What Came Before Numbering Our Days?

What came before “there was evening and there was morning, a first day,” and “there was evening and there was morning, a second day,” and “there was evening and there was morning, a third day,” and so on until “the heaven and earth were finished” and God “ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done,” and “God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy”?

In other words, what came before numbering our days, one through seven?

Before light, darkness. Before light, no colors. Before light, no vast distances. In darkness, I reach out cautiously and touch this dark shape and it’s smooth, that dark shape and it’s sharp, and I cry into the darkness and the darkness replies with darkness. Before light, the name of the box turtle and the eucalyptus and the harp-shaped lake and the ibis and the cave are one: Darkness. Before light, no before. Darkness is.

And then it dissolves. Like a black aspirin in water. So much water that the blackness gradually gives way, black to murky gray to clear. [Read more...]

Camping with God

The exodus (small “e”) was a family of five fleeing the New York summer in our Volvo wagon just last week.

Crossing the East River on the Brooklyn Bridge, a veritable wall of water reared up on either side of us in the gray-out of a rainstorm indistinguishable from the river below. Naturally, this was followed by bumper-to-bumper traffic on the FDR, a seeming pile-up of similar-minded refugees, enemy chariots, or both.

All in the effort—in our case, at least—to finally inaugurate family camping.

The desire to do so had been brewing in me for years, what with city life and three kids whose feet were far more used to asphalt than grass, to crosswalks than nature walks, and streetlights than trees. Though our youngest is only three, and thus a significant liability to collective sleep in a shared tent, our oldest recently turned nine—meaning there was only so much time before she’d rather die than go camping with her family. [Read more...]

Smiling Skulls: On Death and Diversion

With sinister skulls on their black Metallica and Megadeth T-shirts, the teenagers who snaked alongside me in the queue to ride the Screamin’ Eagle roller coaster at Six Flags in St. Louis, Missouri, looked like diplomats of death to my twelve-year-old self. Only line dividers separated us as we waited in a series of sheltered areas, each one connected to the next by a flight of stairs that led the amusement park’s patrons ever closer to exhilaration—and perhaps death.

In first grade, I went to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City with my friend Jon, who told me about a roller coaster on the premises that had been shut down because one of the seating harnesses had failed, causing a rider to plummet to her doom. Fact or fiction, I thought about that every time I waited in line to ride a roller coaster.

I usually enjoyed the rides despite my dread, but the jaundiced skulls on those teenagers’ shirts only made Jon’s story seem more credible. Some skulls smiled, with canine teeth like vampires. Others had eyeballs that somehow managed to resist decay. They stared out of bony sockets at the living, leering and lidless. The skulls projected something manic and menacing all at once, as if they knew something in death the living could never know. [Read more...]

The Fragrance of the Unknown, Part 2

Continued from yesterday

From my mindfulness meditation practice, I’ve learned the value of looking closely at my own experience. But, unable, as I prepared to teach, to find examples of how I react to uncertainty, I turned back to Torah: “The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included—and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow.”

Cedar wood and hyssop: of course! Pleasant fragrances! Eleazar is commanded to witness the burning of the cow, to stay present even to the unpleasant aspects of obeying God’s law: the stench of burning flesh and dung. Loving, kind, compassionate, God gets it. To sweeten the experience, sweeten it so Eleazar could endure it and fulfill the law, God commands Eleazar to toss cedar wood and hyssop onto the pyre.

Is this how it works with us, those of us who practice mindfulness meditation? [Read more...]

The Fragrance of the Unknown, Part 1

With less than two days before the retreat began, and only a grain of time unclaimed by other responsibilities, I opened the Etz Hayim to Parashat Hukat and began to read.

I’d been asked to lead an aliyah, a calling forth of worshippers to chant blessings before and after the reading of a portion of the Torah.

Rabbi Jeff Roth, my friend and teacher and leader of the four night silent meditation retreat, had asked me to prepare a teaching based on a few verses of my choosing from Hukat (the name of that week’s Torah portion, hukat means “ritual law”). Those worshippers drawn by the theme of my teaching, which offered before the chanting of the Torah, would be invited up for a group aliyah.

The blessing before the reading: an opportunity to gather one’s attention, inviting heart, ear, and mind to open to receive Torah’s wisdom. The blessing after the reading: an opportunity to experience the resonance of the Torah reading. Blessings before and after, and attending to the Torah reading itself: mindfulness practices. [Read more...]