Sunday, October 2, 2011

Seeds of Peace, High Holidays, and Other Thoughts

(Don't want to read? Look at these Yom-Kippur-related drawings instead until I am reunited with my scanner.)

Dear readers,

An update - I am now in New York City, working for an awesome organization called Seeds of Peace, whose mission is to "inspire and equip new generations of leaders from regions of conflict with the relationships, understanding, and skills needed to advance lasting peace" (http://www.seedsofpeace.org/). It is non-political and secular, although one could argue that peace itself is political mindset (discuss!). As an unabashed idealist who believes in the need for intercultural communication and understanding while acknowledging the power - and importance - of national and individual stories and identities, I am thrilled to be with Seeds of Peace. If you have any questions, I'll talk your ear off about why I think SOP is awesome. Just email me for more information.

 להבדיל | And now for something completely different

There seems to be nothing like a three-day holiday marathon (two days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed straightaway by Shabbat) when it comes to entering a new community. I arrived in NYC on Wednesday around noon, went through a round of errands, and was out of the apartment on the way to services by 6 p.m. While I prepared myself for eating alone the entire time, I ended up doing so only once, on Friday night. And even then Abraham Joshua Heschel kept me company, reaching through the pages of The Sabbath. My favorite quotation for this Shabbat:

"For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise." (16)

Over the course of Rosh Hashanah and for Shabbat lunch I ate with over twenty-five new acquaintances, most of whom I might even remember by name. Babies occasionally slept or played nearby. One man was from Siberia and taught me a new expression, "у него глаза разбегаются." Literally, his eyes run apart from each other, run off in different directions. Used to describe someone - in this case, his son - who cannot focus on a single thing or activity. Another woman turned out to work in the seat next to a good friend of mine at AJWS. Some interesting journeys for sure at the food-laden tables. And boy, the food! And the generosity, the hospitality. The sincere well-wishes. I look forward to returning the favor and welcoming new members in turn into what is now my community.

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There were several speakers and teachers whose words affected me greatly these past three days. It is now past midnight, and I am feeling quite tired, so I will only list key points for now:

Our life in this world as "a gift within a gift" (Rabbi Shai Held, at Kehilat Hadar)

The significance of expressing thankfulness, gratefulness, with the first word one utters upon waking; the orientation of being grateful as a quintessentially human orientation, one that indebts us to our fellow human beings, one that is necessary for healthy and true living (Rabbi Shai Held, at Hadar; my main question: Is God grateful? Can God be grateful and remain God?)

Yom hashishi ("The sixth day," recited by some before the blessing on wine on Friday nights) as referring to the sixth of Sivan, when the complete culmination of the creation of the world marked by the giving of the Torah also added a second layer to Shabbat observance, including the mandate to make the day holy beyond its inherent holiness (Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun)

Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) as a time to reflect on how we approach Shabbat, just as Shabbat is a time to reflect on how we approach the rest of the week; needing the time apart, the time paused, in order to reflect and reevaluate (Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, at CKJ)

The Book of Jonah as a story about coming to terms with God's attribute of mercy (Gilah Kletenik, at CKJ; my question: To where have we come as people, and what do we think of ourselves, when we think that God should not be merciful upon others?)

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Shabbat is a time where I make a concerted effort not to work, and I see this work as including behaviors beyond the strictly proscribed acts such as writing, cooking, mending, and engaging in commerce. While in college, for example, I often avoided class-related reading, and I tried not to speak at length about my job search. Talking about work is in a different category, halakhically (according to Jewish law) and practically, from performing work itself, relating more to the disruption of a Shabbat ethos or aesthetic than to the disruption of a Shabbat lifestyle, yet I find that restraining from both helps me to set Shabbat apart and preserve it as a time of rest.

This Shabbat, I found that I now stand at an interesting confluence of prohibitions, for talking about my work is my work. At the same time, I love Seeds of Peace and what it stands for, and I think that peace, intercultural understanding, group identity, and the ability for youth to carry the future are perfectly wonderful topics for academic and religious conversation on Shabbat. It is now up for me to set guidelines for myself, so that I stop discussing SOP at some reasonable point - for example, before I would be tempted to write down someone's name to contact them later about helping out. Most likely, this will end up being a matter of mindset. I am open to suggestions as well as to recommendations for reading up on related halakha.

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I looked up tonight when leaving shul. I could not see stars. A fellow walker confirmed that I should not expect to see them here. This got me to thinking about light pollution, about glorification, about prayer, about focus, about communication.

For those who are suspended during these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a state of slightly elevated self-awareness, I wish the following:

May it be this week that we put enough waiting silence into and between our prayers that we allow God the space and the time to guide us, that we open ourselves to receiving as well as to giving, to hearing as well as to speaking, that we do not block out the stars with our own human lights.

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