Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Death and a Wedding

Yesterday, the corner of Kingston and Eastern Parkway was the scene of a life’s tragic end. A young Jewish man’s sudden death was witnessed by bystanders, who came out of the subway station screaming. The police and ambulance were called and sirens flooded the streets. Shomrim arrived, with their faces white, and soon after, Hatzalah and Zaka, to collect the body for burial.

Upstairs in my museum office, I head the sirens like I always do, not bothering to look outside. When a phone call alerted me to look outside, I saw the flashing lights and crowds surrounding the subway station stairs. I ran downstairs.

From all sides of the street, fellow Jews saw the crowds of skirts and black hats and drew near. First, there was shock, then confusion, followed by an intense sadness that lingered in the air for hours. Pacing back and forth and waiting for details - for a name - bystanders stood frozen in time.

People stepped aside when, finally, the body was lifted from underneath the ground. Everything around me rhymed with pain. I stood still while my insides shook. And just then, when the pain had reached its raw peak, a beautiful melody was heard.

The Alter Rebbe’s niggun.

Right there, a mere few steps away from death and unbearable pain, a wedding was underway in front of 770. Mocking our chaotic hearts and minds, the tune was a symbol of life, of joy, of a future. At first piercing the throbbing pain, the Chuppah song slowly became intermingled with the sorrow spreading all over the street corner.

Tears of sadness erupting aside tears of joy.

Mazel Tov!

Baruch Dayan HaEmes.

The crowd from the subway meshed with the crowd from the Chuppah. Suddenly, the line between life and death was very blurry. Suddenly, happiness knew no limit, and sadness was eternal – all at the same time.

I felt like I was going to explode.


At that very moment, G-d was both a dear friend, and a bitter enemy.

You want the whole world to stop and recognize the loss, but weddings will go on. Babies will be born. Cake will be served at the birthday party.

And when all you want is to experience unbridled joy, lives will be destroyed. Fires will consume. Lives will end.

What does G-d want from us?

There’s no way a human is designed to balance these opposite poles.

But G-d conducts a world where both pain and happiness are ever pressing realities, forcing us to respond to fortune and catastrophe all at once. And it’s striking, that, even when G-d stops the world from turning, it is speeding forward at the same time.


G-d, you stretch out your hand, yes you do.

You do it to strike and you do it to heal.

Yes, you are the ultimate giver.

But you give tears just like you give smiles.

You create fire, and you make it both to consume and to warm.

G-d, please reveal the fusion, the interconnectedness. Where is the beauty in the breakdown? I want to see it, but how can I? What do you expect, G-d? You weigh us down with bricks, and expect us to play hide and seek? You smash us with your hands, and demand us to rise. You burn our core, and request we feel light. You mark frowns and creased brows, but wait for our smiles.

And sometimes I feel like I just don’t know you.

But, one thing is certain. When you are my enemy, you allow it. You never cease to validate our pain. And more than that, you still let us use your shoulder to cry on. After being screamed at, you still hosts our tears. You are behind it all. When we want to escape you, you are there. When we want to embrace you, you are there. And there's no greater harmony than that.

While we may often struggle with the placement of our reactions and emotions, let us pray that our happiness is always more demanding than our pain. May feelings of true growth and gain be more potent than feelings of loss, and may G-d draw near a time when all sorrow will permanently vanish in the face of our joy.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The King is in the Field

In Likkutei Torah, the Alter Rebbe describes the tightening of the bond between G-d and the Jewish people in the month of Elul with the following parable:
Before a king enters his city, its inhabitants go out to greet him and receive him in the field. At that time, anyone who so desires is granted permission [and can] approach him and greet him. He receives them all pleasantly and shows a smiling countenance to all....*

The sun’s rays are ravenous.

It attacks my field then hungrily aims for my soul.

I stand here, bending down, and bending down and bending down.

Down, down, down, reaching for the wheat sheaves.

