About a month ago, one of my aunts, visiting from New York borrowed it. Unbeknownst to her, I had only twenty pages left to the end. I found myself unwilling to complete the downloaded Kindle version. Even after it was returned, it took a while to resume reading. Eventually, I picked it up again, randomly backing up about a hundred pages or so. I ended the book, strangely, on Simchat Torah, coinciding with the time that we read the final portion of Deuteronomy and the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle.
For me, the gift of a good book is in the ways it moves me, stirring me upward toward the places I know I must go, to be an improved version of me. This book achieved that, and much much more.
The parallels end here though, with the simultaneous endings.
As good as this or any book is, when I’m done it gets returned to the shelf. It might catch my eye causing me to grin momentarily, I might even pull it off the shelf, but I won’t stand, head bowed, chanting a solemn tribute song to it beforehand. I won’t scroll back to page one, to learn about the very beginning of it all, nor will I read a different paragraph from it, each week for the rest of the year, certainly not for the rest of my life. I will not softly brush its pages lovingly with the tassels on the fringe of my prayer shawl, nor will I close my eyes, as I bring those tzitizit to my lips, kissing and praying, blessings of gratitude for the gift of having a sacred vocabulary, words unlike others, resonating with otherworldliness, yet still utterable by me, by my mouth, audible to my ears, understandable to my mind, words very much here in my world; and then head lowered in humility as I am prayed for, the soft earthiness of a “mi shebayrach” surrounds me, first a blessing for my wife, then each child’s name mentioned in association with mine, as part of my name, each one individually, a compact blessing that manages somehow to span a lifetime, as my whole personal history stretches out in front of me, reading like my personal extension of the very same scroll waiting patiently on the bimah, offering its own silent consent of amen, while the gabbai scans the room for the next person to be called, so the reading can resume.
Still, this book resonates with an ancient sense of familiarity, reading like a prayerful passage from my childhood, stirring me into the forging of an unexpected, but fully welcomed kinship, one reserved only for the most sacred books of my tradition. A book that should it fall, I might kiss upon picking it up.
As I prepare to finally transition away from over a month of being in the hot glare of the Jewish High holidays, the Yamim Noraim, the days of “Awesomeness,” are abruptly shelved as well. The pilgrimage must come to end, the big lights are suddenly turned off, signaling that its finally time to go back home.
The first Torah portion that we read the Shabbat before last, sets that precise tone. As we read the creation narrative yet again, we too are IN the narrative, left to navigate a world suddenly thrust into an existential Tohu Vavohu, as well as one in which darkfall happens earlier and earlier each week, a return to “choshech” (darkness) and a crossing over the threshold, into the Hebrew month of “Cheshvan, both words beginning with the Hebrew letter, chet, a letter that unlike the hay, traps the light that it receives, till suffocated, it is stripped of its brightness, and only then re-released from beneath the chet, cast out “Al Pnai Kol Haaretz” a blackness that envelopes and encompasses the full landscapes of all our lives.
Last Wed, at about nine pm, we too lost our light as the entire town was plunged, briefly, into utter darkness, some sort of surreal actual blackout, a perfect prop for the existential tapering off of the high octane spiritual energy of the last sixty days, the last flickering flame of the holiday slowly dances itself out, as if it was presiding ceremoniously over its own demise.
This multi-dimensional blackout, is also described by the Kabbalists in the creation narrative just read this past Shabbat. G-d creates a light in the very beginning, but quickly “realizes” that its glare is simply overwhelming, and would certainly shatter the frail human awareness, so he withdraws the light and he too “shelves” it in the “world to come” for the “righteous.”
In the “blink of an eye” we are all young Marie Claire, trying to adjust to what feels like a darkness. Suddenly thrust into a new world where the light is there, but has been hidden, requiring a summoning of the different kind of adroitness needed to maneuver through a world whose light we cannot see.
This rush of so much that is ANTI-climactic, carries some powerful life truth. The cycle of experiencing a period of joy, followed by a plunge into sadness, or having a string of failures following in the wake of success, or the way a person who sees things with a stunning clarity, always possessing a deft sure-footedness, is suddenly and inexplicably plagued by doubt; can be challenging, but need not be paralyzing. The shifting of outer circumstances, should not spell an automatic shifting away from, and a shelving of ones soulfulness, to the contrary, approached with a Kabbalistic mindfulness, the sudden loss of the light that we are accustomed to, can facilitate a pointing to, and a switching on of an inner light, setting the stage for the shining of a refracted shade of that original light, allowing for a new way of seeing, a different way to stand in the world.
