The Second I in Identity

There’s a dent between the “I” I was before and the “I” I am now. Life batters us. Damages us. We try (and sometimes we succeed, yet sometimes we fail) to rebuild ourselves, but no matter how close to perfect our handiwork comes, we’re never quite the same as we were before. We change. Piece by piece, part by part, cell by cell, until we are all unrecognizable. But bits remains. Bits will always remain–in our appearances, perhaps, or our temperaments possibly–but in time we become someone different. Someone new.

It’s this tide going in and going out that’s the journey of our lives. Through sorrow and joy, through love and disappointment, each instant shapes us for the next. We are a function of powers beyond us, yet we cannot be differentiated–nor can we be integrated. What leads us is all that we have. There is no other relation.

Metaphor aside, where do I stand? In this moment, I am more than a man sitting before a screen, typing furiously upon a keyboard abused by his hands. Nor are you–my audience, a reader, a friend perhaps, or even a stranger–just a person behind a computer or on the other side of a tablet or e-reader. You are whole, as I am whole, and the missing pieces are not quite missing, but not yet discovered, not yet chiseled from this form we call our bodies.

I’ve come a long way, yet sometimes I fear I haven’t come at all.

On the night of Shavuot, I joined my synagogue to study deep into the night. The evening was broken into sessions: Large crowds of Jews from across our community that congregated to amend what had been transgressed. At the dawn of the Law, at Sinai, the Word came in the middle of the night. We should have been rapturous, we should have been overjoyed, and yet we all were asleep. There was thunder and there was lightning–but only to wake us, you see, or else I am certain there would have been sunshine and rainbows.

So we study into the night. To repair that silent despair.

My first session was about the criteria used to adopt new traditions in Judaism, with a focus upon the Conservative movement. We looked at some texts from the Talmud–various bits talking about blessings over water and making laws by deferring to the people–and my instructor, a dear rabbi I’ve come know these past few months, proclaimed that Judaism is forever in a state of becoming–and as Jews, so are we. What is the place of the LGBT Jews? What is the significance of kashrut, our dietary laws? What is rest in a digital age–and is turning that lightswitch truly igniting a flame?

I would argue otherwise. There is an open circuit and when the path is closed, what moves naturally moves once more. The light is no flame, but instead the brilliance of fundamental particles of the universe, those smallest elements of creation that–in the words of our God, “Vayehi or“–brought light to the land.

But I digress. The night was not over. Between sessions were snacks. This first break over blintzes I made a touch of small talk. It’s not easy, nor always enjoyable, but a few introductions here and there, a few greetings with those few I already knew, and I was ready to make deeper conversations later in the night.

My second sessions was on seeking the face of God. The text we read was from Maimonides, who himself was greatly influence by Greek philosophy, and his words echoed that we each are in control of certain rational and moral virtues and vices–our ways of thinking and acting, and those things that bring us closer and further from God, respectively. In the hour that we had, this young rabbi taught us a number of things–that only those vices that we are in control of remove us from God, that each vice is itself a veil between us that we must lift, that our union with God should be no less magnificent than a sacred marriage–yet even an hour was not enough, and at the end of the session, I openly wondered with some others, “What does this mean for us? How do we get closer to God?”

Isn’t that what I’m asking now?

We had a boureka break with more conversation. I spoke a lot more animatedly this time than I had before. I was discovering that those times I feel most Jewish are not those times when I’m observing necessarily, but those moments when I’m learning. I feel most Jewish not in a state of certainty, but in a state of questioning and introspection. When these powers combine, I am brought back to those moments in the presence of sages when laws were decided by study of the Torah and then by going about and seeing what the people were doing and knowing, always knowing, that there was no merit in making laws that could never be upheld.

In our last session, two brother rabbis–very highly renowned in our community–led a discussion on the Book of Ruth from Biblical to modern times. First there was a historical background–you know, that prelude that sets the scene and yet is larger than the picture itself. I hinged on the corner of my seat, ingesting this enlightenment. I had learned it all before, you see, over weeks of study, but retention requires continued use, and with school, it hasn’t exactly happened–so hearing it all again brought me back to those moments in Israel when, spread across classrooms and expanses of dust in the wilderness, we studied four thousand years of Jewish history.

At midnight, I stepped outside, but I did not see the sky open above me. I wanted it. We all wanted it. But still, the sight remained elusive. What does it mean to be Jewish? It means that I’m still growing, still becoming. As a leader, when people talk to me about ethics and morals, there is a part of me that always says, yes, that is what a good Jew would do. Maybe it’s not always on the surface of my consciousness, but my beliefs and my upbringing surely influences the way I think and the way I act, the way I lead and the way I learn. Education is an expression of my desire to be closer to God. Understanding, intimately and implicitly, the way the world works brings me closer to my creator, like studying the words of an admired author brings you closer to his existence.

It is a state of becoming, and like an electron–that fundamental particle that brings light to cities and search lights alike–its state can never wholly be known. If you can see where it’s going, you cannot see how fast it’s getting there. If you can measure its speed, you cannot see its direction. If I stare too long at how long it’s taking me to get somewhere, I will never get there–only by abandoning that fear of stagnation will I begin to move.

It’s counter-intuitive, but that’s the flaw of human thought. Oftentimes that which we expect will work does the opposite for the world works in ways that we still don’t always understand. When I started this short series on Saturday, I had thought I’d end with a proclamation exclaiming, “This is where I stand!” Instead I have ended with a whisper stating that this may be where I am, but it’s certainly not where I’m going to end.


3 thoughts on “The Second I in Identity

  1. Where, if anywhere, and when, if at any time, do we even truly end? We are part of a magnificent, never-ending, cyclical process, and even in death we will never stop influencing the symphony of all of existence, tricksters playing the tidal waves throughout all dimensions.

    Of course, come the time our bodies do finalize their activities, and are physical and mental remnants gently drift away towards and through greater plains, we had better hope we’ve left enough of an impression to guide the future the way we envisioned it alive.

    I truly enjoyed this series. It showed a lot of character, a lot of openness, and a lot of nuance to share one’s own observations of one’s self so descriptively. Thank you!

    • Very beautifully said, my friend. I especially love the way you said “tricksters playing the tidal waves.” Is it a Dutch expression? I may need to use it someday.

      More importantly, thank you for reading this series. I enjoy sharing my thoughts. It helps clear my mind and helps me make sense of things as well. As always, I appreciate your comments.

      • It unfortunately is not a Dutch expression; I wish they would contain such metaphor, but they tend to be very basal. Take these classical Dutch expressions:

        They are mostly very self-explanatory. Wind meaning either an opposing force or vacuous air, depending on the context.

        Otherwise, ’twas just a product of some amusing wordplay; tricksters of course being mischievous and playful, making it a pleonasm of sorts; tricksters, tidal waves and throughout making for some enjoyable alliteration. I think that’s the key to a lot of linguistic beauty: playfulness, imagery and elegant invocation of meaningful conceptualizations through that imagery. Topic for another time. What I’m really typing this for is this self-correction:

        > our physical and mental remnants*

        I’ll probably get around to reading your latest two posts somewhere this evening. Enjoy your day.

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