Monday, December 19, 2011
A Lesson in Metaphysics from a Street Drain, Hot Ice, and the Chanuka Flames
Marion Place surrounded a wild field where scorpions roamed and hardi-ha birds nested. We lived at number 66 and the field was our other playground. I loved the rawness of the place. There were large stones on which to sit and dream, and places to hide in play. The street circled the field like a belt. Beneath it ran a drain gutter. Etched in my memory like scratches in the tar is the recollection of lowering my body into the channel, raising my hands to receive the pushcart passed to me, taking my seat and gazing down the tube whose only light came from rain drains up above. G-d knows what could have been if the heavens opened and flooded the intestine of the road. But time and again I took off, racing faster and faster down the hill, fleeting beneath the slatted light, and finally curving to a halt at the bottom of the hill. Then the long walk back and the haul out. Each ride was always a first!
The upside of the street held its pleasures too. Sitting on the rubber tire swing, we read stories about children who sold lemonade on the curb. They were stories of other lands. No one really passed Marion Place other than the people who lived there. And no one was interested in buying lemonade, or the biscuits we baked. But that didn't stop us from setting up our stand. And then we'd wait, like Charlie Brown, for the elusive customer who never came.
What children did buy was ice-cream. The ice-cream man rode by most afternoons. His skin burnished deep and dark. He rode a bike to which a large box was attached at the front. It was filled with hot ice. Playing on the front lawn, shaded by a garden-bed packed tight with aloes and stralitzias, we'd hear his bell. It was a tin manual one, strapped with string to the handlebar. Inside the darkness of the box his ice smoked, its metallic smell mixed with that of the sugars and chocolates of the ice creams. Oh how good it was to dip my hand into the black space and pull up wrappers of different colors, searching for the chocolate cone, the orange sorbet, the milky bar…
It was a Sunday when I learned how hot the cold was. Dad offered the ice-cream man some extra pennies for a chunk of the stuff and cut a deal. He pulled on the work gloves tucked into his pocket and lifted the ice from the darkness. It smoked white and hard against the backdrop of his shirt, then past the shrubbery and along the red brick wall that skirted the driveway.
“Come see,” he said, walking towards the pool.
He was our Pied Piper, leading us to the water that glistened beneath the sun. Smells of chlorine and fermenting peaches mingled in the air.
“Let me touch Dad, let me touch”
“Careful, it burns”
“No ways,” I bounced, reaching my hand out.
It sure did, sticking to my skin and holding it as I pulled back in surprise.
“Step away,” he said, flinging the ice into the water.
Boom! It exploded in an instant, a white volcanic eruption right there in the very water we splashed about in noon-after-long-African-afternoon. Our mild pool, reserved for gentle play, or spirited dives and games of Marco-Polo at most, was spewing forth hot vents as if it were a deep dark ocean bed. Bubbles burst to the surface and popped open from the blue below. It fascinated me that something so cold worked like fire. The ice burned a memory within me.
It was one of those days you don’t get the full significance of until later. I frequently return to the black tar and the open veld. To the street’s underbelly with its slatted light. To memories of my father. I am standing poolside and the ice is burning, bubbling. It frightens me. And it excites me. Was it that even then at the age of ten I intuited the questions I would only articulate with the weight of a couple more years? Are things as they appear to be? Or is everything also its opposite? Is heat hot? Or is it cold as well? Is ice fire? And am I no-thing?
I think of that day and ponder most deeply how each thing contains its opposite as I sit before the fluttering glow of the Chanuka lights and our children twirl their dreidels, tossing hazel nuts at each other across the floor. I gaze at the flames. They are born of oil rather than wax and glow gold against the doorway, luminously balancing the mezuzah which shines behind my back. They pull me in to their glimmer. At the epicenter float black cords – silent charred strands blacker than night. Yet it is this darkness that feeds the fire. Each wick is framed by a purple light itself surrounded by a pale light, and then ephemerally framed by a halo hovering between matter and spirit. I look at the flames and then I’m standing at the pool watching the ice burn. Just as that moment was soaked with contradiction; it jars my mind that the black wick is the core of the plasma and halo. How is so much light and such radiance born of the charred stuff? And how is it that the fire is hottest right there where the wick is dying?
