Israel 2014- A Man of Life

Written for The Davis Academy Menschlichkeit blog and cross posted here.
5/16/14
The following is a poem written by Mitchell A. this evening just before Shabbat that he read aloud in front of the entire class at a reflective session at the Menorah in front of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). It is published here with his permission.
I Am a Man of Life
I am not a man of religion,
I am not a man of fiction,
I am not a man of myth,
I am not a man of fact,
I am not a man of history.
I am a man of life.
But life is weird.
Life is made up
Of all these things.
History becomes fact,
Fact becomes fiction,
Fiction becomes myth,
Myth becomes religion.
Then all those factors live
In harmony and war
All at once.
All until there is only ash.
Then history rises from that ash
And the cycle continues.
Just as life does.
I could stop writing now, but I feel like I have to try to answer the question— what is it about the human spirit that enables us to create such beautiful poetry?
Friday is a crazy day in Jerusalem. Thousands of Muslims ascend the Temple Mount to offer their prayers, Jews hustle and bustle to prepare for Shabbat, tourists squeeze in a few extra visits before the entire city takes a day of rest and renewal. Today we contributed to the craziness of Jerusalem by participating in an archeological dig and going on a culinary tour of Machane Yehudah—Jerusalem’s central market place.
Approximately 10 years ago an illegal building project was undertaken at the Temple Mount. In order to create a entrance to one of the Mosques there, thousands of pounds of debris were removed from the Temple Mount. Rather than consulting with archeologists the debris was removed without any foresight or concern for preservation. It was rescued by a group of archeologists who recognized the irreparable loss that would’ve occurred if the debris had simply been discarded. As we sifted through buckets of debris we found artifacts dating from the First Temple Period (approximately 800-500 BCE) all the way through the modern era. We found two coins, the dates of which we don’t yet know, as well as many pieces of pottery, animal bones, and mosaic tiles. We literally sifted through history. Did one of us uncover an artifact that would turn fiction into myth? What about myth into religion? We made history rise from that ash.
After reviewing the day’s key archeological discoveries and washing up we headed to Machane Yehudah. Machane Yehudah is such a multisensory, multicultural, vibrant place it’s virtually impossible to describe. This year we were privileged to receive tickets that allowed (and required) us to try food or drink from 6 of the hundreds of vendors in the marketplace. We tasted food and drink unlike anything we’ve ever had before. And we loved it. All of us. Stuffing grape leaves into our mouths, olive oil dripping onto our shoes—you might say we were all “men of life.” The one thing that unites the chaotic bustle of Machane Yehudah is that everyone there is trying to feed his or her family. In that respect, Machane Yehudah just might be one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites.
After a few hours rest we set out for our first Shabbat in Jerusalem and the last Shabbat of our trip. Shabbat in Jerusalem means slowing down, digging deep, connecting, and opening our hearts and minds to the possibility that our spirit has something to teach us and something to offer the world.
To help get us into the spirit of Shabbat we decided to have our first “Spiritual Check In” of the trip. Spiritual Check Ins are opportunities to cultivate the reflective aspect of the Israel trip. Our spiritual check in this evening was literally miraculous. Here’s why…
The Menorah opposite the Knesset is one of the most visited sites in Jerusalem. We’re never been able to stay at the Menorah for very long because there are constantly groups lining up to see it. Tonight we were able to sit at the foot of the Menorah for the entire duration of our spiritual check in—45 minutes. Our tour guides were literally in shock that our session remained undisturbed. Just as we began to “close” the spiritual check in a group of tourists arrived. It’s as if an invisible barrier had been erected to protect the sacred sharing that took place tonight—sharing that broke down some of the remaining barriers among the grade and lead to many tears, laughs, and insights.
Aside from Mitchell’s poem I’m not at liberty to share the contents of the spiritual check in. Confidentiality is part of the protocol. But what I can tell you is that we used a quote attributed to Albert Einstein as our starting off point. The quote was, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” It really got the kids thinking. After briefly discussing the quote we gave the kids individual time to reflect. They could write, contemplate, or do whatever they wanted with the time we gave them. When they returned to the group they were welcome to share or not, depending on how their heart moved them. The most important part of the sharing is that it was meant to help the sharer arrive at greater clarity for themselves, to listen to what Parker Palmer calls, “The Inner Teacher.” For that reason we asked kids to focus on active listening and not to clap or respond in any other way to what was shared. Mitchell was the first to share. When we heard his poem it was clear that the spiritual check in was going to be a profound point of connection for the kids. As I said, there was much laughter, many tears, and a strong desire to continue to conversation at a later time.
Having grown even closer through mutual sharing we headed to the Kotel for what ended up being a remarkable Shabbat. The outcome of the courageous struggles of the Women of the Wall is that there is a new section of the Kotel called, “Ezrat Yisrael.” At “Ezrat Yisrael” women and men are allowed to pray together. That’s exactly what we did. Our ruach was so inspiring that others came to join us. As we sung and stamped our feet, the platform beneath us was literally shaking. At multiple points during our song session/ Shabbat service we all traded places to stand next to different people. At the end we sang the Mishebeirach and also recited Mourner’s Kaddish. I made sure to impress upon the kids that the tefilah we experienced at Ezrat Yisrael, and the Torah that our children carry in their hearts as is as legitimate as what they would experience when we ascended to the main Kotel plaza where men and women continue to be segregated. In the past I’ve felt a slight tinge of envy that the Orthodox prayer services had more ruach than our own. Don’t get me wrong, I am a proud and devoted liberal Jew. For the first time, tonight, I felt that our prayer experience actually had greater beauty, integrity, ruach, and impact than what was taking place at the main Kotel. Our kids got to experience both, so it’s up to them to decide.
Last but not least, we had a delicious dinner. We wished Sam B. a happy birthday once more and even gave him a few more random gifts (I forgot to mention that his friends bought him all sorts of random chazerai at Machane Yehudah such as bathroom soap dispensers, high heels, a book in Greek, and other random items from the flea market section). I presented him with a gift from the school—a keychain size version of the Book of Psalms. In presenting it to him, right after the conclusion of our spiritual check in, I reminded everyone that the Book of Psalms gives voice to many of the emotions that were shared during the check in—joy, sadness, confusion, yearning, regret, hope, humility, pride and more. I told Sam that I prayed that he and all of us would experience the deep humanity that was felt by the Psalmist.

