Sunday, May 22, 2005

Shadows In The Shade

If one were to exclaim, ‘I’m in the shade’, the image evoked is of a person lying under a beach umbrella, or perhaps under palm trees, or maybe even on a hammock sipping Pina Caladas. But if that same person were to exclaim, ‘I’m in the shadows’, the scenes of pure relaxation and impure contentment change to scenes of scared insecurity and frigid frightfulness. True, when speaking in personalities, a ‘shady’ character and a ‘shadowy’ figure can denote the same thing; when talking in images, however, shade and shadows – though an alliteration – paint completely contrary pictures.

Of the many methods and methodologies used to unravel the mysteries of Jewish study in general and of the Babylonian Talmud in specific, there is one where Relativity holds precedent; to use the Yeshiva terminology: does this law, passage, argument, or opinion refer to the Gavra or the Cheftza – are we referring to the Subject or the Object. When we look at an object or at a subject, we can either look at it objectively or subjectively. A famed example, Chametz on Pesach: can we not eat it, or can it not be eaten? Is the subject forbidden from eating the object, or is the object forbidden from being eaten period? To add some of the Talmudic knack for the unpredictability, and as you know when two Jews meet you have three opinions, maybe both are correct?

Sitting in Hungary, the Land of Shadows – people here live in the shadow of history. The sinister shadow of the Holocaust hangs over Budapest like a shroud; the dark shadow of Communism turns the Danube into a murky abyss; the cold shadow of insecurity prompts an identity unwanted. Here, the Jews chose not to be Chosen; as one person tells me, ‘my grandmother’s dream was that all her children would marry non-Jews. When my father married a Jewish girl, his mother was heartbroken’. I know it’s hard to believe, but in this country even the Jews look at themselves as inferior.

Really, who can blame them: their families were wiped out just for being Jewish; the Judaism they were taught is one where a bullet is the messiah; and the only thing they know about being the Chosen People is that we are a people chosen to be persecuted.

They lie in the Shadows.

What is a Shadow?

When an object comes between a ray of light and a surface, the shadow is born. It has no identity of its own; it is but a reflection – if we can call it that – of light: if there were no light there would be no shadow. However, light alone cannot create a shadow; there must be a surface as well: only when light attempts the illumination of a surface, and a third party, say a person, interferes, will the shadow exist. Without light there would be only surface; without surface there would be only light; when they come together, the shadow comes out of the shadows.

Light, in Kabalistic terms, is the expression of G-d; it is Spirit. Adversely, Surface (or container, receptacle) is the means with which the light is expressed; it is Matter. Take the fine art of painting (pictures, not walls): the expression within the art – the feeling, the heart, the soul – would be the Light, the Spirit; and the means with which this expression is realized – the strokes, the colors, the body – would be the Surface, the Matter. Thus, if there were no surface the light could not surface, if there was no container to contain the light, the light would consume all. And just the same, if there were no Light, the Surface would be just that – a surface. Imagine a painting without soul: it would be a glob of paint, a bunch of misconstrued (or shall I say, misconstroked) strokes – it would be a carcass. Imagine a painting without body: it would be blank – no paint, no strokes, not even a canvass.

Strutting down the stuttering streets of Jerusalem – stuttering because they are so unpredictable – through the sun-drenched arches and finally reaching the shade of The Wall, I could not help but notice that here The Wall throws not a ‘shadow of coldness’ but rather a ‘shade of warmth’.

Thus the question re-arises: what is the difference between ‘a shadow’ and ‘the shade’ – they both are created by that same third party coming between the Light and the Surface?

True, when looking at Shadow and Shade objectively, they differ only in name (and even in that by only an “OW” or “E” suffix); when looking at them subjectively, however, they are as different as light and darkness. They are the same object caused by the same reasons and reasoned by the same cause. But this objective identicalness remains so only when untouched by the subject; once man gets his hands on the object, all similarities cease to remain similar:

The key word here is perception: when you look at an object how do you, the subject, perceive it? Do you see it as a means or as an end, do you see it as a good thing or a not-good thing, do you see it as a help or a hindrance, do you see it as a ladder with which you reach above or as a ditch in which you fall below?