In some way gliding on my rocker with the lights on low as the flames multiply night to night, I sense I am sitting before the secrets I spend my life in search of. The flames are a parable not only of my body and soul but also of my purpose. The black wick is my body, the flame is the G-dliness my labors of love generate, and the oil the Divine deeds enacted each day that fuel the fire.
The body sweats and excretes, desires pleasure, decays and dies. Even in its prime it proclaims its limits. It is black in death and albeit pink, is black in birth. But the inner dimension of that darkness is brilliance. It is shining luminescent G-dliness. With my body I birthed our children. My wick is the fulcrum from which I host guests, give charity, wipe a bleeding nose, sweep the floor, light the lamps. My body serves my life just as the wick serves the flame. In the same way that the cotton cord is the anchor for the light so too is my physical existence the anchor and support for my entire existence.
The world itself, the very matter I engage with, is also a wick. Black beans. Black table. Black fruit which even in its robust sweetness is decaying. A world of wicks. The universe is matter that in and of itself is dense and dark even as it is pleasurable. But – and this is the crux of it all – when I use that world in service of the Divine, it becomes a source for Divine radiance. This is our deepest purpose. To be lamplighters.
Lest the light die quickly, I feed the flame with oil. The fuel for G-dly light is the acts my Creator charges me with: Take a citron with a palm frond, some willows and a sprig of myrtle. Wave it just so. And lo and behold, Divine light. Take the skin of an animal, tan it fine. Take ink and write the following words on the leather. Lo and behold, Divine light. Take money and give it to someone in need. Lo and behold, Divine light!
So dark is light, and black matter is G-dliness. Each thing is transmutable. The principal holds true for every act mandated by G-d. A mitzvah is a candle. But the two mitzvot that most embody this principal are the Shabbat and Chanukah candles. Both shine forth the secret that counter-intuitively each entity holds within itself its contrary dimension. Each shines forth the message that the darkness of matter is in essence Divine light when properly channeled. Beside the menorah, our children play. The dreidel spins…Everything is in motion, each thing is itself and simultaneously its opposite. The oil has become flames and the flames are light and the light is the desire of G-d. G-d’s presence is hovering manifest in our dining room, shining at us from the cups of oil.
This notion that matter can be transformed is uniquely Jewish. That’s why it so irked the Greeks. “You want to philosophize? Fine. Go ahead and indulge in pleasure. But don’t come telling us that you can take a wick and turn it into a holy flame. Don’t spew nonsense proclaiming that oil squeezed from a bitter olive can be sacred!” And so, in violent reaction to the radical notion that ice is fire and black is light and matter is Divine, they ransacked the Temple looking for…for what?! For cruses of oil! They would not, could not have us calling out that either physical pleasure or philosophical inquiry or anything in between can be G-dly.
A small group of radicals persevered. They were the visionaries of their generation. They knew the secrets of ice and fire and light. And their entirely non-logical relationship to reality undid an entire army bent on their destruction. They lived from the place of the impossible. Their grasp of the contradictions inherent in reality enabled them to re-invent the way people saw themselves. They gave us back our access to the wondrous principal, “Let there be light.” At the very outset of the creative process, “in the beginning,” G-d told us our mandate was to bring forth the light from all the chaos. The Maccabees took that command and ran with it. The G-dliness they generated captured the primordial vision of G-d and still shines forth from each Chanukah candelabra lit anywhere on the globe. Let there be light.
With this point I can risk the death of my ego. Let it burn! The death will be a birth. Through the surrender of selfhood and in giving over our personal willfulness to the will of G-d, we generate light. We do not have to hold on to the external form of reality. Entering the hidden opposite dimension sets us free. Existence is transmutable. When I think of Marion Place, I realize that the drain belly of that crescent was as sweet for me as the ice-cream lying in the box above. And the tar was as black as the belly. It was always the same street, just top and bottom. Both were dark and both were sweet. Even in the bowels, there was a thrill. Even in the cold, damp darkness the pushcart raced beneath the grids of light and filled my heart with heated joy.
