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Tag: abraham joshua heschel

and now we pause for awe…

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the lamb has been ordered. the prayer books, slipped from the shelf. soon, i will slice the pomegranate and begin to count the seeds. are there really precisely 613, the same as the number of mitzvot, or commandments, as the sages taught, as i was told in whispers in a kosher kitchen once upon a time?

i have been curious, asking questions, burrowing into the holiness of the new year, the jewish new year, rosh hashanah, ever since i stumbled on that fine bespectacled fellow in the newsroom so long ago, decades ago now. and because i come to this beginning — this pause to behold the wonder of creation, original creation — with inquisitive heart, because question upon question tumbles before me, because one leads to another and another, i can’t help but be drawn deep into what these days offer: these days offer awe.

they are called, quite precisely, the Days of Awe.

awe, my dictionary tells me, is “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”

awe, my etymologists* tell me, has deep roots in fear, and traces back to circa 1300, aue, “fear, terror, great reverence,” earlier aghe, circa 1200, from a Scandinavian source, such as Old Norse agi “fright;” from Proto-Germanic *agiz- (cognates: Old English ege “fear,” Old High German agiso “fright, terror,” Gothic agis “fear, anguish”), from PIE *agh-es- (cognates: Greek akhos “pain, grief”), from root *agh- “to be depressed, be afraid” (see ail). the current sense of “dread mixed with admiration or veneration” is due to biblical use with reference to the Supreme Being. To stand in awe (early 15c.) originally was simply to stand awe. Awe-inspiring is recorded from 1814.

in my own dwelling inside these days of awe, i don’t think too much about fear. i tend toward wonder. the God i know and sidle next to is not one who makes me tremble. truth is, i’m most myself when i draw deep into the hollows of God. when i feel myself wrapped in the arms of the one who gave me breath, and question, and proclivities for awe.

because this pause for holiness is at once still new to me, and now familiar, because in many ways it’s always felt as if i’d been waiting for reason to hold up these days, to hold up these autumn’s-coming hours, i walk through them with all pores open. i love the pungent notes that will rise up from the pot on the stove, the one where lamb simmers alongside onion and celery and garlic, before the apples and raisins and cinnamon settle in. i love the way the molasses morning light pours across the page. i love each sentence i find on the page, especially the ones that startle me, give me pause, give me much to think about during the long hours in synagogue, during the long walks that will punctuate the pause, the anointing that makes the days of awe unlike ordinary time.

because i am always, always drawn to the sage of all sages, abraham joshua heschel, i pulled him, too, from the shelf this morning. i’ve been filling the shelves with heschel for a long long time. even before i knew i’d be the one to share my husband’s bookshelves.

this morning i found this from heschel, along with the pages of prayer that we will tuck under our arms and carry to the pews where the prayers will come. because it speaks to all of us who are inclined to turn in, to refuel in the depths of quietude, i share these fine heschel thoughts as something of a blessing for these days when we pause for awe.

here’s heschel, from “On Prayer,” found in the collection, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited by Susannah Heschel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996):

Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use, a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather like an established residence for the innermost self. All things have a home: the bird has a nest, the fox has a hole, the bee has a hive. A soul without prayer is a soul without a home. Weary, sobbing, the soul, after wandering through a world festered with aimlessness, falsehoods, and absurdities, seeks a moment in which to gather up its scattered life, in which to divest itself of enforced pretensions and camouflage, in which to simplify complexities, in which to call for help without being a coward. Such a home is prayer. Continuity, permanence, intimacy, authenticity, earnestness are its attributes. For the soul, home is where prayer is.

may you find your way home in this sacred span of time, the one that unfolds across the coming hours, the ones i’ve come to know and love as the holy Days of Awe, when i bow my head, my heart, my soul, and pulse with the wonder of creation, and my one small moment to revel in all its glories.

how do you pause for awe? who is your trail guide across the landscape of prayer?

