Sunday, December 4, 2016

We Don't Need Galus Anymore

I am a horrible procrastinator.

Let me restate that. I am actually an excellent procrastinator.

Which is precisely the problem. Procrastination is a trap that self-perpetuates because it works so well. The pressure is mobilizing. Hours before a project is due, each tick of the clock releases a surge of adrenaline that injects acute awareness, precision, and unwavering commitment into the task at hand.

A rabbi once told me that I procrastinate to preserve my self-image. Last-minute success is seemingly more impressive than planned, deliberate progress in which time is on your side. When you procrastinate and succeed, you triumph over the constrictive forces of time, sleep deprivation, and lack of resources. Success in the face of so many enemies is much more self-satisfying than the alternative. It's proof that you can not only succeed under convenient circumstances, but even under the most challenging ones.

The best part is that if you fail, you have an excuse. The circumstances didn't allow for success. Not enough time, not enough sleep. You can convincingly attribute failure to circumstance instead of to personal factors.

Unfortunately, when one relies on the circumstances created through procrastination, the necessity to draw on internal motivation disappears.

I think this phenomenon can teach us something about galus.

We ask when Moshiach will come. When will we want Moshiach enough for him to come?

But for us to really want Moshiach, we need to stop needing galus.

If we're really honest with ourselves, galus only continues because we're dependent on it. It squeezes out the best in us. Darkness and pain blinds us to our differences, unifying us. God gives us tribulations to force us to stretch beyond our natural abilities and raise us to our highest selves. We have a strange codependent relationship with galus in which we elevate it, and it elevates us.

Galus is difficult. God is challenging us to rise to the occasion- but if we only rise when there is an occasion, what's so impressive about that? Of course people come together in difficult times. Of course we will enter into fight-or-flight mode and conquer our natural inhibitions to tackle crisis situations. In a state of darkness and confusion, our light antennae instinctually perk up and we detect more opportunities to bring goodness into the world than we would if we were living in comfortable, peaceful conditions. It's simply our nature.

It's as though we need the challenging circumstances of galus to make us great. In a sense, we do. The purpose of creation cannot be actualized without our descent into galus. It's part of the plan. But galus is simply a means to an end.

The final test of galus is being able to say we don't need the darkness anymore.

We don't need the fear, the despair, the feeling of not belonging in this world. Historically, these were all necessary parts of our progress as a people, but now it's time to let go. We can be great without all of that. We can yearn for geula simply because it is God's deepest desire, and that alone gives it inherent worth. Any reason besides this is external, a symptom of the hardship of galus.

"L'chathila ariber: At the outset, go above!" This well-known chassidic melody proclaims that we shouldn't wait for a challenge to force out the best versions of ourselves. Instead of approaching life reactively- responding to challenges by acting in a heroic fashion- we must live proactively- be extraordinary at the outset, even when circumstances are ordinary.

We need to find the courage to tell galus we don't need it anymore. We need not the force of darkness and finality of rock bottom to propel us upward. We can live looking upward, even when we're comfortable. Sometimes I think it's my nature to be wired to fall deeply before I can ascend. Maybe this is true, but I just keep telling myself: Nature can't compete with the soul.

The essence of procrastination is a reliance on external circumstances to motivate success and excuse failure. We use the challenges of galus in the same way. Galus creates a sense of desperation that motivates us to be our best- and when we fail, it gives us an excuse. Our concern for self-preservation keeps us stuck here, and we confuse stagnation with progress.

Self-actualization does not come from perpetuating hardship. It sounds cliché, but dislodging ourselves from the vicious cycle of galus starts with believing in ourselves and having faith in the innate abilities that God gave us.

The Rebbe told us that Moshiach can only come from us. We need to do the work- not let circumstance do the work for us.



Monday, August 17, 2015

Leaving Chicago

I decided to move to Crown Heights a month and a half ago. 

After a lifetime of relishing in the small-town familiarity of the midwest, I felt it was time to make a change. A number of circumstances aligned in such a way that a window of opportunity swung open unexpectedly. I felt like God was practically shoving me out the door, mobilizing me with a firm resolve that quickly rendered itself immune to any attempt at negotiation. Within a matter of weeks, I managed to reduce my three years in Chicago to three suitcases bulging with bare essentials. 

I had many reasons for leaving Chicago- and my choice surprised no one. Most would agree that I didn't fit in there. The combination of my age, marital status, and spiritual outlook made me feel like an anomaly in that particular community. People frequently asked why I lived in Chicago when my peers were all in Crown Heights.

