Unify our hearts

In the old days, I was healthy, strong, and oblivious to the terror that lurked inside me.

Every morning, I would put on my tallis (prayer shawl) and tefillin (hard to explain) and recite an abbreviated version of the Jewish morning liturgy. I dutifully included all the elements that are considered essential to fulfill the commandment of daily prayer. I stood when you’re supposed to stand, sat when you’re supposed to sit. Sometimes my mind wandered, but I tried to focus on the meaning of the Hebrew words, which I sort of understand.

Those words speak of gratitude and appreciation: for the morning light, a functioning body, clothes to wear, sun and moon, rain in its proper time. They speak of God’s attributes: mercy, kindness, compassion. They ask for divine help in the form of forgiveness, health, prosperity, and aid in fighting our battles.

In the old days, I focused on the gratitude and the attributes.

I read the plea for healing as thanks for good health; the plea for prosperity as thanks for my comfortable life. And I read the traits ascribed to God as directives for how I should live: as God is compassionate, I should be compassionate. As God cares for us, I should care for others. I was unsure what I thought about God — I still am unsure — and it seemed best to read these prayers as an instruction manual: This is how I want to live my life. This is how I’m supposed to live my life.

It was a good approach. Jewish religious practice is, for me, a program for life. Morning prayer was a way of setting my daily intention to get with the program. It was a way of directing not only my thoughts but my actions. Although many of the prayers address God directly, I really was talking to myself.

A good approach — but it was missing something.

Then came The Crash: my protracted skid along the cliff’s edge of grief, stress, and chronic illness, trying all the while to follow that instruction manual for living my life. Eventually I skidded over the edge. But instead of a free fall, I tumbled down the mountain in slow motion, collecting injuries without realizing that I was absolutely, inevitably, headed for rock bottom.

Praying became different then. I wasn’t so much talking to myself, telling myself how I’m supposed to live. I started talking to God, or the universe, or whoever or whatever is out there.

I stuck with the gratitude where I could find it. But I also started asking for help.

I asked for healing. I asked for compassion, for mercy, for help in fighting my battles. I was pleading, really, even though I don’t believe in a God who answers prayers in the way we usually think of.

And this shift in how I prayed was part of my healing. Not because a supernatural being heard me and responded, but because I was acknowledging my weakness. My vulnerability. My desperation. My need for help.

It took a long time, but eventually my brain and body responded to this shift in my outlook. And it transferred to — or reflected — other parts of my life, where I began acknowledging my vulnerability to actual human beings. And asking for help. And saying no to requests and invitations and my own list of things I should be doing. Even though saying no went against my interpretation of the instruction manual for how to live my life.

I couldn’t follow the program the way I used to. I needed a new program.

Yached l’vaveinu b’ahava u’l’yira et shemecha.

That’s a line from the morning liturgy. In English, it reads, Unify our hearts to love and fear Your Name. It’s a prayer that ahava, love, and yira, fear or awe, come together in our hearts, working toward a unified purpose. (In prayerbook Hebrew, God’s “name” connotes divine essence and power.)

In this one line, I see my two different approaches to prayer.

In the old days, I followed the yira, a combination of awe and fear. Reminding myself how to live, I did not realize how terrified I was of falling short. I set impossible ideals and then, naturally, couldn’t live up to them. But I kept trying. My fear was not of God’s punishment but of failure — or, you could say, fear of being human.

I was missing the ahava, the love.

In my darkest days, I turned to ahava. I could no longer act upon the motivation that fear produced. I simply needed love, compassion, mercy. I needed to let myself feel the unconditional love of my friends and family, to realize their love did not depend on what I could accomplish. I needed to love myself.

The line I’m quoting, Yached l’vaveinu, comes from a prayer called Ahava Rabba, or “abundant love.” It begins: Ahava rabba ahavtanu: “You love us with abundant love.” The prayer also ends with ahava. In between, the word repeats three more times.

In addition to love, Ahava Rabba stresses God’s compassion and grace toward human beings. It asks for discernment and understanding. And it predicts (or demands) that, through God’s deliverance, we will rejoice and be happy.

