Cosmological Koans for Katrina

 

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From the News Center at UC Santa Cruz:  “In his new book, Cosmological Koans: A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality”, physicist Anthony Aguirre explores deep questions about the nature of reality, using an approach inspired by Zen koans to take the reader on a thought-provoking tour of the cosmos and the core ideas of modern physics.

In Zen Buddhism, koans are short parables or questions meant to confront the practitioner with the inadequacy of conventional concepts and habits of thought. Similarly, Aguirre’s “cosmological koans” confront the reader with the unexpected nature of the world as described by physics and the mind-boggling ways in which it differs from our subjective experience or intuitive understanding of things.

‘I wanted to convey that sense of mystery and wonder that comes from seeing reality in a new way,’ said Aguirre, a professor of physics and holder of the Faggin Family Presidential Chair for the Physics of Information at UC Santa Cruz.

The book covers a wide range of topics, woven together with a fictional story line that recounts a journey from Italy to Japan. Multiple universes, the nature of time, the meaning of quantum theory, and entropy and information are among the subjects explored in short chapters that manage to convey mind-bending ideas in a way that is accessible and entertaining.

The topics include some of the most challenging open questions in cosmology and physics, as well as concepts that have long been settled science yet remain disturbingly counterintuitive. With respect to the enduring mystery of time, for example, Einstein showed that there is no universal ‘now’—in other words, different observers can have different perceptions of whether two events are simultaneous.”

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Let’s explore the concept of time a bit further.  In Chapter 28, p. 210, Professor Aguirre writes that you don’t see the world as it is now, whether that “now” is cosmic or not.  The world you see around you is the world as it was in the past.  Viewing the leaf falling from a tree 50 meters away, you see the tree as it was 167 nanoseconds ago.

What does “now” mean?  In other words how do we define the present as distinct from the past or the future?  It’s a timeless question borne of metaphysics as much as physics.  As soon as you stop to identify that now is now, the moment has already passed into the past.  Perhaps the closest we can come is envisioning a pause button as the label for a given “time t” that occurs as an event in a particular space at a specific time.  But as we know, within our physical framework, there is no pause button.  The arrow of time is always moving forward.  The instant we reflect on the present it becomes the past, and the future is the next moment in time.

So if identifying the present is nearly a fleeting impossibility, would we have the audacity to imagine a perfect moment in time?  Art Garfunkel believes we can, and who am I to disagree?

In chapter 30, p. 226, Professor Aguirre turns his attention to the thorny question of Theodicy, or why a designer would create a world of beauty such as ours while allowing for unimaginable levels of pervasive suffering.   This leads the good professor to contemplate the multiverse, and that the universe we inhabit is one among many – merely the one that is most inhabitable to us.  That thinking is in line with Leibniz, who imagined this to be the “best” universe not just in terms of good outweighing evil, but also as the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena.

Chapter 31, The Floating Gardens, prompted me to get even more whimsical than usual. From a biblical standpoint, and the Old Testament in particular, the most significant “uni-verse” is the first verse.  (Might we consider this a Cosmological “Cohen” as opposed to a “Koan”?)  It reads:  בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

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בְּרֵאשִׁית – in the beginning.   The beginning of what?  Time would seem to be the essence.

בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים – God created.  The apparent conflict between “God” in the plural, and “created” in the singular.

אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ – The heavens and the earth.  Note the singularity of the earth and the multiplicity of the heavens, not to mention “the two aces”.

So by now you may be wondering, who is Katrina?  In chapter 50, p. 355, Professor Aguirre takes note of the host of dichotomies he has assailed us with:  Us and Them.  Self and Other.  East and West.  Katrina is a young woman in the service industry I encounter in her role as a barista at Starbucks in the morning and as a waitress at Martell’s Tiki Bar in the evening, a dichotomy in its own right.  She took an interest in what I was reading one morning – it was Cosmological Koans – which led to a conversation about East/West and the Yoga which got shoved down to the bottom of my bucket list.

Starbucks of course asks for your first name if you order anything but regular coffee.  Originally I gave my name as Len, but for some reason the baristas kept hearing “Glen”.  I got tired of correcting them, and so Glen I became for the purposes of my morning routine.  When Katrina waited on Miriam and me and at Martell’s, my “real” name came to the surface.  “If you’re Len, be Len” she said.  Sounds like a cosmological koan to me.

