Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Gratitude in the Golden Years-Some Reflections
אל תשליכנו לעת זקנה ככלות כוחינו אל תעזבנו
Cast us not away when we are old,when our strength is gone do not abandon us
(High Holiday LIturgy)
During my early 60’s, at a spiritual meditation retreat that mandated utter silence, I had an epiphany. Unexpected, sudden, entirely without any premonition or forethought, I found myself sobbing unstoppably, uttering the most genuine prayer of my life-”Thank You! Thank You.” Amidst a flood of tears gushed forth a cascade of gratitude- not for some external achievement of success or gain, not because of a recent experience of rescue from danger, not even for the love of family-I felt grateful simply for being alive.There was no logical explanation for this phenomenon (I was told by a psychiatrist acquaintance-”it was a gift!”)
Since that moment of inspiration, perhaps revelation, I have consciously and deliberately made every effort to incorporate the awareness of gratitude into all aspects of my life. I confess that I was not always successful; my prayers, moments of meditation and contemplation were primarily focussed on the perspective of gratitude in the various phases of my daily experience. I continue to this day in the belief that gratitude is a gift of human perception that allows for some semblance of sanity, meaning, hope and happiness especially in the waning years of our lives. Without this outlook, we may sink into a state of mind of indifference, cynicism even despair.
Gratitude does not seem to come naturally to most people, perhaps to none. Especially when we are young, it is natural, necessary, for us to stive in order to survive and thrive. The awareness of being grateful is submerged somewhere in the depths of desire and the inescapable drive for more. In our youth our physiology and psychology place getting and spending ahead of gratitude and being satisfied. Of course there are isolated moments of being beholden for what is achieved and acquired; but gratitude stands on the sidelines during the this game that pits one against the challenges of overcoming obstacles and gaining new heights of acomplishment. The search for identity, for financial success, for proving one’s sexual prowess and gaining recognition and prestige in one’s society are so entirely dominant that the ego thirsts for more and little if any psychic room is left for the experience of gratitude and thankfulness to God, nature, the universe, life or others in the line of humanity who have left behind an easier and more enriching world for us and others who will follow. Our view of life is narrow, concentrated on the self and the orbit of those most closely connected with the self-family ,friends, immediate community. There is time to remedy wrongs, correct errors and seek atonement for those things we regret. There always seems to be a tomorrow.
As we approach old age, however, tasks and expectations change; our reality is defined by a series of losses-loss of skin elasticity producing the dreaded dermatological nightmare of wrinkles; losses in hearing and vision; losses in energy levels; losses in metabolic rates and the loss of sexual interest, drive and capacity. Moreover, older years represent the loss of companionship; loved ones-spouses, friends, colleagues-loss of identity that for so long had been formulated and reinforced by activiity, function and role in society. Modern societies are not hospitable to the elderly; while tolerant, even respectful and helpful, nevertheless the young and the ideal of youthfulness persist as images of highest value and aspiration.
Billy Crystal, the humorist, tries to ease the sadness of aging in the following movie scene in which he addresses the kids in his child’s class in a joking way:
“Value the time of your life, kids. It goes by so fast. When you’re a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. In your thirties you raise a family, you make a little money, and you think to yourself-‘what happened to my 20’s?’ Forties, you grow a little pot belly, another chin.The music starts to get too loud. One of your girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Fifties, you have minor surgery. You call it a procedure but it’s surgery. Sixties, you have major surgery. The music is still loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway. Seventies, you and your wife retire to Florida.You start eating dinner at two o’clock in the afternoon. You have lunch around ten and breakfast the night before. You spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the urinal and muttering ,‘How come the kids dont call? how come the kids don’t call?’”
The greatest loss perhaps is that of time. Inescapably, our past stretches out further than our future. Life’s brevity depresses us rather than impresses upon us its preciousness, precisely because only few years remain. What lies ahead is the end, mortality shaking its spiteful fist in our wrinkled faces. No more poignant description of oldness can surpass Shakespeare and the Bible. Shakespeare describes old age as “second childnessnes and mere oblivion/sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” In the book of Ecclesiastes ,12:1-5’ we read: (Translation-Zalman Schachter-Shlomi-From Age-ing to Sageing)
“Then come the creaking days. Years creep up in which one feels like saying ’I have no taste for them.’ For the sunlight darkens in the eyes; dimmed is the light of the moon and the stars; and the vision is patchy like a cloudy sky after the rain.The hands and arms,the guards of the house, begin to tremble. And the legs, like battle-tired soldiers, are unsure of their step. The grinding mills, teeth, are fewer and the windows of the mind fog up...the back is bent and the urge to mate is weakenrd as a person walks to his eternal home.”