Consequently, the difference between Shadow and Shade is not in their own natural makeup – for in that they do not differ – but rather how we perceive them: if we concentrate on the Surface the shadow is perceived, and we remain bound to the Surface; but when we concentrate on the Light the shade is conceived, and we reach passed the Surface and into the Light. There are (at least) two ways of looking at something: either as an expression of G-d or as an expression of ourselves; either we look at the Light of the object or the Surface of it.

Indeed we need both Light and Surface, the question is, however, what is the primary objective of the object, what is our priority: is it the Light or the Surface, is it the Physical or the Spiritual, is it the Object or the Subject?

If one were to conclude, from what was here stated, that we must turn our faces to the Sun, to the Light, and ignore the Surface, he would conclude wrongly; if we were to think thus, we would cease to exist. Only, we must stand on the Surface, on the physical earth, and allow the Light to reflect off our up-turned faces and into all of creation. True, we need Surface as much as we need Light (Body as much as Soul), however, as the Surface exists – we see it, we know it – there is no need for us to “create” it; but the Light – the Light which no one sees, no one knows – leaves us with no alternative but to “create” it.

How can we, humans of the Surface kind, combine, fuse, the two opposites: how can we take the physical world and unite it with the spiritual realms, how can we blend the Light and the Surface? Here the answer way surpasses the question: why shouldn’t the two – physical and spiritual, body and soul – live together, they are both but an expression of G-d. If we are created in His image, why shouldn’t we be able, like He Himself, to merge both the Light and the Surface: if we are above – which we are – both the Light and the Surface, why shouldn’t we join the two. Essentially they are one – so why not practically?

Good question. Actually, no it isn’t: if we are One why shouldn’t we be One? If the Human is, practically if not actually, G-dly, why shouldn’t we act that way: why should we not fuse opposites, why should we not take the Surface and make it more then its surface, why should we not take the Light and make it more then its light, why should we not take G-d – how we understand it – and make it more then G-d, why should we not take ourselves and make it more then what we are. Why not, please tell me?

Because we are full of ourselves – is that what you think? Let us say we are full of G-d, would our position then change? Why not? Our only problem is how we perceive ourselves: if we were to perceive ourselves as G-dly would then all our actions be G-dly – of course they would. But if we were to perceive ourselves as nothing more than what we are, then we are nothing if not ourselves. That is, once we aren’t what we are, we are nothing; but, with G-d, once we aren’t what we are, we are everything: once we step beyond ourselves, once we step beyond normalcy – we step beyond that which the world demands of us and into that which G-d asks of us – we reach beyond our limited selves and into our unlimited selves. We peel away all the layers and “become” what G-d meant for us to become: G-dly.

We are what we perceive ourselves to be. Definitely nothing more and certainly nothing less.

So let us step out of the shadows and into the shade: let us perceive the Light in everything, let us know that though we live in a physical world where the Light is seemingly shaded, it is but G-d telling us – you can be G-dly: all you have to do is see the Light in every Surface, all that is needed is a change in our perspective. When this perception is achieved, not only will the Light shine in its radiant glory but so too will the Surface. And when both Light and Surface are exposed for what they truly are – expressions of G-d – there will be no room left for shadows – nor for shade.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Are (H)our Achievements More Than Minute Details?

Time moves a lot quicker than the hands on a clock indicate; pages in the calendar turn faster then the dates allow: according to the calendar this would be my eighth month here in Budapest, but according to that thing that “waits for no one”, Time, it seems like I’ve only been here a few days. Where have those eight months gone?

The countdown is on. We’ve started three weeks ago, counting down the days and weeks until we reach our destined destination – Mount Sinai.

