What I always notice about water tumbling from a cliff or gurgling downstream is the way the noise from its rush makes everything near it sound much quieter. Perhaps it is because I am in the mountains, away from the distractions of urban life, work, and daily nonsense. Maybe it is because the pulse and swirl of water gently force me to listen to the inevitable movement of time and life around me.
The Passover ritual of the seder meal helps its participants to relive the Israelites’ terrifying transition from slavery to freedom in ancient Egypt. At the seder, eating the unleavened bread called matzah allows us to literally ingest this transitional experience. According to the Bible, the Israelites baked matzah because they had no time to bake regular bread as they fled Egypt on their way to freedom. Yet matzah is also called the bread of affliction and economic poverty that our enslaved ancestors ate in Egypt. When we Jews eat matzah we are trying to get a taste, actually and symbolically, of what it feels like to live with one foot in slavery and one foot in freedom. Hopefully, that makes us more appreciative of the meaning of both.
Moving from New York City to Raleigh, North Carolina upon ordination was my first serious foray out of a somewhat insular northeastern cocoon and into “real” America. I was not exactly sheltered until then. I grew up in an ethnically diverse Queens neighborhood, and the inner city public high school I attended was a testing ground for class and racial coexistence. Still, I thought I knew what difference was until I discovered how different difference could be in the same country, less than five hundred miles south of where I grew up. The Raleigh and East Carolinas that I remember from the early nineteen nineties were a study in contrasts. The city is part of an urban powerhouse of cosmopolitanism that attracts people and businesses from all over the world. Yet it also boasts some of the world’s most rigidly conservative churches and it sits in the midst of the American tobacco farming industry, a very traditionalist, hierarchical culture.
She walks up to me after morning services, her face uplifted and bright. “I wanted to let you know about some great news I got from my son,” she grins. Those few moments after morning worship before I go back to my office are usually when members of my synagogue tell me their worst news about sadness, illness, death. Her promise to tell me about something happy intrigues and relieves me. “He has been writing since he was sixteen,” she begins. “After more than twenty years of writing professionally, he sold a screenplay for a new movie. My husband and I will be visiting him on the set
I was a twenty-one year old junior in college when I met Khaled Nusseibeh. We were both undergraduates at Columbia University in New York thirty years ago, and my memories of him and our brief friendship are now quite old and likely distorted.
A half-hour north of Albany outside the town of Stillwater you will find the Still Point Interfaith Retreat Center, in my opinion, one of the Capitol District's most beautiful and serene rural settings. Sheltered and almost completely hidden by a wooded thicket, Still Point is exactly what its name implies: a place of blessed silence and spiritual respite, whose chorus of rustling leaves, birds, and crickets sings a song that drives out the whining musak of daily life from my ears.
A few months ago as we drove to an appointment, one of my daughters and I bonded around the British rock band, Led Zeppelin's 1971 classic, "Stairway To Heaven." With some uninterrupted time and the windows rolled up tightly in the car, we let loose. Every word, melody change, and voice inflection of lead singer Robert Plant's that we could remember, we imitated. We even tried to imitate those famous instrumentals that build the song up in a crescendo from a quiet renaissance style recorder solo to a battle of angsting, angry guitars and screaming lyrics. Finally, we put our voices together to echo Plant's heartrending acapella solo: "And she's buying a stairway...to heaven."