If the Hebrew cannon hadn’t been sealed thousands of years ago I’d make a strong argument for adding Mitchell’s poem to it. Perhaps it will appear in a book of poetry one day, or as a creative reading in a siddur. The power of having our spiritual check in at the foot of the Menorah is that it allowed us to join our personal stories with the communal stories of the Jewish people. The Menorah granted legitimacy to our various narratives by serving as a silent witness from our Jewish past. It was truly a fitting place for our check in because, after all, “life is made up of all these things.”

 

The Child in Room 18

This week I did something I pray that none of us ever have to do. I visited a child who was actively dying and his family. There is no way to express the feeling of dread that welled up as I navigated the corridors of Scottish Rite. No way to express the rush of tears that were summoned by the sobs of those that stood vigil. No way to express the anger and confusion that come with standing beside a family that has been robbed of hopes and dreams. No way to express the sense of holiness and solemnity that comes with watching a grandmother stroking the hair of the child. No way to express the unpredictable decent of laughter into tears and back to laughter. No way to express what it means to speak to a child not knowing if he can hear. Not knowing what to say. Making promises that I must now pray to be able to honor. Promises to remember, to respect, to celebrate. No way to bracket images of my own children. No way to sidestep the theological implications. No way to empathize with the parents, drowning in the grief of anticipation. No way to assess what Amichai called the diameter of the bomb. No way to process the artwork drawn by the older brother with the caption, “Good luck in heaven!” No way to thank the nurses that patiently and attentively made handprints and footprints for loved ones. No way to express what it means to be able to turn around and walk away. No way to know if my counsel is that of a sage or an idiot. No way to hit send on an email that will wound people that I care about.

It’s not about me. It’s about all of us. Together we make order out of chaos. Together we make meaning out of biology. Together we mourn and eventually celebrate. We cry on one another’s shoulders. We stand behind, beside, and among brokenness. We gather shards, patiently, indignantly, courageously, and reluctantly. We stand within the breach and look toward the light. Sometimes in the light we see the face of a dying child. Sometimes the sun/son shines so brightly we can’t help but cry.

Holy Ground

The opening pages of the book of Exodus, which Jews worldwide are reading this week, recall the mystical moment when Moses encounters the Burning Bush. Among the many details conveyed in the passage is the following:

God said to Moses, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” 


As I go about my days at The Davis Academy I am blessed to work with many amazing people of all ages. One of my colleagues, our 8th grade Jewish Studies teacher, has a spiritual practice that I truly admire: Whenever a student shares in a way that creates a feeling of holiness in the classroom, my colleague removes his shoes. This simple gesture acknowledges that mundane physical space can be transformed into sacred space through acts of sharing, connection, and vulnerability.

Imagine if we all removed our shoes whenever we felt that one of our students, children, friends, loved ones, or colleagues had either spoken or acted with kedusha (holiness). If we took this idea seriously many of us might end up spending most of the day in our socks– not a terrible prospect! Surely it would deepen our appreciation of the immeasurable enrichment that exists when sharing our lives with others.

Recently I received an email from a parent. Another colleague had asked this parent to reflect on the question of diversity at a Jewish day school. The question was prompted by the recognition that many prospective parents question whether Jewish day schools can have true diversity and prepare children to live in our blessedly diverse world. Her response, which I quote below, left me contemplating my socks:


         On the subject of diversity: every child is unique!  This uniqueness is not established by skin color, religious beliefs or by clothing, but by what comes from inside them.  Originally this was something that was said to me regarding uniforms. How can the kids express who they are if they all dress the same? Realizing that kids at Davis learn how to express themselves by words and actions, and cannot depend on an article of clothing to do so was very enlightening!  Most people/children seek out others like themselves when forming relationships.  At Davis, my children have found friends that are like them because of similarities in personality, not the fact that they are the same in a sea of external differences or diversity… If anyone is hesitant [to send their children to Davis] because of diversity or focus on religion, I would say then that is exactly why they should send their children.  Where diversity is something the children create from within, without losing what connects them to each other, it prepares them for whatever challenges- academic or social- they may eventually encounter.  


Each of us is daily inundated with emails, phone calls, and conversations; we’re participants in an endless social process. Hopefully amidst the ever flowing current of communication that washes over us, we can all pause to acknowledge the moments when we receive something truly special and holy. Attuning ourselves to these daily glimpses of sacred light might even make our favorite pair of shoes last a little longer. 


Shabbat Shalom!