The way each of Doerr’s carefully wrought characters plunge head on into the heart of the circumstances that led to the hiddenness of their light in the first place, helps us understand an underlying truth about the dynamics of redemption, the nature of light, and the paradox of needing to befriend the very darkness, that acts as the dubious guardian of our light. Much like the way the Menorah was stolen by the “Vandals” in the sacking of Rome in 455 CE, and taken to their capital, Carthage, for protection. Often the places that hold our deepest trauma, the places that we instinctively run from, that cause us to recoil in terror, are precisely where we need to head back to, they are the “Carthage” in possession of our light. We go there in order to wrest power from the “vandals,” we go back to unlock and retrieve our hidden light, we go to reclaim the very best of who and what we used to be, and can still be again.
For example, if we, like Werner, are burdened with guilt, then we can choose to allow our light to remain in the captivity of our shame. This however begins a vicious cycle, one in which our imaginary guilt compels us to actually act guilt worthy. For him it was the crime of remaining on the sidelines, morally ambivalent, buried existentially, in the “coal mines of Zollverein” alongside his dead father. Or we can choose to dig out from under the accumulated debris of time, and circumstance, and learn to live again.
For Werner, that meant accepting the possibility of an alternative way of narrating his life. To be sure, the only thing worse than being unhappy, was the unbearable realization of how close he was to experiencing that happiness all along. He was free to live without taking on needless guilt for his fathers tragic death — the guilt that held the keys to his light. For him moving forward meant letting go of the notion that he had no right to the joy inherent in a life lived with goodness, a joy that for him, was also buried all those years ago with his father. He knows its possible to act heroically, like his friend Frederick; he’s seen it, “his heart is being crushed slowly like in a vise” — but he turned his face, and went along with what he knew was evil, the voice of His conscience, coming to him in the innocent voice of his sister Jutta, (“….he thinks, I will never be able to talk to her about this…”) is blocked, she is also the light that he CHOOSES, not to see, burying his innocence, smothering it under the the coal mines of his guilt.
Ultimately he finds himself, at a crossroads. Like his father he lies, barely alive, gasping beneath the rubble. Beneath the collapsed hotel, and beneath the existential weight of his guilt as well. He chooses to break free. He is able to do so only because of the way, lying there, he suddenly catches a glimpse of his own soul. The light that begins filtering through the rubble, was not visual, it was a light too sublime too see, a light that could only be heard! Only through sound, in this case, the voice of Marie broadcasting over the radio, do those invisible particles of sound begin to break through, finally the light can shine, unobstructed, winding its way through the narrowness, squeezing through, starting to gradually loosen all the accumulated emotional tightness of his life.
A perfect symbol for the place in each of us where that light lives, and always shines, is the light of “Ner Tamid,” a light that can never be extinguished. Not by any act or experience. A light that is unlike the others, one so sublime, that it can never be hidden,even by G-d Himself, the master hider, for even G-d can run only to a certain point, after which He can longer hide, or He forfeits His right to call Himself G-d — He can only hide Himself to the point where more hiddenness would mean He is Himself extinguished, ceasing to even BE G-d.
A light of joy that cannot be extinguished by the deepest sorrow, A light of innocence that cannot be dimmed by even the most severe guilt, a light of hopefulness that is stronger than even the most unfathomable hopelessness, and a light of love and passion that remains aglow, burning in the heart of each of us.
That light, so sublime that it cannot be seen comes to Werner, shines in him, appropriately, from Marie Claire, who has rediscovered her light as well, UP in the attic, The OPPOSITE of the coal mine.
In the the voice of her uncle, she herself BECOMES the very light that she cannot see, beaming out the hopefulness of Captain Nemo, who NEVER loses hope even from his entrapment 20,000 leagues beneath the sea.
This sound stirs him to act heroically and decisively, he finally addresses his guilt by acting to protect Marie Claire, a young girl who embodies for him the quintessence of innocence.
Though there is no conventional happy ending, there is a discovered goodness that for Werner signals the beginning of an atonement. Though he was not the one responsible for the killing of the young girl in Vienna, he is nonetheless haunted by her. In saving Marie’s life, he finds some solace and peace from those demons. Ultimately though, he had to face the reality of what he had been part of. His death, for me, represented more than being blown up by a mine. His stepping on the mine, symbolizes the trickiness of navigating a terrain littered with the sins of the past.
