(As with my previous series on the Jewish Morning Blessings, or Birkot HaShachar, it’s my hope that the spiritual reportage and practices I describe in this new set of posts will be of value to you whether you’re Jewish or not, a believer, atheist or agnostic, as we navigate these unsettling times. As you’ll see, there’s an invitation at the end to offer your own insights and experience. I’d be delighted if you did.)
As I descend into the ravine, I discover that my side of the path is covered with mud and a runner is approaching. A matter so benign, I’d have given it no attention a month ago. But now, of course, everything is different.
The calculations begin.
Maybe I should keep going straight, and resign myself to mud-slopped feet. Or maybe I can angle slightly towards the runner, and in the way others seem to have, tell myself that where six feet of distance isn’t feasible, four is good enough.
Or maybe there’s another option. Maybe I can act from a place of chesed [to hear the word pronounce, listen to Warlax’s version here], or loving-kindness, not yet knowing of the reward that awaits, the tears that will come, and how much I yearn for them.
And maybe what I’m exploring will also hold value for you, regardless of your religion or spiritual practice or absence of either, in this upside-down, sideways-spinning time.
But first, a little – and not too much, I promise – theology. And then it’s back to the runner and my tears.
By the Jewish calendar, we are now in the early stages of the counting of the Omer, a seven-week process in which one numbers off each day between the Jewish pilgrimage festivals of Passover and Shavuot, a passage taking one from the constriction of slavery in Egypt through the expansiveness of freedom, and ultimately to the revelation of Torah (or “teaching”) at Mount Sinai.
Somewhere in the 16th or 17th centuries, Jewish mystics, or Kabbalists, mapped the counting of the Omer to their schema for God, who they understood to possess ten key attributes, the “lower” seven of which mirror more human qualities. They assigned each of these characteristics to one of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot,* so that people could give attention to them, and cultivate those qualities within themselves.
It’s a practice that continues today, and one I’ve done in the past. But we’re in a new world now, and I wonder what it will be like this year to move from Passover to Shavuot, giving attention to each of these attributes, and discover what will be revealed at the end of Revelation Road.
To be sure, I approach this pilgrimage from a place of privilege. Neither I nor those I love have to this point been felled by the pandemic. I’m still earning a paycheque, and able to work from the comfort of home rather than by tending to the visibly ill or by bagging groceries for asymptomatic carriers. But even the privileged are suffering. Suffering from fear for the world’s future and the safety of the most vulnerable. Suffering from deprivation of the physical company we crave, and missing the activities that enliven us most, not knowing how or when they will be part of our lives again. And maybe most of all, we are suffering from having the curtain pulled from behind the illusion that we know what tomorrow holds.
The quality assigned to the first week of the Omer, laying the groundwork for all the weeks to follow, is chesed, variously translated as loving-kindness, loving connection, and generosity.
So when I step outside for a walk, I decide to give chesed attention as best I’m able – whether I’m its source, its recipient, or simply its witness.
I do so, reluctantly accepting it will be without the long stretches of green space for which I yearn. But the beautifully landscaped cemetery near my home has been closed because of insufficient physical distancing. And though it helps that there’s a small park nearby where I now go for perambulations through its cluster of trees and the fallow outfield grass of a baseball diamond, I’m yearning for a good, long amble. So I settle for more of an urban walk, stepping into the zig-zag flow of people getting away from one another. Except for those who don’t. “What part of six feet don’t you understand?” I want to chide them, chesed eluding me.
Sunlight is slanting onto the street between buildings, its rays offering warmth to my bones that I hadn’t realized they craved. Chesed to the weary. And a compass by which to direct myself. Any road I can walk down that directs me to the sun without my having to be on top of other people is the road I want.
Soon, surprisingly soon, the sun delivers me – could it be? – to a pathway into a ravine.
“Don’t mess with me now,” I think.
When the cemetery closed, I thought of taking recourse to the nearby ravines, but the only way in that came to mind were long stairwells only four feet wide or so. I tried making the case as to why that would be okay – I could turn my back to others if we got close, other people were surely using them, too – but every reason I came up with felt like a justification for my pleasure being more important than others’ well-being, and so I accepted that the ravines would have to wait.
But now, having discovered this pathway, I place one foot after the other and take its measure. Eleven and a half shoe lengths wide. Almost ten feet. If I keep to my side and they keep to theirs, we’re in business.
Suddenly, I’m amidst tall trees and bare branches just starting to bud, carpets of discarded leaves, occasional evergreens a shining contrast to the brown of early spring.
But as I descend, I discover that that my side of the path is mudded over, and a runner is approaching.
And so, quick calculation. Do I walk into the mud? Do I angle slightly in the runner’s direction? I opt instead for something radical.
No striving or striding. I just slide over as far as I can to the side, and stop.
