Tag Archives: Fear

Moon and Mussar Musings on the Megillah

The 5 Faces of Paul oil painting -1981 by Helen Redman
The 5 Faces of Paul oil painting -1981 by Helen Redman

Like a cat circling her spot before she can settle down, pawing and prodding the cushion or the carpet or the bed-spread, I also, have to create and circle my space before I can manage to write.

This has been difficult for me lately. I’ve just been posting recipes. Recipes are safe and easy and do not require too much from me that involves delving into emotional or personal territory. It is not lost on me that folks respond more to my recipes than to my musings. I have a loyal following of muse-niks (those who appreciate my musings), but there is a much larger following of recipe lovers. So, if you are a recipe lover, this post is not a recipe for some yummy dish. It is a sort of recipe/play on the themes of Purim. Full disclosure, I do not know how to make Hamentaschen and this post will not result in a good cookie!

Apricot Hamentaschen, NOT made by me. This is the only cookie you will be getting from me!
Apricot Hamentaschen, NOT made by me. This is the only cookie you will be getting from me!

Tonight is Purim, and the full Moon is hanging brightly in the sky, urging me to get a little moon-mad, and instead of reading or hearing the Megillah being read, I am sitting in my meditation room, listening to flute music amidst incense and candles. Instead of dressing up and being wild and with a bunch of people, I am sitting quiet and still and writing.

This is a VERY unusual state of affairs for me. I have an internal barometer connected to the Jewish cycles of holidays, fasts, new moons, and all the weekly Torah readings as well. It is physically difficult for me to be absent from any of the rituals connected to my path. When I actually got involved with Judaism actively, as a young woman in the 1980s, it was with a profound sense of coming home and finally understanding and being able to make sense of so many things about myself. My family has been Jewish forever, but the practice part of that skipped a generation or two. This is not unusual and it is often the case that one generation will be very religious, the next one won’t be and then the grandchildren or great-grandchildren will find their way back. Many of us seem to spin on a generational wheel of sorts.

Some folks wander around or linger in one spiritual tradition or another and pick and choose that which works for them and discard or lay down the rest. Others are devotees of only ONE way to walk and be on the planet and with Holiness. Most folks are somewhere on this continuum, and of course there are those who completely reject any kind of spiritual path or directionality. It is not one size fits all, it never has been and it never will be.

My size and shape and relationship to Holiness is WRIT LARGE, I am the Jumbo size, extra-large variety in all my expressions. This is a difficult path, because it is not, in any way, quiet, petite, small, cute, sexy or easily dismissed, overlooked or ignored. People know when I am coming and where I am. I am louder without a microphone than most folks are with one. Friends with sensitive ears sometimes cringe  when I speak. I am asked to speak more quietly in many circles. My animation and volume are VERY strong. This applies in all areas of my life. If I had to name one of my “super powers”, I’d say it is my voice. Sometimes it feels like it literally can travel around the globe.

As I move through the thin middle place in the hour-glass of my life, and also as a result of my continuous mussar work, I am shifting things about myself all the time. I am actively looking at my volume and working to moderate it. I am adjusting the sands of my personality, grain by grain. I examine and attend to what goes on around me and through me very carefully. In Alan Morinis‘ most recent Mussar book, With Heart in Mind, I read the following passage today:

“Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-46) in the Mussar classic Path of the Just gives us another take on the spiritual value of fear. One who fears heaven ought not to be concerned so much with punishment from God’s big stick but with offending against the supernal glory that infuses our world. This is not fear of breaking a rule and catching the consequences, but rather acting in an unseemly way that besmirches the most precious, pure, and holy divine majesty, which, if we are sensitive to it, permeates every fragment of the reality within which we live.” pg 40

So, for me, who is “sensitive to it,” there is an element of fear/concern in my every awake moment. It is an undercurrent, not a blaring horn. Am I reflecting the supernal glory and holiness I experience accurately? Am I modeling healthy and loving relationship to the planet and all her beings? Am I remembering to be grateful, to engage others gently and with chesed/kindness? Am I living in a way that honors the creation and the creator? Am I living for Olam Ha-Ba and behaving in accordance with the “precious, pure and holy divine majesty” or am I just sleep-walking through my life?

These questions are not really answerable. There will never be a complete or finished answer sheet with checked-off squares, √ kindness done, √ honoring done,√ gratitude done. These are forever and all the time questions for me and they are part of my life and very real for me. How does any of this relate to Purim, you might be wondering?

Well, Purim is about many, many things, most of which we will never be able to grasp in this world/Olam Ha-Zeh. One of the things that I love and relate to the most about Purim is the idea of dressing up, trying on, the costume of your enemy or your dark side. This holiday is ancient and it asks us to get so drunk that we can no longer tell the difference between good and evil, between the heroes and the villains, between right and wrong, up and down, male and female, Jew and Muslim, and all the other polarities on the spectrum. It’s the one time of year you will see Santa costumes in Orthodox neighborhoods. It’s really funny, very straight men dressing as women, super religiously devout folks dressing up as clowns and Christian icons. It’s a weird wonderland of a holiday.