Separating the good from the bad.

This is good, this is bad.

This we can turn to food.

This we must burn.

Bending down, my rough hands grab stalks.

Like a tortured robot

Sharp cries in my spine make this unbearable.

Yet, day in and day out, I try.

Searching my field.

Picking my field.

All to uphold the universe.

But every now and then, I feel like I am going to break.

And no amount of water can stop the murderous drought within me.

Today is such a day.

I must stop.

I close my eyes.

Tears and sweat, intermingled on my lips.

I straighten my back, and let the aches come to a standstill, resting on my bruised feet.

I breathe, but there is no air.


Suddenly, my eyes feel a shadow, and it has become cool.

I open my eyes.

The clouds are covering the sun.

Air rushes to my lungs.

Suddenly, the field is moving, rocking like the sea.

Like soldiers, the stalks of wheat are bending solidly in one direction.

The field is bowing.

I look in the direction of their focus.

And then I almost lose my breath.

I drop the sheaves in my hand, and freeze.

Is that really Him?

My heart begins to beat.

On the earth soaked with my sweat, the King is standing.


He is miles away. But His smile is aimed directly at me, piercing the distance between us.

Why has He come here?

I am dressed in ruins. Thorns have pricked my skin, and the blood on my garments proves my toil. Calloused feet and dirty hands are enough to keep me from His embrace.

But there He is, standing tall and shadowless in this place I have called my home.

Is He waiting for me?

It’s been so long. And now He’s here.

I want to run to Him.

The cooling weather is suddenly numb to the warmth glowing inside me.

The King is here.

I’ve been waiting so long.

I have a Heart inside me that’s been growing solid without His face.

I had almost forgotten Him.

And yet, He has come to my field.

So the King does want me.

My grateful tears gush forth, providing the field’s long awaited rain.

I decide then and there - enough with missed opportunities.


Like lightening are my feet.

Thousands of stalks are grazing my sides. My feet float above the earth as I speed through the sea of brown and green.

My breathing is thick, scratching at my throat. My fists are tightened.

My feet are stomping like my speeding Heartbeat.

And then, nothing is moving anymore.


We are face to face.

My sweaty hands dangle nervously at my sides, and I look down.

That’s when I see.

The King isn’t wearing shoes.

He has come to my place of toil, and left His royal garb at the palace.

Suddenly, I cannot tremble. I can no longer avert His eyes.

The King is in the field, and His entire presence is an invitation.

I smile back.

Oh, King.

I have a lot to tell you, a lot to ask.

He opens His arms.

In His divine embrace, I find the entire map of my soul.

For the first time in a while, it’s clear:

The King sees me, in me, through me.

And so we walk through the field, the King’s every word raising me up.


It is now raining, and the entire field is glowing in never-seen-before colors.

The work of my hands is soaked in divinity.

With the King at my side, a newfound strength makes some space within.

I know what I have to do.

When the King leaves, I must keep Him here forever.

In my blood, sweat, and tears.

In my dirty hands and calloused feet.

When the sun sets today, the light will still flood these grounds.

Today, by running to the King, I have plowed a new field.


Monday, August 06, 2007

A kiss on the 3 train

All is black

Except for the white girl on the train

A silent car

Piercing with the stares of the many

The white girl is mumbling

No, reading


Swaying a little bit?

People are looking


She looks different

And shes moving her lips

Another train mumbler

Except this time she is white

And not drunk


The girl drops her little book

Her holy book

It makes a smacking sound on the ground

Opening the eyes of the man across from her

And bringing the attention of the many

While she had already felt a little odd

Mumbling on the train and all

In what seemed like an hour

She thought to herself

As she stretched out her hand to pick up King David's words

Would she give her habit free reign on the train?

She picked up her little brown book

Her holy book

She stared it in the eye

She brought it close

She kissed the little brown book

And you know what?

Stranger things have been seen on the 3 line