In the beginning there was metaphor.
The Universe exists. Expansiveness exists. Energy exists. Some would argue, even, that Love exists. The mystery of it all is beyond our ability to truly fathom. We search for words, for images to satisfy our rational minds, to provide some understanding of the unknowable. We settle on metaphors that more often muddle rather than clarify. We end up arguing about the correctness of the metaphors as if they were the substance of that which we were trying to articulate rather than mere symbols. Many use the word "God" as their portal to understanding the unfathomable. Among that community there is much debate over which god is The God. There are others for whom the G-word causes so much confusion or consternation that they refuse to believe. What it is they refuse to believe is not all that clear. To not accept someone else’s metaphor for that which defies definition is not unreasonable. To reject the existence of the mystery that governs the Universe is something else. Do those who reject the metaphor deny that there is a great mystery regardless of our ability to create a common vocabulary with which to express it?
Some religions demand, as a fundamental precept, that all adherents must adopt the same metaphor to maintain membership among their ranks. Thank Metaphor, Judaism does not. Moreover, at least in the circles I run, it is the individual search for Metaphor that unites us more than a shared vision of a single concept. Thus, a week ago, when I began the second week-long session of the Kol Zimra (KZ) Jewish spiritual chanting workshop (Week One was last July) it should have come as no surprise that I did not immediately feel in alignment with some of the metaphors in use by the instructor and my classmates. I hesitate to state it in terms of gender differentiation, although I do suspect, as the only male in the workshop, that I may be reading from a different lexicon when describing the landscape of my spirituality. Granted, it is a self-selected subset of the Universe that would enroll in this workshop to begin with, so my vocabulary ultimately may be more in sync with my KZ sisters than it is with many men. Nonetheless, it may have just been a need to warm up to the feminine waters in which I was wading, but there was definitely a bit of a disconnect at the start.
KZ may be the ultimate environment of metaphor. The course requires of us to continually express the inexpressible. We delve into a world that we experience deeply, but in a non-rational sense. Truths are personal, palpable, and yet unprovable. A common faith is not demanded. Rather, it is a practice of mutual empathy for the expression of each other’s unique Truth. It is hard to say where all the overlapping transparencies of belief and experience lie. It’s a little like witnesses at the scene of an accident. Each of us sees what is happening before us—in the world, in the room, in our hearts—from our own perspective, no two visions are exactly alike. Yet, there is a collective wisdom that at some level we all share, or at least we allow it to float lightly about us without demanding so much definition that it would break apart.
My week was a climb up this mountain of metaphor. At first I wandered about the foot of the mountain searching for a trail head. It seemed that my sisters were already ascending. I could hear their voices, but could not tell exactly where they were coming from or what they were singing. It did not take long, however, for me to find my own path which intersected with all the others at various points along the climb. Whether we all ascended to the same heights I cannot say. There may have been moments when some, if not all, where at the same peak at the same time.
The thematic metaphor for the journey this week, offered by our teacher Rabbi Shefa Gold, was that of the four elements. We explored our spiritual relationship to earth, water, wind and fire. Each day we focused on a different element. On the third day the theme was air, and for me it was the most significant relative to my own growth needs. I sometimes experience a cosmic lack of the air element—leading to rigidity or a sense of smallness and isolation, while at other times I have an overabundance of it—leading to indecisiveness, scattered thought, or over-intellectuality (e.g., in this very moment moment, no doubt!). It’s not hard to find evidence of too much or too little of each of the four elements. Overshooting and undershooting the mark is easy to do. In fairness to myself I could make a decent case for at least occasionally being in balance in each domain as well.
At the end of every KZ week we set an intention for personal development in the six-month interval until we meet again. We use the Hebrew word midah (midot, plural) to describe that intention, and we pray for each other’s fulfillment of their respective midot. Last July I chose “lightness” as my midah with thoughts about lightness in spirit as well as in the physical plane where I was already engaged in a significant weight loss program. This time I continued with the theme of light in a different sense. I selected the metaphor Ner Tamid—Eternal Light—as my midah. I could write at length about Ner Tamid. Suffice it to say for now, that tending the Ner Tamid, the ritual fire within the Tabernacle that is my body and my soul, requires a steady, daily practice of awareness underlying all other practices. My quest is that by drawing on my internal light I may charge each day with clarity, and purpose to focus the scattered energy of my continually changing self. I pray that my Ner Tamid within will illuminate my actions throughout the day, connecting me to the Great Metaphor with constancy, persistence, strength, and beauty.