What is a countdown? In boxing it’s a knockout, in Times Square it’s New Years, in a casino it’s an artist, and in NASA it’s takeoff. But, spiritually speaking, is a countdown just some way to pass the time; is it like the optimistically insecure procrastinator, always putting things off until post-present? Are these forty-nine days dismissed as nothing more than obstacles in our path to Sinai?

If one were to believe that all things worldly could be elevated to a state beyond their natural existence, then – without getting into the arguments on whether or not Time is a physical creation – the same must be true for Time as well. However, here is where all of creation differs from Time: where every other creation is static – you can bottle it – Time is dynamic – it is in constant movement. You cannot just walk up to a clock and say ‘hey, I’m a little busy here, would you mind waiting for an hour or so’; if you could do that, either you would be crazy or you would be very rich. Time just doesn’t wait around on street corners looking for something to do. Time doesn’t get bored. Time doesn’t even get tired. Time just moves in that endless cycle.

Ironically, the thing most limited in it’s existence is also the most unlimited: on (the clock’s) one hand, Time is stuck in its second, minute, and hour ritual; on the other (I guess, the second) hand, Time is the sole creation that is a constant: there are never more than sixty seconds in a minute and never less than sixty minutes in an hour.

Time, in it’s most primitive form, is the G-d given ability to live. Along with the “ability” comes a “responsibility”: by G-d telling you ‘here is your Time’, He’s also telling you, ‘from now on you make the choices, you can choose to “waste your time” or you can choose to “take a minute” and make that minute more than just a simple minute – you can make it Divine’.

The obvious – to those willing to admit it, of course – question arises: How can we, people trapped in the hourglass, make our hours more than just a grain of sand; how can we, people handcuffed to the wrist by the watch, make a minute more than just some hand moving across a plastic face; how can we, people imprisoned within the clock-tower, make a second more than just a “minute” detail?

So, along with the ability and responsibility of Time, G-d gave us the “how-to” as well. Just like every Chronograph must have “timed precision” – just ask the Swiss – so too every second that the Chronograph emits must be used with timed precision. If but a tiny spring is misplaced in a Rolex, the whole of “time” would be affected. How much more so when talking on a cosmic level: if but one detail is “misplaced” the whole of creation suffers.

No twenty thousand dollar timepiece comes without a manual (even if it is digital), and no one would buy a diamond encrusted Cartier without a guarantee.

Imagine you knew you were getting the manual – and thus, guarantee – to the universe. What would you do? Would you say no, thank you? Some did – it’s a lot easier returning the watch than fixing it. Would you be skeptical? Some were – it is hard to believe that there is actually a solution to this puzzle. Or, would you do whatever it takes to make yourself worthy of this “Divine Blueprint”?

Some three n’ a half thousand years ago, a people recently emancipated from Egypt, were told, ‘you have forty nine days to prepare yourselves for the giving of the Torah’. Some, when faced with an unrelenting sea, said it’s not worth it – let’s go back to Egypt; some said let us blame it on G-d, He who took us out, for us to die out here; some said this and some said that. Only one man took the plunge, and the rest is history.

Every year the question re-arises: How badly do you want answers to life’s riddles? Would you change yourself for the chance to change the world? Would you be a coward or would you take the plunge?

The forty-nine-step program of refinement, you would think, is but a means to reach an end – Mount Sinai. True it is a means; however, it is not – by any means – but a means. It is not ‘you’ve done good, you get a reward’. It is merely a result: by refining oneself, the Torah is the natural outcome. You can stand at the foot of Sinai from today until tomorrow, but if you have not committed yourself to the Torah’s message – turning this barren desert into a flourishing orchard, a dwelling place for G-d – if you have not refined your own “barren desert”, how do you expect to receive, and accept, a Torah built on this premise and principle.

Thus, the countdown is not some way to pass the time; it is not standing idly by until we reach the destination. If it were, we would never reach it. Only, the countdown is a process: it is the process of changing ourselves, and the process of changing Time.