But as I sifted the non-essentials from my most important belongings, I felt the wholeness of knowing that I was carrying much more than the items on my packing list. Everything I couldn't transport in my bags, I carried inside me. The skeleton that remained of my material life was counterbalanced by a feeling of abundance, for I recognized the rich spiritual life flourishing inside of me per the nurturing hands of the Chicago community. Despite sometimes feeling like the odd one out, I can't deny how deeply I was touched by the numerous genuine, devoted community members.

I felt it was important to establish closure by expressing my immense appreciation to these special individuals in my life, so I made several arrangements to meet friends and mentors to say goodbye. But in these meetings, I couldn't hear their words and I floundered for my own. The fullness I felt overwhelmed me. I couldn't let anything in, and if I let anything out it would all tumble away. I was like a swollen suitcase, overpacked with bittersweet memories and fresh thoughts of the future that rippled with anticipation.

I tried to soften the potentially awkward silences with appreciative smiles. I repeatedly escorted my guests to the door too soon, as though I were fearful that every second spent together was another second that would later be missed. I curled away from each final moment, keeping it at arms length, banishing it to the periphery of my experience.

Maybe the reason Chasidim never say goodbye is because they can't. They can't help but shrink backwards and swallow their words at the prospect of goodbye, lost in deep admiration for their fellow Jew. A community of Chasidim has the potential to make an imprint on the core of a person, speaking to a place beyond the level of articulation. Maybe words would cheapen those parting moments, and my silence unwittingly honored the transcendent nature of those relationships.

I came to Crown Heights in search of something. I hope to reap the benefits of my new community, to find a comfortable social and spiritual home. But as I journeyed away from all that was familiar, I also became aware of my own potential to be a giver by virtue of the vast gift I had already received: A sense of wholeness and conviction cultivated by a community of passionate, truth seeking Jews. 

I realized that as much as there is to be gained here, there is even more to give. Now it's my turn to release those lessons of kindness and truth so they may flow into another crevice of the world and fill up someone else.



Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Day We Went off the Deep End

“Are you sure we’re doing this right?”

My friend Arielle glanced at me skeptically. We were laying on the dock overlooking lake Mendota, its splintery edge pressing into our stomachs. I was holding a frying pan. Today was the day we were to toivel our dishes, and we had decided to do it in the lake.

I shrugged, squinting into the afternoon sun. I had no idea what we were doing. I just knew I wanted a kosher kitchen, and from what I had learned, immersing new dishes in a body of fresh water was a required step in that process.

From across the shore, the inebriated chants of a fraternity party rang through the Sunday stillness. Arielle and I watched as one fellow guzzled the contents of a red plastic cup before bounding toward the water, where he cannon-balled into a pocket of lake that couldn’t have been more than a foot deep. He emerged wincing in pain, meanwhile earning the wild applause of his fraternity brothers.

“They’re crazy.” Arielle rolled her eyes. I chuckled in agreement, then shifted my attention to the large basket of dining ware at my side. “Let’s get to work.”

I surveyed the situation, assessing the distance between the dock and the surface of the water. Frying pan in hand, I inched my torso past the edge of the dock and stretched toward the water. To my dismay, the pan’s buoyant nature fought my attempts to submerge it under the surface, resulting in a five-minute splashing battle between me and the frying pan before I sourly admitted defeat.

I hoisted myself back onto the dock. I slid off my water-speckled glasses and clumsily tried to dry them with my shirt sleeve, which was also soaking wet. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

“Agreed. But not as hard as explaining to my family how I spent my Sunday afternoon," Arielle chimed.

Arielle was right. What we were doing made no sense. The spiritual purity of our dishes would be achieved at the expense of cleanliness, and we would need to wash and sanitize everything before using it. Moreover, we were college students. We were supposed to be exploiting our newfound freedom! We should have been at the fraternity party two buildings down, venturing into the lake for sheer drunken entertainment- not because we were involved in some cryptic ancient ritual.

When I first began growing in my Jewish observance, the shifts in my outlook and lifestyle were largely propelled by a desire to make sense out of my life. I wanted to understand the truth about existence in order to find myself, to achieve the ultimate level of contentment and self-awareness.

But more often than not, my motivation worked against me. Judaism wasn't always comfortable and I didn't always understand. I often felt constricted and weighed down by my desire to understand, and I became frustrated when Judaism wasn't as fulfilling as I thought it should be.

This moment could have devolved into one of frustration. But as I sat there despondently, sighing over the ridiculous heap of kitchenware, something clicked. I realized the only way we were going to be able to accomplish our mission was if we stopped being so self-aware and started being more God-aware. This wasn't about fulfilling our needs, this was about fulfilling His. And God's desires are beyond logic, so the only way we could succeed at our task was to first surrender our own emotional attachment to the rational mind.