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The Spread on the Platform

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No one can claim that Mike Pence isn’t a hands-on Vice-President.  Here he is today,  positioning Admiral Polowczyk on the podium.  But this is a time when body language speaks volumes – perhaps even louder than words.  If  you watch the daily briefings by the Governors in New York and New Jersey, social distancing is carefully practiced on the podium.  None of the participants are within six feet of one another.   Yet at the White House, until the past few days, participants of the Coronavirus Task Force were shoulder-to-shoulder, no doubt to show solidarity and unity, which is reassuring at some level.

While I appreciate the political ramifications, social distancing has been cited repeatedly by Drs. Fauci and Birx as the single most important factor in halting he spread of COVID-19 in addition to washing one’s hands with soap.  If the message of social distancing is important to model to the American people, I can think of no better place to do it it than on this grand stage.  In fact, during the briefing, Vice-President Pence thanked Americans  at large for following the guidelines on social distancing.  Yet here is Dr. Birx standing well within six feet of a fellow presenter.

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When I mentioned this on a Facebook post the other day, someone responded that he was sure the individuals on the Task Force had all been tested for COVID-19 and were negative.   Well … we don’t know that, because the public health messaging has been that one doesn’t get tested unless there are signs and symptoms of the disease.  And my hunch is that if that were the case, the White House wouldn’t likely miss the opportunity to share that reassuring message and note that it’s only with such knowledge that social distancing guidelines can be relaxed in small groups such as the Task Force.  Not to mention that each member of the Task Force is interacting with people outside the Force on a daily basis.

Ironically, in contrast, the pool of reporters attending the White House daily briefings from the Task Force are well-spaced.

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My intent in pointing this out has has been because I care about our leadership, and to note that the Coronavirus Task Force is losing an opportunity to model the importance of social distancing.  And finally, today, one of the reporters toward the end of the briefing posed that very question to President Trump.  He asked if the President wasn’t concerned about standing so close to the Vice-President on the podium.  The President’s answer?  Aside from noting that their test results were negative a few days ago (which the reporter pointed out wasn’t reassuring for their status today),  President Trump explained:  “We have this tiny platform, and I’d love it to be wider”.  Come now, Mr. President.  You, more than anyone else, know that perception is reality.  I have confidence that you can figure this out.  After all, it shouldn’t be just the members of the Task Force who are giving each others a pat on the back.

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From Whence Cometh Our Help

Pslams/Tehilim 121: I lift my eyes to the mountains … from where does my help come?

 

Shir Lamaalot

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Then again, the Lord helps those who help themselves.  Although the following exploration with Dr. Roger Lipsey is about global climate change, its context seems appropos to the current pandemic.  Where will help come from?  The individual or society?  In citing the work of three iconic individuals, he weaves a narrative of hope and contemplative action.

And these thought questions from the Governor of New York, for whom I have acquired new-found respect and admiration, followed by an inspirational quote from Churchill.

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Taking Care of Your Mental Health is an Essential Self-Service

Sage advice, written by a NYS School/Clinical Psychologist, and shared by a colleague of mine, Dr. Jennifer Ceonzo.  So to whoever you are who originally wrote this, thanks for putting it together!

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“After having thirty-one sessions this week with patients where the singular focus was COVID-19 and how to cope, I decided to consolidate my advice and make a list that I hope is helpful to all. I can’t control a lot of what is going on right now, but I can contribute this.

MENTAL HEALTH WELLNESS TIPS FOR QUARANTINE

1. Stick to a routine. Go to sleep and wake up at a reasonable time, write a schedule that is varied and includes time for work as well as self-care.

2. Dress for the social life you want, not the social life you have. Get showered and dressed in comfortable clothes, wash your face, brush your teeth. Take the time to do a bath or a facial. Put on some bright colors. It is amazing how our dress can impact our mood.

3. Get out at least once a day, for at least thirty minutes. If you are concerned of contact, try first thing in the morning, or later in the evening, and try less traveled streets and avenues. If you are high risk or living with those who are high risk, open the windows and blast the fan. It is amazing how much fresh air can do for spirits.

4. Find some time to move each day, again daily for at least thirty minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable going outside, there are many YouTube videos that offer free movement classes, and if all else fails, turn on the music and have a dance party!

