Executive Director’s Blog – Notes from Lisa’s Desk
As Psalm 94 so succinctly puts it: God knows that human plans are futile. Instead of spending this week learning with Art Green and other teachers on retreat, we came back home to witness the overwhelming destruction swept in by the hurricane. I and the other Institute staff were very, very lucky; we experienced very little of the direct fury of the storm and a great deal of concern and love from so many people from all over the world.
In the midst of the tremendous losses all around, I am noticing the role of waiting. Beginning on Shabbat afternoon before the storm, there was a eerie stillness all around. The air felt heavy, foreboding. I came back to the city on Sunday and had to stock up on food and emergency supplies since I had not expected to be home. The line at the grocery store snaked all around the entire building. The anxiety was palpable, even though it was more than 24 hours before the storm arrived. The stores closed and we all went home to wait.
And now that the winds and rain have stopped, we are still waiting: waiting for the trains to start again, waiting for the roads to be cleared and for airports, schools and businesses to reopen. Some are waiting for electricity and water to be restored and to get back into their damaged homes. There will be waiting for insurance companies and rebuilding.
And there will be waiting for the terrible pain of grief to subside. This must be the most difficult waiting of all.
In his book, “Sailing Home,” Norman Fischer writes, “We all know a crisis when we see it. … But after the dust of frenzied activity settles, and we are finally able to feel our way into what we have been through, we realize just how unhinged we have become. We can’t go back to business as usual, for we sense that we no longer fit into our former life. We need a new life. But we don’t know how to find it. There is nothing else to do right now but stay where we are and wait.”
Sometimes waiting is not simply passivity or wasting time. Sometimes, even though it is frustrating, painful or anxiety-producing, it just takes time to let the things we have experienced work their way through our souls. Waiting too can be holy work.
Of course, there are things to do while we are waiting: reaching out to loved ones and neighbors, contributing money and effort towards taking care of those in need and rebuilding, not to mention voting next week and thinking again about climate change. But those are all human plans. We have an opportunity to remember that sometimes the deep transformation can begin to emerge not from impulsive action, but rather precisely from the slow, difficult work of waiting.
Elul is coming to an end with the grandeur and mystery of the High Holy Days about to begin. In New York the weather shifted this week too; the sun is still warm, but the wind is fresh and even chilly, signs of colder days approaching.
Last week I mentioned the new building that is being constructed outside our windows. I have been watching the workers, climbing, moving and hammering, seemingly without a care, on the drop-off edge of a concrete slab 20 stories above the street. As I write, one man in a neon green vest is clinging to the outside of a plywood ladder, nothing underneath him but a net two floors below, whacking at something with a tool. He is clipped on with a harness, but from here, it looks pretty terrifying.
Fear. I remember studying once with Gabe Goldman, a naturalist and Jewish educator. He told of having led a hands-on workshop about how to handle very, very sharp knives, so sharp that you wouldn’t even feel it if you cut off your finger. He taught his students how to hold them, work with them, and respect them. He then followed the workshop with a lesson about yirah, “fearing” or being “in awe” of God.
After the sweet, mellow days of Elul, these High Holy Days, Days of Awe, give us a glimpse of something stronger and a little more fearful. They encourage us to consider the mystery of the unknown days ahead, days that may hold great blessings and great suffering, and probably a little of both. They give us the forum to come face to face with our limits and the reality of our mortality. They challenge us to confront our own vulnerability in the face of the colder days that are coming.
But, like the men outside who are building a new building, a structure that will provide shelter for hundreds of people and stand witness to their labors for many years, the High Holy Days also give us the opportunity to take satisfaction in the work of our hands and to find joy in living this life, in company with fellow travelers, step by dangerous step, even when we feel we are dangling over the abyss.
May 5773 bring all of us more blessings than suffering, more expansiveness than constriction, more peace than conflict, and more joy than sorrow. May our practices give us tools for wisdom, gratitude and compassion. And may we find good companions (or a good Companion) for the journey who can support us with courage, love and guidance.
No, that’s not a typo. Just before Labor Day, the staff at the Institute’s national offices packed up all our books and files and equipment and on Tuesday, under the expert guidance of David Cavill, our Associate Director, and Vito Marzano, our Executive Assistant, we moved into our new space. The rumors are apparently true: everything is indeed impermanent.
Our new office is a big, open space with high ceilings, wood floors and a row of huge windows facing north. From my desk, I can turn my head to look across the relatively low police station over to 31th St where construction on a brand new building is underway. It is 21 stories so far and they have labeled each floor on the outward facing concrete with huge fluorescent orange numbers. I can also see the decorative design of sphinxes and winged horses on the building directly across the street.
Earlier in the summer, I went to Roosevelt Island. There is a red tram that takes you from the east side of Manhattan, up, over the Queensboro Bridge and the East River and then down to the island. It’s great fun.
I was early to meet my friend and so I waited at the tram depot on the Manhattan side for a while. The little plaza by the station was one of those strange places that for some reason attracts pigeons by the hundreds. My eye was caught by a sign that the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation posted on a fence: “Feed a Pigeon. Breed a Rat.” (And just for the record, I did indeed spy a rat, roughly the size of a pigeon, scurrying beneath the rose bushes.)
The sign reminded me of a classic teaching story that I first heard from Sheila Weinberg. A Native American elder is teaching a group of children, sitting at his feet. He says, “There are two wolves. One is filled with rage and hatred and blame and fear. The other is filled with compassion and forgiveness and peacefulness and faith. These two wolves are fighting. And they are inside me.”
One of the children asks anxiously, “Which wolf will win?”
The elder solemnly replies, “Whichever one I feed.”
In my experience, my more negative thought patterns are very similar to feeding rats and pigeons. I have no desire to feed the rats. But pigeons are innocuous. I find them dirty and slightly menacing in a weird way, but they’re certainly not on the same level as rats. In the same way, I don’t intend to hold on to things that make me angry, hateful, fearful or judgmental. But I certainly can find myself nursing small grudges or injustices that seem innocuous.
But in fact, they are not. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is exactly right. Feed a pigeon, breed a rat. Cling to that grievance and it inadvertently may shape my thoughts towards something much darker and unwanted.
Of course, there is a place in the world for all kinds of animals, even those we call pests, and anger, fear and hatred are unavoidable – and occasionally even useful – human experiences. It’s a question of appropriateness and discernment. Perhaps the first place we can stop “feeding the pigeons” is with ourselves – by bringing compassion, forgiveness and faith to our mind’s endless capacity for holding on when we might let go.