This article was originally published on www.thejewishwoman.org. If you're a writer, submit your work to the editor Sarah Esther Crispe here.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Illuminating the Month of Kislev
I once birthed a woman through a mental breakdown much as a midwife would deliver a baby. Our time together began as a conversation but a blackness in the woman was on its way out. Talk turned to tears and quickened to a deep mourning. Her body heaved with the burden and force of a secret that for over a decade had cost all her mental health to hide. And when she could no longer hold it in, she knelt on all fours, wailing, her pain spewing forth with such force it flashed her limbs outward. My impulse was to jump to my feet and run. I was young. The sounds in her throat frightened me. But I stayed, kneeling beside her, one hand on her back and the other on the ground, like the earth element in an electric circuit. When it was over, she slumped into the rug. Her cries became softer and her body limp. I waited a while, then left for help.
That dark evening, it struck me that perhaps it is not our descents that fill our heart with fear. Rather, the coldest terror is in not knowing where the bottom of the descent is. We turn and flail in a gyre of pain. We sense things falling apart but cannot identify the precise moment at which they actually disconnect. Our dark moments are rarely as dramatic as my friend’s. They run the gamut of human experience: a relationship in bad shape, finances in worse, ill health or a state spiritual dis-ease. But regardless of the specific issue at hand, it is only once we reach the bottom that we can actually be present to the new reality we are faced with. Only when we become present to a reality can we begin to move on from it. So “hitting rock bottom” is not the worst thing after all. The fear that our fall is possibly into an endless pit is, it seems to me, worse than lying on the gravel we finally fall on. For it is precisely when we sink to the lowest level, at the very moment we are furthest, that we can begin to return.
Living takes skill. Getting toilet trained and learning how to hold a pencil is a starting point. And then there’s the rest of it. There’s the skill of laughing at ourselves, of delaying gratification, of introspecting and demanding that we step up to the plate, and even the skill of knowing when to neglect an ideal in order to keep it. Long lists of life-skills that all the coaches in the world cannot embed in our hearts. Could it just be that we don’t grasp the other stuff because we know neither how to run nor return?
Each of us has to discover the secret of “running and returning.” “When I grow up,” we tell ourselves, “Well…when I grow up I’ll run and run. To tinsel town and the bank. I’ll run errands. I’ll run my household, the office, my very self! I’ll run for President of My Own Life!” Schools train us to gallop ambitiously forward. But if I’m running for the wrong reasons then I’m not truly moving forward. And if that’s the case, then I’ll never learn the secret of coming back. If ego is what compels me forward, I am blind to the deep mysteries that can free me when I fall. I become so locked into moving on that I lose access to the very skill that makes “moving on” possible under any circumstance. I need to acquire the ability to say, “I’ve made a mistake. A big one. And this is where I’m at. But beneath the mistake lies my true G-dly identity. With this I can begin to return and rebuild.”
Being that learning how to return is the key to going forward, it is vital to know how to discern the point of the deepest darkness. Many times we think we’re in that darkest moment of the night when the shadows are thick and indigo black. But we’re not sure. And the uncertainty fills us with fear. We fall into a depression. But if I can recognize the bottom, I can begin to navigate my way out.
It takes more than that though. I also have to know, even when I’m all the way down in the pit, that Darkness comes from Light: When G-d began to form existence, there was much light. So much, in fact, that nascent reality couldn’t hold it all. Much as a crystal goblet would shatter at the bottom of a waterfall, the vessels of the emerging creation burst in their inability to hold onto the radiance – and darkness was born…So darkness is the product of too much light, or at least that highest luminescence which exceeds the capacity of our vessel! I must absorb this knowledge in order to acquire the skill of returning. As we navigate our journeys and encounter the challenges G-d has prepared for us, we can open avenues of redemption through remembering that the concealment around us is pregnant with this primordial light.