*my etymologists: online etymology dictionary

crack the books

crack the books

any minute now, i’m hoping, the red truck might pull up to the curb — or what was the curb back before the mountains of charcoal-gray polar crust accumulated there, and eclipsed the sharp edge where front yard meets street.

if all goes as planned, there will be a larger-than-life rectangle poking out from under the blankets that billow, blankets intended to keep the rectangle’s smooth white planks from getting splattered with road salt as the red truck sped down the tollway from the pig barn just this side of the state line. the pig barn is where the planks and the nails and the smooth white baseboard and trim turned into a bookcase, all at the hands of my old friend jim. jim who wields hammer and jigsaw and who for the past 15 years has been building our dreams, one nook and one cranny at a time.

that is all to say that i’m at long last due to get that bookcase today. one i ordered up months and months ago ( i might not splurge on haircuts or pairs of jeans without holes in the knees, but i will fork up the cash to buy me a wall of pressed-tight spines). it’s a bookcase that’s soon to be home to the five unpacked book boxes hauled home from veritas U., and the dozen or so tumbling towers of tomes i plonked on my office floor in those long-ago weeks (two years and counting) when i left my downtown newspaper office and made this old garage my forever writing room.

there’s hope that i’ll be home alone for a good chunk of this weekend, and my fingers are itching to get at those books, to pull each one from the depths and the dark of its shipping box. to flip through the pages and sink back in time, back to the couch in cambridge where i looked over rooftops and scrawled in the margins. made notes. thought with my pen, in ink. where, for one sumptuous year, i tumbled and soared over the landscape of learning — learning of poetry and slave-trading, jim-crow atrocities, abolitionists and everyday saints, as well as the art and craft of narrative writing.

all those books — all those old friends: the poet donald hall; frederick douglas; virginia woolf; zora neale hurston; the list goes on and on — are tucked inside, and pulling them, one-by-one, from the shadow, hoisting them up to a shelf, will be an exercise in remembering, in discovering all over again just why as a civilization we believe in the sealing of words to the page.

it’s testament, all of it, to the power of being shaken to tears, the delight of traipsing upon a brand-new accumulation of letters whirred into a word we’d never imagined, the riveting thought that stirred me to pulling the tip of my pen clear beneath the words, as if to memorize, to absorb, to never forget the electrical force of that particular idea.

i boxed the books by semester, so with each tearing back of the seam, i’ll enter a particular epoch in the year that unlocked channels in my mind and deepened my heart and my soul. you can’t open a book, can’t draw your eyes across line after line and not emerge with new layers of knowing, of wondering, of hungering. not if the book’s worth the ink soaked into the page.

and that’s why it matters that those books emerge from their boxes and their vertical teetering stacks. a book belongs at arm’s reach. a book begs to be pulled from the shelf, to be shared, to be slipped in the hand of someone who might want to know, to discover. or to be sprawled once again across your very own lap, so you can read and repeat and recite. memorize a particular collection of words, and the wisdom for which it’s the key.

they’re overdue, all those tomes, to rise from the floor and climb up the walls. soon as the red truck rolls along, they’ll get on with their reason for being: to offer, over and over, the very words that lead us into the heart of truth, beauty and wisdom.

best done when perched on a shelf, ready for dispatch with determined tug of the spine.

some days writing is sheer exercise. you rumble your fingers in hopes of keeping them limber, and the brain cells to which they’re connected. this was one of those days — with 85 distractions, here, there and everywhere. 

because i can’t bear to leave you with such thin offerings, i am turning to one of the books from another shelf in this old house: abraham joshua heschel’s “i asked for wonder: a spiritual anthology.” the editor, samuel h. dresner, culled heschel’s writings for those passages — “so compelling are his sentences that a paragraph literally chokes from wealth,” dresner writes — that are the heart of the matter.

here’s one titled, “degrees”:

…Awareness of God does not come by degrees from timidity to intellectual temerity; it is not a decision reached at the crossroads of doubt. It comes when, drifting in the wilderness, having gone astray, we suddenly behold the immutable polar star. Out of endless anxiety, out of denial and despair, the soul bursts out in speechless crying.

and so i leave you with heschel, and keep my own eye trained out the window. searching and hoping for a sighting of the shiny red truck and the rectangle certain to put my life back in order. or at least some fraction of it, perhaps.

what books do you pull most often from your best-loved shelf?

vernal whisperings

if you listen, you can hear the first stirrings of winter loosening its grip. yes, the snow moon, that great white orb that cast its full light on the cold cruel landscape of last night, made it hard to see anything that was not white, or bluish white, a color even colder.

but in fact, and despite the wind chill, this is the day when myth and legend begin their vernal whisperings. there’s the old folktale about the ground hog and his shadow. but that doesn’t much catch my fancy.