5. Reach out to others, you guessed it, at least once daily for thirty minutes. Try to do FaceTime, Skype, phone calls, texting—connect with other people to seek and provide support. Don’t forget to do this for your children as well. Set up virtual playdates with friends daily via FaceTime, Facebook Messenger Kids, Zoom, etc—your kids miss their friends, too!

6. Stay hydrated and eat well. This one may seem obvious, but stress and eating often don’t mix well, and we find ourselves over-indulging, forgetting to eat, and avoiding food. Drink plenty of water, eat some good and nutritious foods, and challenge yourself to learn how to cook something new!

7. Develop a self-care toolkit. This can look different for everyone. A lot of successful self-care strategies involve a sensory component (seven senses: touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell, vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive (comforting pressure). An idea for each: a soft blanket or stuffed animal, a hot chocolate, photos of vacations, comforting music, lavender or eucalyptus oil, a small swing or rocking chair, a weighted blanket. A journal, an inspirational book, or a mandala coloring book is wonderful, bubbles to blow or blowing watercolor on paper through a straw are visually appealing as well as work on controlled breath. Mint gum, Listerine strips, ginger ale, frozen Starburst, ice packs, and cold are also good for anxiety regulation. For children, it is great to help them create a self-regulation comfort box (often a shoe-box or bin they can decorate) that they can use on the ready for first-aid when overwhelmed.

8. Spend extra time playing with children. Children will rarely communicate how they are feeling, but will often make a bid for attention and communication through play. Don’t be surprised to see therapeutic themes of illness, doctor visits, and isolation play through. Understand that play is cathartic and helpful for children—it is how they process their world and problem solve, and there’s a lot they are seeing and experiencing in the now.

9. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and a wide berth. A lot of cooped up time can bring out the worst in everyone. Each person will have moments when they will not be at their best. It is important to move with grace through blowups, to not show up to every argument you are invited to, and to not hold grudges and continue disagreements. Everyone is doing the best they can to make it through this.

10. Everyone find their own retreat space. Space is at a premium, particularly with city living. It is important that people think through their own separate space for work and for relaxation. For children, help them identify a place where they can go to retreat when stressed. You can make this place cozy by using blankets, pillows, cushions, scarves, beanbags, tents, and “forts”. It is good to know that even when we are on top of each other, we have our own special place to go to be alone.

11. Expect behavioral issues in children, and respond gently. We are all struggling with disruption in routine, none more than children, who rely on routines constructed by others to make them feel safe and to know what comes next. Expect increased anxiety, worries and fears, nightmares, difficulty separating or sleeping, testing limits, and meltdowns. Do not introduce major behavioral plans or consequences at this time—hold stable and focus on emotional connection.

12. Focus on safety and attachment. We are going to be living for a bit with the unprecedented demand of meeting all work deadlines, homeschooling children, running a sterile household, and making a whole lot of entertainment in confinement. We can get wrapped up in meeting expectations in all domains, but we must remember that these are scary and unpredictable times for children. Focus on strengthening the connection through time spent following their lead, through physical touch, through play, through therapeutic books, and via verbal reassurances that you will be there for them in this time.

13. Lower expectations and practice radical self-acceptance. This idea is connected with #12. We are doing too many things in this moment, under fear and stress. This does not make a formula for excellence. Instead, give yourself what psychologists call “radical self acceptance”: accepting everything about yourself, your current situation, and your life without question, blame, or pushback. You cannot fail at this—there is no roadmap, no precedent for this, and we are all truly doing the best we can in an impossible situation.

14. Limit social media and COVID conversation, especially around children. One can find tons of information on COVID-19 to consume, and it changes minute to minute. The information is often sensationalized, negatively skewed, and alarmist. Find a few trusted sources that you can check in with consistently, limit it to a few times a day, and set a time limit for yourself on how much you consume (again 30 minutes tops, 2-3 times daily). Keep news and alarming conversations out of earshot from children—they see and hear everything, and can become very frightened by what they hear.

15. Notice the good in the world, the helpers. There is a lot of scary, negative, and overwhelming information to take in regarding this pandemic. There are also a ton of stories of people sacrificing, donating, and supporting one another in miraculous ways. It is important to counter-balance the heavy information with the hopeful information.