Nicole, not really in costume, revealing her third eye.
Nicole, not really in costume, revealing her third eye.

While we are simultaneously supposed to be getting really drunk, we are also meticulously supposed to be listening to every syllable of the Megillah (scroll of Ester), and it has to be read over if we miss a line or say one word wrong, from the beginning. “A megillah is a finely detailed account or book but the term by itself commonly refers to the Book of Esther.” ~Wikipedia emphasis mine!

So, Purim is a study in contrasts, extreme detailed focus on the script, and wild abandon of self and self-constraints. For those who have alcoholic tendencies, or who come from families with alcoholism, this can be a treacherous holiday. Many people imbibe and it can be difficult to be around. Folks get loud and strange, it’s truly not your usual religious service. You don’t have to drink to get expansive or loosen your boundaries, but this is one of the times in the Jewish religion where some kind of personality, boundary-crossing, mind altering substance is called for.

We are so very attached to our ideas of right and wrong, of good and evil, male and female, Jew and everyone else, black and white, trim and fit or large (and by society’s definition unhealthy just because of our size). Purim is the one Holiday that will still be celebrated once the Messiah comes. I will address the various and multiple views on Messianic consciousness in Judaism in the future. I mention it here only to underline my point.

This strange holiday, based on an ancient scroll telling a terrible story, with ugly and horrible things going on it, as well as miraculous and wonderful things; this model of alternative narratives and confusing roles is something that is so fundamental to the nature of this universe, that it will actually still have a place in Olam Ha-Ba.

What does that mean? For me, it means that I am never going to “get it.” I will never be able to wrap my head around anything and say, “I’ve figured it all out, I know the answer.” It means, I should expect to be surprised and confused and not think that Ha-Shem has a plan, like we do.

While talking with my dear friend and Rabbi, Naomi Steinberg, we were discussing our extreme frustration with the concept of “God’s Plan.” This idea is so human-centric. Naomi was expounding on the ridiculousness of thinking about the Divine having some kind of day-planner with notes about what was supposed to happen to someone on Tuesday at noon.

We use and need plans as humans, because the world is a majorly intense and confusing place to navigate. If I don’t have a plan, I might miss my appointment with the dentist or the job interview or the meeting with the principal or whatever??? I am a big planner, I am not demeaning plans, planners or planning (see my Organizing Optimally post for a real list of how to plans).

There is a huge difference though between my attempts to navigate and organize my life or events and how the Creator engages with the Universe.

Planning cannot be applied to the Divine, or to the Divine in each of us. That Holy spark reveals itself to everyone differently and in its own way and across space and time. I may think you look like a woman, but you may feel like a man. I may think you are someone to feel sorry for, because you are in a wheel-chair or blind but you may be wiser and healthier, in a deep way, than I could ever know.

None of us knows what is inside of others. Regardless, we have to try to make contact and reach across whatever divides us. We need to reach across the bridges of our differences and listen, listen carefully to EVERY word of each others’ scrolls. “Wait, I missed that part where you said you felt different, can you go back and repeat that again, so I really understand?”

Coup d'Oeil Marocain, 1971, pen, ink, collage on paper with (handpainted mat), 22"x16"
Coup d’Oeil Marocain, 1971, pen, ink, collage on paper with (handpainted mat), 22″x16″ by Helen Redman

We also have to play with who we are and be willing to actually be THE OTHER, to wear the skins of those we cannot imagine being, or to take a risk and wear the shape that is true to who we are inside, even when it doesn’t match who we are on the outside. It’s a crazy, wild ride. I only drank some mellow herbal tea tonight, but somehow I was able to expand without any mind-altering substances. I hope your mind and heart are a little more expansive as a result of these Moon-rich Megillah musings of mine. On the 15th of Adar, 5775, Shushan Purim, it was written and, at least, for now this marks the end of the Nicole-Zone Purimschpiel/Megillah. Amen!


Jubilee Series Number Eight: Fear, Elephants, Angels, Prayers and Things that go “BUMP” in the Night!

Despite my intrepid “fearless” nature in general, there’s something about being alone in a cabin in the woods at night. Surrounded by beauty, surrounded by quiet, surrounded by peace I still was unable to relax at night during my recent solitary birthday retreat. Every sound was something scary, I couldn’t get comfortable sleeping because I needed to face the curtained window that faced the gated entry, just in case that would give me warning when the headlights of some very wounded and crazy person showed up to murder me.

I wish it had been otherwise, but it wasn’t. I have all kinds of tools for navigating fear. I followed my tradition’s practice of the Bedtime Shema cycle, which is extraordinary and addresses all manner of difficult things that could come and attack one, including ones fears about such things. All the prayers reassure one and surround one with the Archangels and speak of the Holy One being our rescuer. They are designed to gird you for the fears and terrors of night. I spoke all of them, felt better and fell asleep for ½ an hour, until the first bird or bat or leaf stirred outside and plunked on the roof.

