Good are the radiant stars our God created,
He formed them with knowledge,
understanding and deliberation.
He gave them strength and might
to rule throughout the world;
Full of splendour, radiating light,
beautiful is their splendour throughout the world;
Glad as they go forth, joyous as they return,
they fulfill with awe their Creator’s will.
Glory and honour they give to His name,
jubilation and song at the mention of His majesty.
He called the sun into being and it shone with light.
He looked and fashioned the form of the moon.
Koren-Sacks siddur translation.
Sometimes it seems like either I get my apartment properly ready for Shabbat and have a proper dinner, or I actually get out to services, but not both. I was too exhausted on Saturday morning to do anything but sleep, and I was late enough getting out of the house for evening services that I might as well have not bothered, because they were all locked up–I felt like a criminal creeping around the grounds trying the doors and glancing up at the security cameras. Catholic churches are almost always open, even if you’ve missed Mass, if you want to go in and just chill (these days that applies only to the bigger ones, but it’s still the ideal). Jewish buildings are high security because unfortunately there’s a need for it.
So I walked home again, did havdalah, and because the moon was bright tonight I went out on my balcony to say kiddush levana. There is an overhang but it’s close enough to open sky for me, and I feel a little oddly exposed when I pray out there–I live in a complex with two buildings facing each other, so often when I’m on my balcony I’m trying to avoid eye contact with other people out on theirs. But I love kiddush levana, even though I wish I could be saying it properly with a minyan. The prayers are beautiful, and it represents a healthy balance between the human desire to venerate creation and the demand of monotheism to worship only one God. Kiddush Levana has the beauty of paganism, restrained and heightened by its self-imposed limits. I address my shalom aleichem to my view of the city at large, my birth-city which I love; to quote St. Columcille, it is for me “that noble angel-haunted city…the best-beloved place”.
The moon isn’t a deity in Judaism, and we bless it as we bless each other, as equals, all of us in the same universe together and made by a common creator. And of course in that vein, kiddush levana is especially appropriate tonight as we remember Neil Armstrong:
“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.” — Armstrong’s family, announcing his death in a written statement
Shalom aleichem, then.
All my relations: I had lunch today with my aunt, for the first time in awhile. She’s had cancer since last Christmas and is still going through chemo, but she seems to be doing better. She’s looking frail, but we didn’t talk about her illness; I asked a couple of open-ended questions and then let the subject drop, as she was more interested in giving me advice about my job search (this has always been one of her favourite activities). Since we were eating, and since it’s been a pretty major new thing in my life, I told her that I’ve been exploring Judaism and I keep kosher now. She had to ask what that means and what I can’t eat, which surprised me, but I tried to give a nice concise answer. “No pork, no shellfish, and I don’t eat meat and dairy in the same meal. But fish and dairy is okay.”
That sounds complicated, she said. I explained that it wasn’t as onerous as it might sound, and that I eat very well, and in fact I cook more and pay better attention to what I’m eating now than I did before. This was the part that mattered to her–she worries after my eating. And ordering food wasn’t difficult: chicken breast sandwich with lettuce and mayo, chips, that checks out. Pepsi, pareve. Cheesecake was out for dessert, but the apple pie was okay.
I’d been worried about telling her, because she’s often very blunt about personal decisions like that, and (like the rest of my maternal relatives) she’s a good Catholic. But the only wince-worthy moment was when she earnestly asked if I’d done any networking at synagogue, because “Jewish people are very good with business.” I just told her no, the people at synagogue were mostly retired or they worked in education, just like our family does. No special Jewish financial bonuses for signing on.