16. Help others. Find ways, big and small, to give back to others. Support restaurants, offer to grocery shop, check in with elderly neighbors, write psychological wellness tips for others—helping others gives us a sense of agency when things seem out of control.

17. Find something you can control, and control the heck out of it. In moments of big uncertainty and overwhelm, control your little corner of the world. Organize your bookshelf, purge your closet, put together that furniture, group your toys. It helps to anchor and ground us when the bigger things are chaotic.

18. Find a long-term project to dive into. Now is the time to learn how to play the keyboard, put together a huge jigsaw puzzle, start a 15 hour game of Risk, paint a picture, read the Harry Potter series, binge watch an 8-season show, crochet a blanket, solve a Rubix cube, or develop a new town in Animal Crossing. Find something that will keep you busy, distracted, and engaged to take breaks from what is going on in the outside world.

19. Engage in repetitive movements and left-right movements. Research has shown that repetitive movement (knitting, coloring, painting, clay sculpting, jump roping etc) especially left-right movement (running, drumming, skating, hopping) can be effective at self-soothing and maintaining self-regulation in moments of distress.

20. Find an expressive art and go for it. Our emotional brain is very receptive to the creative arts, and it is a direct portal for release of feeling. Find something that is creative (sculpting, drawing, dancing, music, singing, playing) and give it your all. See how relieved you can feel. It is a very effective way of helping kids to emote and communicate as well!

21. Find lightness and humor in each day. There is a lot to be worried about, and with good reason. Counterbalance this heaviness with something funny each day: cat videos on YouTube, a stand-up show on Netflix, a funny movie—we all need a little comedic relief in our day, every day.

22. Reach out for help—your team is there for you. If you have a therapist or psychiatrist, they are available to you, even at a distance. Keep up your medications and your therapy sessions the best you can. If you are having difficulty coping, seek out help for the first time. There are mental health people on the ready to help you through this crisis. Your children’s teachers and related service providers will do anything within their power to help, especially for those parents tasked with the difficult task of being a whole treatment team to their child with special challenges. Seek support groups of fellow home-schoolers, parents, and neighbors to feel connected. There is help and support out there, any time of the day—although we are physically distant, we can always connect virtually.

23. “Chunk” your quarantine, take it moment by moment. We have no road map for this. We don’t know what this will look like in 1 day, 1 week, or 1 month from now. Often, when I work with patients who have anxiety around overwhelming issues, I suggest that they engage in a strategy called “chunking”—focusing on whatever bite-sized piece of a challenge that feels manageable. Whether that be 5 minutes, a day, or a week at a time—find what feels doable for you, and set a time stamp for how far ahead in the future you will let yourself worry. Take each chunk one at a time, and move through stress in pieces.

24. Remind yourself daily that this is temporary. It seems in the midst of this quarantine that it will never end. It is terrifying to think of the road stretching ahead of us. Please take time to remind yourself that although this is very scary and difficult, and will go on for an undetermined amount of time, it is a season of life and it will pass. We will return to feeing free, safe, busy, and connected in the days ahead.

25. Find the lesson. This whole crisis can seem sad, senseless, and at times, avoidable. When psychologists work with trauma, a key feature to helping someone work through said trauma is to help them find their agency, the potential positive outcomes they can effect, the meaning and construction that can come out of destruction. What can each of us learn here, in big and small ways, from this crisis? What needs to change in ourselves, our homes, our communities, our nation, and our world?”

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Houses of the Holy

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This is the gifted and talented Kayla Goldstein’s contribution to a project that NCSY is rapidly putting together for a special Haggadah this Passover.  It has been an unusual year to say the least, one in which the Chinese Year of the Rat somehow morphed into the Year of the Bat.

Kayla (our granddaughter) has her fingers on the pulse of the moment, blending the symbolism of personal protection and historic distancing within the context of the בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, the House of the Holy.  Jews world-wide have suddenly been thrust into their houses, with admonitions to self-quarantine and hunker down to elude the invisible coronavirus twister.  Of necessity, ritual and prayer have been converted from communal Houses of the Holy to personal Houses of the Holy.  In that sense the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah place all of humanity in the same boat.

