Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rosh Hashanah, The Road to Hell and Me - Part 2

Fair Warning: This blog entry is not only long and contains a whole bunch of religion, it is the second half of a very long blog entry containing a whole bunch of religion that started here.

There are people for whom religion fits like a glove, they grew up in it, it gives form to their lives, it is wholly integrated and does not take any thought, but deeply informs who they are. There are people for whom religion is the form the light inside them takes, I always sense that they would shine with that inner light no matter what practice they chose, but if there is an involved God, or Savior I would think that they would be honored to be served by people who were so wholly bright in this world.

I am not either of those people. I know myself well enough to know that I will not ever be either of those people. But I also know I am something else, like a bad fantasy novel, no matter how far I run from who and what I am it slams up against me and I know the answer. Jonah and I, you can throw us overboard, but it's to save you. We have no choice. Jonah needed to go to Ninevah and say what he was commanded to say to people who were not his co-religionists. This pissed him off, but I like to think I would be smarter than Jonah and would not think I could run away from a divine being who was everywhere. However, I may have some evidence to the contrary, so I suppose I'm lucky that God does not talk to me directly and I have no idea where Ninevah is. If that ever happens I promise not to endanger gentile sailors or get overly attached to trees. But I do know one thing, everyone else can choose what they would like to be or not be and more power to them. I have to be Jewish. The world is the whale.

That doesn't mean everyone else has to be, and it doesn't mean that any of the other Jews have to be Jewish the way I am.

I'm not sure they could if they wanted to.

But I have had a problem this year, and a bit of the year before - which I will go into in more detail for the Kol Nidre entry. The thing you need to know about me for this entry is that I'm like a Jew raised by extremely spiritual wolves. Extremely spiritual wolves from Riga Latvia that are very matriarchal.

But wolves nonetheless.

The other thing you need to know is that this year Rosh Hashanna fell on my wedding anniversary.

So now we begin. I apparently will dance around the confessional part of the story a little bit and put it into Kol Nidre.

I am now a bit uncomfortable in services. The problem with High Holy Day services started several years ago. When I was first brought in from the forest and the windows filled the main sanctuary with light, and I saw the sun gleam off the Torah Scrolls, and I could sing all the prayers in the right tune, the ark (Aron Kodesh) would open and just the sight of those scrolls in their cupboard would bring me to tears. Because I knew that the scrolls were made the same exact way for 3000 years, using the same quality control. If you weren't sure about that, you could find out from the Torah Project that was used for the Dead Sea Scroll project when they gathered them from around the world, from all the different time periods that stillhad surviving Torah Scrolls extant and they only found 3 minor variations in 3 scrolls.

Books, commentary, talmuds and prayerbooks had massive variations (although not as many as English Bibles), but not Torah scrolls. There are rituals that guide what you may and may not do, there are checks and balances and they kept Torah in check despite human nature, disasters and diasporas.

The words of Torah are written by Man and they are not the Whole Book, but they are still True. In a very deep and human and still divine way. They are Man attempting to process God's Communication. Not Magical Sky Fairy God. All-of-the-Universe-trying-to-communicate-with you,-you-silly-human-God. Torah is our best attempt to try to parse it our for those who didn't hear it. Some of the people who heard it were prophets, some of the people who heard it were Judges or Kings, and some of the people who heard it chose to think they heard something else.

Its important for you to know that I truly believe that we are compelled to become better than we are, we are not fully what we can be yet. I do not know if a single entity is behind it, but I believe that drive to be more than sheep comes from something, and for lack of a better term because my relgion happens to use an existing word for it, I'll call that something God. I will also call the Universe God, I will also call the drive itself God. I believe they are all one, and so are we.

Deep down I believe everyone one of us is free inside. Otherwise there would be no choices. For me every choice is also God. Because I am a monotheist, so God has to encompass everything, there is no competing evil force. There is no wholly good force. There is only God. The top of the ark ( which is like a really fancy Cabinet) has words on top of it

"Da Lifnei mi attah omed"

"Know before whom you stand."

It's an incredible statement to me. It's not just about God, it's about everything. Think about it for a minute.

"Know before whom you stand."

Now take a minute and look into a mirror and think about it.

Now go volunteer at a senior citizens center and when you ask someone if they need help think about it.

When you see a homeless person think about it.

"Da Lifnei mi attah omed"

It's a Shofar call.

So when I was with my community, I could hear the hum of the Universe in the holy mumble of my fellow congregants. I could learn and fall and struggle and succeed with them. And I was happy to fast with them and stand for eight hours in prayer, because I knew we could have discussions about the nature of God or the prayers and questing. Because even if we were at different places and stages, we could learn together.