Yira, the word for fear and awe, appears only once. That’s in the line quoted above, where it is paired with — and, crucially, follows — ahava.

So this is a prayer about love — love abundantly bestowed, not love that has to be earned. The prayer asks that in our hearts, in our intentions, we bring together the love and the fear. But love comes first, last, and in between.

In recent years, as my physical and emotional healing progress, my prayer practice has shifted again.

As in the old days, I’m using the prayers to remind myself of what I need to remember. But now, instead of directing my actions, it’s more about directing my thoughts and feelings — directing my heart.

Yoga teachers say the rest period at the end of each class is a time to “integrate” everything the body, mind, and spirit have done during the poses and meditations. The hypnotherapist I work with says the same thing about the last part of each session.

In a way, that’s another form of yached l’vaveinu — unifying our hearts, integrating, allowing everything to come together.

My prayer practice these days is much less consistent than it used to be. That’s to my detriment. I know the daily morning practice is good for me, especially when I’m able to unify my heart with love and with awe.

But as so often happens, what’s good for me becomes a should: a source of pressure, a poke in the gut to get with the program. And too often, when I’m not with the program, a source of shame.

The very next line after yached l’vaveinu is: V’lo nevosh l’olam va-ed: “And then we will not feel shame, eternally, forever.”

Amen.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

These Are The Names

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naftali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons of Jacob’s issue came to 70, Joseph being already in Egypt.

So began last week’s Torah reading in synagogues — physical or virtual — around the world. 

It’s the beginning of the book of Exodus, the harrowing and thrilling story of how the ancient Israelites left bondage in Egypt; struggled against God, their leaders, and themselves; and finally began to forge an identity as a people responsible for and to itself. Think “The Prince of Egypt” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”: Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but yourselves can free your minds.

So much drama. And yet the book of Exodus begins not with God splitting the sea, not with the plagues, not with Pharoah or the birth of Moses. It begins with genealogy: a list of ancestors, an accounting of who was where at what time.

Some of the matriarchs in my family tree.
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Pardon me

For missing the mark with idle fingers that play solitaire instead of writing …
For missing the mark with stubborn legs that stay planted on the couch instead of carrying me to bed on time …
For missing the mark with an unsatisfied mouth that snacks late at night …
For missing the mark with hands that have not even begun taking down the sukkah …
For missing the mark with narrow eyes that see all of my flaws but few of my virtues …

For all of these, I forgive myself, I pardon myself, and I purge myself of shame and guilt.

Well, not really. But I’m trying.

For the first time since this blog’s inception in 2015, I did not write about the Jewish season of repentance and return. I didn’t write about Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. I didn’t write about Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the new year. I didn’t write about Yom Kippur, the day of atonement on whose liturgy I based the confessions above. I didn’t even write about Sukkot, my favorite holiday, the Jewish Thanksgiving (although I’m sitting, as I write this, in our sukkah — the temporary hut that commemorates the fall harvest and underscores the transient nature of our lives).

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Hineini: here I am

Decades ago, I belonged to a therapy group that drew on both talk and movement. One week we did an exercise in which group members took turns leading the others in improvised movement: dancing, swooping, jumping, anything they felt like doing. When a leader had enough, they would pass the role on to someone else.

Afterward, as we sat in a circle, people said that I seemed half-hearted when it was my turn to lead. I confessed that they were right: I was tired, my back hurt, and I didn’t feel like moving at all. I felt like lying down on my back and resting.img_20200428_170718701_hdr-1

Well then, they asked: why didn’t you do that?

My response: I didn’t think I was supposed to. I thought we were supposed to move, and so I moved, even though I wanted to lie still.

In a way, that’s the story of my life: trying to live up to other people’s expectations of me, or what I think they expect, even when I need something different. (Well, that’s part of the story of my life. Another part is where I disregard what other people think and feel, because I’m so sure I know better. Fortunately, I think that part is mostly behind me.)

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Take out the trash

I have a recurring dream in which I’m at someone’s house — sometimes I live there in the dream, although not in real life; sometimes I’m a guest — and I need to take out the trash.

