Part I: Answer Me This
There’s the story of the two sides of a rug that some Chassidim like to tell. You look at the underside of the rug and what do you see? You see a tangled mass confusion of threads without rhyme, reason, or order. Nothing seems to makes sense. This is our world, they say, the world we live in and complain about.
Then you turn the rug over to see the topside and you see a clean image there, the flawless intricate design. That clear picture is also our world, the actual truth of our world. Where we are underneath the rug we just see chaos, but what’s really going on is that heavenly image of perfection. We just can’t see it that way yet.
It’s a beautiful story that pisses me off.
Don’t talk to me about the chaos of threads under the rug. And don’t tell me the picture is gorgeous and wonderously perfect on the other side of the rug.
You can’t convince me existence makes any rational sense because it is obvious to anyone that it’s not supposed to.
I know about the chaos of threads under the rug. It’s where we’ve all been swept.
And here under the rug, the chaos we actually see, this is the beautiful and perfect side of the rug.
Potentially. It’s the only side. Or at least it will be. I think. I hope.
In any case, we’re the ones who messed it up. Or people like us did. People no better than us, no worse. So of course we can fix it. Some say we’ve already started. Obviously, we have work to do.
But everyday living seems to get in the way to notice that often enough. Too much going on – too much too fast. And all the time.
I need a warehouse for this anxiety.
War and the threat of war are in nearly every headline. Death and mayhem abound. Nigeria is a shrug. Paris happens and everyone is hashtagging. Jerusalem or Tel Aviv happens and everyone moves on. And who’s talking about Ferguson anymore? Shuls are hiring security. Guns are flying off the shelves. The world over you’ve got the right wing and the left wing flapping at different beats. Planes seem to be dropping out of the sky every week. Nothing’s flying straight.
And now my son Noah is turning 16. He’s officially becoming an actual person. A real freaking dude. A man with a beard and questions.
My son Noah is going to be 16.
He goes to yeshiva where he struggles with gemara half a day, hears some mussar, and then trudges through secular studies the second half of the day. His grades are good. He enjoys learning. He appreciates music and good books like The Hobbit and Of Mice and Men. Put a steak in front of him and he loses all magnanimity; otherwise, he’s a menstch through and through. Nothing to worry about, right?
I’ve been an English teacher for thirteen years. As an educator, I’m fortunate enough to have learned how to listen to my students and find ways to teach them with questions. To let them find their doors and develop their own keys to open those doors, and to teach them to have the skills with which to survive when they walk out. But as much as I interact with my students intellectually or even emotionally, they are my students. And for the last 10 years they’ve mostly been girls.
And now my son is 16. He’s one of those teenage boy-men I still remember being (with a nostalgic pang and a shudder). And he’s not in my classroom. He’s in my house. Thank Gd, my wife’s there too. And we each have our moments with our kids that we bring to each other to laugh and learn and sometimes cry.
Like when Noah and I recently come home at 12:30 a.m. from seeing a movie that provokes a lot of discussion, ‘American Sniper.’
I’d spoken to him for a few minutes beforehand to give him a little context, how different people reacted to 9/11. The same event that inspired people like Chris Kyle to join the military, I told him, inspired me to become an educator. We also spoke a bit of the history of these modern wars, about the arguments over their righteousness.
We enjoy the movie. The story is intense. The acting superb. We speak about how despite the fact that it is based on one person’s personal account, there is a universal truth in the film about the horrors of war, of what people find themselves capable of doing to each other in war. I keep saying to him that I hope and pray he’ll never experience these things in his own life.
I’m standing at his door and he’s on his bed getting ready to go to sleep. He pulls off his sock and throws it toward a pile and says, “One of the best movies I’ve ever seen, Dad. But I’m horrified by it. The world is so horrible.”
I tell him, “It is, but we’re here to fix it. I believe that.” But really I’m not wholly sure.
And I’m remembering that this is the bigger version of the kid that as a toddler strapped in the back seat of the car once asked, while Matisyahu sang from the speakers, “Tatti, is it true Hashem will throw me a rope?”
“Yes, papo. It’s true.”
“A real rope?”
“Can we get Slurpees?” (He still asks for Slurpees.)
But now he’s about to be 16 and he looks up at me from his bed. Sharp, blue eyes wide open as an afternoon sky. Staunchness in his chin, stoicism on his forehead. He’s not mad or agitated. He’s calm as he asks, “How, Dad? I know we’ve talked about this. But how? How are we supposed to be beacons of light? What does that really mean, practically? And I know learning gemara’s supposed to have all these benefits, but all around us I see all this corrupted behavior. Why should I learn it? Really, Dad, why did Hashem make the world so evil for us? Why does history repeat so much? Why so much war and people having to go fight those wars and coming home like that? It just doesn’t make sense, Dad.”
Until 2:30 a.m. I’m trying to stay calm and answer these questions with an honesty that I don’t feel is really helping because all I’m doing is confirming his fears that nothing makes sense. But it seems like this is a moment where he has to hear my heart.
“We try to live for the soul of things, the depth of things,” I say.
I tell him, “Less for ourselves and more for others. That’s kind of a big part of being Chassidim, I think.”
I’m looking for the right words, trying not to hem and haw.
“To think the best of others. But also keep your hands up.” I put my hands up in a fighter’s stance. And then drop them because he gets the point.