Basholi Ganesha circa 1730,  National Museum New Delhi
Basholi Ganesha circa 1730, National Museum New Delhi

I spent the nights in the bedroom of my friend’s cabin. They are a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Hindu and their space reflects that. Under the extraordinarily sunny golden Indian tapestry, with mirrors sewn into the pattern to ward of the evil eye, I was still afraid. On all sides of me there were deities of powerful protection. I had three Ganesha beings watching over me and a Buddhist one as well. I tried calling on them and even did a meditation where I imagined myself surrounded by beautiful elephants walking in a circle of protection around me. I just knew they would keep me safe.

I slept for an hour maybe until the next lizard outside scurried under a pile of dried leaves. I tried the Jewish prayers again, tried the meditation, tried getting up and having a cup of chamomile tea, tried turning all the lights on, tried lighting all the candles, tried reading, tried listening to my book on tape, tried listening to meditation music of water flowing, tried and tried and tried and was very tired. No restorative lengthy hours of sleep happened for me, despite all this trying (as in really working hard) TRYING!

I am not a taker of sleeping pills, but I’ll tell you what, I really wanted some and if I’d had any handy, I would have taken them for sure.

So, I napped during the day, here and there, and I kept trying for each of the four nights I spent alone to sleep more than a few hours. The first night of my retreat I had my husband with me and we were able to sleep several hours straight, until the mouse made noises like the apocalypse in the kitchen. Since my mate went and investigated and saw the mouse, he was able to return to sleep and I was as well. I was also next to him and in his arms. But, he wasn’t there the other four nights. So, I had to address my fears.

Or at least be honest about it. What does it mean when I trust the Divine and believe that my time to leave this earth is in the Holy One’s hands? If I really feel that to be true, why would I be afraid at night or ever? Fear is not rational though, it has nothing to do with what you believe or even know, it has a flow and power all its own and it is a VERY deep and core current.

Most of us, myself included, just do everything we can to avoid it. Some folks like dipping into the horror story narratives because it is just enough fear to make them feel stimulated, but then it is all pretend. Real fear, which isn’t about Hollywood zombie take-overs, is another thing entirely. Part of why I am going away on retreat is to look at my fear, so why should I be surprised when it comes to visit me? I just wanted to look at it, not be in it! Darn, it doesn’t work that way.

This territory is well-known to spiritual practitioners or all stripes. There are tools, stories, prayers, guidelines and every manner of helpful teachings to support ones navigating these waters. Clearly, I will need to call on more of them, then I had handy with me for this virgin voyage out alone.

By the final night of my stay, I was pretty sick of my own situation and determined to face this fear head on. I chose to set up a chair outside facing the valley and the front gate. I brought my loud bear horn with me and my small can of pepper spray. I wrapped myself in a shawl and was determined, not to even bother trying to sleep but to face the night and the dark. I had forgone going outside at night, too afraid the other evenings, to appreciate the wonder of stars and half-moon rising and setting. I went outside around 4:00 am, so I knew the dawn was about two hours away and this made me feel safer.

I sang some prayers, I was afraid and I cried and I looked out at the billions of stars shining light years away, who all were singing to me. I remembered that I am their kin and despite the small noises in the night, I stayed put to hear their night song and their long, long history song. I remembered that I am a tiny speck on a tiny speck in a vast Ocean on an expanding Universe journey. My life and its certain end, just are not that big a deal when you put yourself on the deck at night and face the starlight.

Stars singing
Stars singing to me and to you (also known as: ngc 2082 barred spiral galaxy constellation schwertfisch

So, that’s what I did my final night, and I was still afraid, but I managed it. I didn’t sleep, but at least I spent time enthralled by the beauty of night and wow, I survived to write about it! As this month of Elul unfolds, we face all kinds of fears, consciously, like the fear of having hurt others, the planet, and the Divine. Not facing those fears, will not make them go away, they just loom larger. I think I will have to do a lot more sitting outside in the dark before I can comfortably sleep alone in the woods, but I will do it.

Just like I will face the truth of who I am and what I do that is harmful to others, to myself, to the planet. The Jewish New Year is not just about getting a new start, it’s about fixing and aligning oneself with what is right and true. This means looking deeply and cracking open our hearts. Wednesday, September 24th, the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah will be ushered in right before the sun sets with the sounding of the ram’s horn which we call a Shofar. This sound pierces the soul and cracks through all our hardened shells (we call klippot). I invite you to be exposed and vulnerable and to let in something strange, wondrous and transformative and in doing so, I hope you find what is sweet and true in you and in all those around you. L’Shana Tova u’Metuka (To a Sweet New Year)!

~~~~~~ *Nicole unwinds, unwraps and unfurls her thoughts for you from her home in Bayside and she does so sometimes with twinges of fear, but mostly with great gobs of joy and wonder!

*Originally published in the Mad River Union on Wednesday, September 24, 2014