And within the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, a biblical allusion to the state we find ourselves in, nearly as isolated as the family members in Noah’s ark (ironically, the world’s first cruise ship).  As Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wrote:

“From the houses of the holy, we can watch the white doves go … “

When will the metaphorical white dove appear with the sign that it is safe to return to society?  If Genesis is any indication, we may need to phase ourselves back in.  When Noah first sent out the white dove, it found no dry land and returned to its quarantined master for another seven days.  The  dove was released seven days later and this time returned with an olive branch signaling that dry land was safe at hand.

“From the houses of the holy, we can watch the white doves go … “

How should we, in the United States, phase ourselves back to the society we abandoned in order to stay alive?  Intuitively it feels like survivors bearing immunity are the new white doves.  Ideally, when the tide of the virus sufficiently recedes, every one of us would be tested.  Virologists and public health officials would have to decide on the first wave who would be allowed to disembark the ark.  Would it be those who have developed immunity?  Is having developed immunity an effective hedge against being re-infected? To what extent can convalescent plasma from these patients be used to aid severely ill patients?  When we re-integrate society, will it be a gradual removal of masks and gloves rather than an abrupt one?  Will we require “at risk” patients to re-integrate later rather than sooner?

Will disinfectant wipes be as commonplace as tissues and napkins for a period of time?  Will social distancing gradually diminish?  Will bowing replace handshakes and “shomer negiah” be the norm within as well as among the sexes?  Will there be a moratorium limiting the maximum number of people permitted at gatherings?  Beyond virology and public health, will rabbinic laws change so that Pasteur invades the Spiritual, and require that soap be added to the ritual of washing hands before every meal?

We are still, collectively, in the stage of formulating an appropriate range of questions. Getting the answers right will be crucial in countering the next pandemic.

“From the houses of the holy, we can watch the white doves go … “

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Re-interpreting and Re-embracing Aloneness

Alone and Together is a very appropriate theme at the moment, and Parabola magazine is making their theme issue on this topic available as a public service at no charge.  Although it is from 2012, it is acutely prescient.  You can download the PDF via their link here.

Take particular note of the article  on pages 30-35 by Joshua Boetitiger titled: Alone, with Others.  It is so well written, and so apropos to our times, that I am taking the liberty of reproducing it here in its entirety.  Although it is written from a Jewish vantage point, it has universal applications.

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THE SOLITARY JEW lives with the cyclical reasoning that the world was created for her sake,[1] yet her task in the world—it is made abundantly clear elsewhere—is to serve others. Ben Azzai says in the Talmud that it is prohibited for a man to not take a wife,[2] but oddly enough, he was never married himself, saying in his defense: “What can I do? My soul is bound up with the Torah.” The tension between alone and together is a creative tension. As human beings we balance our longing to belong to another, or to the collective, with our desire to be true to our individual paths.

Judaism is well known as a tradition that insists on community. It does not privilege asceticism, there is no concept of individual salvation, and sacred texts are preferably studied in tandem with someone else, reading out loud. Jews pray most often in the first person plural, and in order to remember the dead, sanctify God’s Name, or hear Torah read, one needs to pray with nine others. We remember God reasoning in Genesis, “It
is not good for man to be alone,” and so we deduce from all this that Judaism does not value being alone. Yet if we follow this line of thinking, we misunderstand the invitation within the tradition. Togetherness depends on authentic aloneness.

Let’s offer a parallel: Jews are the people of the book, a people to whom words are particularly sacred.  Yet the word would mean nothing if it did not arise from a developed and disciplined silence. To whatever degree we could hope to hear the word, we must cultivate the silence.  So it is with the vision of community.  A community that does not value the necessity of the aloneness of each of its adherents and that does not trust what arises out of that aloneness will be an autocratic community, one held together by gravity and habit but not by the living God.

What Judaism insists upon is that the one who is alone return from her inner work and, to paraphrase Bunny Wailer, “water the root; not just taste the fruit.”  The root is the evolving tradition of the communal, collective body. The one who goes up the mountain or into the desert for forty days is honor-bound to return to share what she has received, and in addition, to know that the integration within the collective of what has been received will involve compromise—since this is the cost of belonging. We water the root when we return, and attempt to put into form what we have formlessly received.

