I’m so scared and my heart hurts so much. And also I cannot stop laughing.
Nothing is actually funny. But when I’m this exasperated, ayn mah la’asot, “there is not what to do.” It’s an irrational response to pain, to shock; I first discovered this phenomenon when my very compassionate mother stood paralyzed with juvenile chuckles, pleading with her mother to “just get up! Get up, Mom!” while my Bubbie lie helpless on the sidewalk on the shortcut home from shul. I was seven and it was my birthday and my Bubbie broke her kneecap, yet again. I saw my mother’s incongruent impulse and learned it was not cruelty, just…nerves? Something else, some panicky energy that bubbles into giggles instead of gastrointestinal woes. “Feelings just are,” they say.
Sarah laughed and Isaac’s name marks the legacy of these ambiguous giggles, or frames them as foreshadowing for some future, perhaps ongoing, occurrence – Yitz’hak, will laugh. When, and how exactly?
I feel a Divine nudge, if only in how ridiculous things can be. It’s a near-constant sense of “yes, Hashem, I feel You there,” brought on largely by being stupefied speechless. I see how much I do not get it and I believe the Great One very much “gets it” and in the meantime, I am left with my jaw dropped open, a posture that invites laughter to leave my mouth while it’s already agape. It’s only natural.
I’ve begun a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, which demands daily meditation practice. Every day I am expected to listen to a half-hour recording in Hebrew, guiding me through a “body scan,” srikat guf. It is an exercise in noticing without judgment, in observing each part of the physical body and allowing the thoughts that arise to float on by. It is a challenge to the internal autopilot, a workout to shake off the settled dust.
There is a workbook, with a chart for tracking these daily scans, and another chart for recording pleasant moments, like when I notice the way the tree’s leaves before me appear in different shades of green depending on where the white-yellow sun hits them. Or the cooing I overhear from baby strollers parading by the pathway. Or the way the birds chirping around me blend in indistinguishably with the ones tweeting in the background of the tranquil recording, accompanying the instructor’s measured, carefully enunciated run-through of all the Hebrew vocabulary words labeling the human body, a supplement to my day school years. I make a mental note to look up words like sar’efet, which I find out later means “diaphragm,” and me’unach, “vertical.” My mind is so accustomed to seeking out new stimuli, a never-ending, nagging chorus of “what’s next?” And here I am, patiently re-training it, “there, there, now consider your left toes…”
At least I am trying, giving myself this quiet space, this Nothing time. The night before, I missed a prayer vigil mourning the lives tragically massacred in Pittsburgh, because I was preoccupied with sending a newsletter from my Jewish Organization mourning the lives tragically massacred in Pittsburgh. I have set aside my own heart’s responses, its fumbling and aching, in service of compiling the appropriate, “not-too-political” message to comfort our constituents, or at least show some meager attempt at consolation. Who has the right words now? Whose “thoughts and prayers” will make a difference?
As I review the revisions on a collaborative Google Doc, replacing a phrase with one that sounds more empathetic, switching words for “less-flowery” counterparts, it all seems too technical to mean anything. What time is it in New York City? By when must I hit “send”? It feels perfunctory, this whole operation, but in a way I am grateful – it’s just simpler this way. A set of instructions, not for healing, but at least for movement. Send a test email, send another. No time to pause, no time to cry; and besides, if I let myself start, “indulge” in this rawness, when would it end? Check the hyperlinks and punctuation. This is not mine, I can’t let it be mine. It’s too heavy.
And so I am back in “my” park, sitting on “my” bench, with my Blundstones making indentations in the dirt, and my eyes perched open just enough to make it look from my perspective like I have one giant eyelid, just enough for the crisp air to make my eyes water, just enough to keep me alert but not enough to get pulled back to this local visual field. I notice sound and I do not follow it.
Except apparently no one else got the memo that this park had been transformed, under my exclusive volition, into a sacred chamber of stillness and serenity. The nerve. So here is where I just have to laugh, because there really “is not what to do” besides that. Because just as I feel myself pulled more deeply into the gentle flow of “observing without judgment,” of envisioning my calf muscles with a delicate mental scan, just then is naturally the perfect time for some man I refuse to open my eyes or turn my head to see to begin a phone rant seemingly scripted for the sole purpose of completing an “All Lives Matter” Bingo card.
“I mean, of course I don’t want to minimize how horrible it is, what happened, but I’m just saying…”
His voice is 100% George Costanza, which mediates my irritation, mixing in some necessary comic relief. He fades out of earshot, and I vow to maintain some semblance of focus on my body-scan, refusing to remove my earbuds or pause the track. Curious as I am about the end of his yikes-inducing sentence, I am certain this missed rhetoric was an act of divine kindness, keeping me from resenting this anonymous neighbor any more deeply. But of course, as soon as I believe it’s all over, his voice re-emerges in my hearing range, in choppy, loaded phrases that feel designed specifically to shake my Zen moment: “and the Holocaust…and the homosexuals…well, and Starbucks…not always, not al–” he gets cut off by the whooshing wind again and I plead internally that he just repeated “not always” and did not dare start with “not all white people.” At this point, I’ve already “cheated,” pulling out my journal to jot down these scattered snippets, figuring this is at least preferable to obsessing over memorizing these bits for later.
But somehow he is gone entirely within a few more breaths. And I am left with the same calm voice in my ears – “Notice, is there a sensation of hot or cold? Itching or pressure? Lack of sensation?” – but I am elsewhere; I am on a bench and I am alone and laughing so hard.
Because “ayn mah laasot.” Which is exactly why I return the next morning as well, to write in my journal and sip hot coffee (my autumnal surrender), on my way to vote in Jerusalem’s municipal elections. A citizen of Israel for just a drop over six months so far, I am automatically registered and the entire voting process takes me less than five minutes. I schmooze outside the polling place with the representatives from my party of choice, and we give each other blessings for success, answering with hearty Amen and Amen’s.
They don’t give out “I Voted” stickers here, but my exaggeratedly giddy smile, straining my cheekbones, does the job effectively. I pound out a series of ecstatic Whatsapp messages to my mom, words of thanksgiving for the opportunity to participate in this moment in Jewish history, the vast majority of which would have scoffed in disbelief at the idea of a Jewish democratic State. And how stupidly simple the whole thing is!
And I feel so privileged, and in that privilege I feel naive. Because this private “moment in Jewish history” is inseparable from all the others. These moments – “my” moments – of solitude and chilly breezes and birds and babies and bureaucracy and blessings are comprised of infinite “moments in Jewish history” and I have no choice but to greet what’s already here, what was here long before I arrived. Ayn mah la’asot, “there is not what to do” but acknowledge that this People – the Costanza-voiced bigots included – is my portion, my dwelling place just like this bench, unadorned and reliable. Ayn mah la’asot, “there is not what to do” but recognize that this membership comes without instructions because we face the un-instructable all the time, confronting constantly the unbelievable in its every connotation.
And we are believers. And we are incredulous. Sometimes we are left to sit on a bench and just laugh at nothing in particular, at exactly the wrong moment, beside ourselves and calling out for Something.