That’s the reason the first commandment given to us as a nation was to sanctify the moon. As Jews, we must watch the night waiting for the light. Regardless of who we are and what our circumstances are, each must take to her hill or hideout and look to the sky in search of emerging rays. Correct, we don’t want to “go gently into the night,” but our approach is not so much to “rage against the dying of the light” as it is to await the dawn. And with the intensity of our gaze to hasten its coming. Whatever news the day has brought us, no matter the feelings that well up within us – and no matter the elegance and eloquence with which our thoughts and feelings impress upon us that things are bleak and hopeless – we must gaze into the darkness, looking for the glow it conceals, while we await the new moon. Through doing that, we actually birth it into being.
As we gaze at the blackened sky looking for the moon, we must remember yet another secret. Namely, that not only is the night permeated with a luminous essence, but that the moon is darkest precisely when it’s closest to the sun. Counter-intuitively, just as the earth is closest to the sun in the dead of winter, so too is the moon when it disappears. The closer it moves to the shining source of all its light, the smaller the moon is.
Life is like that, too. Have you observed the silence of someone in the presence of a remarkable person? To experience the greatness of another, is to be a moon up close against the sun. And then, if the other is truly great, she doesn’t swallow you up like a black hole sucking stars into its core. If the other is truly great, she empowers you to slide outwards on your orbit and gather light as you go. Similarly, all learning has its new moon phase. It happens when you’re sitting before a master, and what you knew becomes effaced and a new understanding is born. True healers, the redeemers, help us navigate these dark intervals. They remind us that darkness is pregnant with light. But even more so, they teach us that in the very moment that we disappear, we are born afresh. And thereby, we become a sun that lights up the heavens.
That’s why we were given the commandment to sanctify the moon at the time of our liberation from Egypt. The two are one – the moon being born of nothingness, and our people emerging in freedom from dismal servitude. When we reached the forty-ninth level of impurity, that’s when we could find the light. Just like the moon that has to turn squid-ink black before its crescent can appear. Our point of deconstruction is the very moment when our movement back to G-d and Truth began. It is the moment we were born as a nation. It is our new moon phase. That point delineates the secret of all our returns.
Every new moon encapsulates this paradoxical truth. But the dark new moon that is most pregnant with light is that of Kislev. In the Northern hemisphere we’ve turned the clocks back. The sugar red leaves of autumn crunch underfoot. Tree barks are white and pinkish grey against a darker sky. Afternoons are cut short, and indoors steam hisses at the cold. The whole month of Kislev calls out, Kes, Kes!, “Concealment, concealment!” It’s a month when darkness around us is on the ascendency. And yet Kislev is the month of Chanukah, the festival of light. It’s winter. The earth is closer to the sun. And on Kislev’s New Moon, the moon is closer still. All that blackness bespeaks an infinite revelation. The last two letters of the Hebrew name of the month, the lamed and the vav, call forth “Light! Revelation! Manifestation!” Lo, they can be read in Hebrew. To him! Bring out the light and shine it to the other, out into the world. Kes-lo. From the concealment comes revelation. From within a new moon pregnant with light, come the thirty six lights of eight nights, the flames of Chanukah.
It’s one thing to look back and know that my friend, in her most painful moment, was being set free. It’s one thing to know that from kes comes lo, from concealment comes revelation. It’s another thing entirely, to get that in our own lives. But if we meditate on the secrets of “returning” and remind ourselves that G-d is, after all, the One who directs our waxing and waning, we might just find ourselves born into a consciousness and world of light. It is the light that the darkness has held in utero since the outset of creation. It is the radiance of our future. It is our most natural state.
This article is based on a teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, Likkutei Halachot, Rosh Chodesh, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sefer HaSichot 5752, Shabbat Parshat Vayishlach. It was originally published on www.thejewishwoman.org. (And if you're a writer with something meaningful to say, email the editor Sara Esther Crispe with your offering.)