I’m in a plane ascending to 37,000 feet.
How restless have I been this year? How easily distractible?
Already on this flight, from the time of boarding the plane until now, I’ve jumped from e-mail to Facebook to FiveThirtyEight to Jane Hirshfield on Basho to Mishkan Hanefesh, Sanctuary of the Soul, the Reform movement’s new high holiday prayer book. Already I’ve skipped from skimming to sinking to expanding to avoiding: I don’t want to look at that e-mail right now. It can wait.
We boarded at around 4 p.m. and maybe it’s around 4:50 p.m. now, and in that brief span of time I’ve registered for a free online course on The Science of Meditation, knowing full well that next week, when the webinar is live, I will have no time to participate but I must participate because I just offered to teach on my own “The Art and Science of Meditation,” a course that I’ve taught with three other colleagues, including a neuroscientist, for the past two spring semesters, and I am going to need all the help I can get with the science part of the course this spring.
Greed, restlessness, anxiety, delusion: these are with me, these are my cruising altitude as I travel from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the engines’ roar in my ears. How many miles will I have traveled this year, from the Yom Kippur that is past to the Yom Kippur that is coming, rapidly coming?
First the cabin is cold. Then the cabin, for a moment, is warm. Then cold. I’m in 26D, an aisle seat at the rear of the plane. The window shade to my right is cracked open enough to let just a little light in. Not enough for me, for my preference, my need for light.
Nonetheless, somehow my heart is cracked open just enough to let these words in:
The window travels the clouds travel I
travel the road travels the moon travels the trees travel the pane
travels the moon travels the passengers travel
the earth travels the mountains travel the planet travels the thoughts travel
the time travels
the light travels the glass travels the stones travel the galaxy
travels the cosmos travels the galaxy travels the moon travels
A poem. “Traveling to Jerusalem on a Moon Night” by Israeli poet Rachel Chalfi. I don’t know who translated it. I read it just now in Mishkan Hanefesh for Yom Kippur, a sample of which was delivered to the Kindle app on my iPad the night before I left home.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which, as I write this was four days ago, I was distracted by a torrent of unpleasant emotions, but even then my heart was cracked open just enough to let these words in: ki miTzion tetzei Torah, u’dvar Adonai mi-Yerushalayim, For from Zion came forth Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem.
I said I let these words in, but as quickly as the words came in this insight arose, or should I say came forth from within: Torah was given at Sinai not Jerusalem. So what is this Jerusalem from which the word of Torah comes forth?
Not the conflicted, embattled, majestic, congested, digested, tormented, blackened, walled city that has spread beyond its walls, that has so far survived every conqueror’s dream of peace. Not the city whose coordinates are 31.7683º N, 35.2137º E. No, it’s the Jerusalem of any place in which Torah is revealed and truly received. It’s the Jerusalem of the heart—when the heart cracks open just enough to let Torah out.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, just before we opened the ark and sang the words ki miTzion and took out the Torah, the rabbi taught that the Jerusalem from which the Torah comes forth is not the city but, once the walls are taken down, the heart. My heart sunk. That’s my insight! Now no one will believe me if I tell them I had it first!
O days of ego and awe! That was the first descent, or was it the second, or the fortieth descent of my Days of Awe. Now the plane from Charlotte begins its descent to Hartford.
On the ground, the next morning after the usual routine (but it’s the Days of Awe! Pay attention! Every moment is charged with the presence of God!), I wake up when I lift my eyes to The Alphabet of Creation, each letter on its own banner suspended from the windowed ceiling of the Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA.
The aleph, it’s silent. And from its silence emerges the bet, the bayit, the House of All Creation. The house that rises again and again from ash, from rubble, from shards of glass, from oil, from frozen and flooded and bloodied soil.
Here, in the House of Creation, in a country that refuses breathing refugees, I stand among refugee books, more than a million of them, catalogued, shelved, displayed, speaking a language I cannot understand, and I’m reading placards that tell the stories of how they traveled from South Africa and Cuba, Australia and Argentina, and of how they are still traveling from Yiddish to Spanish and English and many languages of this living world, losing a little, adjusting a little as they move from there to here to here.
And again I’m traveling, this time from Bontshe the Silent to Satan in Goray, books I read with my students in another lifetime, and I’m traveling to a future not long from now when I hope to return to the land of my fathers and mothers, the books in which they die and live, and I’m dreaming of students in whose hearts I’d like to plant these books, but because it’s the Days of Awe I’m trying to remember to pay attention to every motion of body, heart, and mind. Where else can I hope to find the place where God eternally stands?
Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.
The above image was taken by the author and is used with permission.