Well, not the trash exactly. Not stinky smelly nasty rotting garbage. Sometimes it’s recyclables, piled up in a garage or basement or storeroom. Sometimes it’s yard waste — bags and bags and bags of it.

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Either way, it’s a large accumulation, weeks’ or more likely months’ worth. And now it’s the eve of the pickup day, and I need to shlep it all out to the curb. It will take numerous trips, and it’s getting late, and even if the people who live in the house (my parents, in some dreams) aren’t worried about it, I know it’s my job to clear it out.

I don’t remember having that dream last night, but I woke up this morning thinking about it. Why, I wondered, do I repeatedly dream about this mundane household chore? Continue reading

Q3 and me

Screen Shot 2019-09-29 at 3.28.14 PMIt’s autumn. It’s the autumn of my life, and that cliché is falling upon me like a ton of dead leaves.

On the yearly calendar, it’s the very beginning of autumn. The trees are overwhelmingly green. As I type this, sitting on the deck, I’m wishing I wore shorts instead of jeans. But time moves fast: When I began writing this, our autumn sedum was light pink. Just two days later, it is approaching the deep red it will soon become.

On the calendar of my life, I am deep into the third season. That doesn’t sound right, but I can’t dispute the numbers.

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Wild Geese chase

Bernard and Pauline Fritsch Akerman
My great-grandparents Bernard and Pauline Akerman

I’m searching for the origins of my great-grandfather Bernard Akerman.

I’m searching for the origins of my Jewish DNA.

Increasingly, I’m convinced those two searches will lead me to the same destination.

Family history has become my passion in recent years. I have solved a few mysteries, connected with a few previously unknown cousins, and identified many more new-to-me relatives—and quite a few new mysteries.

My Great-Grandpa Akerman has been one of those mysteries from the get-go.

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The very long goodbye

It’s taking me a very long time to finish saying goodbye to my parents.

How long?

Mom’s second yahrzeit — the anniversary of her death on the Hebrew calendar — just passed. It’s almost seven years since Dad died.

We gathered in November 2017 to eulogize Mom, mix her ashes with Dad’s, and scatter them in a Florida river. My aunt and cousin sang “On Eagle’s Wings.” I heard another cousin say, as he scattered his cupful of ashes: “Goodbye, good people.”

But I wasn’t done with those good people, so I brought a ziplock bag of ashes home with me. (Pro tip: when traveling with cremains, give TSA a heads-up.) That winter, we scattered a small amount in our neighborhood park. My plan was do it twice more: that spring at Brandywine Creek, one of my favorite childhood spots, and in the summer after planting trees in memory of my parents. Four seasons of commemoration and tribute, marking out the year in places that are important to me. Continue reading

In the land of the living

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The Jewish calendar packs what seems like a year’s worth of holidays into less than a month. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and ending with a celebration of the Torah — the five biblical books that we read from start to finish every year — it’s the completion of a cycle. The birth of a new one. The season of t’shuva, of return, again and again.

And then comes Heshvan, a month without holidays. The rabbis of tradition named it “Mar Heshvan,” bitter Heshvan: a barren time to be endured until Hanukkah, the next celebration.

That has never completely rung true for me. After the hectic fall holiday season, Heshvan comes as something of a relief — a return to normalcy.

But this year is different. My feeling this Heshvan is not of moving away from the holidays, but of moving toward, moving into.

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The light in the middle of the tunnel

B’orcha yireh or: By your light, we will see light.
—Psalm 36

I love it when a blog post starts writing itself in my head. I’ll interrupt what I’m doing—sometimes even my morning prayers—to scribble some notes. Once I dictated most of a draft on my phone while walking in the park.

But sometimes I have only a phrase or an image, with no clear notion of what I want to say and, crucially, no idea how to start the post. Having a good opening (the “lede,” as we call it in journalism) is like kicking off from the swimming pool wall: it feels smooth and powerful, and the momentum can carry me a long way.

House in Fog
“House in Fog,” Francisca Verdoner Kan, 2007

This post started without a lede. The phrase above from Psalm 36—B’orcha yireh or: by your light, we will see light—struck me months ago during my morning prayers. What does it mean? It seems redundant, circular, absorbing the light of inquiry rather than revealing itself.

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