Thursday, January 17, 2019

Mary Oliver z"l

One of my favorite, and most loved, poets, Mary Oliver died this morning.

This week the Torah offers us the most famous of poems, the Song of the Sea, which contains the words we sing every time we gather for services: Mi Chamocha—“Who is like you O God, among the gods that are worshiped? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?” (Exodus 15)

And so in honor of this Shabbat Shirah—the Sabbath of songs and poems—and in gratitude to the many Mary Oliver poetry books that line my shelves and have accompanied me on so many journeys and offered me solace in the most unexpected of locales and uplifted me when I discovered my faith lacking, I offer two of her poems.
On Traveling to Beautiful Places
Every day I’m still looking for God
and I’m still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
Certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand
each with its own set of creatures
and God, by whatever name.
How perfect to be aboard a ship with
maybe a hundred years still in my pocket.
But it’s late, for all of us,
and in truth the only ship there is
is the ship we are all on
burning the world as we go.
Yes! I am still searching as well.

I recall that next week we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the new year for trees, so again I turn to one of Mary Oliver’s teachings.
Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way
If you’re John Muir you want trees to
live among. If you’re Emily, a garden
will do.
Try to find the right place for yourself.
If you can’t find it, at least dream of it.
When one is alone and lonely, the body
gladly lingers in the wind or rain,
or splashes into the cold river, or
pushes through the ice-crusted snow.
Anything that touches.
God, or the gods, are invisible, quite
understandable. But holiness is visible,
entirely.
Some words will never leave God’s mouth,
no matter how hard you listen.
In all the works of Beethoven, you will
not find a single lie.
All important ideas must include the trees,
the mountains, and the rivers.
To understand many things you must reach out
of your own condition.
For how many years did I wander slowly
through the forest. What wonder and
glory I would have missed had I ever been
in a hurry!
Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still
it explains nothing.
The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.
The world and its beauty can indeed both shout and whisper. Perhaps all I need to do is slow down and listen. Yes, all important ideas must include the natural world. Still so much remains a mystery. The poet is right.

You are you.

And all you have is your integrity.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

God's Burning Truth

Rabbi Menahem Mendl (1787-1859) was a controversial Hasidic teacher who led a community in Kotzk (Kock, Poland) for twelve years. He is often called the Kotzker rebbe.

Reb Menahem Mendl was, however, never fully comfortable in this leadership role. When followers came to visit, hoping to hear some of their master’s teachings, he would only occasionally come out of his study. And when he did, he would then chase these students away. His dream was to develop fifty worthy disciples who would attain the spiritual level of the prophets. He of course never achieved this goal and instead spent his remaining twenty years in seclusion.

He was a master without a congregation.

He was so intoxicated with God that he found little time for people. He was uncompromising. His goal was absolute perfection. Menahem Mendl disdained half measures. He believed in a radical approach, stating that it was better to be completely wicked than to be partially good and partially wicked. His singular goal was absolute truth and complete authenticity. Falsehood and complacency were antithetical to a worthy religious life. Conformity and social conventions were obstacles that needed to be trampled. He was known to say, “Give me just ten disciples who will follow me to the desert, eat manna and forsake this decadent world.”

His obsessions led him to perform an unusual custom. Every year, prior to Passover, he burned his writings along with the bread. And yet there are a number of sayings and teachings ascribed to him. He taught: “People are accustomed to look at the heavens and wonder what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves to see what happens there.”

Look within for truth.

To the Kotzker rebbe, there is no escaping God’s demands or God’s presence. He saw God everywhere and anywhere.

Even this week’s portion points to more than the plagues it describes. Why does the portion open with such a curious word? God commands Moses to “Come to Pharaoh” rather than “Go to Pharaoh.” Menahem Mendl comments:
The Torah does not say, lekh—go—to Pharaoh, but bo—come. The reason for this usage is because one cannot go from God; one cannot move away from God for God is everywhere. Therefore, God told Moses, “come,” or in other words, “Come with Me, for I will be with you wherever you are.”
We cannot escape God’s presence. We cannot escape God’s demands.

It is enough to drive a person mad. Perhaps this is why Menahem Mendl shooed disciples away and sought to destroy his legacy by burning his writings. He was tormented by God’s truth.

God’s demands are overwhelming. Truth burns at the soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explores Menahem Mendl of Kotzk’s teachings in his extraordinary book, A Passion for Truth. Heschel observes:
We recall him still, Reb Mendl of Kotzk. He has not fled from us by dying. Somehow his lightning persists. His words throw flames whenever they come into our orbit. They burn. Who can bear them? Yet many of us shall thereby shed our masks, our pretensions and jealousies, our distorted notions, and then messianic redemption may approach its beginning. 
What did the Kotzker leave behind? He published no books, left no records; what he wrote he burned. Yet he taught us never to say farewell to Truth; for God laughs at those who think that falseness is inevitable. He also enabled us to face wretchedness and survive. For Truth is alive, dwelling somewhere, never weary. And all of mankind is needed to liberate it.
Where is the Kotzker rebbe when he is most needed?

He has secluded himself—once again.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

God Only Wants One Thing from Us

People call God by many different names.

Allah. Vishnu. Almighty.

Buddha. Jesus. Tao.

Adonai.


God calls people to do one simple thing:

Do good.

And typically adds some advice:

Stick together.

And very often offers a warning:

Beware of them and their ideas.

And we are still trying to figure out how to follow this simple command....