Still his true light shined at that moment. THESE are the lights that are the most meaningful to Doerr.
The ending of the book is merely a continuation of that theme.
Though he doesn’t survive, he has, from the depths of his narrowness, fashioned a cathedral of spaciousness, within which he has lived — by reclaiming his innocence he may have “lived” only momentarily, but he did so gloriously.
The book ends with the same celebration of all that is anticlimactic, paying a tribute to the small rays of light that we are able to coax out of hiding, into the safety of a moment warmed by the heroism of a noble choice. A moment where light feels sheltered. The way the inside of this moment looks, might be similar to what the “world to come” housing the light reserved for the righteous, might have looked to the Kabbalists as well. Only in the interior of such a moment can the gem “The Sea of Flames” — be HOUSED safely. All the rest is a replica of that stone, false reproductions that were the only ones the Nazi officer Rumpel, could ever hope to find.
It is only in the tender, prosaic, uneventful exchange between an elderly blind grandmother, and her grandson, that we finally understand the profound wisdom transmitted by a father to his daughter. Hiding the gem in the house, was his way of continuing to take his daughter by the hand. The Gem is found in the small things,in the miniature replicas of entire cities, in the love of a family,in the warmth of a HOME, that awaits us, in the aftermath of our pilgrimages.
So though the big lights are switched off, it’s only in the still small voice of our homecomings that we can begin to hear the transmitting of the soft sounds of our own soul, only here, away from the glare do we get to truly live again in the acceptance of how truly sublime are the low watt lights that await us when we remember the way back home again.
Though I finished the book, and put it away, the new post-Simchat Torah world seems to be a dramatization of Anthony Doerr’s book, except it’s real. The differences are that instead of taking place in Vienna, in 1944, we are in the heart of the Jewish homeland, the place we fled to, the one country, where a Jew could be free, finally able to defend ourselves proudly in our ancestral land. The sad similarities remain, innocent Jews of all ages are being butchered, literally, you’ve all seen the pictures, randomly – on street corners, bus stops, and grocery stores. The call of death to the Jews means the same thing, whether the incitement is in German or Arabic.
The deafening silence as well, is eerily familiar, a silence that is certainly understood in every language.
I am grieving for the sudden tragic death of a world where basic goodness, was a presumable given. I feel alone in a world that has surrendered its moral compass, one that has forfeited it’s heart. We now know what it means to be Noah, living in a World that even G-d has given up on. A world whose conscience has been shelved as well. I watch helplessly as young innocent children waiting for a bus are axed to death, while the world once again rummages around for its misplaced humanity, mumbling the memorized talking points of a new language of hatred, thinly, cynically, disguised as humanitarian, but grounded in what feels and sounds like nothing less than classic foaming and frothing at the mouth Jew hatred, even when it’s not; incoherent slogans, such as the one currently rising to the top of the charts, about cycles of violence, as if they truly believed that slashing the face of an elderly man is the perfectly acceptable outlet for a bad day at the office….or even a really a bad life.
Imagine this for a moment. A shameful fact. Smack in the center of the most powerful nation on earth, a nation that dispatches humanitarian aid to every corner of the globe, building homes for those without shelter, and distributing food to the hungry, are hordes of homeless people, shivering in their cardboard boxes, huddled together sadly, on every street corner of the Capitol, while the motorcades of the powerful rush by indifferently.
Imagine if, in their great frustration, they all mobilized, and began attacking government motorcades, or randomly stabbing children in Dupont Circle, as they board their buses to school, or took to slashing the faces of DC people on their way in and out of Union Station.
These people have a narrative as well. They truly believe that they are victims of a heartless society, one that has abandoned them, an indifferent society that walks past them day in and day out, pretending they don’t exist.
Would the State Dept. be issuing statements rationalizing and justifying this barbaric behavior? Would the Times headline be “Washington police gunned down three homeless people, as the cycle of violence continues.”
I know the answer. So do you. Please. I have given up trying to convince people of this. I will simply do everything in my power to support the only Jewish homeland. That’s my only answer right now.
Till then I’m happy that I was able to hear the portion of Noah being read, was able to retreat back Into the safety of the Ark so I can collect my thoughts and try my best to sort this out, where unlike my holy brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisroel, I am sheltered from the stormy waters, and am able to retreat from a world that terrifies me right now.