JUDAISM’S INSISTENCE on togetherness has sometimes caused its adherents to lose sight of the necessary inward journey that ultimately makes togetherness possible. Perhaps in the naming of the primacy of community, the invitation to go up the mountain or into the desert has been largely lost. Yet it is there—we can see its imprint everywhere.

JACOB WAS ALONE, in Hebrew levadoh, when the angel found him by the banks of the Jabbok River and wrestled with him till dawn, bestowing upon him the name Israel, one who wrestles with God. This wrestling, this naming would never have happened
without the levadoh that preceded it.

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In another well-trod tale, Moses comes down off the mountain, where he has
been alone receiving the Torah.  He comes down despite the pain and misunderstanding that he knows await him below should he try to bring back the teachings to the collective. But it’s not just that Moses should come down the mountain—the very reason Moses is on the mountain is in order to come down again. The act of prophecy itself is
predicated on the experience of going into the place of aloneness and returning again. We learn from the experience of the classical prophets that to be alone is code for being alone with God. That is what is implied. And it is only when we are irrevocably alone that we realize we are not alone. This is the leap of faith we take when we risk aloneness.

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THE STORY OF RABBI SHIMON bar Yochai and his son is a great example of the journey between retreat and return.[3]  Father and son are forced to seclude themselves in a cave for twelve years to hide from the Romans. They study Torah all day and are magically
sated by a carob tree and a stream that appear in the cave next to them. They attempt to return when they are told the threat has passed, only to have their zealousness get them into immediate trouble. When they see a man plowing and sowing his field on the Sabbath, they are enraged—everything they set their eyes on catches fire because of the
intensity of their judgment. God sends them back to the cave with a fierce rebuke: “Have you emerged to destroy my world? Return to your cave!” They stay in the cave for another twelve months, presumably until they are ready to endure the costs of belonging
and compromise. As Moses learned when he came down the mountain, Torah is only Torah when it functions in the marketplace: in real-time, in real relationship, in imperfect togetherness.

The story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son is a cautionary tale, and in the way of cautionary tales, it belies an invitation. Go into the cave to save yourself. Return when you are ready to save another.

WE ARE TALKING here about re-embracing aloneness. But we should also talk about re-interpreting aloneness. Perhaps part of the confusion here is that we misunderstand the experience of aloneness. We take it too literally, and we associate it only with literal separation, retreat, and physical isolation. Another way to understand aloneness is how Leonard Cohen described his monastic routine with his fellow monks on Mount Baldy: “There was no private space and virtually no private time, we were all working shoulder to shoulder. There is a Zen saying: ‘Like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another.’”

True togetherness allows us to feel that we are alone with ourselves while we are with others. We can enter this realm in different ways. On mediation retreat, purportedly an experience of being alone, I have experienced powerful togetherness—a silent community supporting each other’s aloneness. On the other hand, while davenning with
many worshippers in a synagogue—purportedly an experience of being together—I have felt profound aloneness, being held by the community and its intention, and being free to go towards my own experience. In the presence of such moments, it is clear that we don’t need to choose between being alone and being with others. An authentic experience of each leads us towards the other.

We can also enter this alone/together realm with one other person, a witness, a lover, a true companion. Someone who loves us is someone who sees us in our aloneness, and as Rilke wrote, stands guard over our solitude. Not only can we be aware of our solitude in another’s presence, but we can also help another be aware of their own solitude. This is not the same as being “lonely” in another’s presence. In some ways, it is the opposite of that. It is through feeling our aloneness that we can then feel truly with another.

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Judaism reminds us that the spiritual encounter is not always on the mountaintop or in the desert. The Zohar, the mystical commentary on the Torah, does not describe individuals on mountain tops as much as it does a group of merry pranksters traipsing around the Galilee, with much weeping and rejoicing. Even though Moses was the one who ended up being up on the mountain—alone with God—receiving the Torah, the original intention was that the entire community would be up there. Aloneness, most of the time, happens with others.

WHY THE JEWISH insistence on community? The reasons for this are many, and are multifaceted. But let’s look at it for the corrective it offers in our contemporary “spiritual marketplace,” where we most often speak about the spiritual path as one that begins and ends with the fulfillment of the individual seeker. Maybe an insistence on community can help balance the cult of the individual seeker, and the idolatry and narcissism that this search can sometimes foster. It compels us to ask the question, either on our way into the cave or on our way back out: What have you learned that you can give?

