It’s Amazing That Our Bodies Function

Spending time around my grandfather as he is dying pushes my thinking in interesting ways. One of those ways is about how amazing it is that bodies function, and how resilient they are.

Judaism has a specific blessing about this (arguably, Judaism has a specific blessing for everything), and it’s a blessing that has spoken to me for many years.

Blessed are you, Divine One, our God, nature’s rulemaker, who formed humanity in wisdom, and created within us openings and channels. It is evident and known that should one of these openings be closed when it should be open, or open when it should be closed, we would be unable to stand before you. Blessed are You, Divine One, healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

It is known, colloquially, as the bathroom blessing, since it is recited, among other times, when one relieves oneself (it is also a part of the litany of blessings recited each morning upon getting up).

For me, this blessing has always drawn attention to the miracle of the intricacy of the human body. How everything fits together, and, for the most part, functions without our conscious attention. How, until the advent of computers, it would have been impossible for humans to design a system this complex (which is not to say that I believe that we were “designed” by a conscious deity, merely that we could not have designed something like ourselves, which nature did). I have always seen it as a reminder of the delicacy of the human body, the fragility of our inner workings.

As I watch my grandfather slipping slowly down his final road, however, I am, ironically,  reminded just how robust the human body is. Even as his body is riddled with a cancer which does not belong, and squeezes out the organs which do, his body continues to function. His brain, for the most part, continues to function, albeit with the occasional fault. Our bodies are remarkably fault-tolerant, to use the language of technology. And somehow, I find this fault-tolerance an even greater occasion for wonder.

Blessed is the one who heals flesh and works wonders.

Living in Death

Right at the moment, I’m feeling a little surrounded by death. I’m in Boston for an indeterminate period of time accompanying my grandfather on his journey towards death. As I wrote yesterday, Paul Bingman, a friend and amazing person died on Sunday, and I’m having conversations with various folks about planning a memorial service for him (something I know more about than most folks, being involved in several funerals a year in a professional way).

I’m coming to a conclusion. Dying is hard work. I don’t know how hard it is for the one actually doing the dying (though it looks pretty rough, and on the basis of my observations I really wouldn’t recommend it). But for those of us involved in ancillary ways, it takes a toll, both physical and emotional. I know this sounds awfully flip for a post ab out death and dying, but sometimes, humor is all one has to hold things together.

For the past couple of days I’ve been beginning to think about a prayer (or meditation, if you prefer) to be said before entering a space where someone is dying (or in hospice). So far, I’ve gotten this far:

Here I am, prepared to accompany ___________ on their final journey. As I spend time with him/her let me be there for him/her, not for myself. May I answer them in the ways that are best for him/her, not those that are easiest or most comfortable for me. May my presence bring us both peace.

As the task becomes harder, may I remain equal to the task. And when I am not, may I forgive myself, knowing that what I do is hard work, and impossible to do perfectly.

May the time I spend with __________ be as meaningful and enjoyable as it can be for both of us.

It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly what needs to be said. But it’s a start.

May the source of comfort grant peace to all those who seek it.

Paul Bingman’s Death: The Passing of a Giant

Paul Bingman was a fixture in the Portland Tech Community. If by fixture one means the largest person in the room who was constantly moving around talking to everyone. Yet, I’m clear that the tech community was only one of the many communities he belonged to.

Paul Bingman

He passed away Sunday, April 3. Our community will never be the same.

Paul was the extrovert in a community of introverts. On the facebook page, Friends of Paul Bingman many people are commenting about how he was the first person they met when they moved to Portland, or entered the Portland tech community, and the like. It’s not a coincidence. Paul was someone who would come up to you and introduce himself. He would say something funny and engaging. Usually something smarter than you could respond to immediately.

Paul was part of so many different communities. Whether it was the tech community, the Jungians, the film community or some amorphous spiritual community (at least amorphous to me), he was central and involved. His beloved VW vanagan was constantly in use transporting equipment to one event or another–because he was always helping (unless the vanagan was awaiting a part–which might take months to find). I heard hints of other communities involving music, railroads etc. He was truly a renaissance man.

Paul was a tech geek who took spirituality seriously. He loved to ask questions about Judaism. In asking, he was seeking knowledge, listening with neither acceptance of truth, nor rejection of spiritual truth, but hearing it was true to me (or someone). He would challenge the ideas presented, not implying they were silly, but trying to understand how they worked. As I think about it, he would have made a fabulous rabbinic scholar, chasing down ideas and debates, some of which were simply about the intellectual pleasure of the debate, some of which had great practical implications, and usually with a few incisive puns thrown in.

I’ve had a little trouble figuring out how to write about Paul. A serious tech geek, he was never quite satisfied with the forms of communications we had available. Sure, there was twitter, email, texting and the like. But I can just hear his response to the suggestion that one communicate by those tools: “Though, you know…” proceeding to tell us how smoke signals were actually a much more elegant solution, and could be practical if the world was just slightly different (and better).

But I lack Paul’s engineering creativity. So I write a blog post, and announce it via facebook and twitter, and hope that Paul will forgive me that it isn’t funnier or cleverer. And know that he is in a place of peace, disturbed only by crazy engineering a fabulous puns.

Who’s Lucky?