The intention is to ensure, as best I can, her well-being and mine, and that of everyone we meet. I can’t say that it’s chesed that’s governed this decision; stepping aside and stopping is something I’ve been doing since before the counting of the Omer. But it’s helpful to note all the same that the distance I and others have been giving one another these past several weeks is absolutely an act of love. And even more helpful is the act of stopping, because here, at the side of this path, in this stillness, I really am where I am, tuning in to the trills and tropes of birdsong from either side, the cool of the breeze, the low-grade heat from the sun, its light glistening and giving texture to the ruts in the mud. We are only now migrating out of the “ugly” parts of the spring, and every bit of this is a blessing.
The runner has passed and I could continue along. But having stopped, I’ve spotted a slab of rock down by the stream, and it’s clear that that’s exactly where I want to be. It’s a sharp descent, but falling towards a couple of trees and grabbing their trunks keeps me from tumbling into the muck. I work my way to the rock surrounded by mud and water, perching where no one can approach. It’s almost too beautiful to bear; the shimmering waters at my feet turning the reflection of the trees into impressionist art, the rippling waters ahead and the swirling waters behind curving downstream, the patch of green on the other bank hinting at the ripening of spring, the soothing and continuous sounds of water pouring into the stream, the tableau of bare, brown trees.
I could cry. So I do.
This, too, is chesed. A reassurance that it will be alright. An absurd thought almost, and one I would never impose on those enduring physical suffering or loss. But I am sitting in eternity right now, and know that whatever becomes of it all, it will be alright. The words ahava rabah ahavtanu come to mind. From one of Judaism’s central prayers. With a great love, You love us.
Because my need for chesed is irrefutably insatiable at this time, I have returned to the rock four days running. A couple of days ago, I spotted an improvised footbridge running across the stream, the sight of which would normally have lifted my spirits, but in these fearful days, generates a war plan instead we have to knock that thing down before somebody comes from the other side! More spiritual work to do, more chesed to access. But that’s nothing new; I already knew I was a work in progress.
Each day I perch on the rock, take in the waters, tear up, get bored, make myself stay, fall in love with nature again, get bored, stay some more. At the fifteen-minute mark, I wonder how much longer I need to stay. At eighteen minutes, I wonder where the time went.
And each and every day, my walk to and from the rock has allowed me to extend, receive or simply witness chesed.
I witnessed it when I noticed that the photo lab I pass on the way has three large and bright signs out, saying “We’re all in this together!”
I received it when physical distancing took me into the road, only realizing once I was back on the sidewalk that I had been trailed by a driver, the sound of whose car had been muffled by fierce winds. Rather than honk me aside, she had simply slowed down until I was out of harm’s way.
And I offered it when I noticed the homeless guy on the street corner. He’s surprisingly cheerful, singing with what might be a well-trained voice, and holding a weathered cardboard cup. I don’t want to get close to him. What I do want is an exemption from loving-kindness. After all, didn’t I make a donation just last week to Ve’ahavta, the not-for-profit that serves the city’s street people? I know. I’ll tell him to walk all the way downtown so they can look after him. But there’s an alternative that he can actually put to use. “I’m keeping my distance from people,” I call to him, as I pull the only kind of cash I’ve got, an American twenty, out my wallet, “but I’m putting this down here for you.” As I anchor the bill below a construction pylon, he tells me, now that everything’s sinking in, he’s becoming fearful that even the very coffee cup he’s holding could be a danger to him. “Be safe, pal,” I say. “Yeah, you too!” he says.
And I’ve shared chesed, too, enjoying the benefit of the connection it engenders, as I do the dance with a neighbour I’ve never met before. As we get closer, I win the race to the road by a millisecond, so he gets the high ground of the sidewalk. “It’s better that way,” he says. “You’ll see the car that’s about to hit you. I’d only hear it.”
Entering my building, the door won’t open. I tug at it twice, then thrice. The fob isn’t working, but the key does. The maintenance woman inside has words for me. “Don’t be banging on the door like that!” she shouts. “If it’s not working, you’re only making it worse!” “Fair enough,” I say, though I resent being shouted at. Scowling, she makes room for me, and I pass. Chugging up the stairs, my resentment in tow, I think about how stressful her job and the rest of her life might be, and I do Buddhist metta or loving-kindness practice, wishing her safety, happiness, good health, and ease. When I do this for people who I find difficult, the thought they might have to endure ill-health changes everything. By the time I reach my apartment and catch my breath, my resentment is gone.
It could come back, of course. As could any of a number of other grievances with the world.
Which is why regularly topping up on chesed seems like a good idea right about now.
* they also assigned one of the attributes to each of the seven days within the week, but that’s not a part of the practice on which I’ll be focusing in this series
Sneak preview: beginning Thursday night, April 16, the attribute we’ll be working with is gevurah, variously translated as strength, judgment, discernment, and discipline. But keep your attention on chesed as long as you wish. The world can always use more loving-kindness.
Now how about you? Have you experienced chesed (loving-kindness, loving connection, generosity) in these trying times? In what ways have you received, offered or witnessed it? Is there advice you would care to offer to others about how to access it? Any thoughts on your mind are welcome below.