Community gives a shape and larger purpose to the solo journey. And while our contemporary model of search contains pitfalls, it also has the potential to enrich the collective beyond measure. The collective, in fact, depends on this kind of seeking.

Mordechai Kaplan named an ancient tenet of Judaism when he asserted that belonging is more important than believing. Something happens, is made possible, in the human heart when we are told we belong. It is something underneath language, something
embodied. Belonging to a tribe teaches us how to belong to all humanity, to all creation. But it is not so easy to belong. Because it involves a deep compromise, and we can feel that it corrupts the “purity” of our aloneness, we resist belonging. Yet this is the way of the world. We belong—to our people, to all life—whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not.

THIS MOVEMENT between alone and together is a dance of vitality. The one returning from her authentic aloneness, bringing the fruit of that to the community, and the one setting out again into the wilderness—both are necessary to have a community that is
transformative. Think of the community like a mikvah, the ritual bath that Jews immerse in to mark various transitions. In order for a mikvah to be kosher, it must have water flowing in and water flowing out. In order for a community to be kosher, it must have people flowing in and people flowing out. Any tradition needs to cultivate this alone/together dance to experience vitality.

In our synagogue in Vermont a verse from the book of Exodus is inscribed over the doorway: “God led the people by way of the wilderness.”[4] The wilderness is the place of being alone.  The word midbar, in Hebrew, includes the root d-v-r, the root for “word,” or
“thing.” It is in the wilderness of our solitude that we encounter the word, the thing, that will connect us to God. It is only through that being alone in the wilderness that one can merit becoming part of a people. The ideal is that we each will go into our wildernesses from time to time, that the community will make room for this and affirm this, and
that it will receive us back again.

[1]  Mishnah, SANHEDRIN 4:5
[2]  B. Talmud YEVAMOT 63b
[3]  B. Talmud SHABBAT 33b
[4]  EXODUS 13:18

Parabola Cover

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The One Who Has Clean Hands

I introduced Shulem in Part 1 and here, in Part 2, is another healthy dose of this phenomenal talent.  We’ll begin with what seems like an appropriate nod to the ubiquity of the novel coronavirus and the importance of keeping clean hands.  From Psalm 24, L’David Mizmor:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart

… Shulem belts out niki chapayim u’var levov with the Shira Choir at the 2:43 mark:

Next up, Shulem joins his older brother Yanky, chazan of the Lincoln Square Synagogue:

Here is Shulem fronting the Shira Choir on U’vyom Hashabos – the Jewish vocal version of the Gioachini Rossini’s William Tell Overture:

More people than ever are beseeching G-d for an end to the current corona chaos, requesting that their voices be heard.  Once again, Shulem fronting the Shira Choir, here in this sweet rendition of Avinu Malkeinu:

A final Shulem/Shira pairing, from way back in 2015, including a soulful sax:

On this journey, you can set sail with Shulem on a subtitled rendition of “Tniyeleh”:

You’ll Never Walk Alone, from the musical carousel, holds special significance for me, as I blogged last year.  Here is Shulem’s cover version, from his magnificent album, The Perfect Dream:

Lastly, this amateur recording, showing the range of an incredible performer, even under conditions less than ideal with numerous distractions, The Greatest Showman remaining undaunted:

 

 

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This Lemmer is No Lemming

If you haven’t been exposed to Shulem Lemmer before, you’re in for a real treat.  A lemming is someone who follows others blindly, but Shulem follows his own muse.  From a musical standpoint, his origins were cantorially Chasidic, but with his own signature.  Consider his seasonal barbershop quartet version of Chad Gadya:

And here is a more conventional choral performance, this one in concert with another budding Shulem in tow singing the soulful “Nafshi”:

Ah, but now you’re in for a surprise.  After signing a huge and unprecedented record deal with Universal’s Decca Gold, Shulem branched out into the wider recording world to Face the Unknown:

Tell me something.  Have you ever heard a more beautiful rendition of “Bring Him Home” from Les Mis than what Shulem belts out here?

Shulem’s tenor voice is capable of scaling tall buildings in a single bound, as he does majestically, accompanied by Andy Einhorn as Piano Man:

And I’ll leave you with a classic sure to have Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon kvelling …

 

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