A Complex Position

One morning in early January I left my Upper West Side apartment to go to work.  The thermometer read 4 degrees Fahrenheit.  I was all bundled up; I finally figured out how to keep my scarf over my nose and mouth without having to hold it there with a mittened hand.  But I hadn’t calculated on the wind.  When I emerged from the subway in Midtown and walked head-on into the gusting wind, my eye sockets ached, it was so cold.  I had never experienced anything like that before.

So you can imagine my glee at the Institute tradition of holding our two January retreats in Southern California.  I flew out to Los Angeles and left my down coat in the trunk of the car.  I rolled up my sleeves and reveled in the sun.  And then I started looking around.  Where was the delicate winter grass in the vacant lots and on the hillsides?  Why were the sage bushes and sycamore trees looking so dusty and worn?  Why were the stream beds so very parched at what should be the height of the rainy season?

I found myself in a complex position.  On the one hand, I was so glad to be out of the snowy northeast and in the splendid sunny days of California.  I delighted in the blooming magnolias and pear trees in watered gardens and felt the gratitude rise in my ribs.  And on the other hand, my chest ached with a panicky dread at the reality of the terrible drought.   The worry began with a kind of identification with the suffering of the plants and animals around me and expanded to a much greater fear:  What is happening to this land that I love?  What is happening to our planet?

And both those perspectives are true.  The gratitude and the dread.  The delight and the fear.  I didn’t have to choose one or the other.  In fact, I couldn’t honestly choose between one and the other.  They coexist in a single reality.  It is just as our liturgy says:  You are the Fashioner of light and the Creator of darkness, Maker of peace, Creator of all things.  All things:  the pleasant and the unpleasant, the beautiful and the terrifying, life and death.

When we start paying attention, we can notice how easy it is to assign a judgment to a particular situation which then smoothes over the nuances into an easily digestible – but false – uniformity.  Lisa Zbar, the Institute’s Development Director, sometimes speaks of the spiritual practice of “AND.”  It is a practice of truth telling.  And it helps us discern the wisest action.  The gratitude and delight can nourish us and give us hope.

9 Responses to “A Complex Position”

  1. Lizzie Shammash

    This is a beautiful piece, so well-stated and wonderfully written. I thank you. A good reminder and lovely to read at the end of a long day, as I exhale.

  2. Ellen Friedman

    Thank you, Lisa, for putting words to what I have been feeling about the realities in California while sending our warmth to those in the midwest and east. We are entering a time of changes on our planet that we can’t imagine and only our awareness of the complexity and our love for ALL beings will help guide us through this time.

  3. David Sanders

    Thank you for this lovely piece expressing a core teaching of the Kabbalah–Nosei Hafachim–Holding Opposites. These AND those are the experience of full living.

    • Ann C. Schmidt

      Thank you Lisa. It is so good to learn from you. I look forward to each of your heartfelt lessons. Ann C. Schmidt Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Evanston, IL

  4. Josh Weisman

    As a Californian living on the East Coast for the first time like you, I identify with your experiences in more ways than one! Thank you for your evocative description of the drought. My heart aches for our precious land.
    This also evoked an experience those of us at RRC had earlier this week. When I arrived to our Beit Midrash to learn Mishnah this Monday morning, I found a darkened room with people scurrying about and puddles on the floor. I spent the next two hours working in a constantly shifting arrangement of impromptu teams of students, staff, and faculty, ferrying books out of the Beit Midrash and library and covering stacks with plastic tarps. A pipe had burst as the building warmed up after several days without power due to most recent of the unusually intense storms we’ve experienced this year (the next is due tonight), and water was pouring from the ceiling into areas of two floors of the Beit Midrash and library.
    As a Jew, I found myself getting choked up as I saw our holy books in danger and raced to rescue them. And at the same time, I was deeply moved and gladdened by the spirit of cooperation that naturally overtook all of us, and the way we worked together in ways we never had before to protect our texts.
    Fear and gratitude; hurt and inspiration — it was a powerful opportunity to practice “and.”

  5. Jamie

    Thank you, Lisa.
    I have missed our more regular contacts and looking forward to an IJS fix later this month in Newark. Will you be making an appearance there, or will I just have to look for fractals of your sweet self?
    Anyway, rain and shine, frigid temps AND droughts, b’ahavah v’yirah…

  6. Nancy Kahn

    Really timely and lovely piece, Lisa. Living is complicated. And “ands” allow us to view our experience in 3-Dimensional vision!


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