In a humorous vein, the story has it that Grandpa and granddaughter were sitting and talking when the little girl asked: ”Did God make you, Grandpa?”
“Yes, God made me,” the grandfather answered.
A few minutes later, the little girl asked him,”Did God make me too?”
“Yes, He did, “ the older man replied.
For a few minutes the little girl seemed to be studying her grandpa, as well as her own reflection in the mirror while her grandfather wondered what was running through her mind.
At last she spoke up.” You know, Grandpa,” she said, “God’s doing a lot better job lately.”
In the face of this bleak prospect of golden years that feel so tarnished and unwanted, years that are experienced not as genuine but as those belonging to fools who have no choice but to endure till the end in a state of hopelessness and despair, is there a place for gratitude? Whatever the spectrum of life’s many colors and hues, for most the spirit and soul remain as refuges of renewed hope, wisdom and joy. The older years bestow upon us the capacity to perceive life widely and deeply, with the freahness and innocence of a child and the insight and clarity of the experienced and veterans of living.
For many the arrival of grandchildren, even great-grandchildren is the greatest of all gifts bestowed only in old age. Those still healthy and vigorous likewise can find a way to experience gratitude for physical and mental well-being. We can also take inspiration from the select few who are especially blessed with on-going ability to function and create and contribute even more meaningfully than in their earlier years.
Wherever we find ourselves along the path of life’s gifts, gratitude and a sense of its awareness springs from our souls that with spiritual effort can continue to shine making our later years truly golden and precious.
Polly Francis, a fashion illustrator wrote a series of essays on old age when she was in her nineties. In her anthology, Songs of Experience, she writes the following:
“A new set of faculties seems to be coming into operation.I seem to be awakening to a larger world of wonderment- to catch little glimpses of the immensity and diversity of creation. More than at any time in my life, I seem to be aware of the beauties of our spinning planet and the sky above. And now I have the time to enjoy them. I feel that old age sharpens our awareness.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, shortly before his early death at sixty five years , told his disciple that throughout his life he asked God not for wealth, celebrity or wisdom. “I only asked for wonder!” This gift of vision seems to be reserved for the final years of one’s journey on this earth. “In our later years we feel connected to the world through bonds of tenderness and empathy. Life becomes more poetic. The ordinary objects that surround us- trees, houses, clouds, animals-shimmer with metaphoric insight....life is animated in ways that constantly astound us.”( John Weir Perry-Lord of the Four Quarters.)
Perhaps paradoxically, as our years shorten, as time seems to race by, when our bodies and minds prepare for the home stretch, that is precisely the time during which our ability to be grateful is the keenest and most vibrant. To bask in the sun of gratefulness is a source of immeasurable joy and meaning.
A Zen Buddhist, Lewis Richmond, recommends that elders go on “gratitude walks” in which they consciously notice and appreciate anything that evokes thankfulness-trees, leaves, birds, children at play. Many older people walk as exercise, a very effective activity that maintains bodily health. Setting aside a few minutes of that experience to pay attention to one’s surrounding and cultivate an attitude of gratitude goes far in elevating our spirits from places of despondency to heights of buouancy and greater lightness of being.
Notions of ‘letting go,’ surrender, unclenching our hearts and minds, being receptive with the awe and naivete of the child , can fill the many moments of later years with the dazzling array of the world’s beauty and wonder.
The young seek the adventure of the new and the unexpected.The old dwell in the richness of what is, and the serenity and fullness of what always was, the ecstasy of the eternal.
An elderly woman and her little grandson whose face as sprinkled with freckles spent a day at the zoo. Lots of children were waiting to get their cheeks painted by a local artist who was decrating them with tiger paws.
“You’ve go so many freckles there is no place to paint,” a girl in line said to the little boy. Embarassed the boy dropped his head.
His grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles. When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles,” she said, while tracing her finger across the child’s cheek.