Time alone, as stated before, is unchanging. That is, Time alone. Enter the human being – the human being created in the Divine Image. Now, with the human involved, Time is no longer neutral, it can no longer tick dispassionately away into history – either it is Time wasted or it is Time elevated. Throughout the year we have different ways to elevate (that is, to make it more than its some of the parts) Time – by blessing the month, observing (not only visually) the holidays, and so on. In this period between Pesach – freedom – and Shavous – what to do with it – we have the ability, and, thus, responsibility, to take Time, all forty nine days of it, and make it Timeless: by our refinement of self, we refine Time; by exposing the Divinity within our own image, we expose the Divinity within the clocks face.

In consequence: true Time may move faster than the hands on the clock indicate; the question is, however: are those “bygone times” wasted or are they elevated? Have they gone forever to oblivion or have they gone forever to a higher place, a higher purpose – transforming the universe?

I can only hope that those past eight months of mine have gone to the latter.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A Tanyatic Journey

As things have begun falling into routine and the dish called life is not as spicy as it had been when I first arrived in Budapest, I start experimenting a little here and a little there; the test results are something so unexpected yet simultaneously so simple that the dichotomy of this discovery nearly causes my entire experimental lab – vials, potions, gizmos, gadgets, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, and whatnots – to unceremoniously (or, as we are Jewish, ‘ceremoniously’) explode.

The result is a wee-hour Tanya class.

This unceremonious hour (even Jews cannot make a ceremony out of the wee-hour), sees the homeless alcoholics, who have no choice but to climb out of their cardboard beds when the sun climbs out of its fluffy blanket, shuffling their half frost-bitten feet in search for a glass bottle to call home. This forsaken hour sees those who sport generic ties, wear clichéd shoes, and carry run-of-the-mill attaché cases peddling in that vicious nine-to-five (though here its more like eight-to-four) cycle. This transiting hour sees the supers of buildings, cigarettes perilously dangling from half parted lips, hosing down their sidewalks, putting out the green garbage cans for the garbage men to empty, and looking at life as a mouse looks at a cat – uh oh, what now? This miserably depressing hour also sees yours truly walking from 19 Wessalany utca, up Nagy Diofa utca, past Dob utca, through Kiraly utca, and finally into 5 Vasvari Pal utca, all prepared to face yet another day.

It is seven o’clock – A.M. mind you – and any minute now our class should start. Gabur is already here; Asher should be here before I finish writing this line. Ah, I can here his footsteps shuffling up the concrete stairs, hear his hand on the door handle, and, poof, here he is.

I am writing five weeks after our so-called “class” left its seeds and is now sprouting not only branches but fruit as well. Perek Aleph Tanya, three innocent words, innocent words that have exposed the innocence within. B’Soif Perek Gimel D’Nidah, four seemingly simple words, simple words that have uncovered our own simplicity. Our journey started somewhere between spirit and matter: we thought that spirit did not matter and that matter had no spirit. Oh, how wrong we were. Let us follow our journey down Selfishness Street, through Cynic Square, along Interstate ‘I’, passed Apathy Avenue, and across Boundary Bridge. We have reached the other side. (Sure beats Highway 61, even revisited, don’t it?)

The aromatic steam rises from our freshly brewed java, but no one notices. People start arriving for Shachris, but we have been praying for an hour now. Seven has turned to eight, but all the clocks in this room are timeless.

Five weeks now, five weeks of intense traveling: we have traveled over the plains of the soul, through the valleys of our hearts, and passed the hills of our minds – and we are just getting started. On one journey, we discovered that, when in touch with that G-dly spark within, the fusing of Spirit and Matter is easier then knowing only Matter – or for that matter, only Spirit. Why not, they both come from the same G-d?! On a different journey, though leading to the same destination, we came upon the meaning of the word “Leader”: a true Leader is not he who creates followers; a true Leader is he who creates leaders. And that is (an aspect of) The Rebbe: a Leader who exposes the Leader within every human being. On still a third journey, we see Free Choice, not the limited Free Choice of Good versus Bad, Body versus Soul, but rather the Free Choice that is our essence: the ability to do something beyond our nature, the ability to combine both Good and Bad, both Body and Soul. On this journey we take no exits, no rest stops, and even the gas stations, with their coffee fragrance spilling into our vehicle, goes unnoticed. We are one with the Tanya and the Tanya is one with us.