We needed to be willing to do something crazy.

That's what college is for anyway, right?

So Arielle threw off her sneakers and trekked into lake Mendota. Rather than tiptoeing around the mitzvah, we dove into it with full force. I cheered Arielle on from the dock, assisting her by trading out the completed dishes for those in need of toiveling.

She looked pretty crazy out there, standing waist deep in the lake while fully clothed, steeping our brand new utensils in smelly green water. But it was a good kind of crazy. A kind that made me smile inwardly, that inspired me to commit to a cause bigger than myself. She was embodying the kind of crazy the world needs, that will run to do good no matter the cost, that can wriggle free from nature's grasp and be whatever God needs you to be.

A few minutes later, Arielle waded back to shore, beaming. "I think that's the last of it!" she announced proudly. Satisfied, I retrieved the basket of freshly immersed dishes and accompanied her back toward our apartment building.

An unfamiliar calm set in as our mission came to a close. I felt like I had washed away a part of myself with those dishes. That heavy part of me, bound down by self-concern and a stubborn devotion to my own comfort, had started to thin away. Strangely, as we trudged back to the apartment, weighed down by soaking wet skirts and the heat of the Sunday sun, I felt a little lighter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My Name is Ettel and I Have a Double Identity


They told us to write down our names.

They gave us those Hello! My name is _______ stickers. You know, the name tags you slap onto your freshly pressed blouse as you smile clumsily at strangers in an unfamiliar room. Those stickers mean it’s the beginning of something, an encounter with a bright empty space waiting to be etched with experiences.

Today is the first day of graduate school. They want me to introduce myself and tell my story, to provide a colorful explanation of why I chose to be here when I could have been anywhere else in the universe. I care about making a good impression. But my story is still under construction and there’s no distinct theme, and sometimes I feel like I’m a character in a never-ending prologue with no Chapter 1 in sight.

A dozen other twenty-somethings are seated on either side of me in a semi-circle. They’re all fidgety and tentative, nervously shuffling through their welcome packets and staring alternately at the floor and the doorway.

Maybe the facilitator knows that everyone’s stomach is in their throat and their palms are sopping wet, so he’s trying to do us a kindness by simply letting us jot down our names and become acquainted with each other. A very non-threatening first assignment as graduate students. After all, everyone knows that a name is a given. A reflex. The safest possible starting point. But I have this habit of complicating everything, my name not excluded.

What is my name?

My fingers clenched around my pencil, I braced myself for the impending confrontation with the Hello sticker. Self-conscious that the rest of the room would observe my hesitation, I pretended to be intrigued by the course list in my welcome packet.

For everyone else, the instruction to write down our names brought a moment of relief. A meaningless space sandwiched between the important things on the agenda. Their calm only made me more flustered. My thoughts darted wildly in every direction and I was positive the entire room could hear my heart thumping frantically against my ribcage.

But somehow my inner voice expanded to fill that tiny space. It demanded that I decide right then and there who I wanted to be.

HELLO! My name is Ettel.

There it was. My scribbled identity, born of impulse or intuition or maybe something more.

The name felt awkward as its syllables escaped my lips, jerkily and one at a time. They all looked uncertain saying it back to me.

Your name’s not on the list, the facilitator said. I explained that I have two names. It’s kind of confusing…it’s a little complicated, I stammered.

Who I am is complicated.

I’m one of many in this semi-circle. I’m a student breathing in the freshness of a new start; shrinking in moments of self-doubt; wondering what is to come. Will this place unearth all my inadequacies and challenge all my truths? Will it strengthen me or will I stagnate here? There’s the part of me that’s scared of what this new beginning will bring.

But then there’s the part of me that knows my existence is stabilized by more than the sturdiness of this chair, the comfort of this space, the security of this educational path. My identity is connected to something beyond all of this. It’s something that doesn’t care about first impressions or A pluses or being “successful.” That part of me knows that everything is as it is meant to be and the story will start and end where it’s supposed to.

That's what Ettel represents. Every time others address me, that name will remind me that who I am is not so simple. I have layers and dimensions and unrevealed depths that spiral from an infinite source. The name channels my spiritual self and engages it in my daily interactions with the mundane world. By uttering "Ettel", the very people I fear will challenge my identity will be the ones to offer the most poignant reminder of it.

"Ettel." Repeated the facilitator gingerly. "Welcome to the program."