what does catch it, locks it in its grip, is something i knew little about. until now. it is the jewish festival of tu b’shevat, the new year of the trees.

it is, it seems, all about vernal whisperings, the first hint of promise that all this, the harsh and the cold and the barren, will soon melt away.

as a woman married to a jew, as a woman who embraces spirit and rite and story and all things of the earth, this little holiday seems made for souls like me.

i had had an inkling that the holiday i had a hard time pronouncing (tu-bish-vat, more or less) had something to do with trees or planting trees. in fact, it is said that this is the day when God decides how bountiful the fruit of each tree will be in the coming year.

in israel, this is when the almond tree awakes from its winter sleep, erupting in clouds of tissue-white flowers, the first blossom of spring.

in ancient times, tu b’shevat marked the day of tithing. it clanged the final bell on the fiscal year. all fruits borne before this day, belonged to the harvest of the last year, and must be divided accordingly, a portion to the poor, a portion to the temple in jerusalem.

all of that was lovely enough.

but then i heard something about a special seder of seven fruits.

and that’s when i knew i needed to dig a little deeper. that’s when i discovered the thinking of the 16th-century jewish mystics.

known as the kabbalists, these deeply spiritual thinkers believed that we elevate ourselves by the eating of certain fruits on tu b’shevat. if done with holy intention, they taught, sparks of light hidden in the fruit could be broken open from their shells, freed to float up to heaven, to the great divine, completing the circle of the renewal of life.

oh my.

they go on, these marvelous mystics. they talk not about seven fruits, but ten. they break them into categories corresponding to four levels of creation. there are the fruits that need no protection, and can be wholly eaten; grapes and figs, among them. there are fruits that require protection but only at the heart; olives, dates and persimmons would be among these. then there are the fruits that need full protection, the pomegranate and avocado, both of which hide inside a leathery shell. the fourth realm, purely spiritual, by definition has no fruits: it’s just pure spirit.

the holiness of each fruit or nut is, according to the kabbalists, the soft edible part, the part you can bite into. the pits or inedible parts were thought to be impure. and the shells were the protection of the holiness. (makes you feel kindly toward that ol’ banana peel, eh?)

reciting blessings–there is a particular line from the torah for each fruit or nut, believe it or not–helps to release the holy spark of life flow trapped within them, the kabbalists believed.

ah, but the act of chewing, they tell us, kicks it all into some sort of spiritual overdrive.

get this: chewing is more powerful than reciting blessings, they believed, because humans have 32 teeth, and that is the precise number of times the word “elohim,” or God, appears in the story of creation.

goodness. it is morsels like that that make it so delicious to dig deep into something of which you once knew so little, but deep in your soul feel so drawn to. it’s the marvelous adventure, open to all of us, of cracking deep into the book of religions other than the one we knew first. it’s the weaving and steeping, the absorbing and unfolding, that i swear enriches the broth.

but back to the fruits, and the part that i think is the absolute swooningest.

along with the fruits of the seder, the kabbalists said there must be four glasses of wine at the meal. you begin, they taught, with a white wine. each glass after that adds more and more red wine, so that each glass deepens in color. the first glass represents the cold whiteness of winter, the next, the pale buds of spring, onto the deep rose of the height of summer, and finally the crimson of the autumn leaves before they fall from the trees.

you needn’t be jewish to want to drop to your knees on that one, the breathtaking progression, the resonance of the fruit of the vine with the rhythms of earth, the unfolding. a whole sensory reminding that the changing of season is a blessing beyond blessing.

and this is a day when we pause, when we listen, for the first stirrings of the deep underground.

abraham joshua heschel, the great 20th-century jewish scholar, writes magnificently of the sanctification of time in judaism. here is one thought to ponder:

“judaism teaches us to be attached to the holiness of time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of the year.”

and so tonight, as i light the shabbat candles, usher in tu b’shevat, a sanctuary i never really knew until now, i will sit down to a feast of the earth’s promise, to fruits and nuts and wine. i will behold the shifting of the seasons, the absolute truth of the returning of life.

yes, now winter is making itself abundantly present. but from the heart of the fruits, will break open great sparks of holiness, wafting toward heaven. from each sip of my ever-blushing wine, the taste of the turning of time.

i will know as i eat and drink that beneath the cold hard snow, the fruits of spring are stirring. are whispering sacred incantations. vernal incantations.