the story is revealed!