Oh, but they need a Minyan downstairs, and we make-up the ten. O, how we don’t want to leave this journey of ours, how we want to stay on this highway – yes it most certainly is a highway. But then it hits us: we are not leaving the journey, we are not getting off on some exit; no, we are but continuing our journey, through Shachris, passed breakfast, and onto whatever path you take, whatever your journey may be, whichever which way you fuse Matter and Spirit. But no matter what, no matter which way our journey leads us, we will always know – we will always know that tomorrow morning, within that unceremonious, forsaken, transiting, and miserably depressing morning, there lies yet another Tanya class.

See you there.

Learning Aleph-Bais from An Illiterate

Imagine a person to ashamed to acknowledge his own identity; or, sadder yet, a person who doesn’t even know his own identity. Picture a soul so lacking in self-confidence that it cannot look you in the eye; or, sadder yet, cannot even look itself in the eye. Think of a mind so devoid of education that it rots away in its own ignorance, but not ignorant enough for the rotting to be in bliss.

Now imagine the potential such a person, such a soul, such a mind must have. It has no limits. It has nothing, and thus has nothing in its way. It is a raw receptacle, a budding flower, an innocent child. It is the reason I left the comforts of home for the unknowns of the road; it is my mission. It is the reason we all leave the comforts of heaven for the unknowns of earth; it is our mission.

I sit in Vasvari Pal Utca, number 5, reading the Aleph-Bais with a man named Shuni. Do you know what it’s like to teach a grown man both the literal and the figurative Aleph-Bais? It is like nourishing a starved child; like pulling a drowned ship from the swirling waves.

You, dear reader, may think that when I talk of starved children, of drowning ships, of ignorant minds, of unidentified identities, of self-conscious souls, I talk of the people here in Budapest, people other then myself. But reader, if you were to think thus, you would be terribly mistaken. True, they may be some – or maybe even all – of these things, but, then, how would I know?

When I talk of these things, I only talk about myself:

Before I left for Hungary, I was an ignorant child – even if I knew cerebrally that there is a purpose for all things and an underlying and unifying message, it was, like I said, only cerebrally; it wasn’t factual, or even actual; it was nothing more then a novel idea. I was living in a personal ghetto, though it is hard to admit, where all was sheltered, or shall I say, imprisoned, within the confines of self.

Only after entering 5 Vasvari Pal Ut. and teaching Aleph-Bais to a man named Shuni, have I begun to teach the “Aleph-Bais” to myself. Only by helping somebody else find his way, have I begun finding my own way. Only by changing somebody else have I begun changing myself.

If not for Shuni’s Aleph-Bais I wouldn’t know how to “read”; or, sadder yet, without Shuni’s Aleph-Bais I would still think that I know how to “read”, I would still think that I know it all. It takes someone who is as pure as Shuni, with no ghetto barbed-wire distorting his view, to show me that I am more ignorant then he is: he is taking a step in life which I, for better or for worse, never had to take – until now: now, when it isn’t about me anymore, I must decide is this what I want or is this not what I want. When sitting in Yeshiva, in a cozy blanket, shied away from the outside world, what I do has no real affect on people; however, now that I learn with others and am no longer in the “comforts of home”, I must decide: do I or don’t I want to live this life; otherwise, not only am lying to myself, I am lying to others, and once they see my insincerity, how can they remain sincere?

I only wonder if Shuni, and all those like him, know what type of affect they have on their so-called “teacher”. And, as I can now relate to the words of the Sages, “I’ve learnt much from my teachers, I’ve learnt much from my friends, and, from my students, have I learnt the most”, I can only hope that Shuni, and all those other pure souls out there, have learnt, from me, just one iota of what I have learnt from them.