“I’m speaking in platitudes, papo, because your questions are huge and all I know how to deal with is the minutia of the mundane where I think it all happens anyway. And the learning you’re doing connects you to a level of Gdliness I can’t explain. I’m not learned enough. But I do know that learning is what you do, not what you read, so if you see behavior that you know is corrupt from students or others who learn gemara, at least you’ve learned enough to recognize the corruption.”
I continue, “As for good and evil, well, let’s talk about that in terms of the Chassidus of Star Wars. . . Right, enough said. And history? Repeats? I don’t know, you’ve told me yourself what you’ve learned about the Industrial Age, all that change after centuries of not much change.”
He nods and I continue, “Some people say it’s more like cycles or looping loops. I’m not sure, myself. I say we just concentrate on our 4 amos. Am I saying that right? And you’re freaking right, buddy. None of this makes sense. War has existed forever. And it might forever exist until Moshiach. We war inside and out. So until a fight comes to us, keep fighting the one inside because that’s the one that I’m pretty sure will get you somewhere alive and in one piece, thank Gd.”
At this point, I’m exhausted and so is he. Kiss him goodnight. Go to my bedroom. Lay myself down. Wide awake.
I need a warehouse for this anxiety.
Did I answer him well? My Gd, there’s so much I could have said. Maybe stuff I shouldn’t have said.
I wake up my wife and we talk until almost 4 a.m. We laugh and we cry because being parents to teenagers is hilarious and scary as hell.
Part II: We’re Just Pipes
Shabbos rolls around.
At shul I see a Chassid who doesn’t look like himself. He’s looked withdrawn recently. Hasn’t been his usual self.
“Good Shabbos,” I say extending my hand, “How are you?”
“Good Shabbos, good Shabbos.” He takes my hand, holds it, “Baruch Hashem I’m fine, thank you. And how are you doing?”
“Baruch Hashem, I’m well. But the reason I ask you is because you seem very quiet the last couple of times I’ve seen you. I’m hoping you’re okay because it seems you’re not yourself. “
Still holding my hand, he nods, shrugs. People in their Shabbos best chatting at tables around us. Smell of burnt chulent. The room is bright with fluorescent light as well as sunlight. The buzz of banter, bursts of laughter. Someone says, “L’chaim!” Others answer, “L’chaim!”
He says, “Honestly, I’ll tell you. Since you seem interested. Since you ask.” Still holding my hand, he says, “Really I’m fine. Sometimes a person needs quiet. You know what I’m saying? You know what I mean?”
As he speaks he moves his hands, my right hand still held in his right hand. I’m suddenly conscious of that – that his hand holds mine, that his kapota is frayed a bit at the cuff – so I struggle to pay attention.
He pauses, nods to himself. We sit in the closest two chairs, my hand still in his.
He says, “Sometimes you need to go inside. And to go inside you have to really try and shut off the outside. You know what I’m saying? You see what I mean?”
He takes a drink of water. Nods a quick greeting over my shoulder.
“Ever since I started losing weight,” he says, “I learned how to listen to my body. And listening to my body was important. It’s important. And I saw that I can listen to who I am like I listen to my body. Like I listen to my body, I can listen to my heart, I can listen to my mind.”
He shakes his head as if I’ve interrupted. I haven’t, but he’s read my mind. “Not thinking. I’m not talking about thinking. Chassidus has many brilliant and holy words about the heart and the intellect, but what good is any of that if you haven’t heard your own soul? Our soul connected to Hashem? To hear and listen to that is to listen to Hashem. To listen to that purpose. So I’m trying to listen. Sometimes you have a pipe that’s not working. That’s what it’s like. There’s holes in the pipe.”
“Or it’s clogged,” I add.
“Or it’s clogged. It’s got holes or it’s clogged. You have to listen to the pipe to hear which it is, holes or a clog. And where? Where are the holes? Where are the clogs?”
He lets go of my hand. Takes another drink of water. “L’chaim, Rabbi,” he says across the table.
Looks back at me and says, “Because we’re just pipes. We’re just freakin’ pipes. And we have to find the holes and the clogs and fix them so the pipe is clear. I have to get rid of myself to hear myself. If I’m a clean pipe, then what Hashem wants from me is what I will be.”
He must be going. Smiles, shakes my hand again, and leaves.
I’m a bit amazed. I look down at my hand. A black thread. I find a siddur and open it, let the thread fall into the pages and close the book.
On the walk home, the sun clarifies every crack in the pavement, brightens every shade of green in the trees.
What he said, I thought, is true of the world. This chaos of holes and clogs. This anarchy of thread. We’re meant to fix it, of course. We’re meant to create the beauty and clarity ourselves.
My step is relaxed, but I’m determined to get home now. Son, I want to say, Noah! And Chana, too! Love, sweetness, I want to shout. And I will. I will burst through the door and shout like all those dads and husbands in all of those movies: Noah! Chana! Love!
I’ll say, Good Shabbos!
And they will say it back to me.
And we’ll talk and eat. I’ll tell them about my conversation with the Chassid at shul. And then Noah will say, “Dad, even though I was on break, this week I learned Tosofos. I found this crazy awesome website that makes it easy to review what I’ve been learning. You should get it on your phone, Dad. I can do it for you. You should learn more.”
And I’ll be sure that Gd created us to create order in the chaos, to weave our own tapestry with the multi-colored threads He provides.
Photo source: Flickr/archeon