“Freckles are beautiful.” The boy looked up. “Really?”
“Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name one thing that’s more beautiful than freckles?”
The boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandmother’s face and softly whispered, “Wrinkles.”
Even to the final moments of life, gratitude grounds us in the ultimate joy of being alive.
It is told that as death neared, one of the disciples of the dying master scoured the pastry shops for a confection that his master loved. In spite of his weakened condition, the master munched on the cake with utter pleasure. As his energy waned, the disciples leaned closer and asked if he had any final words to share.
“Yes,” he replied weakly.
“Please tell us,” they urged eagerly.
“My, but this cake is delicious!” the master said, and a moment later he breathed his last breath.
Needless and sadly to say, there is no small number of elderly whose mental , physical and material abilities are severly compromised, for whom the ability to touch the grace of gratitude is beyond their reach. Yet for most, in place of dwelling, during the many moments available to us, on the disappointments, missed opportunities and regrets of the past, we can choose to grasp the myriad gifts that surround us with the spiritual grip of gratitude. If we exercise this choice, we too can echo the words of the master-”This cake is delicious.!”
Monday, September 19, 2016
The New Year-5777-A Year of Daring
This Jewish New Year we arrive at is 5777 of the traditional Jewish chronology. In Hebrew, the last numbers-77-correspond to the Hebrew word -עז- which numerically adds up to 77; ע=70, ז=7.
The word “OZ” means strength, might, power. It is often used in the liturgy when we pray that God bless Israel with strength and peace.
”ה’ עז לעמו יתן ה’ יברך את עמן בשלום.”
Curiously, unlike other Hebrew words with only two letters which cannot be converted into a verb such as כח-‘koach’-which also means might and strength, the word contained in the numbers of our New Year- עז-can be expanded into a verb form by adding one additional letter, the same letter as the second letter, spelling עזז.
One of the forms of this word is להעיז- which means to dare.
Thus, when we attempt to understand the unique translation of the strength embedded in the letters for 77-עז-t the inference derived from these numbers suggests the challenge and the opportunity of approaching the new year with our sights directed to the possibility of engaging in acts that are daring and courageous.
Often we wish that certain things that appear beyond our reach can indeed become realized in our lives. They may involve a certain amount of risk taking, appearing somewhat out of grasp because of fear or the ostensible inaccessibilty of the that goal or objective.
The New Year beckons us to re-evaluate our capacity to take upon ourselves the willingness to dare, to step into the unknown with faith in ourselves, in the fullness of life’s potential ,in God, and make every reasonable effort to achieve that which is more adventurous and that which has been untried. Certainly a strong desire accompanied by the worthwhileness of the goal represent ingredients that contribute to the likely actualization of our response of daring and strength.
Perhaps the world in general can dare to explore possibilities for arriving at new ways by which to sustain our planet and bring peace to the human community. We need the “OZ”-the strength, courage and daring, to attempt to pursue untried paths-those of peace , pleasantness , of compassion and love.
May the New Year of 5777 be a year of עז- of courage and daring for Israel , the world and in our personal lives. Amen
Sunday, June 26, 2016
Post -Shavuot Reflections-Intimations of Revelation
מי כמוך באלים ה’ מי כמוך נאדר בקדש נורא תהילות עושה פלא
Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials (mighty) (all that is worshipped)
Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?
The Festival of Weeks-Shavuot-highlights the event of revelation on SInai, the “Giving of the Torah.” The notion of revelation has been on my mind throughout the festival, begging for an interpretation and definition beyond the common and literal understanding of the heavenly encounter between Israel and God on Mount Sinai resulting in the issuance of Torah to the Jewish people. Is revelation, therefore, a unique, one-time event, never to be duplicated in some way, or does it hold out the promise and possibility of a process that is continuous and on-going? How does one understand the concept of divine transmission to the human mind and heart?
I would like to believe that the full spectrum of creative thinking and output is an unending unfolding of revelation in human life. Do we understand the nature of a thought, an intuition, a sensing of that which is beyond the physical and easily recognizable? Do these phenomena not defy the categorization or measurement applied to other domains of human understanding, those that are considered scientific or material?
Whenever a depth of meaning or interpretation that has the potentiality of enriching my grasp of the divine occurs to me, I wonder whether that in fact represents a moment of revelation?