Life is strange; I saw the sun last night, as I closed my eyes to sleep: New mitzvot I’m trying to pick up. I wrote out Modeh/Modah Ani on a card and taped it up by the bed, and Asher Yatzar in the bathroom. This has helped me practice writing out Hebrew (I am very, very bad at this), and it also helps me read it as I try to focus on those letters and only look down at the transliteration if I have to. I have pretty extreme anxiety attacks a lot, especially at night, and thanking G-d when I wake up alive and okay makes perfect sense to me. I really am grateful every time and I love being able to say the prayer. I did wonder whether I should say it after a substantial nap (like three hours or so), or if I woke up at sometime other than morning, e.g. shift work or just sleeping inverted days. The impression I get from looking it up is that since Modah Ani does not contain G-d’s name, one can say it after any substantial amount of sleep, but is only obligated to say it when awakening in the morning. If this is wrong, feel free to correct me. I sleep weird hours, so it is relevant to my interests.
Asher Yatzar is a weirder one, but I really like it too. We’ve all had Unfortunate Moments when the tubes and cavities are not in working order, and being grateful for their good functioning seems to me like a better spiritual hygiene practice than only praying for their repair when things are going wrong. I like the way the blessing brings wonder to a totally mundane function, acknowledging the complexity of the human body. And I can say it several times a day, which helps me learn.
We had a couple of thunderstorms here recently, too, which gave me the opportunity to say that beracha. Those berachot on sights, smells and discoveries in nature are part of Judaism’s great beauty to me. Yes, we can thank G-d in any language at any time for whatever is beautiful to us, but ritualising it gives it greater weight. I bless G-d for his creations even when I personally don’t feel inspired or impressed, because my reactions and emotions are not what make thunder great. The fact that I’m used to my digestive system’s functionality doesn’t make it less worthy of praise. G-d’s activity in the world deserves blessing for the sake of what it is.
So a pretty decent Shabbat this week–I didn’t get my kitchen totally clean, but good food was had, and the LCBO had some different kosher wines in from the usual 2-3 uninspiring vintages. Some years ago I had a really incredible red from sooomewhere in the Galilee, something sweet but complex, and drank it on the front porch with my housemates in Kingston on the night of a massive power outage (or as we say here, pooer ootage). In fact, I drank it from a kiddush cup, because I had bought one impulsively and used it as decor, and it was the only stemmed cup we had. Fancy university living. It was a very good year, is what I’m saying. Ever since then I’ve tried to find another Israeli wine that was as good, but so far I haven’t found it.
I also bought a siddur this past week, which is intimidating but useful. Regarding the intimidation factor, I’m well-prepared because I’ve prayed the Office before–while the latter might be all in English, the amount of page-flipping and ribbon-placing is crazy, and there’s a whole procedure of looking up the date in the little booklet, gluing in the “cheat sheet” cards or using them as extra bookmarks, and finding all the elements of prayer for the day. And besides that, you need several volumes for the whole liturgical year. Is it worth all that trouble? Yeah, the Office is substantial prayer, beautiful and educational. The siddur is well worth my time too, and there’s only one volume, and (as far as I understand it) the services are read in linear fashion without a lot of jumping around. It just happens to have facing Hebrew, and the services are (to put it mildly) not short. I’m slowly learning the aleph-bet and it’s neat to be able to look at the other page and recognize familiar words, and the selections from Scripture, sixteenth-century mystical poems, and other neat bits give me something to pore over while I’m eating Shabbat dinner by myself. The introduction and footnotes in the Koren Sacks are definitely useful. There’s no way to jump in right away and be perfect at davening, just as the Office has a steep learning curve, but in both cases the raw material you’re working with (i.e. the Psalms) is so classic that you’re bound to get something out of it.
It’s also amazing to flip through the siddur and find familiar lines, or totally new things. Stumbling upon Nishmat Kol Chai, I was totally blown away by the poetry:
To You alone we give thanks:
If our mouths were as full of song as the sea,
and our tongue with jubilation as its myriad waves,
if our lips were full of praise like the spacious heavens,
and our eyes shone like the sun and moon,
if our hands were outstretched like eagles of the sky,
and our feet as swift as hinds–
still we could not thank You enough,
Lord our God and God of our ancestors,
or bless Your name
for even one of the thousand thousands
and myriad myriads of favours
You did for our ancestors and for us…
Doesn’t get better than that.