When I was a child (somewhere between five and ten years of age), I remember thinking how amazingly lucky I was to have been born in the United States. After all, it wasn’t like everyone got to live in what I now think of as “the first world.” I could have been born in Africa, or the Soviet Union, or China, or any of those other places I saw on the news where it looked like people had very tough lives. Instead, I was born in the United States of America, where life was easy and  food was plentiful.

As I matured, that sense of gratitude has only deepened. At some point in my studies of history (and I’ve studied a lot of history between an undergraduate degree in classics and my rabbinic training) I realized that what we think of as barely acceptable housing conditions in this country represent far greater comfort than was available even to royalty in past ages. In the winter, we are adequately warm most of the time (even those of us who keep the thermostat at 65 degrees). But if you look at the stone castles found in various places across Europe (which we often visit in the summertime) and imagine what they must have been like in the winter, the misery of life in those conditions becomes evident relatively quickly.

To be alive, here and now, is one of the greatest strokes of luck anyone could ask for. And yet, there are moments when I feel like I can’t catch a break. When, after 1.75 years of chronic un-/underemployment, I feel like it has to be my turn at some point. When it feels like the world is conspiring against me, and, to quote the song, “if I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.”

When I’m feeling like that, I remind myself of how fortunate I truly am. And then, I admit that regardless of how fortunate I may be in the larger picture, it still feels hard to live life in some moments.

A New Year, New Challenges

I’m getting ready for the new year, and with it, a new experience. Tomorrow I head off to Spokane to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church. And by speak, I mean give a sermon (two actually, or rather, one sermon, given twice–at the 9:30 service and then again at 11). So, there are two elements here:

  1. Giving a sermon.
  2. Speaking at a church.

Individually, these are two things I do with some regularity. I speak at churches from time to time on a variety of subjects, from marriage equality to various aspects of Judaism. And I give sermons in a variety of Jewish contexts. But somehow, giving a sermon at a church service feels different.

Part of the difference comes from a statistic I encountered at some point during rabbinical school: ministers spend an average of 8 hours a week preparing sermons. Now, I’ll be honest: when you tell rabbis this statistic, they look at you like you’re crazy. Maybe you’ve misplaced a decimal? Most of us spend a couple of hours a week preparing our sermons, but Jewish congregations just don’t put enough emphasis on the sermon to justify that kind of time expenditure.

In any case, this feels like something new to me. And with a new year coming round tonight, it feels like a propitious way to begin 2011.

Oh, and, of course, may the new year be a wonderful year for all of us.

Willing the Light to Brighten

Chanukkah, which begins this evening, is the festival of lights. We celebrate by lighting a candlabra each of the eight nights of the holiday, adding a candle each night.

Tonight as we light the first candle, the moon is waning, almost vanished. When the holiday ends, the moon will be waxing, becoming ever brighter. We, however, lighting the increasing number of candles assert the that the victory of hope over fears.

This year, more than most, we balance between hope and fear. Will the coming year bring prosperity and light, or despair and darkness? Lighting the candles, even as the moon disappears, even as the sun shines a little less each day, we assert that the light will return.

Chanukkah is, primarily, a holiday of the triumph of hope. The triumph over long odds. The victory of hope despite our fears.

May this holiday of light restore hope to all those in darkness, light to all in fear.

The Text Defeats Me

Recently, I’ve been doing more “spiritual” stuff. You know, classically spiritual, like meditation and text study. Which is all well and good. But one of the “texts” I’ve been studying is Sefer Yetzirah. Now, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation) is considered esoteric, complex, even difficult. But I’m a rabbi. I have six years of graduate education in this stuff. If I slow down enough, I should be able to work with it.

And I can. Sort of. I’m even working with a translation and commentary. And therein lies the heart of my problem. I’m beginning to think that the translator/commentator (Aryeh Kaplan), while clearly brilliant, may be, umm, shall we say, “less than correct” in rendering the author’s original intention. It’s not that I think he’s all wrong. It’s just that I think he’s gotten so hung up on the tradition which came before him, and so hung up on his own knowledge of physics, that it’s getting in the way of his (or at the very least, my) mysticism.

The clearest example of this I’ve run across today is from his “clarifying” note explaining how the  ends of  various lines will always meet at the same point at  infinity (note 149 to chapter 1):

To prove that they all meet at a single point, we can imagine the three-dimensional continuum as the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. When the hypersphere becomes infinitely large, the continuum becomes flat. Still, all outgoing line, making “great circles” on the hypersphere, meet on its opposite side. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the curved space of general relativity, since the entire discussion here assumes an idealized flat space.

Now, I hear you saying, why don’t you just skip over that detail and continue on with his main argument. The issue is that, if I’m understanding him correctly, the point where all of these points meet is God. Which point, by the way, is both infinitesimally large and small simultaneously. And regardless of the dating of the text, I’m pretty sure the original author was not working from a vantage point that included non-euclidean geometry.

And then Aryeh Kaplan continues to build on this theory. And some of what he says makes sense, and some of it seems like it only works if you were following the argument about the ends of lines. These lines, by the way, are continua labeled Up and Down; East and West; North and South; Before and After; and the problematic one: Good and Bad. So the argument runs, that at the ultimate edge of “Good”, where it meets the ultimate edge of “Bad”, at that point we find God.

All of which goes to say, I’m feeling a bit like the text may have won this round. But then, if there is no struggle with the text, you’re not doing it right.