The above verse from the Pentateuch-Exodus 15:11, a passage that is part of the liturgy, struck me on Shavuot as being a verse of revelation that allowed me to unnderstand the nature of the divine in a way transcending the traditional and the more widely accepted.
On the face of this verse, it reflects a response of awareness of an Omnipotent God who delivers Israel from the hands of its enemies and in this demonstrates the incomporability of His power and might. From an historical/mythical point of view, this makes perfect sense; however, its contemporary relevance in its ancient form of an Omnipotent God intervening in Israel’s affairs, fighting its battles as a divine warrior, is highly problematic.
Is this the prism through which we recognize the divine today? I think not. Thus the above passage deserves a different reading to extract from its rich language another way of ‘seeing’ God.
I suggest the following. The final phrase of this passage-translated as God who works wonders,עושה פלא- to me conveys a different but essential idea of God’s Presence in the world.
God is the Source of Wonder in the universe. His incomparability, holiness and splendor, celebrated in the verse, are not related to His Might as a Warrior, but to His creative unfolding of a world as a place infused with wonder, awaiting the awe, the joy, the sublime awareness of the human mind and heart that can recognize the wonder in all things. The dimension of the divine in human life and the beauty and complexities of the natural world all point to a reality that is divine, transcending the apparent, captured so often by the eye of the artist and the ear of the poet and the musician, and the heart and soul of the scholar and saint.
This is not a totally unprecedented revelation. So many of us have been inspired by the thinking and presence of Abraham Joshua Heschel, of saintly memory. In some way, if the above insight can be understood as a mirror of revelation, its source on its journey to my mind was the brilliant and illustrious soul of Heschel.
Prior to his untimely demise in 1972, Heschel suffered a near fatal heart attack from which he never fully recovered. A student , Samuel H. Dresner, traveled to his apartment in New York to see him.
“He had gotten out of his bed for the first time to greet me and was sitting in the living room when I arrived, looking weak and pale. He spoke slowly and with some effort, almost in a whisper......
‘Sam,’ he said,‘when I regained consciousness, my first feelings were not of despair or anger. I felt only gratitude to God for my life, for every moment I had lived. I was ready to depart. ‘Take me, O Lord,’ I thought, ‘I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime.’
Exhausted by the effort, he paused for a moment , then added: ‘That is what I meant when I wrote (in the preface to his book of Yiddish poems):
‘I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.’ “ ( I Asked for Wonder, A Spiritual Anthology -Abraham Joshua Heschel, ed.Samuel H. Dresner,1986, Crossroad, New York.)
Who is like You-You who created the Wonder of life, the Wonder of the world, and put the human being on this earth to perceive it, and praise the Source for it.
Friday, June 10, 2016
Why Shavuot? The conventional answer lies in the Scriptural passage that reads:..."then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks....." Deut.16:10. The word Shavuot contains the words for "week,"-SHAVUA, "seven"-SHEVAH- and "oath," - SHEVUAH. Seven weeks after the Passover, the feast is celebrated as a harvest festival-"you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord." Lev.23:16. As the traditional time of the Giving of the Torah, we re-enact the posture of our ancestors at Sinai by pledging ourselves-taking a renewed oath-to receive the Torah and follow its teachings.
As a seeker of the spiritual dimension of gratitude, I would like to suggest a different interpretation of the meaning of Shavuot by analyzing the festival's name from another perspective.
Examining the root of Shavuot, we discover the following consonants: SH-V-AH-ש-ב-ע: These three letters spell a different word if the "sh" consonant is changed to a "s"-we then have before us a word whose meaning is "satisfaction"-SOVAH!
Shavuot is referred to in the talmud as ATZERET- the festival of culmination, completing a process of redemption begun on Passover. This process reaches its peak with Revelation on Shavuot. Thus, I suggest that the Festival of "Satisfaction"-gratefulness- becomes a time when we re-encounter the spiritual truth of gratitude as a source of joy, celebration and wisdom. Torah as enlightenment embraces the wisdom of recognizing the gift of blessings bestowed upon us and experiencing the gratitude that flows from this revelation.
It is my hope that we all be blessed with the capacity to reach the peak of Sinai in our embrace of gratitude's serenity and joy.