Tag Archives: COVID-19

Chopped Liver Boundaries on Revelation Road: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

(This blog series focuses on pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, marking the seven-week passage from the Jewish holidays of Passover to Shavuot, works each week with different traits both human and Divine. You’ll find more context in the first post in this series. Also, please excuse the Omer-to-blog lag. This exploration of gevurah, or strength and boundaries, covers the period April 16-23. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)

Damn.  I really wanted the walk to the ravine.

But the wind is fierce, whipping wind chimes out of tune, and banging on the lids of garbage bins.  And those are big garbage bins. 

Maybe the ravine’s not such a good idea right now.  Or the long walk to get there.  There’s a reason the street’s so empty.  This is the kind of weather that rips branches from trees and gets people hurt. And should I really take the chance of being injured when the last thing the medical system needs right now is an unnecessary wound to fix? 

Okay, I’ll make it a short walk.  A block or two.  At least, with the street so empty, it feels safe to stop and take some pictures without messing up everyone else’s physical-distancing rhythm.

Damn.  And crap.

The memory card is full.  And I hate to delete images from a memory card, even if I have back-ups.

The pharmacy’s only a few blocks away.  I’ll get a new one there.

No, no I won’t.  I can’t.  Maybe the person working the cash where the memory cards are is an essential service worker, but my wanting one is not an essential need. It wouldn’t be right to enter their space just for this.

I find some shelter, turn the camera on again, take a calming breath, and start removing images.

And I think about stairwells, and have a conversation with myself about chopped liver, and my gevurah grade.


It’s the second week of the counting of the Omer.  The focus with which this pilgrimage began last week was the Divine and human trait of chesed, or loving-kindness, the perfect foundation from which to build any practice.  But unchecked, loving-kindness isn’t without its problems.  It can mean going along just to get along instead of having necessary but difficult conversations, or bypassing the broccoli to get to the ice cream.

And man, have I been going for the mental ice cream lately.

That’s where the second week of the Omer comes in, with its overarching theme of gevurah, variously translated as strength, courage and discernment.  Often, when one works with gevurah, it’s in the form of boundaries to temper indiscriminate chesed, so that our valuing someone else’s wants or our own doesn’t lead us to forget what we and they actually need.

It’s true that, in the main, people have risen to this difficult occasion, staying at home and, when they go out, practising physical distancing.  And the trajectory of illness is looking promising.  But, as mentioned in a comment to my previous post, there’s also a fair amount of heedlessness going on.  People just going on their way or coming up from behind as if others didn’t exist.  And others not stepping aside to give a wide berth to elders lugging heavy groceries. 

In some ways, I don’t mind swerving out of the way to make room for others, even if it means going up embankments in a ravine or down alleys on a street.  I enjoy the zigging and the zagging, and finding new angles on the world.

Sometimes standing aside and stopping begets looking up

But in other ways, especially in that moment between the heedlessness and my finding a passage towards physical distance, I burn with a fiery alchemy of anxiety and self-righteous judgment.  Among the greatest hits of my mutterings are, “What part of six feet don’t you understand?”, “If you’d take your head out of your cellphone, maybe you’d be a little less clueless”, and “If you don’t know how to run in place, then maybe you shouldn’t be running at all.”  And the unmuttered transcending theme is, “I’m scared.  For myself, the old people, the frail people, the young people we never imagine getting ill.  I’m scared because I don’t know how to deal with all this uncertainty about health, jobs, livelihood, and because the book I’d begun writing has come to feel like it’s about a world that has gone away and will never come back. And the heedlessness isn’t helping!”

Is it any wonder, then, that indoors I’ve been soothing myself by diving into the social media vortex, scrolling for connection, information, reassurance?  And I get it in the forms of messaging and memes and stories of inspiration.  But they often seem mere punctuation for tales of despair and discord, underlining how fragile things seem.  When I click on an article, I’m as likely as not to get antsy after a couple of paragraphs before clicking onto the next one, until I feel like I’m taking in everything yet nothing at all.