I feigned indifference as my peers studied me. My alternative name, my long sleeves in August, my bagged lunch in place of the free breakfast buffet. I could tell that I was, in some ways, a mystery to them. But I'm okay with that, because I don't entirely understand myself yet either.

What I do know is that my name is Ettel, and I think that's a pretty solid beginning.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Saying Goodbye to my Inspiration

I’ve only had my heart broken once.

It happened on an adventure. My companion grabbed my hand like a trusty friend and told me to close my eyes. He led me to a sunny field where the air smelled fresh and the birches donned a silvery glow. We stood there squinting at the sky as our faces flushed with warmth, then he clutched my shoulder and drilled his gaze into my soul. “Stay here forever,” he urged. He whispered promises of progress and transformation if I would make this place my home. Then he released his grip and fled.

His name is Inspiration.

We’ve all known him. He’s the one whose first appearance happens when we are most in need. His arrival is spontaneous. He’s the sudden surge of momentum that enlivens our cumbersome journeys, he's the headlight that clarifies clouded paths. He makes us fearless. We travel to far-off places without a blink, we shed the safety of our snugly worn identities and start anew.

But Inspiration takes off just as quickly as he comes.

No parting words, no drawn out goodbyes. Just a deafening silence and the stark awareness of betrayal. I remember the day he left. Externally my life remained unchanged, but my faith deflated and my movements forgot their meanings.

And then it was just me. Just me and God, residing in that faraway meadow, its once hopeful song of promise flattened by the dense, formidable night.

I sat there in the darkness, retracing memories of Inspiration in my mind’s eye. I recalled his flickering smile and his soft, encouraging words, I replayed his poignant pronouncements of all that was Good and True. Those words made me do what was right. Infatuated with his eloquent tale of an embracing and visible God, my own will fell listless in the wake of a newly-infused thrust to serve only Him. With each righteous act, Inspiration would nod approvingly and my heart would swell with a deep satisfaction.

I had regarded myself as an earnest servant of God, but a glimpse into the sinews of my memory revealed that God only loomed in the backdrop of each recollection, overtaken by the dramatic love story that blazed between Inspiration and me. The light of our love was so bright and the sounds so melodious that I couldn’t help but do all that Inspiration said was right- but I grew to love the light more than its source and the entity I bowed to was named Self-Satisfaction.

Now, for the first time since Inspiration fled, the lightless sky seemed a more fitting conduit for Truth than the light I once cherished. I realized that my fling with Inspiration was just a story God spun to lift me out from my constrictions and lead me toward Him. God knew that without Inspiration- without my freewill folding beneath the weight of my certainty- I never would have approached Him.

God’s hushed orchestration culminated in a moment of growth charading as tragedy. With Inspiration’s release from his mission, God invited me to share in a more inward relationship with him, one that proved impossible against the blinding light of Inspiration: A bond founded on the choice to commit.

I still reside in that field. Sometimes I think I spot my long-ago friend darting through the underbrush, but his outline is blurry and his face is always turned away. Those moments make me pine for my Inspiration, longing to see the world through his eyes once more.

I know he’ll return. I know God wants him to return, to sweep me up in a tangle of new questions and insights and longings, to rescue me from this shadowy place and catapult me to the next phase of my journey. 

But in the meantime, I know I have the opportunity for something even more valuable. I can connect to God Himself, in darkness and in light, in doubt and in certainty. It’s finally just the two of us.

Now the real love story can begin.

***

"I want nothing at all! I don't want Your gan eden, I don't want Your olam haba... I want nothing but You alone." (Hayom Yom Kislev 18)




Wednesday, October 1, 2014

G-d is Irrational and Emotional and We Should All Start Respecting Him for That

G-d is often characterized as a self-sustaining entity who sits upon his lofty transcendent throne, existing in a spiritual vacuum immune to the world and its failings. He tends to be defined as a state of being that affects but isn’t affected, gives but doesn’t receive, and never falls victim to the anguish of human emotion. When we think of G-d, we think of “beyondness.” The mere suggestion that G-d may experience needs or desires or pleasure seems downright laughable- maybe even heretical. Those are uniquely human qualities- right? So how dare we limit our perception of G-d to our physical human experience and thereby detract from his incomprehensible awesomeness.

But the detached, transcendent G-d character just doesn't seem impressive to me. Something about it seems…natural. Obvious. Intuitively speaking, if a spiritual force such as G-d exists, it’s home would be in the heavens. There is nothing novel about the notion that a spiritual entity would naturally be found in a spiritual (as opposed to a physical) environment. Just as the nature of our physical bodies is to abide in the physical world and perceive a physical reality, the “nature” of a spiritual G-d should axiomatically be within the spiritual world. In general, creation sways in the direction of it’s nature. Fish thrive under water, birds roam the sky, foliage sprouts in the climate suited to its species. A G-d who has been defined as “spiritual” and exists only in a transcendent state would be existing according the rules of its predetermined nature, just like the rest of creation.