We were each our own individual people sharing a congregation. Questing using the same guidebook for different routes and maybe even different locations. I never felt the need to be less than myself there.

And then we moved. We merged somewhere else and the filtering began somewhere in my heart, and the murmurs I heard in the sanctuary mixed with the prayers weren't the kind the encouraged conversations about the text, and there were so many people that it didn't matter anymore if I were there or not. Not for the community, it only mattered for me.

That's no small thing, but it was an erosion and also an obstacle.

If you knew me from before, and I told you I was doing the second night service on a moutatin top with some Cherokee friends of mine. You'd say - "ah there goes that Drinne again" ( or you wouldn't because I don't think anyone from my synagouge reads the blog so you would use a different name.) And you would ask me to tell you about it when I got back.

But here - if you weren't one of the rabbis - you would tell me that I had to be in THIS building for the second night, full of all the people who felt the same way about it, but didn't think they had to be there for the other 52 weeks of shabbat services, or the 365 days of minyan ( ten people have to get together every single day to enable some prayers).

We go from 300 or so people to 3000. I am not kidding - each of our sanctuarys holds 1800. Yes, that number is on purpose. In the summer the number can be as low as 75. We need those 2700 people. I do not begrudge them this time they made out of their lives to reconnect but I cannot hear anything but them when I pray there. It's too crowded for me to hear the universe. I can only hear the silly humans. It limits me to being a silly human myself.

For four years I kept going without realizing what was happening, and then the anxiety attacks during services started.

And for a while I blamed other things, but it was a kind of cancer, and it was spreading. And then I realized that perhaps, the Universe was trying to tell me something and I was making a mess of the translation. So right now I'm trying to figure it out, so I stepped back.

I thought the way I would fix it was by forcing myself to be around people for the services. I had turned down an invitation for a friend because of the second nigh obligations. And then I learned how to ride a bike and Elul came. I knew I was not going to fix it at synagogue.

You see the problem was never them. It never is. It was me. I had forgotten how to be fully me hour to hour, without any compelling reason to be more. Until I relearned that, I would not be able to reconnect to the organized part of the religion - which I also need for other reasons, but one of those reasons stopped being to feed my soul.

Know before whom you stand.

So I made a decision, and I told my friend, and asked if it was OK for me to add my rituals to his. And he said cool, and I told him I would bring round foods, and we would burn things.

And under the open sky in the Fall air I would eat my apples and honey and listen to the holy babble of these other voices not praying and I would hear God which is the Universe. I had reason to believe that I needed to be there more than synagogue.

But as I've mentioned before, I wouldn't make that kind of choice for anyone else.

Then someone else called. She is much more ritually observant than I am. She asked what I was doing, I didn't tell her the whole truth - I told her what I was planning. I didn't explain that I was trying to rebuild faded bits of my world again (it gets tiring and feels a bit promethean to do it so often). And I gave her the information and told her on impulse she was welcome to come. She said yes!

It was a little shocking actually, to blend my worlds this way. Bringing my rituals with me is one thing, bringing someone who performs the same rituals that isn't already there was new. It was like being exposed in a way that could never happen at synagouge. There, I am wearing their costumes, we share symbols and pretend we think they mean the same things. (We all know they don't. It's a friendly pretending.) Where we were going the symbols will only mean what I chose them to mean, because I will be the one explaining them, because they are mine, not shared. It's like being spiritually naked. I can't pretend they don't mean anything to me, because I brought them. I can't pretend that I'm doing something everyone else does, because a part of the everyone else came with me.

Hmmn. If I were the type to believe that God spoke directly to me I might have to be the type that believed that the Universe saw a way to help both me and this other person during the Days of Awe. Sometimes you need to be outside the walls to appreciate the architecture.

However, if we believed in a Hell, I would surely be leading my new friend into it, because Hell always seemed like a tool that priests used to threaten people into seeing God their way. I was most certainly leading her away from the priests. But I was glad she was there, because maybe, I would be able to pray outside with her again someday. And maybe we could convince 8 other people who want to pray outside too. My practice of Judaism is sometimes very lonely, which is odd for a religion that's really about being around other people.

So on the first night - we celebrated Shabbat. And Rosh Hashanna. It is my fourth wedding anniversary. The Traditonal Gift is fruit and the color is blue. So we incorporated that too. The Poppets and I took care of both symbols as part of the festive meal . . . .

. . . . and a gift for my Perfectly Normal Husband.

