Executive Director’s Blog – Notes from Lisa’s Desk
I hate shopping. I get overwhelmed very easily by the competing demands of all the products, prices, and salespeople. When I can’t find what I’m looking for right away, I tend to get discouraged and walk away, often intending to make do without. So when I went to the neighborhood camera store to buy a replacement battery and they didn’t stock the kind I needed, I took a deep breath and girded my loins to plunge into what must be the world’s most bustling, enormous camera and video superstore.
It was an astonishing experience. I was directed to the second floor where I waited in a short line. The clerk typed my request into his computer and within seconds, a little bin shot up along a conveyor belt straight from the warehouse. The clerk put the battery in another bin and sent it along; I received a receipt, and went downstairs to pay. After paying, I was directed to a third station where my battery was already packaged into a little bag and was ready to be picked up and taken home. The whole thing took less than ten minutes and each person I interacted with was friendly and helpful.
This experience brought me a completely new sense of awareness and appreciation. In truth, every time I go to the grocery store or to the bookstore or to buy a new pair of hiking boots, there are steps of the process that are usually completely invisible to me. I pick the product off the shelf and take it to the cashier and carry it home. But someone keeps the books and pays the invoices for the merchandise. Someone put the product on the shelf. Someone ordered it. Someone transported it to the store. Someone packaged it. Someone made or took care of or grew it. There are entire systems at play that enable me to buy an object. And this is not even to mention the fact that some of these systems are fair and others cause untold suffering to those who are part of it and to the earth itself.
How would shopping be different if I stopped to remember the chain of people, places and events that enabled each thing I wanted to buy? Instead of being largely an experience of desire, ignorance, and gratification, could it be an experience of appreciation, awareness and responsibility? And how might that ripple out into the world?
Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the gift of Torah, begins on Saturday night. The Torah itself describes this occasion as being accompanied by dramatic and terrifying noise and spectacle: thunder, long shofar blasts, earthquake, fire and smoke. As I type this, I am listening to the honks and sirens on Seventh Avenue far below, and I wonder: if Mt. Sinai were in New York City, would anyone notice if God started proclaiming?
Mt. Sinai, of course, is in the middle of the desert, a place of profound and almost absolute quiet. Some people say that the Hebrew word for desert, midbar, means “a place of speech.” That sounds completely counter-intuitive unless you consider that a desert is a place that is so quiet that we might finally hear the Speech that is actually there all the time. And in fact, there are midrashim, or rabbinic stories, that say that God is always speaking at Sinai, but that on the day Torah was given, the 6th of Sivan so long ago, the desert was completely silent so that we could really hear.
Contemplative Jews (including me) love those midrashim. To a contemplative person, silence is clearly the better context to hear the voice of truth. It is in the silence that the noise of life can settle down and reveal the hidden wisdom that grows underneath. So why does the Torah text itself insist that the Torah was given in the midst of so much clamor?
Perhaps it was the setting. Perhaps it was the extreme contrast between the quiet desert and the thunderous mountain that startled the Israelites into the possibility of hearing something new. In that case, in our noisy lives, the contrast of stillness may be exactly the thing that startles us into that same possibility.
My intention for this Shavuot is to engage in some great Torah learning, to spend time with dear friends and to eat some New York cheesecake. It is also to find a quiet corner, even in this frenetic city, to see if maybe I can hear something unexpected and true.
Contrary to many assumptions, spiritual practice is not in fact easy. There are so many reasons – truly compelling reasons – to get up from the cushion, to close the prayerbook, to break the pose, to cancel the meeting with my hevruta (study partner). And yet, the really hard part of spiritual work begins when we transition from the centering stillness of our practice to the busy, confusing, distracting realities of everyday life. But of course, that is where spirituality especially counts: in how we treat both beloveds and strangers, in how we make the thousands of decisions, big and small, day to day. At its heart the practice of paying attention moment to moment is preparation for wise and compassionate action in the world.
This blog is intended to be reflections on trying to live a mindful life in the bustling, vital craziness of New York City. I will share my ideas, explorations and experiences in hopes that you will find them helpful in your own practice and your own life.
And I welcome your thoughts and experiences as well. Since I first had the privilege of joining the Institute for Jewish Spirituality world ten years ago as part of the second rabbinic cohort, one of the biggest surprises and greatest blessings was finding a whole community of fellow travelers. I expect to learn much from you as we all move through this miraculous complex gift of life.