But G-d isn’t a creation. G-d is the Creator. He’s beyond the rules, and they don’t have to apply to Him if He doesn’t want them to. By defining G-d as "spiritual," we are limiting Him. By viewing Him as existing only beyond and not within, we are failing to recognize His infinity.

In my opinion, an awe-inspiring G-d is one with no nature. He can reconcile seemingly dichotomous realities: That of heaven and that of earth, that perceivable by G-d and that known to humankind. He is a G-d whose being extends infinitely beyond the scope of our imagination, but within whom burns a deep desire for a dwelling place in the lowest and darkest of worlds. A G-d who loves us and needs us so much that He’s willing to recreate us at every moment, when let’s be honest- He could be doing a zillion other things up in heaven. My G-d intimately knows every sinew of the human experience, feeling our joy and agony more intensely than any created being could. His deep empathy is a testimony to- not a detraction from- His greatness. My G-d existed before existence itself, yet cares about the minute details of what we do during our puny lifespan. My G-d is all-powerful, but depends on me to fulfill the purpose of creation. My G-d is emotionally invested in me. My G-d believes in me.

He is a G-d who clearly doesn’t make any sense at all. He contradicts Himself left and right; He lives in countless worlds at once. But it is precisely G-d’s ability to exist unconfined by nature that makes His epicness so unprecedented. This is an awe-inspiring G-d. This is the G-d I choose as my King.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why Farbrengens Belong on the Couch

My fondest moments during seminary took place in what my friends and I termed the “couch room.”

Our cherished space was a musty little corner on the top floor of the school building. Adorned with two couches and a chair wide enough for two, the room begged us to abandon our beds late at night and relish in the air of comfort and camaraderie provided by that haven-like space. We would pile onto the weathered blue cushions and sink beneath a heap of blankets, munching on stale dinner leftovers and that terrible Israeli chocolate spread. The room was a cold-blooded entity: Freezing in the winter and sweltering in the spring. It absorbed the temperature of its visitors, wholeheartedly swallowing our joyful laughter and succumbing to corrosion at the exchange of sharp words and unexpected emotional outpours.

We most often found ourselves migrating to the couch room on Thursday nights, after our weekly public farbrengen had quieted. Those farbrengens were held in the main classroom on the first floor. We’d gather around the table on wobbly plastic chairs as we anticipated our special guest. A rabbi would usually lead the gathering as a guest speaker, awakening our minds with riveting, impassioned storytelling or by publicly reflecting on and clarifying a little-understood concept. By the end, our minds buzzed with excited comprehension of new ideas in Jewish mysticism, our hearts uplifted by chassidic tunes and the giddy aftertaste of sweet wine.

After the rabbi concluded his presentation, we’d ascend to our respective dorm rooms to strip ourselves of stiff pleated skirts in exchange for sweatshirts and slippers. Sleep was out of the question, for a storm of new ideas had just jolted us awake, beckoning us to engage with them.

When you’re hit with the initial primitive spark of an epiphany, you don’t automatically process it right away. It just kind of hangs over your head and follows you everywhere like a homeless puppy pining for attention, until you finally stretch out your hands and give it a comfortable home in your thought, speech, and action. You have to develop those epiphanies and endow them with a life and a voice. Without us to absorb those realizations into our lives, they’ll ascend beyond the world of action into a state of limbo, losing their potency and their relevance until some other fiery farbrengener seizes them again and releases them back into our world.

That’s why a farbrengen should begin at a table and end on a couch. The couch is where general concepts turn personal, intellectual ideas solidify into emotional convictions, and abstractions become applicable. It's where we learn how to form self-reflective responses to our daily experiences as Jews, housing a spiritual consciousness not restricted to a shul or a classroom. We need a comfort zone where we can explore our spirituality honestly.  The farbrengens in the couch room taught me to relate to G-d with vulnerability, and to do so actively rather than just be a passive recipient of a concept. They taught me what it means to not only commune with ideas, but to commune with my fellow in a raw, genuine way. 

The world “farbrengen” literally means “passing time.” It’s meant to be an exploration of reality in real-time, not isolated as a fancy community function that removes us from our natural way of being. A formal community gathering is only the beginning- not an event in and of itself, but rather an invitation to explore new conceptual frontiers on our own terms, on our own time, in our own space....and on our own couch.