I went to synagogue and the luncheon with friends afterwards and shared my Tzimmes, which as you know, brings all the Boys to the Yard.

And then on Talk like a Pirate Day, the second day of Rosh Hashanna, I packed my family and friends into a Minivan with a great deal of camping equipment, 6 Perfectly Kosher Quiches and we travelled to the house of a Ranger friend of mine. He had also come to the conclusion that he was allowing himself to disappear, and he was not going to let that continue.

So in preparation for inviting his friends into his world, he built a bridge.

He made it himself.

There is a tradition on Rosh Hashanna to wear new clothinng on the second day. This is because the reason there are two days is due to the pesky lunar calander issue. We didn't really know for sure when the "day" started because it was based on moonrise in Israel and we were in Diaspora, so the rabbis being the better-safe-than-sorry types said "Fine, make it two days!" The women can just cook twice as much before hand, so it will be cool. "But wait!" said some other rabbis "What if we're wrong and you say the blessing for new things?" So they said - "Hey in order to make sure you aren't wasting blessings( one of the real meaning of taking God's name in vain) we will introduce a new fruit and the person saying the blessing should wear something new."

So I was wearing a new something and I had a pomegranate which I had not eaten this year for the second day.

Let me say that this is the first time in my life I found an outfit that I could wear to formal services and then go camping in.

You make sure you do the "new" stuff at candle-lighting. So if it was really one long day you were saying the Kiddush blessing over the fruit, and the Shehecheyanu prayer over the clothes. If it was really two days then the prayers would be for the Rosh Hashannah service.

There really isn't a secret why there are so many Jewish lawyers, look at what we have to figure out just to make sure a prayer isn't violating a rule.

Since Shabbat and Rosh Hashanna were at the same time for the first day I combined candle lighting and Havdallah with the place where I was and the people I was with.

The Shehecheyanu prayer goes like this:

Blessed are you Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe Who has given us life and sustained us and brought us to this day.

See how that works - we thank God for the basic stuff and appreciate whatever it is as something separate from God. God didn't give us the new fruit, we got it but the Universe didn't destroy us yet and the Universe gave us form to appreciate it. Yay God!

We waited until three stars had appeared and the fire spinners began to spin and we sang our prayers quietly at first and then audibly when those who were with us asked us to hear them.

These were our candles:

They have mulitple strands involved in their construction so they count for Havdallah too.

Then we had our festive meal and shared our apples and honey and others shared their apple cider and honey mead with us and we said the blessings over all of them.

We brought our huge challahs with us and shared them around the campfire, we dipped some into honeymead and said the blessings for them too.

Yehi ratzon she-t'hadesh alenu shana tovah un'tuckah

May it be Your will to renew us for a year that will be good and sweet.

And the people who were with us, who did not share our religion, shared our desire for peace and fellowship and sweetness.

We spent time talking about the service, and explaining the nature of atonement. We sang niggun (wordless melodies that are still prayer) and played Rosh Hashanna bingo (what accidently ends up connecting to Rosh Hashanna just because of where we are and who we are with.)

We explained why we came to them instead of staying where we were supposed to and I wondered if I were just here because I was one up on Jonah. Having come to Ninevah, I had found that they wanted to know and I wanted to explain, and my friend was there so it wasn't only me.

The next morning we did most of the service outside on our host's handmade bridge over running water, hearing birds sing and rivers rush.

Our Saccharit (morning service) we did by ourselves before almost everyone else was up. We broke camp and then we said all of the prayers you can say without a minyan, because while a minyan of fellow beings is fine by me, there is only so far off the beaten path I will lead someone else.

There was one flaw in our evil plot - we forgot the shofar! It was sitting behind at the House with the Reds. The Most Adventurous Red was with us of course. But we did have to scramble when we got home to make sure we sounded it before Rosh Hashanna was over.

We talked about parental bonds and responsibilities and convenants and what it meant to keep and break them, and the consequences either way.

And we celebrated the Ranger's birthday with Jello Cake, which I had never had before.

It tastes like childhood.

His mother makes it for him and he makes sure to only have it on his birthday, so that way it always stays special and he can never get sick of it.

So he completely understands the way of rituals and religions. It consists of reminders to keep things special and celebrate the wonders of surviving another year.

I think the friend who travelled with me down my less trod path survived with her soul intact. She went to tashlict which I will describe some other time with her Chavura group, and my next prayer was said with the scent of campfires in my brain.

It's the only group of fires I need to worry about, since luckily I have no priests to condem me to hell, but I think that perhaps Jonah should have lightened up. Maybe going to Ninenvah was supposed to be for him, not just for them.

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