It is interesting that it took a snowstorm to turn New York City into Jerusalem on a Friday evening.
Like many people who have spent time in Jerusalem, one of things I love the most is the way Friday afternoons come into the Jewish parts of the city. Bit by bit, the stores close and the roads empty out. The sounds of the usual bustle begin to subside and a calm begins to pervade the squares and streets. By the time the sun sets over the plain below, it can feel like the whole city has taken a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Last Friday, with the approach of Snowstorm Nemo, New York City could have been Jerusalem. Sleet was falling in the afternoon and people began leaving, getting to where they would stay for the duration of the storm. Even in Midtown, where our office is, bit by bit, there were fewer cars, less honking and sirens. We closed the office a little early. And by the time the snow began to fall in earnest, later in the evening, as I was on my way to Shabbat dinner, there was a magical hush everywhere. The streets were mostly empty except for people walking, some with their dogs. The glow from the strings of left-over holiday lights caught the softly falling snow. The usually frantic city felt soothed and quiet.
One of the things I love about New York City is the wonderful energy and astonishing abundance of people and buildings and things to do and see and eat and explore. There is usually no stopping it or even any desire to stop it. But on this Erev Shabbat, it seemed like the city shavat vayinafash – stopped and took a breath.
By Shabbat morning the sun was shining and the sky was blue. I made my way to Central Park to explore the snowy woods and to watch the kids (of all ages!) playing in the snow. New York was returning to itself: noisy, colorful, vibrant. Yet, the magic of the snow stayed all through Shabbat. It wasn’t until Sunday that there was more gray slush than pristine fields of snow – just in time for a new workaday beginning to the week.
The July retreat season flew quickly by. For me, the hidden jewel of the season was the silent contemplative Shabbat. It combined two things that I treasure as part of my spiritual life: Shabbat and silence.
Shabbat and silence can be surprisingly similar. To the uninitiated, Shabbat can seem like a bunch of rules, mostly involving things you can’t do. But those who regularly observe Shabbat know that the structure of the tradition allows for something magical to happen. By temporarily turning away from the demands of work, entertainment and acquisition, we can make space for experiences of true meaning.
Silence works in a similar way. By temporarily not engaging in social conversation, I make space to find deeper meaning in my own life. My habitual thoughts can rest a little. I give myself time to notice how I am really doing, not just how I want to be doing. What is going on in my heart underneath all the distractions of life? What wisdom can emerge from that knowledge? How does the Divine move through it all?
Some of that I can also do in conversation with someone I trust. But in silence, I don’t have to explain or justify anything to anyone. No one will demand an answer or offer a solution. If I am feeling sad, I can feel sad. If I am feeling alive and grateful, that’s fine. I don’t have to define it or describe it or analyze it. I can just feel it and be it – until it shifts and becomes something else. There is a comfort and a safety in the silence. I can lean into it, knowing it will support me and lead me where I need to go.
It may seem counterintuitive that being quiet with a group of other people who are also in silence is much more powerful than silence alone. And yet, that is true. (At least, that is true for me.) I often feel a strange intimacy and affection for fellow meditators, even when I don’t know any biographical information about them. The silence allows me to remember the fundamentals of being a human being: the longing for love and meaning, the pain of suffering, the inevitable passing of time. The realization that I share those things with every other person becomes a lived experience in silence, not just a beautiful thing to think about.
A silent Shabbat – most coveted of days!
It was cool and drizzly when I left my apartment one morning last week, wearing my spring raincoat, but by mid-afternoon, it was sunny and warm. At the end of the day, I walked out of the office, leaving my coat on the rack outside my office door. I rode the crowded subway to my stop, dropped in at the grocery story to pick up a couple of things, and as I started to cross the street to my apartment, all of a sudden, I knew.
The keys to my apartment were not in my bag. They were in the pocket of my raincoat, hanging on the coat rack outside my office door.
I know that moment so well, that mental click from forgetting to remembering. It’s a cold, jarring sensation. It’s the jolt that accompanies waking up in meditation or suddenly knowing the right word for the crossword puzzle. In American Sign Language, it’s the popping up of the index finger in the sign for “understanding.” I think it must be related to the burst of the sephirah chochmah, the flash of creative insight that wasn’t there a moment ago.
The stories that accompany remembering can vary. It can be the exasperation and self-judgment that focuses on the forgetting. (“I am such an idiot! Now I have to get back on the subway, go all the way back to the office and then retrace my steps again!”) Or it can be marveling at the mind’s ability to wake up, even when it used to be asleep. (“How amazing that I remembered before I actually reached into my bag to find my keys!”) It can even be compassion. (“Our poor brains! Think of all the things that bombard us day in and day out! No wonder we forget so much. How else would we survive?”)
For me, the small, inconvenient act of forgetting and remembering spurred me to consider: what else have I forgotten? Have I remembered to be grateful for owning a key and a raincoat, for having the physical strength to get back on the subway, for having an office and a job, for walking through the early evening light in New York City with the thousands of other people, each with their own hopes and disappointments and stories?
So much of spiritual practice is about remembering to remember.
I just returned from vacation, where I went hiking from village to village in the Atlas Mountains. The Atlas Mountains are very steep and rugged, but people have lived there for as long as anyone can remember. The villages cling to the sides of narrow valleys in neat, terraced rows of mud and stone houses, walnut and cherry orchards and small plots of barley and peas. The trails between the villages are narrow and rocky, created by goats and shepherds over centuries.
As we walked along these ageless paths, I found myself remembering a story I heard as a child, one of those stories that kept me awake wondering at night. There is a huge mountain a mile high. Once every hundred years, an eagle flies low over the mountain and brushes off one grain of sand from the top with the tip of its wing. Think of how long it would take to wear away the entire mountain! And yet, that is only the first second of infinity.
We often think of mountains as the symbol of solidness and durability. One of the teachings of mindfulness, however, is the experience of impermanence, as we observe how the breath moves in and out, how sensation changes, how thoughts arise and pass. And as we hiked, I was struck by how the mountains too are changing all the time due to the rivers washing down rocks and sand, the ice and snow carving the stone, the huge boulders that fall down to the valleys, the footsteps of hundreds of people and animals pressing down, even the alpine flowers that push up through the rocks. These mountains are in fact wearing slowly down. It is just a matter of time and scale.
Of course, if I stop to think about it, I know in my head that not even the mountains are exempt from the law of change. But to look up the valley and experience that fact took me aback for a moment. Then I thought of the blessing for seeing tall and lofty mountains: Blessed are You, God, who performs the work of creation. Who continues to perform, over long and short periods of time.
And I realized again: It is such a blessing to be small and ephemeral, to see the beauty of the world inside us and around us, to glimpse the preciousness of this life, its fragility and glory, and to share it with joy with those around us.
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.