As I approached and passed my sixtieth year, I found myself returning to some of my earliest passions, some of which had lain dormant for decades. About five years ago I picked up my guitar as a serious endeavor, no longer just the five-minutes-before-candle-lighting it had become for many years, and even began recording and releasing my music publicly (visit my pages on cdbaby, soundcloud, and youtube to listen). For myself, at least, I’ve found a music which is a wordless spiritual exercise helping me explore God.
I also found myself looking at things from a mathematical/systems perspective, the field of study I first began college with but stopped pursuing shortly thereafter. I’ve become sensitive to the patterns and underlying structures hinted at in Gemara and Halacha and more explicitly described in our less-talked-about (Kabbalah) traditions and I began to view Torah, from our human point of view, basically as a system Divinely-designed to enable us to fulfill our purpose in having been created, דבקות, Devekut, attaching ourselves to God.
Throughout the last number of years, I’ve also become increasingly aware of the ways our Jewish rituals and halachot no longer seemed to be working as intended. As our people are shattering into almost mutually exclusive camps and denominations, traditional liturgy and practice have become either frozen (usually at some point in eighteenth century eastern Europe (and this has, sadly in my eyes, in the last thirty years, infected much of the Sephardi world as well)), totally rejected or trivialized. In any event, it seems to be working (defined as leading us, both individually and as a nation, to greater devekut) for only a tiny, and shrinking, number of people. Perhaps considering halacha as a system (an infinitely-complex one, to be sure, but a system nonetheless) with a definite goal (devekut on both the individual and communal level) might help lead to an evolved halacha that works better (regardless of whether it is easier, more popular, more emotionally fulfilling or any other of the measures too often employed today).
Whether my current thoughts, future insights and analyses really will produce a “solution” is less important than the fact that they ask new questions. If nothing else, asking questions (always considered more important in Jewish tradition than finding “answers”), in contrast to giving answers, is a positive spiritual exercise, reminding ourselves that we don’t, can’t “know it all”, that since only God is omniscient, our knowledge is, necessarily, at best imperfect (and that’s all right).
Anyhow, I’m not mentioning these details of my personal life’s trajectories in order to sell music downloads nor to present a “final report” on where my theological questions have touched, and I certainly hope my sharing doesn’t make anyone reading this feel awkward. Rather, I’m trying to illustrate a very important principle as we begin a new year and initiate a new cycle of holy days.
It’s neither pretentious nor egotistical to find significance in our own stories. In fact, an inescapable fact that derives from the concept of Hashgacha Pratit, the idea that God’s omniscience and omnipotence, as well as His dealing with His creation with intentionality, implies that every detail of every one of our lives is “part of the plan”. Every moment of our lives places us at the most optimal situation to learn, grow and approach even closer to devekut. We’re given experiences in order to, among other things, learn!
As limited beings, we have only a limited “tool box”. One of those tools, available to each of us, is the story of our own lives and what we can learn from it to refine our future efforts and actions, both “practically” and “spiritually” (as if they are really different….). And we each have our own unique lessons we need to learn (one of the reasons why we each have unique lives). One things I’ve learned from the recurrence of music and mathematics in my life is that this time around they produce much more profound (to me, at least) outcomes. I’m beginning to find a way to combine intellectual complexity and exploration with ever-more emotional expression in my music. And although most professional mathematicians have spent their entire careers realizing that mathematics provides tools to better understand both details and abstract patterns of our world, I’m only now beginning to see that.
In other words, if I look even a little closely I realize that I’m not merely cycling through interests and activities, going nowhere, but that I am, to whatever degree it might be, at a higher level this iteration than last time. The application to our, the Jewish people, entering a new cycle should be obvious. Rather than viewing ourselves going around and around in circles, we actually are, or at least have to potential to be, continuing our journey in life’s spiral, ever climbing, ever more closely approaching devekut.
Rather than sleeping through the admittedly long liturgy, listening numbly to melodies that seem clichéd from yearly repetition, racing through the litany of Vidui (formalized “confession”), we have the opportunity to observe how different our reading and singing and self-examination this year are from previous years’ efforts. Performing the same rituals that we have over and over in the past, we can aim to reach even higher this time around. We can grab a ride on this spiral.
It’s not really so complex when you think about it. It’s also just called growing.
Ketiva v’Chatima Tova.
This was profound on several levels, Harry. I was especially moved by your take on the importance of stories in life and faith. Thank you for writing this.
Thanks, Deborah. Your opinion means a lot to me.