This is brain dessert.  Occupying me for a while, but too much of it is unnourishing, taking up time I could be spending checking-in on people about whom I’m concerned.

I need less flitting, and more focus.  A more substantial mind meal.

And there are all these lectures I’ve been meaning to check out on nature and climate change and far-flung Jewish communities.  What if I were to tap into those, and see if their substantiveness offers more settling, and makes me more available for others?


I wake in the middle of the night, as usual resolving not to reach for my phone and then give in to the temptation all the same, but this time, I remember gevurah. Instead of the social media scroll, I queue up a lecture on climate change and bird migration.  Despite the first few minutes of the lecture just showing the agitation of co-leaders trying to figure out the technology, when the lecture begins and the first slide appears – a photograph of birds in flight – I start to feel at ease, quieted. And I go back to bed.

I’ve made the right choice. 

Which I end up mostly disregarding. 

I can only speculate why.  Maybe, given the length of my evening to-do lists, it feels too difficult to commit a whole hour to learning.  And so, the brain dessert diet continues, and I feel like the last person in the world who should be blogging on gevurah practice.

I could really use some ravine calm.

What awaited at a future ravine visit

And I set out, only to discover the wind having its way with the wind chimes and garbage bins, that my memory card is full, and find myself here, taking shelter, and talking myself into removing images from my memory card instead of going to the pharmacy for a new one.

When I tap to delete an image, my camera asks if I’m sure I mean it.  I choose yes, even though I’m thinking “nooooo!

And I start having conversations with myself about other things to which I’ve been saying no.

“Think about your decision,” I tell myself, “to pass on the elevator and take the stairs.  Nine flights of them.  Yes, it’s the only form of exercise you’re getting right now, and yes, you’d been meaning to do it for months.  But it’s only since the pandemic that you’re finally delivering.  And yes, it’s for your well-being, but it’s for everyone else’s, too. 

 “And there’s the time you could spend zoning out with television, but you’re using it instead to prepare the contemplative services you’re leading online.  And you are picking up the phone to look after others, even if it’s not as often as you wish.  And yes, you’re doing all this to feel good, but you’re not only doing it for yourself.”

And then, the subject that trumps them all.

“Think about the chopped liver,” I tell myself.

“No,” I answer back.  “Don’t make me think about the chopped liver.  Why does chopped liver get such a terrible reputation, anyway?”

“You mean the chopped liver available in the deli over at St. Clair and Yonge serving takeout?”

“Oh, man.  I can’t take it.”

“But you can take it.  You have taken it.  How many times have you wanted that chopped liver sandwich, but – ”

“With sweet potato fries and a coke, don’t forget.”

“- but decided not to get it, because you didn’t think it would be fair to the staff or you, or anyone you or they come into close contact with.  So forget your perfect offering.”

“Hey, that’s one of my favourite Leonard Cohen quotes.  Keep going.”

“Forget the gevurah you meant to exercise but didn’t.  Think about the gevurah you did choose, for yourself and others.  Okay, maybe you don’t get an A for week two of the Omer.  But you definitely get a B.  No.  Screw that.  Normal times, you get a B.  But how normal are these times, when your most common way of answering people who ask how you’re doing is to say that you’re okay, but that you always feel like you’re on the edge?

B+, baby.  You get a B+.  Now let’s see what you can do from here.”

Your turn…

Now how about you? What’s your experience of late or of life in general in balancing chesed or loving-kindness with gevurah in the forms of boundaries, strength, courage? Or how have you witnessed it in others? Got advice or insights you would care to offer to others? Any thoughts on your mind are welcome below.


Filed under counting the omer, Uncategorized

Looking for Love on Revelation Road: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

(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. 

The sun.

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. 

I stop. 

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.

Your turn…

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.


Filed under Mindfulness, Uncategorized